With memories of the Winter Olympics still fresh and with the Academy Awards just around the corner, Japanese food lovers are saluting some medalists of their own — prize-winning dishes from cooking competitions, public opinion polls and government surveys around the country. Here’s a guide to some recent highlights.
I can only hope that someday I’ll be able to appreciate food as much as people in Nagoya do. The city that gave the world Cochin chicken, miso katsu pork cutlets and uirō sweets showed off its culinary chops at a 10-day blowout in October called the Nago-1 Grand Prix. For the festival’s fourth edition, organizers played up the charm of homegrown cuisine with a theme of “local production, local consumption.” Top honors went to gari-meshi, a dish of Chita (Aichi Prefecture) beef cooked on a teppan grill, then seasoned with coarsely ground black pepper and yuzu-ponzu and served over garlicky rice. Coming in second place was a collaboration between famed local restaurant Gaburi Chicken and the equally esteemed Nakamo miso brand. Rounding out the top three was a beef-tongue rice bowl created specially for the event by chefs at Matsudaya, a Nagoya institution.
Ah, sweet revenge. In 2011, residents of the fabled dumpling hotbed of Utsonomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, were astonished to learn they no longer topped Japan’s ranking of per-capita gyōza consumption (yes, the internal affairs ministry keeps track of these things). After claiming the No. 1 spot in each of the previous 15 years, Utsonomiya found itself overtaken by Hamamatsu in Shizuoka Prefecture, whose dumplings are stuffed with wheat-fed pork and copious amounts of cabbage, then topped with bean sprouts. The upstarts retained the title in 2012, but according to the latest ministry survey, order has now been restored; households in Utsunomiya spent an average of ¥4,413 on dumplings last year, compared with a measly ¥3,885 for Hamamatsu.
Thanks to its abundant coastline and fecund soil, Niigata Prefecture is renowned for producing seafood, rice and sake. So who knew the locals were so keen on enjoying food from outside their borders? The International Gotochi Gourmet Grand Prix (gotōchi means “local”), held in early October in the seaside city of Kashiwazaki, showcased cooking from around Japan and across the globe. Festival-goers bestowed the grand prize on sazae takikomi-gohan (pictured above), a rice bowl featuring shellfish from local waters. Second place went to ikinari-dango (left), a sweet-potato dessert that’s a specialty of Kyushu, while overseas entries included an Italian tagliatelle made with rice flour.
Officials in charge of revitalizing communities in the disaster-hit northeast got a lift from the judges at the 2013 B-1 Grand Prix, which was held in November in Aichi Prefecture. Top honors at the influential food festival went to Namie yakisoba, a result that’s sure to lure tourists to the dish’s birthplace of Fukushima Prefecture. But this was no sentimental vote: With uncommonly thick buckwheat noodles and a rich soy-based sauce, Namie yakisoba has long been a big hit with the B-1 Grand Prix crowd — it placed 12th at the 2010 event and came in fourth the following two years. Other Tohoku specialties making an impression were Towada bara-yaki, a grilled onion-and-meat dish from Aomori that finished in second place, and Iwate’s vegetable-and-tofu-packed Kuji mamebu soup, which took the fifth spot.
Chicks of a feather
No one can accuse the officers of the Japan Karaage Association of lacking a sense of mission. The group’s annual Karaage Grand Prix, conducted online at www.karaage.ne.jp, invites members of the public to nominate their favorite deep-fried chicken dishes from more than 11,000 specialists around the country. The association then whittles down the selections for the competition portion of the event, which sees shops vying for glory in such categories as Salt-flavored Nuggets; and Shoyu-dare (soy-based sauce) Karaage, Western Japan Division. Winners of the 2013 poll — as determined by more than 50,000 voters — included tebasaki (chicken wing) specialist Kyara in Oita Prefecture (www.ryoutanotebasaki.com) and, in the General Excellence category, Sekitori from Niigata (www.sekitori-shop.com).
The rice is right
More than three dozen rice growers broke out the party hats earlier this month when the Japan Grain Inspection Association released its annual rankings of the best kome brands from around the country. The agency awarded its coveted Special A grade — based on characteristics such as aroma and taste — to a record 38 products, including 16 varieties of Koshikari and five of Hitomobore. Also notable was the inclusion of rice cultivated far from the traditional planting regions of Tohoku and Niigata: Two out of the six varieties receiving top grades for the first time were grown way down south on Kyushu.
Bad news for veggies
Well, it was nice while it lasted. The annual Nana promotion at nationwide noodle chain Kagetsu Arashi gave health-conscious diners something to look forward to each spring: all-vegetarian ramen. But company officials say they want to concentrate on developing new ramen styles year-round, so this year’s event, which starts on March 5, will be the last. Stop by any of Kagetsu’s dozens of chains to veg out while supplies last. www.kagetsu.co.jp.
Steve Trautlein is a freelance journalist eating his way throughout Japan.