YAMAGATA – Yonezawa koi, a specialty dish of the city of Yonezawa, Yamagata Prefecture, is on the verge of vanishing due to recent rises in fish feed prices and a business slump.
To avoid losing the traditional cuisine, Toshinori Iwakura, the 44-year-old owner of the last koi-raising and processing firm in the city, is trying to revive the food culture with the support of a chef from a popular local Italian restaurant.
The culture of eating koi, or carp, in the city started about 200 years ago, when Uesugi Yozan, the feudal lord of the Yonezawa domain, brought in koi fry from the neighboring Soma district in what is now Fukushima Prefecture as a precious source of protein.
Yonezawa koi are raised over a three-year period, instead of the two spent anywhere else, resulting in a fatty fish with lots of eggs.
Yonezawa koi became as well-known as Yonezawa beef as specialty fare from the city, but the number of koi-farming and-processing firms has dwindled to one amid a decline in consumption and lack of successors to carry on the business.
The situation worsened 10 years ago when koi herpes spread and hit consumption further. Rises in feed prices added to the hardship. The tough situation worried Iwakura to the point that he almost decided to close his business
He turned to Masayuki Okuda, a chef at a popular Italian restaurant in Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, who is famous for dishes using local ingredients.
Okuda created new recipes, including smoked koi spaghetti, helping Iwakura serve up similar fare at his own restaurant at the koi company. The new dish is becoming popular with younger people.
“Even if the Italian food was their first experience, it is OK if they start to learn about the traditional koi cuisine. We can’t protect old things without starting new things,” said Iwakura, who started to sell a new product using koi bones late last year. “If I stop selling, there would be no Yonezawa koi brand. I want to protect the food culture one way or another.”