For well over a thousand years, the Wakasa region of southern Fukui has been famous for its exceptional foods. The natural bounties of this coastal region long served to supply the old capital cities of Kyoto and Nara with fish and sea salt. Today, the name Wakasa is synonymous with quality ingredients for chefs and food lovers nationwide.
The Imperial Court and the Food Provinces
The long, complex coastline, full of inlets, and the mineral-rich fresh water that flows from the lush mountain forests into Wakasa Bay make the Wakasa region excellent for fishing and harvesting sea plants.
Around the eighth century CE, what was then Wakasa Province was selected as a miketsukuni, literally an “imperial food province.” Miketsukuni would send local produce and other foods as offerings to the imperial court. Wakasa primarily provided a variety of seafood, available due to the sea current from the southeast that brings in many types of fish.
After Wakasa was selected as an imperial food province by the imperial court, the province was obligated to regularly send seafood, sea plants, and salt to the capital as offerings. Visitors to southern Fukui can learn more about this history at the Miketsukuni Wakasa Obama Food Culture Museum.
Since ancient times, a number of routes have connected the ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara with Wakasa. These routes transported food, people, and culture. Beginning in the second half of the eighteenth century, the main item transported was mackerel.
At the time, there were no modern conveniences like railroads or cold storage, so the people of Wakasa found techniques to preserve mackerel for delivery to the capital. These included salting freshly caught mackerel in the morning, before merchants carried it to Kyoto on foot.
When they arrived the next morning, more than 70 kilometers away, the salted mackerel would be nicely firm, and seasoned to perfection. Over time, mackerel became increasingly popular in Kyoto, and the route between Wakasa and Kyoto became known as the Mackerel Road.
Traditional Mackerel Dishes, and Fresh New Ideas
Sushi restaurants throughout the prefecture serve grilled mackerel sushi, and it is also widely available as a prepared food at supermarkets and convenience stores. The oiliness and rich flavor of the fish bring out the sweetness of the sushi rice, for a well-balanced match. Grilled mackerel sushi’s origins date back to hamayaki (literally “grilling on the beach”), an old part of many local food cultures throughout coastal Japan: raw mackerel is particularly delicate, so it became popular to cook it as hamayaki shortly after it was caught, to help it keep for longer. Over time, people found that grilled mackerel was still delicious even after it cooled, which led to its use in sushi.
Heshiko is a traditional type of preserved mackerel from the Wakasa region: the fish is first salted, then covered in rice bran and fermented. The result has a firm, jerky-like texture, with an intensely savory flavor and distinctive aroma. It can be eaten on its own as a flavorful and nutritious side for white rice, or it can be soaked in sake to remove some of the salt, then grilled. Some restaurants have adapted this traditional preserved food to fit different cuisines, resulting in contemporary dishes such as heshiko pasta and heshiko pizza.
Mackerel narezushi is made by removing much of the salt from heshiko, such as by soaking it in water, then fermenting it with rice and koji mold. Once fermented, it is then sliced into easy-to-eat pieces and eaten as-is, or lightly grilled. The mild sweetness of the fermented rice and acidic tartness of the mackerel give it a distinctive flavor.
Narezushi is an early variety of fermented sushi, dating back many centuries before the nigiri and sushi rolls. Even today, it is commonly eaten in Wakasa and other parts of Fukui to celebrate special occasions like the new year.
Sabambap starts with a bowl of rice grown in Fukui, which is topped with seasoned local mackerel, a locally made citrus-chili paste, gari sweet pickled ginger, and shredded egg. This contemporary mackerel dish was created by a restaurant in Obama, and the name comes from the Japanese word for mackerel, saba, and the Korean dish that inspired it, bibimbap. Much like the original bibimbap, it is stirred together after it is served, and eaten with a spoon.