A Food Lover’s Tour of Japan – Gifu Prefecture and Savory Gohei Mochi

Our Food Lover’s Tour continues this month in Gifu Prefecture, home of the famous gohei mochi!

Located in Central Japan, Gifu Prefecture represents so many facets of the Japanese landscape and the diverse culture of this area.

The northern part of Gifu Prefecture is mountainous, covered by large swathes of alpine forests, ideal for skiing in the winter and trekking in the summer. The central area of the prefecture boasts clear, fresh springs, caverns and local traditions. And the southern part of Gifu Prefecture is famous for traditional cormorant fishing, modern industry and the confluence of powerful rivers.

One of the most famous sights in Gifu Prefecture is Shirakawa-go, situated at the base of Mt. Haku-san. Shirakawa-go embodies ancient Japanese alpine life, with a river running through the village, nourishing rice fields, a temple, coalhouse and paddock to preserve the old village scenery and 114 traditional thatched roof homes, still occupied along with the more modern residences. Locals continue to practice traditional industrial arts such as weaving, dyeing and culinary arts such as making soba noodles and sake. UNESCO designated Shirakawa-go as a World Heritage Site in 1995.

When not enjoying the snow, visitors to Gifu Prefecture enjoy the onsen, or hot springs, predominantly found in Gero and Okuhida. The hot springs at Gero have been active since the 10th century, and are said to be effective in treating ailments. They’re even nicknamed the “springs for the beautiful” because the smoothness of the water is said to aid in beautifying skin tone and complexion. The Okuhida area also boasts hot springs, five of which are famous in Gifu Prefecture. These onsen–Hirayu, Fukuji, Shin-Hirayu, Tochio and Shin-Hotaka–are scattered along the base of the Japanese Alps, and are surrounded by incredible frozen waterfalls in winter and teeming rivers and white birch forests during warmer months.

The southern part of Gifu Prefecture is widely famous for cormorant fishing along the Nagara River, near Gifu City. This area prospered as a castle town during the 13th century, and to this day, the annual Tejikarao Fire Festival, when portable shrines are carried among a shower of sparks and paraded through the city in the spring. Also in the spring, traditionally beginning on May 11, cormorant fishing takes place along the river, a practice that has been taking place here since the 8th century. Cormorants are aquatic birds that have been trained to catch sweet ayu, a type of river trout. The fishing masters are recognized by the Japanese Imperial Household and showcase this type of fishing until the middle of October.

For those who crave more nightlife, the Okumino Area hosts the Gujo-odori, a dance festival that lasts for 32 nights, within this period, four days are termed “All-Night Dancing” and the participants dance the whole night from dusk until dawn! The Takayama Festival and Furukawa Festival also provide ample opportunity to party, with both festivals showcasing the craftsmanship and artistry of this area–including the production of washi paper and wood carvings—in the floats that are designed for the processions.

But Gifu Prefecture isn’t just about tradition. Many modern industries thrive in this area, from the serious aerospace business to the more whimsical production of plastic food displays. No matter what your interest–skiing, trekking, museums, architecture, onsen, or outer space–Gifu Prefecture has everything to offer…

… Including pleasure for your taste buds! Gohei mochi is a signature dish of this area and is made from cooked short-grain white rice, pounded and shaped onto a flat stick. The rice is then grilled and once crispy, coated with a walnut-miso paste and grilled again. The resulting snack is warm, savory and delicious… and best of all, easily made at home! You may try out this simple recipe!

We hope you enjoyed learning about Gifu Prefecture and as always, share your experience with us… and don’t forget the pictures of your gohei mochi!

Essentials of Japanese Cooking:  Making Delicious Miso Soup

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Miso soup is a vital, versatile part of Japanese cuisine. It can be served for breakfast, mixed with a bit of tofu and wakame seaweed. It can be part of a complete ichiju-sansai meal, served as the soup course. It can be served as part of a fancy meal, with crab legs and clams, or it can be served just by itself.

No matter how it is served, it is part of the soul of Japanese food.

Tofu Misoshiru is one of the most common forms of miso soup found in Japan and abroad. It is made by heating dashi stock with ingredients such as tofu and green onions, until the soup comes to a simmer. While the soup is simmering, a small amount of miso paste is dissolved in a separate bowl using a small amount of the warmed dashi. Once the dashi, tofu and green onions are cooked, the heat is turned off and the miso mixture is added into the soup, imparting protein, probiotics, umami and a lovely flavor. Dried, cut wakame seaweed is added at the end, just before serving, to round out the soup.

Making miso soup is deceptively simple, however, creating a truly delicious soup requires sensitive attention to the quality of ingredients and how the soup is prepared. As Rochelle Bilow, a writer for Bon Apetit, states, “With a soup that requires so few ingredients, the quality of each one really matters.” Using subpar miso paste and instant dashi detracts from the richness of a well-made miso soup. Similarly, using firm tofu in the soup detracts from the texture and mouthfeel of the soup. When adding vegetables, such as daikon or carrots or mushrooms to the soup, it’s important to slice them thinly and in small pieces and let them cook to tenderness in the soup’s liquid. Similarly, it’s important to balance the “heavy” ingredients, such as potatoes and tofu, with the “light” ingredients, such as scallions and seaweed, in the soup. Too much of one or the other affects the pleasure of eating the soup.

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Dissolving the miso in broth to remove lumps

How the miso is added to the soup mixture is one of the most important aspects of making delicious miso soup. Miso is made from fermented soybeans, and through the fermentation process, becomes full of beneficial bacteria and active cultures. Adding miso paste to the soup mixture while it is on the flame may kill these good bacteria and cultures and diminishes umami. Miso should be dissolved in a bit of broth first to remove any lumps and then added to the soup once the other ingredients have cooked. Then just before the soup returns to a simmer, turn off the heat.

Following these rules is the best way to make miso soup. But as with many Japanese foods, miso soup is versatile and adaptable. You can use different types of miso paste, from white, yellow, to red. A variety of vegetables can be added to the soup, including chard, carrots, radishes, mushrooms, sea vegetables, onions and potatoes. A variety of seafood can be added to the soup, including fish and crustaceans. Even noodles, such as udon, can be also be added to the soup.

Whatever way it’s made, miso soup is a staple in Japanese cuisine. Tell us how you make it!

 

Essentials of Japanese Cooking:  Miso

We continue our Essentials of Japanese Cooking series this month with a feature on miso… the so in ryori no sa shi su se so. Miso is a fermented paste made from soybeans, salt, either rice or barley, and a fermentation starter called koji. Used in miso soup, as a marinade, in dressings and sauces and a variety of other dishes, miso is an important staple in the Japanese pantry.

Miso is said to have originated in China, as early as the 4th century BCE. It was introduced to the people of Japan by Buddhist monks who traveled from China and brought many new ideas that inspired and informed Japanese food culture. The way Japanese people began to produce miso refined it into a few varieties, each with a distinctive flavor and nutritional profile, texture and umami (the rich and savory taste of glutamate-based foods).

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Four main varieties of Japanese miso are available at most grocery stores in Japan, along with a few specialty gourmet types. The main varieties include rice or ‘kome’ miso, which is the most commonly consumed variety, barley or ‘mugi ‘miso, pure soybean or ’mamemiso, and blended ’awasemiso, made with two or three types of other miso pastes. Each of these pastes are fermented from a few weeks up to three years, and the lighter varieties are more mildly flavored than the darker ones.

Specialty miso pastes including hatcho miso, an all-soybean paste with a medium sweet/strength/saltiness profile, saikyo miso, a golden yellow paste with a naturally sweet, low salt flavor, and moromi miso, a chunky miso with the grains of rice or barley only partially crushed. Each of these specialty miso pastes are used in particular dishes, and not in general preparations such as miso soup or grilled fish.

Miso is high in protein, the B vitamins, enzymes, Vitamin E, fiber, lecithin, isoflavones, peroxidase inhibitors and prostaglandins–all of which may help to nourish and regulate the body. Miso was a critical component of Japanese diets during lean times and famines, and it is still consumed almost daily by people in Japan.

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Miso soup

Traditionally, miso soup is enjoyed first thing in the morning, as part of a Japanese breakfast, to cleanse and nourish the body. (We have a great recipe for tofu misoshiru on our website!) The soup is made using a miso koshi, or small metal strainer, to create an even, smooth broth. Miso is also used in marinades and as a glaze for meat, seafood and vegetables, but must always be added to a dish either before or at the tail end of cooking, so the beneficial nutrients and the delicate flavor in the fermented paste are not destroyed by heat.

Miso is most often used in marinades, sauces and dressings. When used as a marinade, miso helps to breakdown the proteins in fish and poultry, infusing them with umami and drawing out any acidity or bitterness from the animal flesh. Salmon and cod marinated in miso and then broiled are popular preparations for these healthful oily fish. Miso-Marinated Chicken Kushiyaki is a great way to broil chicken. When used in sauces and dressings, miso can be mixed with mayonnaise, ginger, sesame oil, honey, citrus and even spicy sriracha sauce. Miso is even used occasionally in simmered nimono dishes, called miso-ni, in which miso is blended with dashi, mirin, soy sauce and fresh ginger and then used to cook various meat and vegetables.

One of our favorite recipes using miso is Beef Miso and Rice on Salad Leaf. The miso is used to impart a rich flavor to the sautéed ground beef and rice! Try it and tell us how it worked for you.

In our next post, we’ll discuss cooking with sake and mirin, and give you some other great recipes to try out! As always, we’d love to hear about your experiences as a beginner with Japanese cooking, so leave us a comment below.