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Fish and dashi: the essence of Japanese cuisine, and exploring Sanriku Coast!

Fish and dashi: the essence of Japanese cuisine, and exploring Sanriku Coast!

It comes as no surprise that one of the main reasons that more people from all over the world are travelling to Japan―for the first time or repeatedly―is food. Not only is Japanese food much loved by people all over the world, it is also richly diverse and profound, enticing people’s taste buds while retaining a long history of its origins. Personally, I think Japanese cuisine is amazing and it is also one of my main reasons for coming back to Japan time and time again.


Seafood used in Japanese cuisine. (Image credit: picdrops / CC BY 2.0)


The list of instances of dishes in Japanese cuisine is endless; it includes noodles such as soba, udon, and ramen―which has even more sub-variants and history―rice dishes, of which sushi would immediately come to mind; and a whole lot more. When it comes to Japanese cuisine, one of the essential ingredients would be the fish.


When it comes to Japanese cuisine, fish would immediately come to mind. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)


If you ask anyone what makes Japanese cuisine particularly great, most will reason that it is because of the fish used. Most people recognise just how only the best and freshest fish (and seafood in general) are used in Japanese cooking, and how fish alone makes for an amazing Japanese meal. The variety of fish used in Japanese cuisine is endless: eel (鰻 unagi), mackerel (鯖 saba), pacific saury (サンマ sanma), pacific bluefin tuna (鮪 maguro), and salmon (鮭 sake), just to name a few. They are commonly enjoyed in the form of sushi (寿司) and sashimi (刺身), but they can also in indirect forms. When it comes to Japanese cuisine, one of the essential components is the dashi (だし soup stock), and fish plays a significant role in making them.


Dashi (だし soup stock) is an essential component in Japanese cooking. (Image credit: Joy / CC BY 2.0)


Many people do not think much about something as simple as dashi. However, it is in fact high-quality dashi that makes Japanese cuisine for what it is: as one of the best cuisines in the world! Dashi plays an underrated role in Japanese cooking; a lot of Japanese foods make use of stock in their preparation, more than most people would expect. It forms the base for miso soup―a staple in typical Japanese breakfasts―and dishes that uses broths, such as noodles (soba, udon, ramen), oden (おでん), shabu-shabu, sukiyaki, and hotpots (なべ nabe). It is also used in flour bases for grilled foods such as okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) and takoyaki (たこ焼き).


Dashi is essential in making broths for dishes such as ramen. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)


Dashi is also used in grilled foods such as okonomiyaki. (Image credits: JR East / Nazrul Buang)


One important aspect of dashi is that it adds umami, which gives many Japanese foods its savoury feature. The umami flavour is achieved by using ingredients such as certain types of fish such as skipjack tuna (カツオ katsuo, also known as bonito) and dried sardines (煮干 niboshi). Edible kelp (昆布 konbu) and shiitake mushrooms (椎茸 shītake) are also common ingredients for preparing dashi, as both are known for their umami flavour.


Smoked skipjack tuna (鰹節 katsuo-bushi). (Image credit: kenji ross / CC BY 2.0)


Kelp (昆布 konbu) is a common ingredient used for making dashi. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)


Dashi is often prepared simply by simmering water with kelp and bonito flakes, and straining the stock. This was commonly done in the past, and is still practised today in restaurants and at homes. However, nowadays instant dashi is easily available in grocery stores and supermarkets so anyone can make it. Dashi has become a prevalent cooking component not just exclusively for Japanese cooking, but in others as well. In fact, since this simple component only makes use of fish and kelp, people with dietary restrictions such as Muslims can also enjoy using dashi to make their foods more delicious!


Instant dashi by Ajinomoto. (Image credit: JR East / Kobori Akio)


When it comes to making amazing dashi, using high-quality ingredients is paramount. Some chefs would go to great lengths to procure ingredients such as kelp and bonito flakes just to make their dashi, highlighting its sheer importance in making good foods. For example, Hokkaido―especially the northern islands of Rebun (礼文島 Rebun-tō) and Rishiri (利尻島 Rishiri-tō) ―is known for their highly prized kelp.


But when it comes to fish, there are many places in Japan that high-quality fish are procured from. Some of them are familiar: think Suruga Bay near Shizuoka prefecture, where all kinds of seafood are caught all year round. And then, there are the lesser known ones: think the Sanriku Coast.


Jodogahama Beach in Iwate. (Image credit: JNTO)


The Sanriku Coast (三陸海岸 Sanriku Kaigan) is a magnificent rocky shoreline that stretches over 600 kilometres along the region of Tohoku, spanning the prefectures of Aomori, Iwate, and Miyagi. It is also included as part of the Sanriku Reconstruction National Park (三陸復興国立公園 Sanriku Fukkō Kokuritsu Kōen) in 2013, as it was severely affected by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami (東北地方太平洋沖地震 Tōhoku-chihō Taiheiyō Oki Jishin).


The Sanriku Coast after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. (Image credit: Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious / CC BY 2.0)


Although the coast is known for having some of the most dramatic panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean, it is also where the people living in the region get to enjoy the freshest seafood that the coast offers. In fact, there is a special reason why the Sanriku Coast is known for abundant seafood: it is where the Oyashio Current (親潮 Oyashio)―a south-flowing, cold ocean current―clashes with the Kuroshio Current (黒潮 Kuroshio), which is a north-flowing, warm ocean current. The Sanriku Coast is inside the Oyashio-Kuroshio region, where the Oyashio Current carries water that is colder and fresher than the one close to Honshu, making it ideal for sardine production. The ideal water conditions are what make the fish caught here particularly delicious, and hence many fishing ports, processing centers, and wholesale markets are found in towns situated along the expansive coastline. One of them is Shiogama.


Shiogama Seafood Wholesale Market. (Image credit: Sun Taro / CC BY 2.0)


Shiogama is one of the many fishing ports along the Sanriku Coast in the Miyagi prefecture, and is one of Japan’s busiest fishing ports, serving not only those living in the region and along the coast, but also for the rest of the country. It is here some of the best catches from the sea can be procured (including skipjack tuna used in dashi), and people can buy them from the Shiogama Seafood Wholesale Market (塩釜水産物仲卸市場 Shiogama Suisanbutsu Nakaoroshi Ichiba).


Matsushima oysters. (Image credit: 宮城県観光課)


With over 140 shops and restaurants, Shiogama Seafood Wholesale Market is one of the biggest and busiest in Japan. It sells not only all kinds of fish, but also local specialties as well. Perhaps the most iconic specialties include Matsushima oysters, and scallops.


Visitors can also make their own seafood bowl for breakfast. (Image credit: Showado co.ltd / IKI CITY / Iki City Tourism Federation / JNTO)


Visitors can also make their own seafood bowl (海鮮丼 kaisen-don), which is popular for breakfast! For ¥400, visitors will get a bowl of rice and miso soup and they can hop from stall to stall to add different ingredients to their bowl.


Kesennuma Fish Market. (Image credit: 気仙沼地域戦略)


There is another wholesale market in Miyagi prefecture that is not to be missed! Kesennuma Fish Market (気仙沼市魚市場 Kesennuma-shi Sakana Ichiba) is a wholesale market that specialises in catching fish all year round, including seasonal fish such as skipjack tuna (that ingredient used in dashi!), pacific saury, and shellfish. Also, as the market accounts for more than 70 percent of Japan’s consumption of shark and swordfish, there is even a shark museum nearby, which showcases the livelihood of the townspeople living in Kesennuma after 2011 disaster, as well as general information on sharks.


Kesennuma Fish Market is a major exporter of fish such as shark, swordfish and skipjack tuna. (Image credit: 気仙沼地域戦略)


The Shark Museum showcases the locals' livelihood and general info on sharks. (Image credit: (株)気仙沼産業センター)


Kesennuma Shark Museum (気仙沼海の市シャークミュージアム)
Address: 2-14-3 Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Opening hours: 9am–5pm (October–April, last entry at 4:30pm), 9am–6pm (May–September, last entry at 5:30pm)
Tel: +81-2-2624-5755


Miyako Fish Market. (Image credit: 宮古観光文化交流協会)


There is another wholesale market that showcases the best that the Sanriku Coast has to offer. Miyako Fish Market (宮古市魚菜市場 Miyako-shi Gyosai Ichiba) is in Iwate prefecture, and here visitors will get their share of the finest seafood ranging from salmon, crabs, abalone, and kelp. Just like Shiogama Wholesale Seafood Market, this market is important not just for the locals, but for Japan as a whole.


Miyako Fish Market. (Image credit: 宮古観光文化交流協会)


Seeing as how more people with diverse backgrounds are increasingly visiting Tohoku (and the rest of Japan), the region is also increasingly becoming friendly towards people with different needs. This includes Muslim visitors with dietary restrictions, and seafood wholesale markets serve as a great option for them to pay a visit. Since seafood is the staple food in these markets, Muslim visitors can freely enjoy the amazing foods here without worry!


Coming back to the topic of dashi and the important role of fish in making it, there is also a place where Muslim visitors can experience authentic ramen to showcase the importance of fish and dashi. Miyagi prefecture, becoming more cosmopolitan as ever, has an establishment named that DashiroーNIBOー serves halal ramen!


DashiroーNIBOー uses high-quality dried sardines and shredded kelp to make their ramen. (Image credit: DashiroーNIBOー)


DashiroーNIBOー (だし廊ーNIBOー)
Address: 4-9-1 Ichibancho, Aoba Ward, Sendai, Miyagi
Nearest station: JR Sendai Station (仙台駅)
Opening hours: 11am–1am daily (closed on New Year's Day period)
Tel: +81-2-2393-4988


Catering specially to Muslim visitors, Dashiro meticulously prepares their ramen using only halal or Muslim-friendly ingredients. Their main focus is on the broth, which uses dashi made from dried sardines and shredded kelp, all of which are sourced locally. Here is an exemplary dish that showcases quality dashi used in ramen that all visitors (especially Muslims) can enjoy!


Japanese cuisine is complex; it has a rich history and makes use of a wide variety of fresh ingredients, with fish as the main staple. If fish serves as one pillar in Japanese cuisine, dashi serves as the other. As Japan welcomes more people from all over the world, I feel glad that my Muslim friends can gradually enjoy the best foods from the country, some of which can be found in eastern Japan.


More details on Tohoku Region

Tohoku Region compromises of prefectures such as Iwate and Miyagi, and lies northeast of Tokyo. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Tohoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線) bullet train to access the different prefectures in the region.

(INSIDER TIP: If you have the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), you can travel on the bullet train and make seat reservations for free!)


Shiogama Seafood Wholesale Market: Visitors from Tokyo can take the Tohoku Shinkansen to JR Sendai Station (JR仙台駅 Sendai-eki) and transfer to the JR Senseki Line (JR仙石線 Senseki-sen) bound for JR Higashi-Shiogama Station (JR東塩釜 Higashi-Shiogama-eki). The journey from Tokyo to Sendai takes approximately 90 minutes, and the journey from Sendai to Higashi-Shiogama takes another 30 minutes. For both train journeys, they are covered by the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area). The market is open only from morning to early afternoon. Admission is free.


Kesennuma Fish Market: Visitors from Tokyo can take the Tohoku Shinkansen to JR Ichinoseki Station (JR一ノ関駅 Ichinoseki-eki) and transfer to the JR Ofunato Line (JR大船渡線 Ōfunato-sen) bound for JR Kesennuma Station (JR気仙沼駅 Kesennuma-eki). From the station, they can take a 10-minute taxi ride to the market. The journey from Tokyo to Ichinoseki takes approximately 2 hours 30 minutes, and the journey from Ichinoseki to Kesennuma takes another 1 hour 20 minutes. For both train journeys, they are covered by the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area). Admission to the market is free. The entrance fee to the Shark Museum is ¥500 per adult.


Miyako Fish Market: Visitors from Tokyo can take the Tohoku Shinkansen to JR Morioka Station (JR盛岡駅 Morioka-eki) and transfer to the JR Yamada Line (JR山田線 Yamada-sen) bound for JR Miyako Station (JR宮古駅 Miyako-eki). The market is a 10-minute walk north of the station. The journey from Tokyo to Morioka takes approximately 2 hours 15 minutes, and the journey from Morioka to Miyako takes another 2 hours 20 minutes. Admission is free.


JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

The new JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)


The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area for 5 consecutive days. It's only ¥30,000, making it a considerable option for rail travellers. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.


The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)


Header image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang


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