Ibaraki, located northeast of Tokyo, is filled with abundant nature and is home to some famous Japanese staples, such as natto (fermented soybeans), chestnuts, and melons. Mostly known for its gardens, Ibaraki is blessed with fertile land and abundant waters that allows this prefecture to offer more than what usually meets the eye through the various and rich local cuisines it offers. Here are some of the essentials you shouldn’t miss out on:
Hitachi Wagyu Beef
Hitachi wagyu beef is one of the most famous wagyu beef in Japan. Its marbling (how tender the meat is) is usually at a grade 4 or 5, with 5 being the highest grade that can be given. The yield (how much meat you can get from the cattle) is typically ranked at an A, the highest level. Hitachi beef is only obtained from Japanese Black cattle that has been carefully grown for over 30 months and fed with fodder abundant in minerals. Although beef cattle have long existed in Ibaraki, it was only in the 50s when full-scale production was introduced, and only in the 70s when the Japanese Black cattle from this prefecture was named “Hitachi beef”. Despite its relative newness in the wagyu scene, it is highly regarded as one of the best alongside the more famous Kobe beef and Matsusaka beef.
Ibaraki is also one of the main producers of the superfood that never fails to baffle the taste buds and divide culinary opinions – natto, fermented soybeans rich in vitamins and proteins. Mito, the capital of Ibaraki, is known as the natto capital of Japan. In a story traditionally known in the Mito region called “Minamoto no Yoshiie Version,” it is said that this unique dish was accidentally discovered after a rice straw bacteria attached to boiled beans when a samurai general was staying in Mito. Eventually Mito became associated with the food as areas surrounding it turned out to be the perfect place to yield small-sized soybeans. Farmers and vendors also started selling them along the Mito Station attracting tourists who were usually on their way to Kairakuen. Nowadays, there are several factories in the prefecture, one of them being Okame Natto, one of the most renowned brands in Japan. Ibaraki also has unique ways of enjoying natto coming from vast knowledge and a deep relationship with the local way of life. You can try the traditional straw-wrapped natto, natto tonkatsu, natto tempura, and many more!
Anglerfish is a deep-sea fish known for its sharp-looking teeth, flabby body, and an overall grotesque appearance. Despite how it looks, almost every part of the fish is edible and is not put to waste – the fins, skin, gills, liver, stomach, ovaries, and meat, are called “the seven tools of the anglerfish”. Back in the Edo period, this distinct-looking fish was considered a high-class food, often offered to the shogun due to its soft and elastic texture, light flavor, and stamina-boosting nutrients. Nowadays, it is gaining a buzz due to its high nutrient and collagen content, which keeps the skin supple and healthy; as well as being low in fat and calories, which helps in cutting back weight gain. Anglerfish is especially enjoyed in winter between December and February since its liver grows fatty during this time. It is popularly included in hot pot for a very hearty and healthy wintertime sustenance. Opinions on the taste vary, so it would be best to find out by trying it yourself!
Melon, the Taste of Spring
Melon is also another top produce from Ibaraki. Being the number one producer of melons, they offer numerous varieties of sizes and tastes across the seasons. They have the Andes and Quincy varieties, in season from spring to early summer; as well as the Earls variety which are grown from summer to autumn. Their original and notable melon variety worth trying is called “Ibaraking”, short for Ibaraki King. Coming from a wish of creating the king of melons, this is a product of a 10-year development of testing and crossbreeding more than 400 combinations. Produced particularly around the spring season, what makes Ibaraking stand out is its juiciness, sweetness, smooth texture, and fleshiness. It also grows 10% bigger than usual spring melons and has a relatively long shelf life! It is promoted as giving the ‘taste of spring in Ibaraki’. Hokota City is said to be the largest producer of the fruit in Japan, so we recommend you to head there to get the freshest taste of spring!
Chestnuts, the Taste of Autumn
Japanese chestnuts or kuri are usually found from September to mid-October, thus symbolizing autumn in Japan. These Japanese nuts are sweet, soft, and flaky, as well as being larger and retaining more water than other kinds of chestnuts. And Ibaraki, yet again, has another sweet delicacy to boast of as the prefecture is the largest kuri producer in Japan. In households, it is commonly boiled or cooked with rice which is already a hearty and delicious meal in itself. Kasama City – which is famous for their large and flavorful chestnuts – sport specialty dishes made with the nut abounding in various forms: in sweets such as chestnut mont blanc and chestnut gelato, or in a more unique dish such as chestnut and sesame tantanmen which is only sold in Kasama. There are also stores that only sell chestnut-based products, such as candied chestnuts, chestnut paste, and kurikinton (mashed sweet potatoes with sweetened chestnuts). Widely known as the taste of autumn, this is the perfect food to try as the season transitions to fall.
Ibaraki is a place of nature and it is evident in their cuisine and how their health and culture are strongly indebted to it. As these ingredients are locally produced, trying them would be a great way to appreciate Ibaraki’s environment as well as to support the local community. Enjoying their wonderful food culture after a walk through nature is the best way to feel, even for a short time, what the prefecture has to offer.
Feature photo credit: All About Japan
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