Not long ago when speaking to a friend in Korea I mentioned that I was going to be visiting Ibaraki Prefecture for a few days. “Oh,” she exclaimed. “You’ll eat well. Ibaraki is famous for good food.” Indeed, I soon discovered that one eats very well in Ibaraki.
Famous Fish: Ayu and Anko
My first meal in Ibaraki was lunch at Hotel Ayutei on the banks for the Kuji River. The hotel’s founder selected this site for his hotel largely because of the river, which is famous for its ayu (sweetfish). Ayu can be fished out of many rivers in Japan, but the Kuji River claims to produce some of the tastiest. Our “fixed menu” lunch was enormous, featuring tasty salt-grilled ayu, as well as ayu steamed on rice, ayu and vegetable tempura, braised ayu, and various other local delicacies, finished perfectly with fresh fruit and green tea. I left feeling like I wouldn’t need to eat again for a week.
But that evening, I had the chance to try more of Ibaraki’s cuisine at Sansui in Mito, which claims to be the originator of Anko nabe, a hot pot featuring Anko (Anglerfish) caught in the waters of the nearby Pacific Ocean.
Anko is an amazingly ugly bottom-feeding fish, but the Japanese like it because nearly every part of it is edible. The flesh is white and tender while the skin and cartilage is high in collagen and therefore considered a beauty aid. The liver is also highly prized as a foie gras equivalent. All parts of the fish, as well as plenty of local tofu and vegetables, go into the nabe hot pot which bubbles away on burners built into the center of the dining table. When everything has cooked, diners dip out their own servings. A nabe meal is always best enjoyed in convivial company.
At Sansui, there are a couple of types of nabe to choose from, with soup flavored by specially grilled miso paste, imparting an additional smokiness to the dish.
The next day, I expanded my culinary Ibaraki experience with a visit to Yuba no Sato. Yuba is tofu skin, the film/scum that forms when soy milk is heated. It is slightly spongy or rubbery and has a mild, milky flavor. I got a tour of the production plant, which makes both tofu and yuba, and then got to try my hand at making yuba.
Square pans of soy milk (a bit like chafing dishes) were heating in rows.
When a film had formed on the surface of one pan, it is cut from the edge of the pan and then lifted out with a specially-designed implement.
Next the yuba is quickly folded into a smaller “packet”, squirted with a bit more soy milk to keep it moist, wrapped in plastic wrap and placed on a block of ice to cool.
Refrigerated, fresh yuba lasts about as long as fresh tofu. In the case of the yuba I made, it didn’t need to last at all. I got to eat it almost immediately, as it was used to prepare my lunch, which featured fresh tofu and yuba fixed various ways, including deep fried strips to add a bit of crunch to my salad, and tempura.
The highlight of the meal was as another kind of nabe, a pot of heated soy milk into which was placed yuba, tofu and a variety of local seasonal vegetables. After they were cooked, they were dipped in a special sauce before I devoured them.
Beefing things up with Hitachi-gyu
Wagyu is the generic term assigned to denote Japanese style beef of the highest quality, known for its tenderness and high degree of marbling. Several regions of Japan produce wagyu, each one distinctive in its own way. Ibaraki’s wagyu is branded Hitachi-gyu. It comes from a breed of black beef cattle known as Japanese Black that have been raised with carefully controlled fodder and conditions for at least 30 months.
I was lucky to get to enjoy a couple of meals featuring Hitachi-gyu.
The first was at Restaurant Iijima in Mito. Here I enjoyed a predominately Western style meal featuring Hitachi-gyu fixed in several different ways. I say “predominately” because there was a course of thin-sliced beef served shabu shabu style, too. The meat was indeed as tender as advertised and was perfectly accompanied by vegetables and a variety of sauces, depending on the dish being served. A knowledgeable waiter seemed to hover at my elbow recommending different wines and locally-produced sakes to compliment each course of my meal, too.
While traditional Japanese cuisine did not historically feature beef, wagyu is often included in Japanese meals these days. For a very special Japanese meal featuring Hitachi-gyu, I went to Sansuitei in Tsukuba. Sansuitei is a complex of buildings with private dining rooms of various sizes, each with a view of Sansuitei’s pretty Japanese-style rock garden.
I had a multi-course kaiseki meal, each course made with seasonal ingredients and elegantly served on dishes that visually complimented the food served on them. Between the delicious and varied dishes and the serene view as I dined, I was perfectly sated.
During my visit to Ibaraki, I also stayed at a couple of onsen hotels where the fare included two meals. At these, too, I was extremely well fed with meals featuring seasonal local ingredients, including ayu and Hitachi-gyu. While I’m no foodie, I have to admit, my Korean friend was right. I ate extremely well in Ibaraki. Miraculously, I didn’t even gain any weight. Maybe next time…
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