Long before the ballyhooed construction in the 1980s and ’90s of the three stupendous bridge systems linking Honshu with Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s main islands was by far the least visited. But despite the completion of those civil-engineering white elephants, Shikoku has pretty much remained intact from over-infestation by the tourist hordes.
Shikoku’s sights and attractions may be distinctly modest compared with the more spectacular ones of Honshu, but one thing the visitor can look forward to in Shikoku is the food.
The Kuroshio — the Black Current — flows past Kochi Prefecture on the southern coast of the island, and it is this current that delivers the bountiful fish that figure so strongly in the local Tosa cuisine (Tosa being the former name for Kochi).
Prominent among the fish that are caught as they swim along this warm current is the bonito (katsuo). These fish are still caught by some Kochi boats in the traditional ippon-zuri fashion, whereby the 4- or 5-kg fish are hauled directly out of the water and into the boat by fishermen using 4-meter-long poles. The bonito ascend the current in spring, swimming northeast along the Pacific coast of Japan and return in autumn. And it is in September and October that the returning bonito — modori-gatsuo — have their finest flavor.
As you would expect, bonito features very strongly in Tosa cuisine, where the favored way of eating it is as bonito tataki, in which the surface of the bonito fillet is seared. Traditionally, this searing is done over burning straw, which burns fast and hot, though these days the searing is usually done with a more practical grill or nonstick frying pan. After the bonito has been seared, the fillets are left to cool before being sliced rather more thickly than is usual for sashimi. This bonito tataki is then eaten with a sauce, which is variously flavored but in Kochi it would always include garlic.
For those living in Tokyo who would like to sample something of the fare of Tosa without having to trek all the way to Shikoku, there is a useful chain of recommendable restaurants that goes by the name of Neboke, which operates 13 restaurants around the country (six in Tokyo, four in Osaka, the rest in Kochi). The atmosphere is tidy, traditional Japanese, and the Kuroshio set menu, which comes at a fairly reasonable 1,600, yen is a good choice.
Central to this set is bonito tataki, which here is served with a sauce made using ponzu (citron sauce), garlic, daikon radish and shiso (perilla). Rivaling the bonito for succulence in the Kuroshio set is tosa-ten, which is a fine, delicately flavored scallop-shaped Tosa version of the satsuma-age produced in southern Kyushu. Notable also is the chawan-mushi (savory cup custard), which contains shrimp, squid, shiitake mushrooms and ginnnan (ginkgo nuts), and has a richly distinctive smoky flavor.
If you have a taste for something more spectacular, Neboke offers sawachi-ryori, which comes from the Tosa dialect and means “heaped plate cuisine.” And heaped indeed it is, with lobster, crab, shrimp, shellfish and sashimi competing for space on the large plate. Naturally all this doesn’t come cheap, with the price for two people starting at 10,000 yen for the heftily piled dish. Not all the offerings here, though, are so agreeable. Also available at Neboke are the Tosa dishes made using the local specialty of whale meat (all a serendipitous by-product of scientific research, don’t you know).
To complement the local fare, there is regional sake. And those with a fondness for dryness in this beverage won’t be disappointed by the Tosa brews. “The sake of Kochi is very drinkable but very dry,” says Hisashi Tokuhira, manager of the Shibuya branch of Neboke, “and the dry sake really does go very well with the rich flavor of the bonito.”
Three sake recommended by Tokuhira are Tosatsuru, Tsukasa Botan and Suigei. Within Tosatsuru’s range, the Honjo Karakuchi is a fragrant bone-dry sake that, despite the acidic character, is rather mild. Equally crisp is the Junmaishu from Suigei (the name means “drunken whale”), a light-bodied sake with a sharp fragrance. Senchu Hassaku from Tsukasa is a cho-karakuchi (super-dry) sake that manages to include subtle fruity notes within the domineering dryness.
To help the sake go down smoothly, the people of Tosa long ago developed drinking games using special sake cups. Among these is the bekuhai, which has a hole in its base, so once filled it cannot be put down again without being drained. Ask at Neboke and they will be happy to let you use the cups and show you how to drink in the true style of Tosa.
Neboke, Shibuya branch, Shionogi Shibuya Building, Shibuya 2-17-5, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. Tel. (03) 3407-9640. Web site: (in Japanese) www.kazuoh.com/ There are also branches in Shinjuku, Akasaka, Ginza and Marunouchi.
Chazuke is one of those dishes that Japanese adore, but which foreigners tend to look askance at. Here is a Tosa version of chazuke with enough spice and verve to reach out to the unconverted. And with this simple dish, you don’t need to be Wolfgang Puck to knock the thing together.
40 grams bonito fillet
70 grams cooked rice
Strips of nori
Shiso, cut finely
Hot green tea
100 grams sesame seeds
240 cc soy sauce
10 cc mirin Makes enough for 10 servings
1. Cut the fish into 3 mm-thick slices, leaving the skin attached.
2. Mix the sauce ingredients and put one-tenth of this over the bonito slices.
3. Add the nori, shiso and wasabi and then pour the hot green tea into the bowl, covering all the ingredients.
Note: Katsuo for sashimi can be bought both seared and unseared fillets. This dish uses the latter.