Web Japan > NIPPONIA No.36 > Special Feature*
NIPPONIA No.36 March 15, 2006

Special Feature*
Intriguing Tastes, Naturally
If you want to savor food preserved the natural way—dried in the sun, treated with a yeast, or fermented with lactic acid bacteria—Japan is the place to do it. All of these foods have a pronounced and distinctive taste, are easy to store, and have nutrients important for good health. The taste and odor might put you off a little, but once you summon some courage and dig in you may be hooked for life.
Written by Sanada Kuniko
Photos by Kono Toshihiko

Himono (sun-dried fish)
Top: A sun-dried horse mackerel (kusaya). The Izu Seven Islands south of Tokyo are known for this type of dried fish. The fish is gutted and cleaned, then steeped in a fermented brine for several hours. Next, it is dried in the sun. It has a strong, distinctive odor, and is ideal to nibble on when drinking alcohol.
Left: Sun-dried kinme red snapper.
Right: Sun-dried squid.
Below: Sun-dried tatami-iwashi (anchovies). Once the anchovy fry are ready, they are placed in an interlocking fashion on a bamboo screen to make a thin sheet that is dried in the sun. This process is reminiscent of the traditional method for making Japanese paper.

Tofu-yo (aged tofu)
Tofu is salted, dried, then steeped in awamori (a clear liquor made from rice), to which beni-koji (monascus pilosus cultivated on rice) has been added.
The tofu is then matured or fermented for about six months. This method of preserving tofu came from China, and tofu-yo is now considered a specialty of Okinawa. Because of the clinging texture and the full-bodied flavor from the koji yeast, some people consider tofu-yo to be an “Oriental cheese.”

Tsukemono (pickles)
When vegetables are pickled they keep longer than when raw, and they have extra nutritional value because of the lactic acid bacteria that grow as part of the fermentation process. Each part of Japan favors its own combination of vegetables and seasonings to make tsukemono. The photo to the left shows three types: clockwise from left, daikon radish pickled in vinegar, beets pickled in sweet vinegar, and cucumber pickled in soy sauce.
Above middle: Vegetables pickled in a salted rice bran paste.
Above right top: Eggplant, cucumber, and turnip pickled in miso paste.
Above right bottom: If the vegetables are pickled for too long, you can remove some of the salt by chopping them up fine and soaking them in water before eating.

Nare-zushi (fish pickled with rice)
The sushi we know today has its roots in nare-zushi, which is fish or shellfish mixed with boiled rice and pickled by lactic acid bacteria fermentation to preserve it. The sushi in the photo, funa-zushi, is made from crucian carp caught in Lake Biwa, Shiga Prefecture. The female carp is salt-pickled for about one month with its roe inside, and then pickled in rice for about one year. This gives it a distinctive taste and strong aroma.

Shiokara (pickled fish innards)
Fish or shellfish innards are mixed with pieces of the flesh, then pickled in salt and fermented. As the fermentation process advances, the salty taste will diminish, giving a milder, mellower flavor.
Upper two photos: Sukugarasu (salt-pickled goma-aigo fry). Goma-aigo fish like the waters around coral reefs in Okinawa. The fish fry are neatly packed into bottles for sale, as seen in the far right photo.
Below: Shiokara featuring finely chopped pieces of squid mixed with squid innards. Perhaps the most popular type of shiokara.

Gyosho (seasoned seafood-base sauce)
This strong sauce is made by fermenting salt-pickled fish or shellfish. It is somewhat similar to the nampla and nuoc mam sauces of Southeast Asia. Two of the best gyosho in Japan are shottsuru from Akita Prefecture and ishiru from Ishikawa Prefecture. Photos: Ishiru made from sardines (left) and squid (right).

Natto (fermented soybeans)
Natto is easy to eat—just mix it with chopped green onion and soy sauce, then serve as a topping on steamed rice. Natto is also cheap, and this is another reason it often appears on dining tables. It is made by steaming small soybeans, then adding a rice straw bacteria that promotes the fermentation process when the beans are kept at a certain temperature. The resulting natto has what appear to be sticky threads. Natto is rich in protein and contains ten times more vitamin B2 than boiled soybeans. It contains an enzyme, natto-kinaze, which improves blood circulation.


   Special Feature*    Living In Japan    Japan Travelogue