The food culture of Kochi Prefecture fostered uniquely by mountains and seas

Kochi Prefecture is a land of lush forests and blue seas, and this natural environment harmoniously creates rich and varied features.

It is bordered by the Shikoku Mountains to the north, Ehime and Tokushima prefectures, and the Pacific Ocean to the south. With an area of approximately 7,104 km2, it is the largest of Shikoku’s four prefectures, of which 84% is forest. Due to the warm and humid climate, subtropical plants such as the Akou (banyan) and Birou (Chinese fan palm) grow wild in Cape Ashizuri and Cape Muroto, and early rice is harvested in the Kochi plains. It is also a horticultural kingdom, where vegetables have been grown in greenhouses since long ago.

Part of the video is provided by: JA Kochi, and “SHUN GATE,” the Japanese food culture information website
Cooperating store: Tosanosato AGRI COLLETTO, and Tosa Ryouri Tsukasa

Unique regional culture distinguished by “food”

Kochi Prefecture can be broadly divided into plains, mountainous and coastal areas.

Each region has different climates and lifestyles, but the one thing they all have in common is that they all have a culture of “Okyaku.” It means “banquet” in Tosa (Kochi) dialect. In Kochi Prefecture, people have Okyaku on various occasions such as Shinto rituals, festivals, birthdays and celebrations of 60th birthdays. Both distant and close relatives are all welcomed.

“Sawachi or sahachi cuisine” is an essential part of Okyaku. It is a platter of sashimi, simmered and sweetened dishes with no gaps between them. The ingredients used to decorate the table vary from region to region. A unique regional food culture appears in the sawachi dishes.

In the days when rice was the best treat, a wide variety of sushi was made to entertain guests. Among them, “Saba no Sugata zushi” (mackerel sushi) is a must for festivals and wedding ceremonies. The mackerel, opened in the back and filled head to tail with sushi rice, is very vigorous. A few decades ago, the day after Okyaku, a small party called “Zan” was held to comfort the people who helped the preparation and cleanup. At that time, they roasted the head and tail of the remaining sugata zushi.

“Kaisama zushi” is a unique type of sushi with the fish meat up-side down, different from normal pressed sushi. Round herrings are used for inexpensive banquets and daily meals. In addition, there are also “kobusushi” made with kelp and “hittsuke zushi,” a country-style sushi dish topped with food from mountains. There are many variations of sushi.

Here’s a sampling of the food culture of Kochi Prefecture.

< Plains >
The largest plain in the prefecture where all the delicacies of the mountains and the sea are gathered

The Kochi Plain, which spreads out in the center of the prefecture, is the largest plain in the prefecture, sandwiched between the Monobe and Niyodo rivers. It is said that rice farming has been practiced since the Yayoi period (around 5th century BC - 3rd century AD) in the Kacho Plain in the Monobe River basin. After Kenzan Nonaka, a retainer of the Tosa domain, improved the water supply, the area developed into a major granary.

As the Yosakoi song says, “Tosa harvests rice twice a year from a good location in the south,” it was a double-cropping zone.

Image source: Tosa Traditional Food Study Group

Because it is sandwiched between the mountainous and coastal areas, it is easy to get access to both mountainous and marine products.

In early summer, river shrimp are in season. The river shrimp is a freshwater prawn with scissor-like antennae as long as its body. Even today, the traditional fishing method has been used with a special shrimp net, or “shrimp ball.” River shrimp are simmered or stir-fried in their skin. When you crunch into a bite, you will remember the clear river flowing in your mind

The Japanese mitten crab, called “Tsugani” or “Gane” by the locals, is cooked in “Tsugani Jiru (soup).” Grind Japanese mitten crab alive in a blender or stone mortar, strain the ground meat with water and serve it in miso soup. Despite the impact of the cooking method, it is gentle on the palate and rich in flavor.

Ruriko Sumida, chairwoman of the Women’s Study Group in Kochi Farming or Fishing Villages , runs the farmer’s restaurant “Mahoroba Batake” in Nankoku City, where “Tsugani Jiru” is a popular menu item.

“‘Tsugani Jiru’ is a familiar dish in homes as well as in tourist facilities. I’ve eaten them a lot since I was a kid. In the old days, I think many people helped crush tsugani when told to do so by their parents. The direct utilization of the flavors of the ingredients is typical of Kochi cuisine. If you don’t like the peculiarities of this dish, try adding a lot of ginger.”

< Mountainous area >
Food Culture Nurtured by a Clear River

Snow can accumulate in the mountainous area during the severe cold season. Enjoy the benefits of the Shimanto River, which is 196 kilometers long, and the clear blue Niyodo River, which has been described as “Niyodo Blue.” Fish from the rivers can also be eaten.

Aside from tsugani and river shrimp, the ayu fish caught in the Shimanto River and Niyodo River are representative of river fish. The fishing season runs from mid-May to mid-October. In December, the ban on fishing is lifted for ayu fish going downstream, which have finished spawning. In the past, river fish was grilled with salt or on skewers as soon as it was caught because of its tendency to lose its freshness. There are many restaurants built in the river basin that specialize in grilled ayu fish.

Kochi Prefecture is warm and humid, and tends to have fog, with a large temperature difference between day and night. This makes it easy to grow good quality tea leaves, therefore, the upper and middle reaches of large rivers such as the Niyodo River and Shimanto River have long been home to high-quality Tosa tea. Tosa tea has a rich taste and aroma with little bitterness and is highly regarded throughout the country. Although not tea, in Kochi, there are wild grass teas such as “kishimame-cha” and “habu-cha.”

The Sagawa Basin in the Yanase River basin is a tributary of the Niyodo River.

It is surrounded by mountains at elevations of 400 to 900 meters, and arable land is located in the Kasuga River and Fusio River basins. Paddy fields are distributed in the lowlands and field land on the river terraces. Lowland areas often suffered from flooding, so people began to use river terraces and gentle slopes in the mountains as fields.

In Kochi Prefecture, where the amount of natto purchased is small on a nationwide basis, only the Sagawa Basin area has made “shio natto” for more than 300 years. Shio natto is made by fermenting steamed soybeans for a few days and then mixing them with salt and drying them. It has a lot in common with the recipe for “hama natto,” a local cuisine of Shizuoka Prefecture. It is said that the manufacturing technology was brought to Sagawa, which was a territory of the principle retainer Fukao of Tosa domain, from Kakegawa in Enshu (current western part of Shizuoka Prefecture).

< Coastal area >
The largest consumer of bonito in Japan

The fishing industry has been operating for centuries along the coastline influenced by the Kuroshio Current, which stretches from east to west and carries seafood. There are so many fish species such as greeneye, alfonsino, grunt, moray eel, and round herring. Among them, bonito is the most consumed fish in Japan. In 1988, it was designated as a prefectural fish. You can see how the locals have loved it.

Spring bonito heading north are less fatty, while returning bonito are more fatty. There are many variations of dishes, such as sashimi, “harambo” with the belly part grilled, “chichiko” (heart) simmered or grilled, and making the internal organs (mainly the intestines) into shuto (salted and fermented), but the “Tataki Bonito” is particularly famous.

Salt the surface of bonito, which has been cut into three slices, roast it with straw, and cut it into thick pieces. Finish with a generous amount of salt or tataki sauce, and as the name implies, “tap” (“tataku” in Japanese) it by hand to blend the flavors. Its wild flavor goes well with ginger, garlic and green onions. Naturally, it is a necessity for sawachi dishes.

There are many theories as to the origin of “Tataki Bonito”. There is a theory that it was eaten by fishermen as a snack on board ships, and there is also a theory that Chosokabe Motochika, a warlord of Tosa Province, ate half-roasted bonito and Kazutoyo Yamauchi, the load of Tosa domain, was concerned about its hygiene and forbade the eating of raw bonito. There is another theory that it was first served to Westerners visiting Kochi in the Meiji period (1868 - 1912). These anecdotes show that bonito has become such a familiar part of Kochi’s life.

Image source: “SHUN GATE,” the Japanese food culture information website

The food culture of Kochi Prefecture is supported by the richness of the rivers and the mountains, nurtured by the limpid waters of the mountain forests, and by the variety of seafood carried by the Kuroshio Current. It evolved on its own because it had little interaction with the neighboring prefectures, divided by the Shikoku Mountains. When you experience “the taste of Kochi Prefecture,” you should not only taste it, but also ponder over the historical background behind it.

Kochi's main local cuisine