The phrase 'date-na,' or 'dandy-ish,' has its etymological roots in the nationbuilding of Masamune Date and is an apt descriptor for the cuisine of Miyagi Prefecture.
Miyagi Prefecture, located in central Tohoku, has an area of 7,282 square kilometers (2,812 square miles). To the west, the Ou Mountains span the length of the prefecture, softening into an expanse of farmland as the plains of Sendai roll out to the east. The region is blessed with seas as well as mountains, as the area of the Pacific Ocean brushing its coast hosts some of the best fisheries in Japan. Over one million people call the prefectural capital, Sendai, home, and it's the only government-designated city in Tohoku.
The plains are graced with the sea breeze off the Pacific, ensuring that the summer heat isn't too intense, and in winter the currents also ensure that the region receives little snowfall, leading to a climate that's mild all year round. On the other hand, the foothills of the Ou mountain range in the west are subject to seasonal winds off the mountains, as well as a relatively large amount of snow for the prefecture.
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Featured Location: Aoba Castle Honmaru Hall
The Gourmet Daimyo, or Masamune Date's Breadbasket
It's impossible to talk about Miyagi Prefecture without talking about its first feudal lord, Masamune Date. Even today, Date is honored by the people of the prefecture as the one who built Sendai Castle and its castle town, and the man responsible for nurturing Sendai until it flourished as the beating heart of Tohoku. It's said that he was also quite the gourmet, and his influence can still be seen today n Miyagi Prefecture's culinary culture.
Currently 82.4% of Miyagi Prefecture is taken up in rice paddies, as opposed to only 54.4% nationwide, giving it pride of place as the breadbasket, a distinction first earned at the beginning of the Edo Period due to innovations in rice fields and improvements to irrigation promoted by Lord Masamune. Lord Masamune believed that rice cultivation should be developed as a source of wealth for his clan, and environments such as the Osaki tilled soil, made up of wetlands and other regions that made up the river basin, were built up into rice paddies. The rice thus cultivated, known as honkoku rice, was shipped out of Ishinomaki and transported across Japan to cities such as Edo and Osaka. At the time, fully a third of the rice consumed in Edo was sourced from the Sendai Domain.
Not only that, but Sendai Miso was a valuable nonperishable food for the Sendai Domain, and the Goensokura was constructed to produce it in large quantities. Sendai miso has a high proportion of salt, and was resilient against spoiling on long campaigns, so it's said that it came to be treasured by the shogun of the other domains as well. Additionally, the zunda-mochi (rice cakes with sweet soybean paste) and harako-meshi (rice cooked in salmon stock and topped with salmon caviar) so emblematic of Miyagi's local cuisine have their own connections to Lord Masamune.
This time, we'll divide the prefecture into four regions: the Northern and Southern regions, and the Sanriku and Sendai/Matsushima regions for the purposes of introducing the local cuisine.
< The Northern Region >
Cuisine Skilled with Wheat and Fond of Rice Cakes
The area spanning the northwestern part of the prefecture is home to the Naruko hot spring, numbered among the three best in Japan, as well as pockets of rich natural beauty such as Mount Kurikoma, with its carpet of virgin forest. The fall colors viewed from the top of Naruko Gorge are a breathtaking sight and visitors from all over the country flock to the area every year between October and early November to see them.
The Osaki tilled soil of the Naruse River Basin and the city of Tome through which the Kitakami River, largest in Tohoku, flows, are fertile regions of rice cultivation which take advantage of the abundant headwaters. However, due to the annual rice tax which was imposed in the past, the people of the region developed a culinary culture that used wheat as its staple. Tome's signature product, abura-fu, or wheat bran, is occasionally also called Sendai-fu, and was sometimes eaten during Obon as Buddhist cuisine. Aburafu-don, made with aburafu instead of meat served over rice and topped with egg, is a famous dish in the north of the prefecture.
Eating mochi, or rice cakes is a strong part of the culture, and in the past, farmworkers would stuff themselves with rice cakes for an invigorating meal when important milestones rolled around. Even today they're considered essential fare for celebrations such as weddings and New Year’s. kurumi-mochi (walnut mochi) and junen-mochi (buckweat mochi), oroshi-mochi (Japanese radish cakes topped with shredded radish), there are as many variations on the traditional rice cakes as there is variety in the seasonal ingredients, and you can really feel the ingenuity of a people so fond of eating mochi.
< The Sanriku Region >
The Fishery Prefecture, Miyagi's Treasury of the Sea
The Sanriku area of ocean offshore of major ports like Kesennuma, Ishinomaki, and Onagawa is a thriving fishery that provides an abundant catch for every season.
In the oceans around Kinkasan island, where the Oyashio and Kuroshiro currents collide, you'll find migratory fish like tuna and saury, and in the coastal fisheries, you'll find sardines, mackerel, squid and more, and even among such tough competition Kesennumaa distinguishes itself as the top in the nation for its marlin catch and production of shark fin. (As of 2019)
The complicated bays formed by the ria inlet support a flourishing aquaculture, where oysters, sea squirts, kelp and more are cultivated. Sea squirts, known more colloquially as 'sea pineapples,' are in season between May and August, and pickles made with fresh sea squirts are a summer favorite of the Sanriku region.
When it comes to which fish the Sanriku region likes during winter, however, a fatty fish known as a menuke is the favorite. Menuke broth is a staple of winter home cooking in the area. Not only that, but in the city of Kesennuma, in the spring they eat a dish called azara, made from manuke leftovers stewed with long-fermented Chinese cabbage and broth made from sake kasu (sake lees). The name of the dish comes from its 'azara' recipe, a way of saying the process is a bit slapdash, in the local lingo, and this just-so story is joined by another theory, stating that the name comes from an Ajari, or respectable monk, who lived in the area and first made the dish.
< The Sendai/Matsushima Region >
Zunda-Mochi, the Nightingale-Green so Beloved by Lord Masamune Date
This region is centered around the city of Sendai, itself the center of political economy for Tohoku. Zuihoden, where Masamune Date is laid to rest is adorned with lavish and glittering decoration, emphasizing the extravagant ('date-na') aesthetic culture. The statue of Masamune which stands in the remains of Sendai Castle in Aobayama watch over its castle town to this day. The coastal region, on the other hand, was visited by the poet Basho Matsuo, and is home to the Matsushima-Bay, itself host to over 260 islands, where you can savor the famous Matsushima oysters when they're in season between October and March.
Lord Masamune Date's favorite is said to be the zunda-mochi, rice cakes topped with a sweet soybean paste. This love spread through not just Miyagi, but other areas in the Sendai Domain as well, including Fukushima, Iwate, and Yamagata. It's even said that the man himself may have had a hand in spreading the reach of his favorite dish. Zunda-mochi are a part of local cuisine often eaten during Obon in the summer, when the soybeans are harvested. In the past, the dish was made by crushing the beans with a mortar and pestle, and children often helped. The degree to which the beans were crushed and the thickness and sweetness of the paste were all said to be unique to the household that made them, according to Ken Oikawa, head chef of Aoba Castle Honmaru Hall.
In an effort to preserve such hometown cuisine for the next generation, elementary schoolers are being taught to make zunda-mochi during for the practical portion of their home economics study. The name itself turns out to have a unique origin as well, as a corruption of '豆打' or 'zuda,' a reference to crushing the beans, with another tale saying that instead, the name is a corruption of 'jindachi,' the name of Masamune's sword, purportedly used for crushing beans on occasion.
< The Southern Region >
Harako-meshi, Born on the Banks of the Abukuma River
The southern region has grown into a transportation hub, crisscrossed with canals and roads constructed long ago. This holds true today, with the Teizan Canal waterway, the largest canal network in Japan, connecting five cities and one town, as well as rail lines such as the Tohoku Shinkansen, and the Abukuma Express making their homes in the region, and Natori City hosting Sendai Airport, the gateway to Tohoku from the air. To the west are the foothills of the Zao mountain range. The Zao mountains are a rich resource for tourists, with ski resorts, hot springs, and more.
One of this region's local dishes, okuzukake, is Buddhist cuisine eaten during Obon. To make the dish, carrots, burdock root, and other vegetables are finely chopped, and mixed with a dish of hot noodles or umen, a specialty of Shiroishi City, before being topped with sauce of potato starch dissolved in water. It draws its name from the kudzu that was once used in place of potato starch for the sauce. The ingredients used vary from household to household, and the dish is still eaten at home to this day.
The dish harako-meshi originated in the town of Watari, located near the mouth of the Abukuma River, and is made using the autumn salmon migrating up from the Pacific Ocean. It's said that when Lord Masamune Date visited Watari on the occasion of his canal construction project, he was quite impressed with the things the fishermen did, and grew fond of them. The dish is composed of rice cooked with a broth made from a soy sauce base in which salmon have been simmered, which is topped with salmon fillets and ikura, or salmon caviar. Called harako-meshi, or harako rice, it's the most well-known local dish in the prefecture and popular among tourists.
In addition to harako-meshi, the next town over from Watari, Yamamoto, has its own local flavor for the winter: hokki-meshi, or hokki rice, made with rice cooked with surf clam. Makiko Takazawa, a professor at Sendai Shirayuri Women's College and a Miyagi native herself, is doing research on local home cuisine. "When my mother was a child, hokki-meshi was considered quite the feast for a household," she tells us, adding, "Whenever someone was able to get a hold of one of the surf clams the fishermen sold, they'd talk excitedly about how dinner that night would be hokki-meshi. It was really something to be excited about."
Miyazaki Prefecture's local cuisine owes its founding influences not just to the climate, but also to Lord Masamune Date, the area's founder. We hope you'll take the time to look a little deeper into Masamune's history and the myriad legends surrounding it while you sample some of the culinary delights Miyagi has to offer.