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Friday, March 9, 2012
Heartening recipes from Japan's northeast
By MELINDA JOE
Special to The Japan Times
Hittsumi-jiru is a hearty soup of root vegetables, meat and chewy, hand-shaped noodles in a clear broth. Savory and satisfying, this humble dish is classic soul-soothing fare from Tohoku — the region's answer to chicken-noodle soup — that is seldom found outside of northeastern Japan. (Hittsumi means "to pinch" in the local dialect of Iwate Prefecture and refers to the technique used to make the noodles.) For many people forced to relocate to emergency shelters after the Great East Japan Earthquake disaster, a serving of hittsumi-jiru was the first warm meal they received after a week subsisting on cold onigiri rice balls, and the hot soup provided much-needed comfort to those who had lost their homes and loved ones in the tsunami.
Food does more than nourish the body, as Japanese culinary authority Elizabeth Andoh reminds us in her latest cookbook, "Kibo: Brimming with Hope"; it also tells the story of culture.
In "Kibo," the author's first digital-only ebook, published by Ten Speed Press, Andoh shares the food culture of the Tohoku region through a collection of recipes and stories gathered from Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures (part of the Pacific coastal area traditionally known as Sanriku). Translated literally, the word kibō means "hope" or "aspiration," and the book's title reflects the spirit of determination in the face of hardship displayed by the inhabitants of the devastated area.
A resident of Japan for more than 40 years, Andoh was in her Tokyo apartment when the earthquake struck on March 11 last year. In the days that followed the calamity, she struggled to find a way as a food educator to contribute to recovery efforts. Andoh wanted to do something that would have a long-term effect and began working on a tribute to the region's cuisine. Recalling the Great Hanshin Earthquake that had leveled much of the city of Kobe 16 years earlier, she vowed to keep the memory of the events firmly in people's minds well after media interest would likely wane.
"I remembered how long (recovery) took and how so much of Japan and the rest of the world forgot about it in the long haul," she tells The Japan Times.
Andoh had also worried that the mass evacuations would threaten the region's food culture. "Although some interesting hybrids may develop, I was also concerned that indigenous food traditions would morph into something unrecognizable," she explains.
Although much attention has been given to the disastrous impact that the tsunami and the protracted nuclear crisis in Fukushima have had on northeastern Japan's agriculture and fishing industries, relatively little is known about its rich food culture. "Kibo" presents a fascinating survey of the region's vast and varied terrain, served up with bite-size tidbits of historical information and cultural commentary.
Andoh offers a taste of the seaside and Tohoku's mountainous interior: Dishes such as harako meshi, rice topped with salmon and red ikura caviar, and shiso-maki, stuffed with a paste of walnuts and miso, display the diversity of flavors in the area. The book features ingredients and techniques that are representative of Tohoku, but Andoh avoids including too many challenging flavors.
"It was important that people be able to make the food at home and share it with others," she says.
"Kibo" also gives examples of how the agriculture and fishing industries are recovering bit by bit. Miyagi's famed oyster industry, which was nearly obliterated in the tsunami, is being revived with support from French oyster farmers, grateful for the assistance they received from Japanese growers after diseases attacked French oyster farms in the 1970s and '90s.
Andoh and Ten Speed Press will each donate 50 percent of their profits from the book to Sponsor Fellows for Tohoku and Japan's Recovery through the Global Giving website. The project, launched and managed by Entrepreneurial Training for Innovative Communities, aims to create jobs in the area devastated by the disaster and develop a new generation of business leaders in Japan.
"Kibo: Brimming with Hope" is out now for e-readers and other devices. For more information, visit www.kibocooking.com (from March 10) or www.globalgiving. org/kibo.