Food & Drink

Chiba town brewing up a 'culture of fermentation'

by Toma Mochizuki

Kyodo

A small community in Chiba Prefecture, a traditional home to myriad brewed products such as sake and soy sauce, is doing its best to ride the recent wave of interest in fermented foods to make its name.

The “fermentation town” of Kozaki, about 60 kilometers east of Tokyo, has hosted annual festivals each March since 2009 featuring its sake breweries and opened a flagship fermentation store in 2015 to spread the word about the health benefits of fermented foods while hopefully boosting tourism along the way.

The store, part of a roadside rest facility, sells some 500 different fermented foods from across Japan, including miso, fish sauce, dairy products and tea, and offers lessons to promote the “culture of fermentation.”

Fermented foods are produced or preserved through the activity of microorganisms, with the processes usually involving yeast or bacteria, often allowing products to be stored for a long time. Fermented foodstuffs and beverages are said to improve digestion and enhance the immune system.

The most prominent and popular Japanese fermented foods include nattō (sticky soybeans) and tsukemono (pickled vegetables), while kimchi (Korean pickled vegetables) and sauerkraut (German fermented raw cabbage) are well-known examples from other cultures.

Kozaki, with a population of about 6,500 people, once flourished with its sake and soy sauce breweries taking advantage of locally produced rice and soybeans. They also took advantage of their proximity to the Tone River, using it to transport goods to Edo, as Tokyo was then known.

In the Edo Period and Meiji Era from the 17th to the early 20th centuries, the river transportation route offered an important advantage because it was much faster than conventional paths traveled by foot.

With the development of roads, however, the town lost its edge and competition with other areas intensified, resulting in the disappearance of many local producers. Only a handful of larger businesses survived, according to Kozaki town officials.

Hoping to revitalize the town, the municipal government made an effort to rediscover its history and opened an office in May dedicated to promoting fermentation.

Yoshito Ikegami, head of the new department, said the town has been holding sake festivals for almost 10 years.

The most recent event, in March, attracted an estimated 55,000 visitors.

“We’re grateful that people are paying attention,” Ikegami said.

The lessons offered at the roadside facility are called “Puku Puku” courses, an onomatopoeic reference to the bubbling fermentation process. Classes vary from how to make your own mozzarella cheese to dyeing pieces of cloth with indigo, which also involves fermentation.

According to Ikegami, to create the dye the dried leaves of the indigo plant are combined with water, and sometimes sake, which then undergo a process of natural fermentation.

“We wanted to provide courses for people to be able to create and experience fermented foods at their own homes, instead of just purchasing the goods,” said Satomi Sawada, a colleague of Ikegami.

Born and raised in Kozaki, Sawada helps organize the classes and is an expert on fermented goods herself. Her grandmother was an indigo dyer, whose house had pots to dye the threads and rooms that were used to weave the threads, she says.

“Fermentation is quite similar to human society,” Sawada said. “You need a whole range of microorganisms to support and collaborate in order for the process to work.”

The town office invites experts from around the country to offer lessons on topics that also include cooking of miso, soy sauce, umeboshi (salted plum) and kimchi.

During a class held in July, participants learned how to make their own nukazuke, a Japanese preserved food made by fermenting vegetables in a bed of nuka (rice bran).

At the beginning of the lesson, each participant was handed a plastic bag of the fermented rice bran in which cucumbers, avocados, radishes, tomatoes and carrots, as well as more unusual ingredients — boiled eggs and fruits — had been buried to ferment.

The organizers then provided ready-made nukazuke pickles for the students to taste, alongside other fermented items such as miso soup and bonito flakes, to enjoy and learn about the vast range of food possibilities.

According to Hajime Yanai, that day’s specialist and president of a company specializing in health food products, fermented rice bran offers health benefits due to its abundance of vitamin B1 and natural fiber.

With its generous amounts of plant-based lactic acid bacteria, nukazuke pickles are also beneficial for gut flora, increasing immunity and also improving blood circulation, according to Yanai and Sawada.

The town of Kozaki is also home to a time-honored soy sauce maker, Fujihan Shoyu, that was founded in 1877.

Fujihan Shoyu’s brewery has been officially certified by the government as part of Japan’s industrial modernization heritage, with much of the equipment left in its original state from the time of the company’s founding, according to owner Hanji Takahashi.

The single-story facility retains its traditional Japanese architecture and in the back are several large wooden barrels over 100 years old that can store approximately 3,000 liters of soy sauce, although they are no longer used.

“Local residents have a personal attachment to a certain type of soy sauce because the taste differs depending on the region and brewer,” he said.

Although Chiba Prefecture leads Japan in the production of soy sauce, many local makers have gone out of business due to the monopoly of leading brands, Takahashi said.

Fujihan Shoyu stopped brewing soy sauce using its original facilities 40 years ago due to the aging Meiji Era building and machinery, as well as having difficulty securing capital and labor.

The company, however, has been working on reviving the Fujihan brand over the past four years using locally sourced ingredients. It also wants to use processing methods from the Edo Period, as opposed to modern techniques. It hopes to restart making soy sauce in the traditional manner within the next couple of years.

“People in recent years have come to feel that traditionally made soy sauce is more reassuring and safer,” he says.

Takahashi also regularly instructs students on how they can make their own soy sauce during the Puku Puku courses, as well as in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, where participants can make sauce in plastic bottles rather than in traditional wooden barrels.

At a class held in July, the sixth-generation soy sauce maker explained to his students the significance of soy sauce in Chiba.

He then provided the main ingredients — soy beans, wheat, water and salt — explaining how the fermentation process can last from months to years.

The powdered soy beans, wheat and yeast were first poured into a 1-liter plastic bottle, after which the students slowly decanted salt water into the mixture.

According to Takahashi, the water must have a 22 percent solution of salt. If it’s any higher, the fermentation process stalls, while unwanted bacteria can contaminate the condiment if it’s any lower.

The bottles are then shaken at least 30 times to ensure all ingredients are thoroughly mixed. They will have to be shaken every day for another week and kept in a refrigerator to ensure that the process of fermentation continues in a cool environment.

Students will have to wait at least until next spring to taste their homemade soy sauce.

“I would like to lead a healthier life (eating) fermented foods,” said Erika Watanabe, a 35-year-old mother attending the soy sauce class in Kashiwa. “I want to learn more, and hope the people around me learn about its benefits as well.”

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