Mandarin oranges glimmering in the gentle sunshine, fish jumping – the foods of Ehime are a feast for the eyes
Ehime Prefecture is located in the northwestern part of the Shikoku region. The area around Matsuyama City is called Chuyo, the area east of that is called Toyo, and the southern area is called Nanyo. The overall topography is mountainous with little flat land. Islands large and small float in the calm waters of the Seto Inland Sea and off the ria coast of the Uwakai Sea, and the magnificent Shikoku Karst extends across the interior. Ehime is blessed with natural landscapes both marine and mountainous.
Reporting in cooperation with: Dogo Onsen Funaya
A peaceful “citrus kingdom” protected by a mountain range
The Dozen Plain and Dogo Plain facing the Seto Inland Sea are exemplary grain-producing areas of the prefecture. In the southern part of the prefecture, rice and vegetables are mainly grown in the plains, while deciduous fruit trees are cultivated and livestock are raised in the inland mountainous areas. In the coastal area of the Nanyo region, the Shikoku Mountains hug the coastline and citrus cultivation thrives on terraced fields. Diverse varieties are grown throughout the year, making Ehime known as the “citrus kingdom.”
Masako Watanabe, school principal of Ehime Gakuen, says, “My grandmother often said that Ehime is peaceful thanks to the mountains. The Toyo and Chuyo regions are protected from the rear by a range of mountains including Mount Ishizuchi, which stands at 1,982 m above sea level, allowing for very peaceful agriculture throughout the year with almost no damage from typhoons.”
We must not forget that Ehime is also a treasure trove of fresh seafood. The Seto Inland Sea, bordered by the Toyo and Chuyo regions, and the Uwakai Sea, bordered by the Nanyo region, are sprinkled with as many as 270 islands. The fishing industry has long flourished, and wild fish such as sea bream, mackerel, and sardines can be caught in abundance.
Three regional food cultures developed uniquely from the same roots
Interestingly, while there are similarities between the food cultures of the Toyo and Chuyo regions, a slightly different food culture has developed in the Nanyo region.
Take “tai meshi” (sea bream rice) for example. In the Toyo and Chuyo regions, the scales and intestines are removed and the entire sea bream is cooked over rice in an earthenware pot. The baked sea bream is typically broken into pieces and eaten mixed with white rice. Adding aromatics like green onion, mitsuba (Japanese parsley), and sansho (Japanese pepper) enhances the flavor of the sea bream. Meanwhile, in the Nanyo region, the tai meshi passed down as fishermen’s cuisine consists of sliced raw sea bream over white rice, with toppings such as green onion or sesame, mixed with raw egg and sauce. The firm, springy flesh of the sea bream is superb. Though eaten in different ways, both dishes showcase the delicious taste of fresh wild sea bream.
There are also local dishes that go by different names. In the Edo Period (1603-1867), the Sumitomo Family came from Osaka to develop the Besshi Copper Mine and introduced a way of making sushi using fish. Workers from around the prefecture brought this back to their hometowns, and the method spread throughout the prefecture. The dish is called “izumiya” in Toyo and Chuyo after the Sumitomo Family’s trade name, while it is called “maruzushi” (round sushi) in Nanyo due to the round shape. In both cases, vinegared fish such as horse mackerel, sardines, or mackerel is opened and wrapped around pressed okara (soy pulp), rather than rice, to make sushi. The dish was born out of ingenuity in a period when rice was precious. “Ehime’s fish is fresh and tasty, so it must have been delicious even if okara was used as rice,” Ms. Watanabe comments. Let us look by region at the local cuisine of Ehime, which stands out for its delicious seafood.
< Toyo Region >
Hearty pirate cuisine lingers to this day in the wild Kurushima Strait
The Toyo region overlooks the Seto Inland Sea. The Kurushima Strait swirls violently between the Imabari coast and Oshima and other islands. The sea bream, sardines, mackerel, and other fish caught here have exquisitely firm, plump flesh from having been knocked around the wild waves. In the Kamakura Period (1192-1333), the area was a stronghold of the powerful Murakami Suigun pirates, and many local dishes are said to have been introduced to the Toyo region by men of the sea.
“Horakuyaki” is also known as “pirate food,” as it is said to have first been served in celebration of the Murakami Suigun’s victory in battle. It is a hearty dish used for entertaining, in which pebbles are arranged on an unglazed earthenware pan, topped with fresh seafood such as sea bream, prawns, and turban shells, and steamed. The stones absorb excess moisture and concentrate the flavor, so the only seasoning needed is salt. The delicious taste of the ingredients can be savored.
In the Imabari region, a dish called “igisu tofu” has been passed down. A type of seaweed called “igisu” is harvested from the reefs of the Seto Inland Sea and dried under the sun. This is thickened by simmering and mixed with soy flour to solidify it similarly to agar. It is a home-style dish that was eaten on a daily basis in coastal areas. Shrimp stock is added to give it a rich flavor. This simple dish, served with vinegar and soy sauce or mustard and soy sauce, has been attracting attention again in recent years as a healthy food for longevity full of nutrients from seaweed and soybeans.
< Chuyo Region >
Cities of hot springs and literature nurtured a refined cuisine
The Chuyo region flourished as a castle town with wealth of 150,000 koku (unit of rice) and was the center of culture and industry in Ehime Prefecture. Dogo Onsen, a hot spring which served as the setting for the novel Botchan, is said to have been frequented by Natsume Soseki and many other great writers, so the area is famous as a “city of literature.” Local cuisine, nurtured against the backdrop of history, is made with a bit of special effort using fresh ingredients from the prefecture and is often colorful and appetizing to the eye.
“Tai somen” (sea bream and somen noodles) is a heaping platter served at festive gatherings across Ehime Prefecture, but tai somen in the Chuyo region is particularly beautiful in color. Five colors of somen noodles (white, yellow, red, green, and brown) are arranged on a platter, topped with whole simmered sea bream, and garnished with shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced omelette, and other toppings. Especially for weddings, it is made to celebrate the happy meeting of the two families with the hope that happiness continues as long as the somen noodles. It is a local dish eaten year-round, cold in summer and warm in winter.
In “Iyo-Bushi,” a popular song of the Iyo-Matsuyama pleasure quarters, are the lyrics, “The specialties and landmarks of Iyo-Matsuyama … are the usuzumi-zakura and hinokabura.” As the song goes, flamboyantly scarlet “hinokabura-zuke” (pickled scarlet turnips) are one of Matsuyama’s specialties. The vivid color is due not to coloring agents, but to the fact that the red turnips known as hinokabu turn scarlet when pickled in orange vinegar. With its fresh taste and beautiful color, it is an indispensable New Year’s dish.
< Nanyo Region >
The people of Nanyo live resiliently in the riches of the Uwakai Sea
The Nanyo region has a mild climate, and fresh, delicious seafood can be caught year-round in the Uwakai Sea of the Bungo Channel, which flows between the region and Kyushu. Fish migrating north from the Pacific Ocean are caught, meaning that there are some varieties that differ from those in the Seto Inland Sea. For example, the starspotted smooth-hound, known as “fuka” in this region, is often eaten at home. The fish is rinsed in boiling water to turn it white, and the “fuka no yuzarashi” (fuka rinsed in hot water) is accompanied by boiled seasonal vegetables and dipped in a sauce called migarashi miso. Fresh fuka is a delicacy that is light but with a delightful chewy texture. In the summertime, largehead hairtail are also caught. “Tachiuo no hachiman-maki” (largehead hairtail cut into three pieces, wrapped around a burdock root, seared, and grilled to a sweet and spicy flavor) can be easily prepared at home in a frying pan.
Though the sea is rich in blessings, unlike the Toyo and Chuyo regions guarded by Mount Ishizuchi, the Nanyo region falls in the path of typhoons. As a result, there are many natural disasters, and rice cultivation was a constant struggle. “Rice was precious, so in the old days families were creative, for instance filling their stomachs with potatoes instead of rice,” says Ms. Watanabe.
One local dish born of this kind of ingenuity is “fukumen.” It is colorful and gorgeous at first glance, but under the ingredients is not rice, but shredded konjac. It is said that to hide the konjac, the dish was covered with brightly colored ingredients such as yellow eggs, mandarin orange peels, white fish paste, and green onions. “I do not think it was always served on a platter so sumptuously. I think it was created as a dish for entertaining based on the idea of mixing konjac with various ingredients,” says Ms. Watanabe.
Ehime Prefecture’s many local dishes speak to its rich food culture and warm-hearted people. The prefecture and local communities are working to pass these irreplaceable assets on to the next generation through school lunches, events, cooking schools, and more. “The preservation and transmission of local dishes is tied to the preservation of production areas. It is important for local people to love and pass on their cuisine,” stresses Ms. Watanabe. The taste of home can be preserved if various people in the community, including households, producers, cooks, and the tourism industry, come together in spirit to make and pass on the cuisine. This flavor is sure to enhance the charm of the region.