Culinary History Divided into Two Equal Parts: South and North
Fukui Prefecture, located in the center of Honshu, is at the westernmost point of Hokuriku. When viewed on a map, it looks like the face of an elephant viewed from the side, and it is divided into two areas, "Reihoku" in the north, and "Reinan" in the south, which border the Kinome Pass that is located right at the base of the elephant's nose. As Fukui Prefecture has a history of originally being two separate provinces, "Echizen" and "Wakasa", even today its culture still has completely different characteristics in the north and the south.
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A place blessed with greenery and water, also known as "Etsuzan Jakusui"
Fukui Prefecture, which broadly faces the Sea of Japan to the west, and has a mountain range extending to the east that is over 1,000 meters high, is also known as "Etsuzan Jakusui," meaning "A land blessed with the lush green mountains of Echizen, and the beautiful waters of Wakasa". It is also called the "Dinosaur Kingdom", because it is the place where the most dinosaur fossils have been excavated in Japan, and many dinosaur fans from all over the country visit the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum in Katsuyama City.
The changes of the four seasons are distinct, with many cloudy and snowy days in winter, but more hours of sunlight in summer than in Tokyo. The climate varies greatly from area to area, with Reinan being warmer than Reihoku, due to the Tsushima Current, and there is such a difference between the two, that even if it is snowing in Reihoku, it has stopped when you go through the Kinome Pass tunnel to Reinan.
Fukui Prefecture is also known for its abundance of water. It's water sources are plentiful and include the tributaries from the sacred mountains of Mt. Hakusan, the Kuzuryu River, and the Asuwa River, and so there are many springs and underground water sources in the prefecture. "Unose" and "Uriwari Falls" which are the settings for the Jingu-ji Temple's "O-Mizuokuri" (water-offering ritual), have been selected as among the 100 most exquisite waters in Japan. The water is extremely soft, and has of course been used for rice cultivation, but it has also been used for making soba noodles and the lovely sake, Ginjo-shu.
Vegetarian Cuisine in the North, Miketsukuni (a region that provides food to the Emperor) in the South
Geographical factors and cultural backgrounds have had a major impact on creating the differences between Reihoku and Reinan.
When it comes to food in Fukui Prefecture, seafood comes to mind, and both Reihoku and Reinan have excellent fishing grounds on the Japan Sea side. The main fishing grounds in Reihoku are along the Echizen Coast, where complex tidal currents create a nutrient-rich seabed, where the finest Echizen crabs and Amaebi (Northern shrimp) are nurtured. Off the coast of Wakasa Bay in the Reinan region where a ria is formed, both fish that come from the warm currents, and fish from the north are caught, providing a rich variety of seafood. Also, in the old days, Mikuni in Reihoku and Tsuruga and Obama in Reinan were ports of call for "Kitamae-bune", trading ships that brought goods made in Hokkaido to Kyoto, which led to the spread of kelp, herring, and other such ingredients.
In Reihoku, the Fukui Plain stretches between the sea and the mountains, and rice cultivation developed by taking advantage of the flat land, and the water sources of the Kuzuryu River and Asuwa River. The famous Koshihikari rice also originated here in Fukui in 1956. About 90% of the arable land was paddy fields, and soybeans were planted along the paddies. People on the sea side bartered fish, and people on the mountain side bartered rice respectively.
As winters were long, and many areas were buried in snow, a culture of non-perishable food to get through the winter developed.
Another major part of Reihoku's culinary culture is vegetarian cuisine. Buddhist faith is widespread in Reihoku, and there are many large temples and shrines, including Eihei-ji, the head temple of the Soto sect. The Jodo Shinshu has four head temples, and is the sect with the most believers in the Reihoku region. Mami Sato, a researcher of Fukui Prefecture's culinary culture at Jin-ai University, says, "I believe that the Jodo Shinshu event 'Hoonko' is at the core of Reihoku's culture."
"Hoonko is an event held around the anniversary of the death of 'Shinran Shonin', the founder of Jodo Shinshu, and is called 'Honkosan'. In the past in Reihoku, this was a major event that both adults and children looked forward to, and in some places there were even stalls lined up at the festival. At Honkosan, there is a custom where neighbors gather to prepare a vegetarian meal called 'Otoki', which everyone then eats together after a Buddhist monk has recited a sutra. In recent years, the number of people who hold Honkosan has decreased considerably, but the standard Honkosan dishes such as 'Atsu-age no nita no' (boiled deep fried tofu) and 'Suko', remain as local dishes commonly eaten in homes in the Reihoku region."
Reinan, on the other hand, has a long and narrow form that runs along Wakasa Bay, and does not produce so many crops. As Wakasa was the closest sea to Kyoto and Nara, it played an important role as a "Miketsukuni", supplying "Minie"- food offered to emperors and gods. It is well known that mackerel and tilefish caught in Wakasa Bay, were brought to the capital via the Wakasa Kaido (Wakasa Highway), commonly known as the "Saba Kaido" (Mackerel Highway).
It is because of this background, that people in Reinan speak with something of a Kansai accent. Towns along the Saba Kaido have also adopted various folk events from Kyoto, such as the "O-no-Mai" (The King's Dance) and the "Jizo Bon" (Jizo Festival), some of which are still practiced today. Ms. Sato considers it from the view that, "The Kansai region and trading ships may have had an influence on cuisine that used sugar, and other luxury food items."
"In Fukui, there is a culture of eating sugar, as seen in the Abekawa Mochi in summer, Decchi Yokan (a thick jellied sweet) in winter, and the brown sugar contained in ozoni in some areas of the Reinan region. I believe that sugar was easily available by trade with Kansai through the Kitamae-bune, etc."
The culinary culture of Fukui Prefecture is completely different from north to south. Let's take a closer look at each local cuisine.
Vegetarian cuisine derived from Buddhist beliefs
In Reihoku, where Buddhist beliefs are deeply rooted, the culture of eating vegetarian food has become entrenched due to the influence of Hoonko cuisine eaten at "Hoonko", a major event of the Jodo Shinshu sect, and Eihei-ji Temple, the head temple of the Soto sect.
In particular, "Abura-age" (deep-fried tofu), is commonly eaten at home, and Fukui City ranks first in the nation in its consumption, according to the 2017-2019 average of the household budget survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. Incidentally, "Abura-age" for people in Fukui Prefecture is what is called "Atsu-age" in the rest of the country. During Hoonnko, atsu-age, which is 4 cm thick and about 15 cm long, is boiled in a sweet and spicy sauce, and served on a plate as a main dish in its square form without being cut up. When going to a supermarket, atsu-age from various manufacturers is available, and people in Fukui Prefecture each have their own favorites. Incidentally, there are also abura-age manufacturers in Reinan as well, making it a beloved food throughout the prefecture.
The culture of food preservation to get through the winter, developed foods such as pickles like "Takuan" (pickled radish), "Uchimame" (dried and crushed soybeans), and fish fermented in rice bran/ "Heshiko" (paste of fish pickled in rice bran). The Okuetsu region, which borders Gifu Prefecture and consists of Ono City and Katsuyama City, is an area that has heavy snowfall, with a range of mountains that are over 1,000 meters high. Taro, which can be harvested in the fall, is a valuable source of nutrition during the winter.
Keisuke Toriyama, a native of Ono City (formerly Izumi Village) and secretary general of the (general incorporated association) Fukui Prefecture Association of Japanese Culinary Professionals, says, "Taro would be harvested in the fall, and eaten whilst being preserved throughout the winter. 'Taro no koro-ni' is a staple dish, where the taro, with its thin skin still on, is simmered in a sweet sauce similar to that used to make sweet Mitarashi dumplings (rice dumplings with a sweet soy glaze)."
For Toriyama, who was born in a village steeped in snow, there many other memorable local dishes. "People in Fukui Prefecture often use a mortar and pestle, and love 'Go-jiru', which is made by grinding soybeans and adding them to miso soup. When you put the ground soybeans in miso soup and cover it with a lid, a flower blooms. Another is 'Tochi Mochi', which is made by kneading chestnuts into mochi (rice cakes). It takes a lot of time to do the advance preparation of the chestnuts, but the unique flavor is irresistible. Various kinds of pickles are often eaten as preserved food in winter, and well-pickled takuan is boiled with "Taka no Tsume" (red chili pepper) to make it spicy. The smell is quite terrible, but without the smell it wouldn't be delicious."
"Heshiko" was created so that fish could be eaten in a better way, and for longer
The Reinan region was once given the title of "Miketsukuni", a province where people were allowed to offer food to the Emperor and the Imperial Court. A variety of seafood is caught in Wakasa Bay throughout the year, the most typical of which are "Wakasa Guji" (Wakasa red tilefish), "Wakasa Garei"(Wakasa flounder), "Wakasa no Saba" (Wakasa Mackerel), and "Wakasa Kodai" (Wakasa sea bream), etc. Fish processing techniques were developed in the coastal areas along the Saba Kaido, so that the seafood, which was caught in abundance, could be eaten over a long period of time. "Kodai no sasazuke", where Wakasa sea bream, which is rich in protein and has an elegant flavor, is marinated in salt and vinegar, then placed in a cedar cask after a bamboo leaf has been placed on top, is still a popular item to give as a gift or souvenir even today.
When it comes to preserved food, "Heshiko" (fish paste), a local dish representative of Fukui Prefecture, comes to mind. It is made by pickling fish in rice bran, and was valued in mountainous areas as a source of protein to get through the winter. While mackerel heshiko is known throughout Japan, according to Mr. Toriyama, sardine heshiko was by far the most common type of heshiko eaten in the Reihoku region, and was also called "Konka- zuke". According to Ms. Sato's observations, "Mackerel was caught in large quantities, and its large size made it a fish that was easy to sell as a commodity. It was salted and transported to Kyoto. In Reihoku, small fish such as sardines were probably eaten more often than mackerel because they were cheaper."
When speaking of a local dish related to mackerel, we think of "Maruyaki Saba" (grilled mackerel) from Obama City. In the past, Obama City was a distribution center for fish caught at Wakasa Bay, and an idea began of transporting mackerel, which goes bad quickly, to the outside of the city even during the summer. The fatty mackerel that is grilled whole, is delicious with ginger and soy sauce. Incidentally, in Ono City and Katsuyama City in northern Reihoku, there is still a custom of eating grilled whole mackerel on the 11th day counting from the summer solstice, called "Han-ge-sho no saba". It is said to have originated in the old days when the feudal lord of Ono had mackerel brought in from Shikaura on the Echizen coast, an enclave of the Ono region, and offered it to farmers to help them get through the hot summer. Even today, it is popular as a food to provide stamina and prevent summer fatigue.
"After passing through the tunnel at Kinome Pass, you are in a different place, even though you are in the same Fukui Prefecture. You feel as if you are entering a foreign country", says Ms. Sato. We hope you will experience the food of Fukui Prefecture, where the two cultures of Reihoku and Reinan coexist.