It's Lunchtime

Japan Hour

Japan Hour - Spring in Japan
Ep40: Lunchtime Series

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Japan Hour:

It's Lunchtime

This week, we first head to Tomioka City in Gunma Prefecture to find out what the locals eat. The city is home to the Tomioka Silk Mill, a World Heritage Site. Back when silk production was popular, farmers who raised silkworms had a busy schedule and ate a dish called okkirikomi, which is quick and easy to make. This local traditional dish features wide noodles which are stewed with seasonal vegetables and mushrooms. 

After taking a tour around the Tomioka Silk Mill and seeing the automatic reeling machines, we drop by a restaurant which sells Japanese-style “silk shumai”. We meet Mrs Hiroko Ota, who runs the shop with her husband, Akihisa, the sixth-generation owner. The restaurant was originally established as an inn in 1872, the same year the Tomioka Silk Mill opened. People from the mill would stay at the inn. Shumai used to be served for dinner at the hotel and became very popular. So in 1989, the family opened a specialised shumai shop next to the inn. Around six years ago, they closed the inn to focus on selling shumai. Their shumai is popular among tourists who visit the Tomioka Silk Mill. The shumai’s stuffing, which includes large pieces of onions, is wrapped with a thin layer of shumai skin. It has a silky and smooth texture. On busy days, up to 3,000 of the shumai are sold.

We request to see the Ota family’s lunch and are invited to their home nearby. Mrs Ota’s mother-in-law Toyoko usually cooks lunch for the family. On this day, she has prepared stir-fried pork with shiitake mushrooms; spinach and enoki mushrooms mixed with sesame sauce; sour and crunchy frozen plums; and homemade Japanese ginger pickled in plum vinegar. 

After we leave the Ota family’s house, we continue our food investigation near the Tomioka Silk Mill. We come across a butcher shop owned by Mr Kanbe, who runs the store with his sister. Its croquettes are popular and it also sells a speciality of Tomioka, horumonage or deep-fried fish cake. The latter is a staple dish at deli shops and Japanese pubs here. As we want to find out what the locals eat, Mr Kanbe introduces us to his client, Mrs Kazuko Inoue, who is also a restaurant owner. Her Western-style shop, Shinyotei, opened about 100 years ago and is said to be the oldest restaurant in Tomioka City

The family’s meals are prepared in the restaurant’s kitchen and the family eats at the restaurant itself. The dishes are prepared by Mrs Inoue’s husband and today he makes pork cutlet and stir-fried beef with cabbage and bean sprouts seasoned with miso. Chicken and pork broth are added to the dish. There is also radish simmered in a sweet and spicy soy-sauce based sauce used for the restaurant’s cutlet rice bowl.  

Showa Village at the foot of Mount Akagi in Gunma Prefecture is our next stop. The village boasts a spectacular view of the mountains, rural scenery and the historic townscape. It is said to be one of the most beautiful villages in Japan. It is thus a member of Japan's Most Beautiful Villages Association, which comprises 63 municipalities across the country.  

We go to the Yamada Shoten restaurant, which serves offal stew udon noodles. It is managed by two sisters, who tell us that it was originally a tobacco shop. When the Showa Interchange was built about 25 years ago, many craftsmen and highway construction workers were staying in the village. They did not have any restaurants to eat at so the Yamada sisters decided to expand the store and start the restaurant. Curry udon is their most popular item on the menu. What makes it unique is that no water is added and only onion extract is used. The onions are slowly stir-fried with butter and salad oil and simmered for five hours. Meat, vegetables and udon noodle soup stock are then added, together with potatoes, carrots and even apples. The sweetness of the onions goes well with the chewy udon noodles.

We continue exploring Showa Village, which has several historical buildings and traditional houses. We meet Mr Kato, a retiree whose family used to be silkworm farmers. He agrees to show us his meal. We later meet his wife Reiko at their house. She prepares Japanese pheasant hotpot for dinner. To remove the smell of the meat, she would simmer the pheasant with onions and carrots for 20 minutes. It is then seasoned with soy sauce and left overnight to make the soup stock. Maitake mushrooms, seasonal vegetables and homegrown green onions and carrots are added to the soup stock for the hotpot. Lots of other ingredients are included in the hotpot, such as tofu and even grilled rice cake. Other dishes served for dinner are konnyaku with homemade yuzu miso, and namasu and yuzu rolled in radish.


Tips:

1)    Okkirikomi and horumonage are specialities of Tomioka City
2)    Showa Village in Gunma is said to be one of the most beautiful villages in Japan