Flavours of Ishikawa: The food and sake heaven
As a prefecture that sits by the Sea of Japan, Ishikawa is blessed with a thriving marine trade as evidenced by the wide variety of fresh seafood that draws people from all over Japan to its marketplace. Its unique geographical location also means that their rice fields are extremely fertile and optimised for quality grains—being irrigated by the great Mount Hakusan (白山) and its pristine rivers and groundwater, it is no wonder that Ishikawa (石川県 Ishikawa-ken) has the reputation of being one of the finest sake-producers since the olden days. As an ancient land that is blessed with exotic and quality ingredients, its natives are understandably creative with their food—have you ever heard of fermented sushi? Considered a rare delicacy by modern standards, kaburazushi (かぶら寿司 pickled turnip and yellowtail sushi) and narezushi (なれずし fermented fish sushi) are both unique dishes with origins tracing back to Ishikawa Prefecture. Fermented foods also became a natural part of their everyday diets, such as soy sauce, miso, and amazake. With such a diverse and robust food heritage and production industry, it’s clear that Ishikawa takes her food very seriously, and for good reason.
Enter the Citizen’s Kitchen
Foodies who have visited the more populated cities in Japan are probably familiar with Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market (築地市場 Tsukiji shijō) or Osaka’s Kuromon Market (黒門市場 Kuromon Ichiba). While both markets are definitely eye-openers in its own right, not only are the prices slightly higher to cater to the foreign visitors, but walking through the narrow aisles may be challenging due to the human traffic.
Now, enter the “Citizen’s Kitchen”—Ishikawa Prefecture's Omicho Market (近江町市場 Ōmichō Ichiba)—that was named as such because this local market sells local produce to its people. Upon entering you may find a local crowd majority here; this is just a sign that you’ve stepped right into the heart of Ishikawa which supplies nutritious ingredients to the households and even to the top restaurants of this land.
Besides the plethora of fresh produce for sale, there are also plenty of restaurants that serve sumptuous meals using local ingredients. (Image credit: JNTO)
Visitors from all over Japan flock to Omicho Market to enjoy its seafood freshly caught off the Sea of Japan, fresh vegetables, and sake that are only available in Ishikawa Prefecture. Upon entering the market, you will be greeted by a great variety of shops, each pedalling their own specialties—from bluefin tuna to sea bream, from apples to tomatoes, and even amazake to nihonshu. Can you guess which seafood is a fan-favourite here during winter?
It’s the Snow Crab!
Recognised for its slimmer physique as compared to regular crabs, the zuwaigani (ズワイガニ snow crab) is harvested primarily on the west coast of the Sea of Japan. Fishing season usually starts around November, right through the freezing winter, and locals often procure these premium crabs as gifts for year-end festivities.
The crab is often used in the Oseibo (お歳暮), Japan's end of year gift-giving tradition. (Image credit: Ishikawa Prefecture)
Heaps of Kanougani snow crabs waiting to be brought home, either as food or as gifts. (Image credit: gidsey / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Snow crabs that are caught in Ishikawa Prefecture are branded as Kanougani (加能ガニ), which translates literally as “snow crab of the Kaga (加賀) and Noto (能登) regions”. If you’re visiting Omicho Market between November to January, consider yourself lucky as there are plenty of chances to try Kanougani or zuwaigani during this period that is known as the crab hunting season. Certain shops will allow visitors to choose their own crabs and have it prepared immediately for consumption—such stalls often have their own eating corners, so do keep an eye out for that!
The crab is often boiled with just a dash of sea salt to retain its natural sweetness. It usually also comes with the blue tag that states its origin, so you’ll know if yours is truly a Kanougani! (Image credit: Ishikawa Prefecture)
Besides eating crabs, there are plenty of delicious seafood to enjoy at Omicho Market. For the fickle-minded who might get overwhelmed by the sheer variety of choices, fret not, for there is always…
Kaisendon (海鮮丼), or seafood rice bowl, comes in all shapes and sizes. While the general kaisendon consists of sliced raw seafood on a bed of vinegared rice, the portion, variety, seasoning, and appearance of each rice bowl varies from place to place. In Omicho Market, there are several restaurants that serve kaisendon with their seasonal offerings. No matter which kaisendon catches your fancy, be assured of great quality and affordable prices!
There are two types of people: the first knows their favourite seafood and indulges in it–here is a snow crab-lover’s kaisendon. (Image credit: Ishikawa Prefecture)
And the second type who knows that they’ll only be happy with a little bit of everything. Here’s an assorted kaisendon. (Image credit: Ishikawa Prefecture)
A culinary heaven like Ishikawa has a long, rich history in alcohol brewing as well. While it may not compete with other sake-brewing prefectures in terms of volume of production, Ishikawa Prefecture produces some of the finest sake (酒) through their 30 breweries prefecture-wide! Each brewery offers a unique take on sake that are traditionally brewed using the pristine snowmelt from its harsh winters. Besides the premium rice that it harvests, the naturally pure and hard water of Mount Hakusan is also key to achieving a distinguished taste, since the water accounts for 80% of sake.
Ishikawa sake usually has a fragrant, crisp, and light flavour thanks to its delicious rice and clean water. Do try out various types of sake to find one that suits you! (Image credit: Ishikawa Prefecture)
While strolling along Omicho Market, you’ll find some shops that are well-stocked with various brands of sake from all around Ishikawa Prefecture. If shopping alone is not enough to satisfy your curiosity on the art of sake, consider joining a guided tour provided by the many local breweries scattered around the prefecture. This is a good chance for you to observe the art of sake-brewing, learn about the different taste profiles and brewing techniques, and differentiate subtle characteristics between varieties. If you’re lucky, you may get a chance to chat with the Tōji (杜氏)—head brewers who are well-respected for their dedication and expertise in the craft—who might even recommend sake pairings with seasonal foods as well!
Seasonal foods are best paired with seasonal sake. (Image credit: Ishikawa Prefecture)
While the two main ingredients in sake are rice and water, there is a third ingredient that completes the missing formula: Yeast. Without yeast, the rice in sake will not be able to ferment and produce the complex flavours of sake. Additionally, the yeast is essential in enriching the aroma and sophisticated fragrance of the alcohol. The mighty yeast is also vital in the production of many food items in the Japanese diet: bread, cheese, miso, soy sauce, and even pickled vegetables such as nukazuke (糠漬け).
Without yeast, this shoyu might just become a strange concoction of salty bean water. (Image credit: Ishikawa Prefecture)
In contrast, yeast was intentionally excluded in the fermentation process of amazake—or else it’ll become alcohol! (Image credit: PhotoAC)
The people of Ishikawa count fermented food products as part of their everyday diet, and there is one particular drink that is renowned for its beauty and health properties—amazake (甘酒), which means “sweet” (甘) “sake” (酒). If this drink sounds awfully familiar, you may have tried some warm amazake served in paper cups at Japanese festivals or shrines during winter! Despite sharing the same fermentation process as sake, most amazake are actually non-alcoholic and suitable for all ages. This is because amazake‘s fermentation process ends without the addition of yeast, which is the vital ingredient that converts sugar into alcohol.
Besides being a comforting warm drink during the chill of winter, amazake can be enjoyed in various ways: chilled, to battle summer heat fatigue; added to desserts like cakes, parfaits, and smoothies; or even used in cosmetics! Could this be the secret to the people of Ishikawa’s good skin and rosy complexion?
Taste the “Flavours of Ishikawa” for yourself
Enticed by the glorious offerings of Ishikawa’s foods, but stuck in Singapore due to the ongoing pandemic? Great news! This October, the famous and ever-so-popular “Flavours of Ishikawa” pop-up shop has returned to Singapore for the second time due to popular demand. Be enthralled by the range of specialty Ishikawa food products for sale such as sake, amazake, umeshu (梅酒 plum wine), savoury sweets, delicious and healthy Japanese tidbits, yummy yokan (羊羹 red bean jelly), exquisite wagashi (和菓子 traditional Japanese confections), and even gold-leaf coffee—all hand-picked just for you. See you there!
In line with Kanazawa’s reputation as “The City of Gold”, the Flavours of Ishikawa pop-up shop in Takashimaya Shopping Centre is decked in gold too—making it very easy to spot! (Image credit: Ishikawa Prefecture)
Flavours of Ishikawa
Date: 1 October 2020 - 10 February 2021
Venue: Takashimaya Shopping Centre #B2-25A (near Genki Sushi and Guardian)
Operation Hours: (Sun–Thu) 11am–8pm, (Fri–Sat) 11am–9:30pm
This article is written in collaboration with Ishikawa Prefecture.
All information presented is accurate as of 5 October 2020.
Header image credit: Ishikawa Prefecture