NiigataPrefecture is most famous for Japan’s staple food: rice. And because of that, their rice wine, known as sake in the West, is as impeccably smooth as it is world-famous. In terms of rice, which, yes, you can actually taste a difference, Japan’s top-quality Koshihikari rice is synonymous with this prefecture west of Tokyo.
Still, there are many other local foods that will make an impression on your taste buds. As a long prefecture spanning the coast of the Sea of Japan, Niigata also prospers in its fishing industry and agriculture. The food is good and cheap, so there’s no reason not to visit Niigata and try these five eats that are loved by locals.
1. Noppe stew
Photo by: David Levy
Noppeis as familiar to Niigatans as oden(a winter Japanese hotpot dish) is to the whole of Japan — it is omnipresent at festivals, New Year celebrations and everyday family meals. Indeed, noppe and oden are very similar in the sense that both use a soy-flavored dashi broth. However, noppe isn’t served in convenience stores like oden is, perhaps because each region or even household, prefers a differently nuanced taste.
Vegetables are the main ingredients for noppe, with the most popular being konjacpotato jelly, carrot, lotus root and shiitake mushroom. The broth is made of soy sauce and cooking wine. Sometimes, taro or starch is added to thicken the broth, hence leading to a regional taste difference. Other local distinctions include salmon roe, chicken, fish, potato and ginkgo nuts.
Noppe is delicious warm or cold. So long as it reminds you of a unique Niigata memory, it is good noppe.
2. Hegi soba noodles
Soba noodles are common in Japan, but hegi soba noodles make the act of eating just thatmuch smoother.
As hegi soba is made with funoriseaweed, a prominent plant of Niigata’s Uonuma region, the noodles have a very “tsuru-tsuru”texture. Try to pronounce tsuru-tsuruand you’ll see: the noodles are so smooth that they could just slide down your throat without chewing much.
If this sleekly unique feel isn’t enough, know that hegi soba is slightly green and comes in coils, and it is a special soba experience.
Photo by: yasuda_ginza
If you are looking for an alternative to the typical tempura dish, know that surutenis readily available for you in the Joetsuarea of the prefecture. Suruten is essentially shredded squid tempura, but instead of using fresh squid, the usual choice, Joetsu locals use squid that’s been salted overnight.
That way, flavors are richer and will fill your mouth with deliciousness. This dish can be made at home, brought to school as a bento box side dish, or enjoyed at local izakaya. In fact, it matches very well with beer, however, it is loved by both adults and children.
Mochi, or sticky rice pounded into a paste, is arguably one of the most popular Japanese sweets around the world. But you’ve probably never had sasadango, the signature sweet from Niigata. Sasadango is a dark green yomogi(mugwort)-flavored dessert filled with sweet red bean paste and wrapped by bamboo leaves. After unwrapping it, you’ll find the sweet and distinct smell of yomogi invite you to take a bite. You have probably seen packs of them in shinkansen(bullet train) stations, department stores and gift shops in Niigata.
So, how exactly do you dig in? First, unwrap the bamboo leaves. Then comes the refreshing aroma the leaves give off … and take a bite! The food is traditionally eaten at the annual “Boy’s Day” celebration in May, but now people eat it all year-round. There are even workshops where you can try making it.
Thank goodness poppo-yakicome in a big bundle because one will definitely not be enough. Poppo-yaki is a widely loved snack food made simply with wheat flour and brown sugar. They look like pancakes in the shape of long, thin sticks. While poppo-yaki doesn’t have a strong flavor, the subtle brown sugar sweetness and springy texture will make you crave more. Actually, pinching the spongy sticks itself is a joy to many children!
Poppo-yaki tastes best when they are freshly made. It is possible to get it fresh as they are frequently served at festival food stands. If you’re in Niigata during its quieter months, get your share of poppo-yaki at the Bandai Bus Center in Niigata City or numerous specialty stores.