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Odds are you’ve never heard of Tsugaru, a small region in northwest Aomori Prefecture. But its centuries-old cuisine has drawn the attention of Japan’s culinary notables such as Mackey Makimoto, and today it’s carefully preserved and passed on by a passionate group of farmers calling themselves the Akatsuki no Kai (Dawn Club), led by Tsugaru native Ryoko Kudo.

In 1995, Kudo was hunting for ways to make the most of her excess produce, rather than simply selling it at a discount.

“I remembered the old recipes of Tsugaru,” she says. “When a few other farmers and I made and ate some of the dishes, I realized they were very healthy and unique to this place.”

Kudo describes the characteristics of Tsugaru’s regional cooking, which, in accordance with Aomori’s typically long, cold winters, relies on seasonal ingredients and features healthy dishes that are fermented, pickled, boiled and grilled. “There was no oil in the old times, so like they did then, we use dashi, a broth made from locally harvested konbu (kelp) and niboshi (dried white sardines),” Kudo says.

Healthy food was already high priority for Kudo. A serious illness 10 years earlier forced her early retirement from teaching and made her reassess the relationship between food and health. “I noticed the older generations were all healthy,” she says, “but my generation was not.”

Kudo had always been aware of local culinary traditions, but her family, like many others in post-war Japan, enjoyed the convenience of supermarkets and easy-to-prepare dishes. Traditional foods, tied closely to land and season, began to disappear from tables.

Today, Dawn Club has over 30 members, ranging in age from around 30 to 80. More experienced members welcome and teach newer ones in turn, helping ensure the longevity of Tsugaru’s traditional cuisine. The group got its moniker because the early morning was the only time the busy farmers had free time to work at perfecting Tsugaru cuisine’s traditional methods. Terroir, Kudo believes, is what gives these dishes their unique flavor and significance to Japanese cuisine.

Heritage: The Dawn Club gathered its recipes by interviewing Tsugaru’s elders over the course of several winters. | COURTESY OF AOMORI PREFECTURE
Heritage: The Dawn Club gathered its recipes by interviewing Tsugaru’s elders over the course of several winters. | COURTESY OF AOMORI PREFECTURE

“Our food is truly connected to this place,” she says. “We can’t grow anything in winter, so it was really important to be able to preserve food for those months. The best way to do that was something the older generation, especially women, knew about, but my generation did not.”

The group searched out Tsugaru’s elders to gather recipes, visiting them in their homes or meeting at a community kitchen to cook and eat together. Kudo estimates they interviewed 30 people over a handful of winters, when both snow and cold drove everyone indoors and there was plenty of time to talk.

“The older people were happy to talk about these traditional foods,” Kudo says, “and wanted to pass on their knowledge. Some people,” she smiles, “did not stop talking even when I tried to finish the interview.”

These interviews brought about 120 recipes to the group’s attention, including dishes such as izushi, an assortment of herring, sandfish and salmon salted and fermented in a mixture of salt, malted rice and regular rice; sudako, a Japanese-style ceviche of octopus, chrysanthemum petals and spinach; and kenoshiru, a vegetable potage with finely chopped root vegetables, foraged plants and freeze-dried tofu. The recipes are thought to be at least 150 years old, although Kudo suspects many existed for generations before that.

In 2002, the local NHK affiliate asked Akatsuki no Kai if it would offer a short cooking course featuring traditional dishes. Afterward, some of the participants asked to come back and try more, and as word of the group’s work spread, the number of dining requests increased. Their cookbook, “Traditional Cuisine in Tsugaru” (2006), sold out in two months and further piqued interest in their efforts. In 2019, Akatsuki no Kai served over 700 people from around the world at its reservation-only lunch service, and was ready to top that number in 2020 until COVID-19 arrived.

Kudo estimates the group is now aware of over 200 traditional recipes, although some dishes, like shimindōfu (freeze-dried tofu), have become more difficult to make as climate change wreaks havoc with Aomori’s once reliably cold winters. (The group could use a freezer to simulate the process, but prefers to use natural methods.)

“I don’t want the traditional dishes to be lost,” Kudo says, noting that a broader range of people have taken an interest in traditional foods since she started Dawn Club. “If you make them, see them and eat them, then it keeps them alive.”

For more information about Akatsuki no Kai, visit bit.ly/akatsukinokai or call 0172-49-7002 (Japanese only). Women of Taste is a monthly series looking at notable female figures in Japan’s food industry.

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