Enjoy the rice and fish with which Lake Biwa has been blessed. A culinary culture nurtured by agricultural festivals
Shiga Prefecture, located in the central part of Japan, is a landlocked prefecture surrounded by high mountains. The vast Lake Biwa, which occupies about one sixth of the prefecture's area, has blessed people with freshwater seafood since the Jomon period and circulated water into the surrounding Omi Basin, forming a fertile and plentiful rice growing zone. "Shiga’s agricultural endeavors were so successful at producing rice, that it is known as the rice storehouse of Kinki. The area is mostly self sufficient when it comes to food production, mainly due to rice production, but also thanks to the seafood caught in Lake Biwa, as well as the vegetables, beans, and tubers grown in the plains.
Data was acquired with the help of Ohmi-Kaiseki KIYOMOTO.
A rural culture that has been carefully preserved for hundreds of years
Major natural disaster occurrences have been few and far between, it is a very livable land," said Masako Horikoshi, Professor Emerita at Shiga University. In the olden days, Shiga was home to many manors owned by the aristocrats and temples of Kyoto. It is said that Omi rice was often used for sushi.
Another particular characteristic of Shiga Prefecture is the rural culture that has been carefully passed down by generations. Since farming practices have been preserved and inherited with dedication in each village, native crops that do well within the local climate, such as "Hinona," have been handed down for hundreds of years and continue to be cultivated without going out of style. In addition, events related to agriculture such as "Okonai-san," an event to pray for a bountiful harvest, as well as local cuisine that serves as divine offerings, have also been passed down.
"Funazushi" is an emblematic local dish of Shiga Prefecture. It is a preserved meal, made by fermenting crucian carp caught in Lake Biwa with delicious rice harvested from the surrounding paddy fields. It is pickled in July, fermented for more than half a year, and eaten over the course of a year for New Year, Okonai-san, and the Spring Festival. Besides crucian carp, various kinds of fish such as Japanese dace, three lips, small fish such as "Honmoroko" gudgeon, and sweetfish are fermented too.
The seasoning differs slightly depending on the region, with that of the north being saltier and that of the south being sweeter. It is said that this dish used to be eaten as a meal for special occasions, offered to the gods, and sometimes taken as an intestinal remedy for stomach upset. Professor Horikoshi explained that "it is a culture to be proud of, the one that our ancestors, living off rice and fish, left behind. Maybe I've inherited the ability to appreciate that flavor, as when I eat Funazushi, my body rejoices."
Professor Horikoshi said that "Lake Biwa owes itself to its culinary culture." "Amenoio Gohan" is another dish made possible by the blessings of Lake Biwa. In autumn, large Biwa trouts weighing 1 to 2 kg travel upstream to lay eggs. It is said that in the old days, they were caught by hand, put on top of rice, and cooked whole in a large pot.
During the spawning season in autumn, the amount of water in the river increases after the rain and the Biwa trout heads upstream, and for that reason, this dish is known as called "Amenoio Gohan" or "Amenouo Gohan" (meaning rain-fish rice) as well as "Masu Gohan" (meaning trout rice) depending on the region. It is a seasonal taste that families and relatives gather to enjoy.
In addition to this, there are many local dishes, still popular to this day, that make full use of the bounties of Lake Biwa, such as "Ebimame" (prawn beans), which are prepared by stewing lake prawns together with soybeans, and "Yakimoroko no Dorozu," which consists of skewered Honmoroko fish, a native species of Lake Biwa, sprinkled with "Dorozu" (vinegared miso).
< Kohoku region >
Seafood dishes for special occasions passed down by generations in the rural areas
The Kohoku region, which is located in the northeastern part of Lake Biwa, gets a lot of snow during the winter. In particular, Nagahama City gets 30 to 40 cm of snow every year, and the surroundings of Yogo are a heavy snowfall area where snow can reach as deep as 5 m. In the old days, houses would sometimes be covered by the snow during the winter, so people prepared and kept enough preserved food at home to last the winter. For this reason, techniques for drying wild vegetables, pickling them in salt, and fermenting fish in salt and rice as "Narezushi" developed. A wide variety of pickles, such as Chinese cabbage "Tatamizuke," are prepared in the region, and the variety of fish used for Narezushi is said to be the most diverse in the prefecture.
Although landlocked, the region is adjacent to Tsuruga in Fukui Prefecture, so it is possible to get finished products and seafood from the Sea of Japan such as mackerel, pacific herring, and "Konbu" kelp. In the old days, there was a custom called "Satsuki Mimai," in which families gave dozens of mackerel to their daughters as they married into farm families. It is said that this custom was born out of the parent's concern for their daughter's wellbeing during the busy farming season, and mackerel was a good source of protein during the rice planting season. The grilled mackerel was boiled and the resulted broth was used to make "Saba Somen," a local dish unique to the region. At the Nagahama Hikiyama Festival, which is one of the three major float festivals in Japan, this special dish must not be absent.
< Koto region >
A large variety of local dishes related to the Omi merchants
The Koto region is a land associated with the Omi merchants. During the Edo period, Omi merchants equipped with "Tenbinbo" carrying poles sold products from Omi all over the country, and brought back products from all over the country on their way back. In farming villages, only the eldest sons of farmers were given a field, so the younger ones would start working as apprentices at merchant houses in order to become independent; thus, the merchant culture flourished. Another helping factor was that major roads such as the Hokkoku Kaido, the Nakasendo, and the Tokaido, which originated in Kyoto, passed through this area.
"The Omi merchants established modern business methods and successfully entered markets all over the country. They even went as far as Yamagata, where Shiga’s 'Tsukemono' (Japanese pickled vegetables) techniques flourished," explained Horikoshi.
Many local dishes originated with the Omi merchants, such as "Decchi Yokan" (Decchi red bean jelly), red konjac simmered, and "Choji-fu no Karashi-Ae." Decchi Yokan was originally a souvenir that families gave to their sons who were living as apprentices when they returned to their duties after spending the New Year and Obon holidays at home. You can enjoy the simple taste of home within the steamed red bean jelly wrapped in bamboo skin.
In the homes of Omi merchants in Gokasho, an eggplant based miso soup known as "Dongame-Jiru" (mud turtle soup) was favored during the summers. It is said that they would add a lot of ground sesame seeds to the soup in order to increase its nutritional value and help them endure the hot summer. Its name originated from the fact that an eggplant whose surface has been cut into a grid pattern with a knife looks like a turtle shell.
< Konan region >
A region where the culture of the old capital in Kyoto coexists with the unique characteristics of Shiga
The Konan region, being adjacent to Kyoto, was greatly influenced by the old capital, but has cultivated its own culinary culture that, without forgetting the flavors of Shiga, balanced both influences. The New Year's "Zoni" soup, for example, would be served in the old capital fashion, and at festivals and other occasions, Kyoto style dishes such as "Chirashizushi" and "Saba Sushi" were also offered, however, Shiga's own Funazushi was enjoyed as well.
Many products made their way to Kyoto from Shiga. Otsu, in particular, was a very wealthy town, serving as a gathering place for the rice to be presented to the capital. In Kusatsu City, vegetable farming apartment complexes have been built, bringing farm families together, and large amounts of vegetables have been sent to Kyoto.
Minakuchi Town in Koka City is the production area of the traditional "Minakuchi Kanpyo" (Kanpyo being dried shavings of gourd), which is depicted in Hiroshige Utagawa's "Fifty three Stations of the Tokaido." However, it is said that agriculture in Koga City came at the cost of great hardship. "Most of the land that forms the southeastern part of Koka City was originally bellow Lake Biwa. Since the soil was clayey, agriculture was quite a difficult endeavor. It seems that the local people could not make a living from farming alone, so they supplemented their income by selling medicines as a side business and by doing side jobs during the winter," explained Horikoshi. However, it is said that it is precisely thanks to this type of soil that the glutinous rice and tea produced here are delicious and of excellent quality. The Asamiya district, in Shigaraki, is one of the leading tea growing areas in all of Japan.
Among these tea growing lands, a local dish known as "Kurumi Gobo" has been passed down by generations. It is served as an offering to the gods during the autumn festival of Sansho Shrine in Shigaraki-Cho, Koka City. "Kurumi" refers to a green soybean paste. The dish is prepared by covering the "Gobo" burdock root with the soybeans, which have been mashed until their thin skin has been removed, and then slightly sweetened and salted. Its beautiful green color and refined taste are characteristic of Shiga.
< Kosei region >
Preserved food and hot pot dishes rooted in the culture of a snowy region
In the Kosei region, which is surrounded by the mountains of Hira and Kutsuki, and has few plains, agriculture has been traditionally carried out on terraced fields built on the slopes of mountains. Like in the Kohoku region, a snowy region culture has become deeply rooted in the area, and preserved foods such as pickles and Narezushi developed as result. In the Hata district of Takashima City, vegetables grown in the terraced fields are pickled as "Hatazuke." It is said that, since the pickling is done with only salt and pepper, it would not last long in the plains, but among the high altitudes of the Hata district, it becomes a well preserved food. In addition, since "Saba Kaido" (the mackerel road), which went from Wakasa to Kyoto, passes through Kutsuki, mackerel is also pickled in the region in the form Narezushi. Since it is saltier than the Narezushi prepared in the Kohoku region and is pickled for a long time, it can be stored for many years.
A Sukiyaki hotpot called "Junjun," which calls for Omi beef and other meat and fish as its ingredients, is frequently enjoyed throughout the prefecture; however, near the shores of Lake Biwa in the Kosei area, it is often the case that eels and "Isaza" fish that have just been caught in the lake are used as ingredients. By simmering the hotpot in a mixture of vegetables such as green onions and burdock roots with plenty of Dashi stock instead of using "Warishita" (Sukiyaki stock), the excessive amount of oil will be tamed down and a refined taste can be achieved. This dish colors the dining tables for each event such as New Year and the spring festival.
With a smile on her face, Professor Horikoshi said, "When I arrive at a region to continue my research, I am still amazed by the delicious food I end up finding. The comforting flavors of which, it doesn't matter how many times I try them, I never grow tired." Local cuisine is an invaluable asset unique to each region. I would like to ask you to continue uncovering these charms and spreading them widely.