Tottori’s Rich Local Cuisine: Fully Appreciating the Bounty of Magnificent Mount Daisen and the Japan Sea
Tottori Prefecture is located on the eastern side of the San’in region, bordered by the Japan Sea to the north with 133km of coastline stretching east and west. To the south, it is hemmed in by the Chugoku Mountains, offering little in the way of flatlands. Nevertheless, the area thrives on agriculture, with rice growing in the river basins, vegetable cultivation in the sand dune region, and dairy farming near the foot of Mount Daisen. From the mountains to the plains, river fish can be caught in the clear streams of the Chugoku Mountains and a cornucopia of seafood variety gathers in the Japan Sea where the rivers debouch. Basket clams are cultivated in the lakes and ponds dotted about the prefecture, adding to the abundant ingredients offered by the region.
Source: Yuraku, Misasa Onsen’s Bonfire Lodge
“Mythical Prawns” and “Liar’s Tofu”: Tottori’s Unique Ingredients and Culture
Tottori’s coast has many fishing ports and is blessed by the bounty of the Japan Sea. Long ago, mackerel, horse mackerel, amberjack, Spanish mackerel, sailfin sandfish, and squid were caught here and eaten as sashimi while still fresh. In the winter, fisheries thrived by catching snow crab, also called matsubagani.
Soichi Chikuma, head chef at Yuraku, Misasa Onsen’s Bonfire Lodge, says, “Matsubagani is expensive, so people in this region often eat the more affordable oyagani. When made into miso soup, the crab’s stock comes out and makes it delicious.” Additionally, Iwami to the east has a local specialty product called mosaebi, which is a type of black prawn.
Because their color changes quickly, the prawns cannot be easily shipped outside the prefecture, meaning that most of them are eaten locally. As a result, they have become known as “Mythical Prawns”. They have a rich sweetness and umami, and Mr. Chikuma gives these exquisite prawns his stamp of approval, saying, “They’re just as delicious as spiny lobsters.”
When talking about foods of Tottori, one must not forget its tofu culture. During the Edo period, the head of the Tottori domain, Mitsunaka Ikeda, promoted simplicity and frugality, delivering an official proclamation that tofu should be eaten instead of fish. Thus, the tofu culture spread from the castle town throughout the region. Long ago, tofu was made using azemame (lit. “ridge beans”), the soy beans which grew along the ridges of earth between rice fields. In the early Showa era, “tofu huts” were erected in each area, a place for entire villages to gather and produce the time-intensive tofu. Eriko Kishida from the Tottori Food Capital Promotion Division says, “There is an unusual custom to eat tofu each year on December 8th. This is called ‘Liar’s Tofu’ and is said to erase all the lies one has told during the past year. Tottori’s food culture and tofu are connected to secrets.”
Tottori’s unique culture is also alive in the zoni eaten during the New Year period. Tradition says that the red color of adzuki beans has the power to repel evil. Primarily along the coastal region, adzuki broth is sweetened with sugar to make adzukizoni, which is similar to zenzai, a red bean soup. Normally, small white mochi balls are put in zoni, but in Misasa, located in the prefecture’s central region, they put in tochimochi, which are mochi made from horse chestnuts and rice.
Local dishes vary based on the ingredients produced by each region. What kind of food cultures have grown in the Eastern, Central, and Western regions of Tottori?
< Eastern Region >
A Simple Tofu Culture Born from a Castle Town
Located in the central area of the Eastern Region—famed for the Tottori Sand Dunes—Tottori City has thrived since long ago as a castle town. All year round, a diverse variety of fish are caught in the Japan Sea: snow crab in the winter; righteye flounder and sailfin sandfish from autumn to spring; sardines in the spring; and a type of flying fish called ago as well as squid in the summer.
A panoply of local dishes makes prolific use of the sea’s bounty, including ganchajiru, akagareinokomaburi, hatahatazushi, iwashidango, agochikuwa, and surume no kojidzuke. Forestry is a big industry in the mountainous areas, where well managed forests spread far and wide. During the autumn, persimmons, chestnuts, mushrooms, and wild plants can be harvested, while the rivers teem with fish such as sweetfish and dace. Here, local specialties such as kaki no hazushi and tochimochi make good use of the mountains’ bounty.
Because Tottori city is a castle town, it was strongly influenced by the rule of the Tottori domain, and the tofu culture which began from the philosophy of simplicity and frugality is deep-rooted here. The local dish which best represents this is dondorokemeshi, rice steamed together with oil-fried tofu and vegetables. “Dondoroke” means “thunder” in the local dialect, and the dish was named after the crackling sound made by stir frying tofu, which resembles thunder. The dish was originally passed down in farming and mountain villages and is made at important times in the agricultural calendar as well as at village gatherings.
The ingredients of dondoroke include carrots, burdock, leek, other seasonal vegetables, dried shiitake mushrooms, and aburaage, which are thin deep-fried slices of tofu. Long ago, the dish only used vegetables, but once chickens started to be kept during the Showa era, chicken meat was also added. Furthermore, with the spread of rice cookers during the mid-Showa era, the preparation method changed from steaming everything together to mixing them after cooking. Thus, the dish has been passed down while being adapted to the changing times. This adaptability combined with the ease of making it in a rice cooker and the ability to easily obtain ingredients in any season have made this dish widely loved even today.
< Central Region >
gisu: An Essential Dish Carrying the Smell of the Sea Used for Congratulations and Condolences
Near Lake Togo in the center of the prefecture, residents engage in rice production and other agriculture. Japanese pears such as the Nijisseiki pear and the Shinkansen pear, which was cultivated in Tottori Prefecture, are also grown in this region. River crabs can be caught in the lake. Ganchajiru, a clear soup made with ground crab meat, is a familiar dish in the Central Region.
Additionally, the special characteristics of the sandy soil along the Japan Sea coast lend themselves to growing Japanese leeks and Chinese yams, while the crumbly black topsoil found in the plains at the foot of Mount Daisen is conducive to growing watermelons.
In the spring, igisugusa grows luxuriantly on the rocks along the coastline. Also called egonori, this seaweed can be simmered and hardened into igisu, a dish which used to be integral to family occasions. Similar to kanten and tokoroten, when heated and melted, it naturally hardens. Although it looks like yokan, it has a strong coastal aroma and a uniquely enjoyable jellylike texture.
“Similar dishes can be widely found across western Japan, but Tottori’s igisu is characterized by not having other ingredients mixed in. It is delicious sprinkled with sesame seeds and eaten with vinegared miso or ginger soy sauce,” says Ms Kishida.
< Western Region >
Reverently Receiving the Bounty of Mount Daisen
Mount Daisen is the tallest peak in the Chugoku Region. It is also called Hoki-Daisen, after the old name of the Western Region, “Hokinokuni”. Agriculture thrives in the fertile soil at the foot of the mountain, nurtured by the clear mountain waters and the crumbly black topsoil. Local dishes have been handed down which use the rice and vegetables grown here without wasting anything. On the coast, Yumigahama Peninsula gracefully curves out into the sea, flanked by Miho Bay and Nakaumi. Here, a thriving fishing industry catches red snow crabs, and a strong agricultural industry grows sweet potatoes in the sandy soil. Dishes such as imobota, a type of botamochi which uses sweet potatoes, have been handed down throughout the years.
With is magnificent presence, Mount Daisen has been the object of worship since long ago. People come from all across Japan to visit Daisenji Temple on the side of the mountain, and the local cuisine has gained much popularity as part of the lunchboxes served to pilgrims here. One such dish is Daisen okowa, which is glutinous rice steamed with plenty of local ingredients, such as burdock, carrots, yam bulblets, Daisen chicken, and agochikuwa.
It is said that the dish originated with the warrior monks of Daisenji, who steamed rice together with mountain pheasant and mountain plants to pray for victory when they went off to battle. During the Meiji era, the dish became a favorite among the people who gathered at the livestock market held in the meadow in front of Daisenji called Hakuroza. It wasn’t called Daisen okowa until after the Meiji era, however; before that it was called Aseri okowa after the region of Aseri.
Among the local dishes which use tofu is itadaki, which is made by putting rice and vegetables in long strips of deep-fried tofu and steaming them. Although it looks similar to inarizushi, it has a completely different method of preparation: rice, carrots, and burdock are stuffed into a large piece of deep-fried tofu and then slowly steamed with stock. Primarily in Yumigahama in the west, whenever there is a special event, each household makes this dish and then serves it to the neighborhood. First made when rice was very dear, this dish was considered a true feast, and therefore some say that it was named itadaki, which comes from the Japanese word “itadaku”, meaning “to receive humbly, gratefully”. Others say that its shape resembles the peak of Mount Daisen, and was named accordingly (“itadaki” also means “peak”).
Although Tottori is blessed with abundant resources, its food culture was fostered through simplicity and frugality. The many local dishes which allow us to fully enjoy the fresh seasonal flavors of the region will continue to be passed down and treasured.