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Sunday, July 31, 2005

MISO 'N' MORE

Fare to love -- or loathe


Staff writer

If you plan on visiting Expo 2005 Aichi, you may find you have to join long, long lines and brave the summer heat to get into the most popular pavillions. And should you go through Nagoya on your way back home, don't be surprised to see more long lines in the city center. But these long waits are nothing to do with the Expo, they're for the chance to sample some of Nagoya's most famous foodstuffs which are the focus of a great deal of civic pride.

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Misokatsu, deep-fried pork cutlets with miso sauce

On a recent Sunday afternoon, for example, in the city's Yabacho district, there was a long line in front of Yabaton, a restaurant known especially for its misokatsu (deep-fried pork cutlets) topped with miso sauce. Some customers had been waiting for over an hour to sample this wholesome Nagoyan delicacy, while other less dogged would-be diners headed for another Yabaton eatery in the mall below Nagoya Station. Even there, though, a long line snaked around the corner outside the restaurant.

There is another popular local dish in Nagoya; misonikomi udon, a bowl of udon noodles with vegetables and meat in a miso soup. Many visitors to the city make tasting it a priority, and throngs of tourists gather at a handful of long-established purveyors.

Both these culinary delights feature miso, but this is not the average soybean-based mush. No, Nagoya has its very own type of miso called haccho miso. Also referred to as aka miso (red miso), it has been a source of local pride since the early part of the Edo Period (1603-1867).

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Tenmusu onigiri, rice balls with tempura shrimp filling

Usually, miso is made by mixing steamed soybeans with salt and a fermenting agent made of rice, wheat or soybeans. However, the haccho variety is made using only soybeans to aid the fermentation process. It is darker than other types of miso and tastes rich and slightly bitter.

Local miso has been experiencing something of a boom, which has in turn spawned a huge variety of miso-flavored foods -- various stores in Nagoya now offer even miso-flavored sponge cake and miso-flavored ice cream.

So why do Nagoya natives like the taste of miso so much?

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People wait for seats in the popular Yabaton misokatsu restaurant in Nagoya's Yabacho district

"Probably, it has something to do with the town's character," says Nagoya expert Yoshifumi Iwanaka. "There are so many manufacturers based here and many people do hard physical work, so locals may have come to like more substantial food with a strong taste," he says.

"And these Nagoya specialties are the type of food that if you like it, you like it a lot -- but if you don't, you really can't stand it."

In fact, miso aside, some of Nagoya's culinary uniqueness has become well-known, and Iwanaka again attributes it to Nagoya locals' "industrial spirit."

Take tenmusu (small rice balls with a piece of shrimp tempura inside) and ankake-spagetti (pasta topped with "starchy" sauce, vegetables, seafood and meat); they may sound odd, but "Nagoya people do not hesitate to combine things that might look unsuited at first," Iwanaka says.

In fact, these dishes have been gaining a following outside the place of their conception, and restaurants specializing not only in misokatsu but also in tenmusu and other Nagoyan cuisine have begun to make inroads in cities elsewhere in Japan.

That said, the number of Nagoyan eateries in Tokyo seems small compared with other regional cuisine specialists. But the punchy taste of the city's favored dishes will certainly make you feel like going back to them again -- if you like it, that is.



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