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Hiroshima Locavore: Setouchi Ryori


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Hiroshima Locavore: Setouchi Ryori

E Eto | Mar 6, 2010 10:13 PM

Though it's known that there's a food-centric culture in Japan, it doesn't seem to be so well understood by non-Japanese that food in Japan is highly regionalized. While the internal migration of people in Japan has brought a large proportion of the population to the Tokyo area, many continue to harbor a special hankering for the food of their "furusato" (故郷 or hometown) for their "kyodo-ryori" (郷土料理 or local cuisine). Tokyo offers many options to get a taste of the hometowns, with many restaurants featuring menus from all over Japan, but most people from those areas know they are only getting a facsimile of the great foods available in their home regions.

In the Hiroshima area (as well as the Chugoku-chihou and the northern Shikoku region generally), there are many restaurants that feature local foods using the best local ingredients from the Seto inland sea, known as Setouchi-ryori (瀬戸内料理), featuring local ingredients like anago (sea eel), oysters, mebaru, kozakana (baby fish, usually baby anchovies), octopus (jidako), fugu (called fuku in some locales), etc. While individual dishes may be familiar to most Japanese diners, these local ingredients and some local know-how combine to make up Setouchi cuisine. I've posted about several places in Hiroshima where I've experienced aspects of the local cuisine ( ; ), but I had yet to go to a place that specialized in Setouchi ryori. Until it was decided by one of the elder relatives to get the family together for a fugu dinner at Suishin (酔心: ; ), a local Setouchi ryori restaurant with a few branches around town. While Suishin offers several different set menus featuring a number of local items, our organizer preferred the fugu course, including fugu sashimi, kara-age, and fugu-chiri nabe. We also ordered a few items a la carte to round out the dinner.

The dinner started out very nicely with the starter plate including a nikogori (gelatin) of dashi with some fugu (I think), ika sashimi mixed with mentaiko, a perfect little boiled shrimp, and... can't remember what that little knotted thing is... a strip of daikon tsukemono perhaps but that doesn't seem right. Either way, these small tastes were a nice introduction to the flavors to come. Fairly simple, yet delicate and not too fussy, but also comforting. The fugu sashimi came soon after on indivdual plates. Again, it wasn't a demonstration of the best knifework, or fussily decorated in that perfect flower petal design. Maybe because it's a local fish and fairly abundant in season, and perhaps not the premium torafugu that you get at the 20,000 yen a pop place in Ginza, but it tasted better than other fugu I've had previously. The thinly sliced fillet, the blanched skin, and other pieces of fugu, including that orangy blob I thought was uni (no, it was something like fugu roe) offered a variety of nice textures and flavors that opened my eyes to how good fugu can be. The flavor is subtle, and may not be for those who like to be hit over the head with bold flavors.

The first of our a la carte choices was the sashimi moriawase. The typical seasonal ika, sazae (turban shell) and hiramasa make an appearance, with the addition of buri and what I thought was hirame. The buri went quickly and were nicely fatty next to the other sashimi, but the ika and sazae may have been my favorites. Then came the next course in the fugu dinner: the fugu kara-age. Unlike the hacked up pieces of kara-age, these turned out to be baby fugu, fried whole (maybe headless). Like in those old cartoons where the cat character puts the whole fish in its mouth and pulls out just the fish skeleton, it was possible to eat these like that. But with the bones edible with the frying, I just chomped on the whole thing and these were great. Next up on the fugu course was the fugu chirinabe. Loaded with the typical nabe vegetables like hakusai (napa cabbage), negi (long scallions), carrots, shiitake, tofu, along with some roasted mochi, these nabe were also filled with pieces of fugu. Maybe it was because I was eating on the side with the elders, but the fugu just kept coming into my bowl until I had to stop the servers from giving me any more. Again, I thought I didn't care for fugu, but this nabe was delicious. The dashi was chock full of flavor, and it made for a really wonderful zosui (rice porridge; sorry, didn't get that photo).

Although we were all pretty full, one of the family members pushed me to eat some of the kamameshi that Suishin is famous for. I had a choice of oyster, anago, and ebi, but I went for the anago, hoping to get a similar flavor from that anago-meshi I had earlier at Ueno in Miyajimaguchi. While the anago kamameshi was a little lighter in flavor and color, it lived up to my expectations. The anago flavor was sufficiently steeped in the rice, and the pieces of simmered anago added just the right richness to the rice (once it was all mixed together). We shared the kamameshi and everyone agreed this was one of the better ones on the menu (when available).

Fugu sashimi:
Fugu kara-age:
Sashimi moriawase:
Anago kamameshi:
Fugu chiri nabe:

I was very glad to have had my first experience with Setouchi ryori. I had marked a few other similar restaurants to try while I was in Hiroshima, but alas, I didn't have the time to get to any more. While it might not be as celebrated as the cuisine of places like Kyoto or Kanazawa, it is worth noting that the regional cuisine is very much alive and well in western Honshu (from Okayama to Yamaguchi prefectures), and there are a number of restaurants that serve local food using local and seasonal ingredients, especially those that are available from the Seto inland sea. Here are a few others notable restaurants on my list (some of these restaurants have branches in Tokyo):

Otowa (音羽)
Zassouan (雑草庵) ;
Geishu (芸州) ;
Ondo (隠戸)
Matsubara (まつばら)
Kunisada (くにさだ)
Umemoto (梅もと)
Kakibune Kanawa (かき船 かなわ)
Kibune (貴船)
Yakumo (やくも)
Roizu (ろいず)

For more info, check out this listing of more restaurants serving local Setouchi ryori in Hiroshima prefecture:

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