The Flavors of Tohoku are aromatic, sweet, and yes, sometimes quite unusual.
From dramatic mountains to crystal-clear springs, Tohoku is a land of rich traditions and festive people. Known for its pristine nature, spiritual people, incredible festivals, and unique culinary traditions, Tohoku offers a gastronomic adventure like no other.
Previously, we talked about the geography and cultural heritage of Tohoku, the northernmost area of Honshu. Today, we’ll dig into the specific culinary heritage of this cold area.
With the tragedy that the Tohoku region, and specifically the prefecture of Fukushima, went through not so long ago, we need to get a glaring question out of the way first:
Is Tohoku food radioactive?
No. The levels of radiation in ingredients from Tohoku are not higher than normal.
Feel free to eat Tohoku food.
In 2011, an earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant devastated the rich, agricultural lands of Tohoku. People were evacuated en masse, and locally grown crops (bought in solidarity) tossed in the can.
Now, more than a decade later, life goes on and even the towns closest to the disaster site are safe to live in now. The food and the water, both points of pride in Tohoku, are safe and radiation-free again.
During the 2020/21 Tokyo Olympics, as a part of the large Olympic Village menu, athletes and participants ate many foods sourced from the Tohoku regions of Fukushima, Miyagi, and Iwate. This was one of the ways to promote reconstruction of the area and rebuild trust in the safety of Tohoku foods 10 years after the disaster. It was also Japan’s message to the world that the delicacies of Tohoku are ready for the tasting again.
So, if you find yourself in Tohoku region, don’t hesitate to try the local specialties! They’re not radioactive – but they are mind-blowingly tasty!
The Tastiest Foods of Tohoku
You’re likely to enjoy any dish you try in Tohoku, whether you eat at a stall, restaurant, or cook Tohoku-sourced ingredients yourself (make sure to try cooking with some of its famously crystal-clear spring water).
But there are some dishes that you simply shouldn’t miss out on, wherever you go in the area. After all, Tohoku is famous for its water, rice, sake, Yonezawa beef, and unique food culture. Let’s dig in.
Yonezawa beef Sukiyaki
Aomori Squid Patties – Igamenchi (いがめんち)
Love the flavor of squid but not its texture? Try these crunchy squid snacks from Japan, or, if you’re craving quality dinner, head to the far north of Honshu to try Aomori’s own squid patties – igamenchi.
It all starts with squid tentacles – they’re cut and pounded, mixed with chopped veggies (often carrots and onions), battered, and finally fried for a delicious patty. It’s so good it’s served with only a bit of fresh leafy greens.
This dish originates in the town called Hirosaki, near, yet not quite near enough the coastal town of Tsugaru. In the inland towns, seafood was harder to come by and preserve, so igamenchi appeared as one of the ingenious ways to use up squid to its full potential.
Igamenchi from Aomori
Aomori Cracker Soup – Senbei-jiru (せんべい汁)
Cracker soup! Yes – a combination of hot, hearty soup and locally made crunchy senbei (crackers) – Nanbu senbei(named Nanbu after its place of origin).
Locally produced, stew recipes call for the “otsuyu senbei” – wheat flour and salt crackers with a great texture, that don’t fall apart or get drenched in the soup.
Mix the crackers with soup (containing soy sauce, chicken, veggies, and mushrooms) and you get a flavorful and firm bite with each spoonful.
Fukushima Rice Skewers – Shingoro (しんごろう)
The Tohoku region has many rice specialties – it’s no wonder since it has all the best conditions for the crop.
One of the nicest traditional snacks you can have while strolling the streets of Fukushima – shingoro – is a rice skewer topped with umami seasoning. Fukushima’s shingoro is somewhat similar to Akita’s kiritanpo (we’ll talk about it later).
But what really makes a rice skewer a shingoro is its unique seasoning. They call it juunen miso (“ten year miso”), on account of it being so good for the health it’s said it can help you live a full decade longer.
To make juunen miso, you’d need:
- perilla seeds (egoma, エゴマ in Japanese),
- miso paste,
- Japanese rice alcohol – sake (thing Tohoku is most famous for),
- a few alternative ingredients, depending on the recipe.
Once you have your seasoning, you can make shingoro with a bit of sticky rice and a grill (ideally, charcoal). The rice is shaped into a ball, stuck on a skewer, seasoned, and then grilled.
Miyagi Beef Tongue – Gyutan (牛タン)
Ever tried beef tongue? Served throughout Japan, gyutan (gyu=cow, tan=tongue) was first created in Sendai, Miyagi. Inspired by French cuisine, the mind behind the first gyutan was Keishiro Sano, a yakitori (skewer) restaurant owner.
It may not sound like the most appetizing cut, but beef tongue made the Sendai way is tender, juicy, and absolutely delicious. It’s usually spiced with just salt and served with dips, or eaten alongside oxtail soup, barley rice, or pickles.
Sendai Edamame Sweet Paste – Zunda (ずんだ)
Edamame (young soybeans) are a wonderful snack. Usually boiled or steamed and lightly salted, the beans are sweet and simple to eat right out of the pod.
But, edamame is a bean, and the Japanese simply love their bean sweets. So, of course that Sendai, the city that first thought up zunda, edamame sweet paste, became widely revered for it.
You can find zunda in all kinds of sweets, from mochi to taiyaki. Instead of the typical red bean paste anko or chocolate, the sweets have a bright green fill. Zunda has a nice, rich taste – it’s sweet and slightly salty, and beany all the way.
A pack of sweets with zunda is a great omiyage (souvenir to bring your friends) if you visit Sendai.
Sendai Fish Cakes – Sasakama or Sasa Kamaboko (笹かまぼこ)
Sendai is definitely one of the culinary capitals of Japan, so it’s worth a visit for any foodie. If you like white fish, don’t miss out on sasa kamaboko (often shortened to sasakama), Sendai’s famous fish cake.
It’s said that sasa kamaboko came into existence one bountiful year. Apparently, the residents of Sendai had caught plenty of white-meat fish (mainly Japanese halibut) that year. To prevent the excess from going to waste, they ground the fish into paste and started baking it into fish cakes.
By the way, the sasa in sasa kamaboko stands for “bamboo”, but the cake doesn’t contain bamboo at all. Instead, the name likely alludes to the typical shape of the fish cake – it resembles a bamboo leaf.
Iwate – The Three Great Noodles of Morioka
If you go to the second-largest prefecture of Japan, Iwate, don’t miss out on some of its famous noodles. Morioka, the prefecture’s capital, has some particularly unique recipes you should try! In fact, these have a moniker: The three great noodles of Morioka (盛岡三大麺, Morioka san dai men) – so of course they’re worth a try!
Morioka Jajamen (じゃじゃ麺)
Jajamen is a Chinese dish gone Japanese. From its origin in China, the recipe was adapted to local tastes – so over time it became a dish of its own. Originally, the dish is inspired by zhajiangmian from China, but unlike the original meal, jajamen from Morioka only has one variant and a specific recipe offered across restaurants and the izakaya in the city.
Udon are wheat noodles – usually they’re extra thick, but in Morioka jajamen they typically use thin udon. The noodles are served with a scoop of meaty miso paste. The topping combines miso with minced meat, onions, shiitake, sake, mentsuyu, oils, and spices like ginger and garlic.
The single scoop of aromatic paste is enough to give your whole serving of udon a wonderful flavor.
Morioka Cold Noodles – Reimen (冷麵)
Cold noodles are not unheard of – but the Morioka reimen stands out for its perplexing combination of hot and sweet, spicy and cool.
Based on the Korean naengmyeon, this cold noodle dish uses kimchi (Korean spicy pickled vegetables), soy sauce, meat soup stock, pork meat, and a bit of seasonal fruit like watermelons or apples.
Sounds weird, right? It’s super tasty, in fact – the hot kimchi and sweet fruit make a great pairing, and it all goes very well with the translucent, chewy reimen noodles.
Morioka Wanko Soba (わんこそば)
Rather than a dish, wanko soba is a dining concept in Morioka – something between an all-you-can-eat event and an eating competition. All centered on soba noodles.
If you ask elsewhere in Japan, people may think of a dog or a puppy hearing the word wanko. In Morioka, it’s the local word for a bowl. As for soba – those are the delicious and healthy buckwheat noodles, loved across the country.
So, in a wanko soba restaurant, you’re served bowl after bowl after bowl of soba noodles. The portions are tiny – about 15 bowls of wanko soba make up a regular adult-size portion. The bowls are counted for a competition, but there’s no need to rush. The restaurant staff makes sure the whole experience is accompanied with loud cheering and a friendly atmosphere.
Along with endless portions of noodles, you get sides and condiments to make things more interesting and nutritious. It may be tuna slices, mushrooms, chicken, sesame paste, seaweed, pickled veggies, wasabi, or anything else.
Akita Rice Specialty – Kiritanpo (きりたんぽ)
Remember we mentioned Tohoku is famous for its rice?
Well, Akita prefecture is particularly famous for both quality rice and great sake (alcoholic drink often dubbed “rice wine”). So, along with smooth sake brands like Kariho and Taiheizan Tenko, you’ll have an opportunity to try top-notch rice goods when you visit Akita.
Kiritanpo is one of the fun snacks you can have on the go in Akita. It’s essentially a grilled rice skewer that can be eaten as-is, or chopped and added into soup.
Making it is simple but requires a grill. Cooked rice is mashed and shaped around skewers. Then, the skewers are toasted around a fire or on a grill.
The skewers can be topped with a variety of sweet or savory toppings, or cut into pieces and put into a hot pot. Restaurants across Akita serve kiritanpo nabe – kiritanpo hot pot.
Yamagata Soup – Imoni (芋煮)
If you happen to visit Yamagata in autumn, don’t miss the opportunity to warm yourself around the traditional, hearty taro and meat soup. Making imoni is a full-blown event, as it’s usually cooked outdoors, near rivers.
To make imoni, you don’t need much: some beef or pork for the meat, soy sauce or miso for seasoning (sometimes sugar too), taro root, and konnyaku (jellifying substance) for the consistency.
Taste the Far North
Rich in both crops and spirituality, Tohoku is an inspiring place with a plethora of unique traditions, smells, and flavors to experience.
In many cases you can’t recreate Tohoku food at home: Sometimes it’s the experience that makes it so tightly connected to the land. In other cases, even when you’re located far away, you can bring a dash of Tohoku magic to your home – it’s so easy to make sweet zunda paste or rice skewers wherever you are.