A Weekend in Akita

I originally wrote this post back in (gasp!) late February. I had planned to post it a few days before the earthquake and then found myself bogged down in work and other obligations. When the earthquake hit, all planned activities, blogging and otherwise, were put on hold. It’s never too late to catch up, right?

The post details a trip I took to visit my friend Charlotte in Akita prefecture. Akita, which is in the Tōhoku region, shares borders with Aomori prefecture to the north, Iwate prefecture to the east, and Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures to the south. (Need to brush up on your Japanese geography? Look no further.) It is a place of rugged beauty, marked by vast rice-producing plains, remote hot springs, and densely wooded mountains. Although Akita was spared the horrific physical damage of the March 11th disaster, its proximity to the affected areas no doubt made the experience feel much closer to home than for those of us in the Tokyo area.

Last Wednesday marked two months since the disaster, so it seems somehow appropriate to post this now, despite the decidedly wintery visuals and subject matter. (I have left it unedited from its original form.) As the disaster fades from public consciousness outside Japan, I urge you to please keep the people of Tōhoku in your thoughts and remind those around you that this humanitarian crisis still deserves the world’s attention and support. Thank you for reading, as always!

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In Japan, the boundaries between city and suburb vanish in endless swaths of houses and high-rises, webbed in on all sides by asphalt and power lines. Passing through, say, Saitama prefecture, a tangle of unnamed streets stretches clear to the horizon. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that there is indeed an end to it all.

So it was with great relief that I sped off via shinkansen toward Akita prefecture, deep in the Tōhuku region. Here, I encountered some of the most pristine and hauntingly beautiful scenery I’ve seen yet. Cedar-lined mountains, peaks shrouded in a thick layer of fog, lay in quiet repose beside silvery, snow-dusted birches.

The views from the shores of Lake Towada were similarly dreamlike, with nary a tourist in sight.

The towns, too, were shuttered and quiet, with an air of forlorn neglect. Granted, February is not exactly peak tourist season in northern Japan, but the emptiness was disconcerting nevertheless.

Yet these are merely an outsider’s observations, made while floating through a foreign landscape. Over the course of three days in Akita visiting my friend Charlotte, a very different reality unfolded. Charlotte, who has lived in the tiny town of Kazuno for the past two years, is an example of the model gaijin: nearly fluent in Japanese, she is committed to her work as a teacher and her community. Together, we drove across snow-covered roads though Akita’s rugged countryside, stopping at a hidden onsen, slurping soba, and marveling at a lakeside snow festival. It all made for a very old-school Japanese getaway. Yet the highlight of the trip, by far, was a cooking class at Kazuno’s community center.

The building, like so much postwar Japanese architecture, was of a nondescript concrete design. Yet inside lay a spacious, well-equipped kitchen flooded with late afternoon winter light. After washing our hands and putting on aprons, we (that is, the foreigners in the group) milled about the cooking stations, wondering where to begin and attempting to decipher the recipes, which were written in Japanese. Before we knew it, a group of predominantly middle-aged women had set to work, dicing onions, soaking kombu for dashi, and washing greens. It was soon apparent that our knife skills were no match for theirs, and so they patiently taught us how to shave burdock root into thin slivers, cut carrots rangiri style, and tackle lotus root for a crunchy salad. (The technique for shaving burdock root, known as sasagaki, is incredibly useful. Scroll down for an explanation.)

Having prepped the vegetables, we proceeded to fill rice flour dumplings with smooth red bean paste and walnuts for keiran, a fantastic sweet and savory soup unique to Akita. (See below for a recipe.)

Finally, everyone took turns pounding rice for kiritanpo, perhaps Akita’s most famous specialty. To make kiritanpo, cooked rice is pounded until partially mashed, formed into cylinders around bamboo skewers (in our case, disposable chopsticks), and grilled. Once cooked, the rice cylinders are cut in half and, most often, included in a savory dashi-based soup with chicken thighs, maitake mushrooms, burdock root, leeks, and seri (so-called Japanese parsley, pictured in the burdock-cutting photo above). We followed the classic recipe, which made for a wonderfully light yet filling dish. Soaking in the broth, the kiritanpo become plump and soft, the sweet and chewy rice forming a perfect counterpart to the crunchy burdock and earthy mushrooms.

To compensate for the relative lack of protein in the meal, we also made (or rather, watched the cooking instructor make) two hearty egg dishes: omuraisu (omu-rice), a classic Japanese-Western fusion dish of ketchup-flavored fried rice tucked inside an omelette and tamagoyaki, the layered, slightly sweet Japanese omelette often served atop rice at sushi restaurants.

The final touch was a crisp lotus and burdock root salad, dressed in a savory miso-mayonnaise dressing, whose complex flavors and textures belied the simplicity of its preparation. Light and fresh yet deceptively filling thanks to the fibrous burdock and starchy lotus root, this salad is the perfect remedy for March’s interminably long, gray days. If you’ve never cooked with burdock and lotus root at home, this salad is a perfect recipe to become acquainted with them. (And if you have, I think you’ll fall in love with them all over again.)

Thank you to Charlotte for the wonderful weekend, to the residents of Kazuno for your guidance and wonderful recipes, and to Akita for its gifts of open space and sky.

Burdock and Lotus Root Salad with Miso-Mayonnaise Dressing

(れんこんとごぼうの味噌マヨサラダ)

This salad showcases lotus root’s unique starchy-sticky texture to great effect. If you can’t find burdock and lotus root, try substituting other crunchy seasonal vegetables – shredded carrots, shaved fennel, and blanched broccoli would all be delicious here.

Serves 2

1 small lotus root

1/2 burdock root

1 Japanese, Korean, or other small, thin-skinned cucumber

2 tablespoons miso

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 tablespoon mirin

1 teaspoon sugar

Japanese soy sauce, to taste

1 tablespoon toasted white sesame seeds

Leaf lettuce

Halved cherry tomatoes, for garnish (optional)

Have ready a bowl of water mixed with a few tablespoons of rice vinegar.

Wash and peel the lotus root, then cut in half lengthwise and thinly slice crosswise. Add to the bowl of water. Prepare the burdock root as described below and add to the water. Julienne the cucumber and set aside.

Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Add the lotus and burdock roots and cook briefly, until slightly softened but still a bit crunchy. Drain and place in a bowl along with the cucumber.

In a small bowl, mix the miso, mayonnaise, mirin, sugar, and soy sauce. Taste and adjust seasonings if desired.

Pour the dressing over the vegetables, add the sesame seeds, and mix well. To serve, arrange a few leaves of lettuce on a plate and pile the salad on top, sprinkling with more sesame seeds if desired. Garnish the edge with tomato halves, if desired.

*To prepare burdock root for soup, hot pot, salad, or kinpira gobō: First, wash the root and cut it into manageable pieces. Have ready a bowl of water mixed with a few tablespoons of rice vinegar. Working with one piece at a time, use the back of your knife to gently scrape away the thin brown layer of skin. (Or simply use a vegetable brush.)  Next, make a lengthwise cut almost all the way through the root, leaving a few inches uncut. Cradling the root in one hand, shave off slivers from the cut section in quick downward strokes, as if you were sharpening a pencil, allowing the slivers to fall into the bowl of water. (A sharp knife is really, really useful here.) As you proceed, turn the root in your hand to ensure the slivers are evenly sized. Once you’ve reached the uncut portion, you can do the rest on a cutting board. I know this sounds incredibly complicated, but it’s much easier to learn by doing than by reading. If you’re stuck, check out this photo.

Keiran

(けいらん)

Admittedly, including a recipe that can’t be made by the majority of my readers is a bit unfair. Yet it also doesn’t seem fair to leave you in the dark about this fantastic regional specialty. If you have access to a Japanese grocery store or well-stocked Asian market, most of the ingredients shouldn’t be too difficult to find. (The exception here is the mitsuba, which, unfortunately, doesn’t really have a substitute.) That being said, you could also serve the dumplings as is, sans broth and garnishes, as a sort of dessert.

Serves 5

For the soup

1 large piece kombu (kelp for making dashi)

A couple handfuls maitake (or oyster) mushrooms, cleaned and separated into bite-size pieces

About 1/4 cup Japanese soy sauce (or to taste)

3 stalks mitsuba

For the dumpling filling

50 grams koshi-an (こしあん ~ smooth red bean paste), preferably unsweetened

10 grams walnuts, finely chopped

1 tablespoon simple syrup or corn syrup

Salt and black pepper, to taste

For the dumpling dough

50 grams shiratamako (白玉粉 ~ glutinous rice [i.e.: mochi] flour )

50 grams jōshinko (上新粉 ~ non-glutinous rice flour)

70-80 mL water

Place the kombu in a pot and cover with cold water. Let soak while you proceed with the recipe.

Make the dumpling filling: In a small bowl, combine the koshi-an, walnuts, simple or corn syrup, salt, and pepper. Roll into balls, about the size of a large grape, and set aside on a clean surface.

Make the dumpling dough: In a medium bowl, mix together the shiratamako and jōshinko. Add a little water at a time to form a smooth dough. (You may not need all the water.) The dough’s texture should be pliable yet firm, like an earlobe. If the dough breaks apart when handled, add a bit more shiratamako and mix well. If the dough is too stiff, add a little more water until you achieve the proper consistency.

Dust your hands with shiratamako. Break off small piece of dough (about a tablespoon) and roll into a ball. Place in the palm of your hand and use your other hand to pat the dough into a disk about 1/8-inch thick.

Place a ball of the bean paste mixture in the center of the disk and gently gather the dough around it. Use your palms to form into a smooth, slightly oblong. You’re aiming for something about the size and shape of a small egg. Place on a baking sheet dusted with shiratamako and repeat with the remaining bean paste.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil cook the dumplings in batches, being careful not to crowd the pot. They should only take a few minutes to cook. Drain and rinse the dumplings with cold water.

Make the soup: Bring the kombu and water to a boil, then remove the kombu. Add the mushrooms and cook until softened. Remove mushrooms with a strainer.

Divide four cups of the kombu broth between five small bowls and add soy sauce to taste – the soup should  be a light golden color and not too salty. Save any remaining broth for another use. Divide the dumplings and mushrooms between the bowls, and garnish with mitsuba.


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2 thoughts on “A Weekend in Akita

  1. The photos of the Akita area are truly stunning. You have captured precisely what you describe in all its eerie beauty.

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