Sabanba, A Hyperlocal Japanese Take on Korean Bibimbap

I’ve long been a fan of mackerel and bibimbap, so to discover a marriage of the two in an ostensibly random Japanese city was a delicious coincidence.

Availing of the the Hokuriku Area Pass, a 4-day Japan Railways train ticket that covered many hotspots in Ishikawa, Toyama, and Fukui prefectures, I took a day trip from Kanazawa to Obama, a port city in Fukui.

Historically, this region was called Wakasa (若狭), which held a prime location on Wakasa Bay. For hundreds of years, it supplied Kyoto, the ancient imperial capital of Japan, with abundant seafood.  Together with Awaji province (present-day Hyogo prefecture) and Shima province (today’s Mie prefecture), Wakasa was one of Kyoto’s miketsukuni, basically the food pantry.

In particular, mackerel, or saba (鯖) in Japanese,  was very popular at the time, so much so that the route from Obama to Kyoto came to be known as the “mackerel highway,” or saba kaido (鯖街道).

mackerel manhole cover obama japan
Mackerel Sewer Cover! Obama, Fukui, Japan

With such a prominent local delicacy — actually, due to overfishing, Japan has been importing mackerel for decades — I found out that one of Obama’s most famous dishes was called 鯖ンバ, or sabanba.

OK, so it’s not such a well-known meal — never mind that the one restaurant serving it, Yamato-an, is best known for tonkatsu, or fried pork cutlets — and let’s not forget that the dish is a fusion of Japanese food and Korean food. (link in Japanese) The manager at the time was fond of bibimbap, the Korean comfort food of mixed rice, vegetables, and an egg, so the epiphany came to add mackerel to it.

sabanba mackerel bibimbap obama japan
Sabanba (鯖ンバ), Yamatoan Restaurant, Obama, Fukui, Japan

In Japan, sabanba falls under the category of  B級グルメ, or B-grade gourmet. That is, it’s a dish with inexpensive ingredients and mass appeal. Regardless of that appellation, sabanba is still a fun, tasty, and variegated meal that spotlights one locally historic ingredient.

Tasting the Real Thing at Daio Wasabi Farm in Hotaka, Japan

wasabi statue hotaka japan
Wasabi Statue, Daio Wasabi Farm (大王わさび農場), Hotaka, Nagano Prefecture, Japan

The first recorded instance of wasabi in Japan dates back to the year 981, during the Heian period of Japanese history. Someone wading through the Japanese Alps had thought its leaves looked like those of the mallow plant (in Japanese, 葵/あおい/aoi), consequently wasabi was first written as 山葵, or “mountain mallow.”

Then, during the Muromachi period (roughly 1392-1573), pairing wasabi with sashimi became a thing. Typing that out, I feel somewhat stupid, but in my defense, A) it’s written on the sign below, and 2) I reckon it’s one of the most famous duos in any cuisine today.

wasabi history Japan
The earliest known record of wasabi was from 981!

I know, you’re not here to become an ethnobotanist. You want peak wasabi, right?~~~

As my friend and I were traveling between Kanazawa and Matsumoto (although we went by rail via Itoigawa), I was searching for points of interest along the way. Since neither of us had ever visited a wasabi farm, the Daio Wasabi Farm (English reference page) in HotakaNagano prefecture stood out among the list of recommendations. At around 30 minutes walk from JR Hotaka station, it was a pleasant — and sometimes delicious — diversion from the norm.

Daio wasabi farm map
Daio Wasabi Farm Map

The Daio Wasabi Farm (official Japanese site), which opened in 1915, is purportedly the largest of its kind in Japan. Interestingly, within Japan Nagano prefecture competes with Shizuoka prefecture, also known for its green tea production, for the title of largest producer of wasabi. (link in Japanese)

Maybe naively, I was expecting to be detained by the smell of the fresh wasabi plants, and to see farmers using goggles and masks when handling Japan’s most famous rhizome.

Whoops, wrong on both counts.

wasabi plantation Japan
Water means life for wasabi
wasabi growing conditions
Key to Growing Wasabi: 7 Days Shade, 3 Days Sun

Wasabi plants aren’t huge fans of direct sunlight, so that’s why dark breathable cloth is used to cover them much of the time (in the two photos above, you can see the cloth rolled up).

After walking around the beautifully kept farm, dipping my toes in the frigid spring water, and sampling some gimmicky snacks and drinks flavored with wasabi, my friend and I continued on to the castle city of Matsumoto, just under 30 minutes away by train from Hotaka.

You might be asking, “did you even try fresh wasabi?” But of course. We even bought a steel grater (おろし金/oroshigane) for it (traditionally, wasabi graters were made of sharkskin). Immediately thereafter, we thought, what a pointless idea … on what/at which point would we even grate the darn thing?

Then, I figured, let’s just take it to a random restaurant and see what happens:

Kitamon soba restaurant Matsumoto
Kitamon (北門) Soba Restaurant, Matsumoto, Japan

A simple explanation to the kind waitress at Kitamon soba restaurant in Matsumoto let us sample the true flavor and texture of nama wasabi, or fresh wasabi. Basically, it’s NOTHING like the neon green stuff you’ve been eating.

Go on, give Daio Wasabi Farm a shot.


Do you like wasabi? How about the fresh version?

The Land of Rice and Sake: A Small Feast from Joetsu, Niigata, Japan

It’s true. Of all the potential prefectures (roughly states/provinces) in Japan to be considered the “land of rice and sake,” Niigata often leads the pack. Of course, it helps that sake, the quintessential Japanese liquor enjoyed warm or chilled, is made from rice … indeed, according to one source, Niigata prefecture regularly vies with Hokkaido for the top spot in rice-paddy yield, and total area dedicated to rice-paddy cultivation.

Thus, with all of this hubbub about being one of the culinary centers of Japan, not just for rice and sake but for seafood, hot sauce(called Kanzuri; link in Japanese) and even B kyuu gurume, I decided to take a day trip from Kanazawa to Joetsu city Joetsu (上越市).

Hopping on the Hakutaka shinkansen, or bullet train, in Kanazawa, I made it to Joetsu about 50 minutes later. After walking a couple of miles to Takada Castle to check out its lily ponds, and a stop at a secondhand shop to rummage through bygone electronics, my hunger pangs led me to a restaurant called Gunchan. (Note: I generally don’t care about restaurant reviews, because I’m the only one with my taste buds. This particular branch gets a low rating online, so I guess my delicious meal was an off day?)

Niigata cuisine Joetsu Japan
Gunchan Restaurant, Jouetsu, Niigata Prefecture, Japan

CRAB MISO soup, seasonal fish sashimi and tempura, and a brisk glass of regional sake were just some of the highlights. Suffice it to say, I’d go back.

Bear Meat, in Japan?

One of my favorite aspects of eating in Japan is the department store.

Hold up, what?

Whereas department stores may be terribly dull in most of the western hemisphere, places like El Corte Inglés in Spain, and KaDeWe in Berlin, and many, many choices in East and Southeast Asia’s biggest cities do more than just delight the average clothes shopper.

Japan is where my first memorable introduction to department store food halls occurred, at the Daiwa Korinbo in Kanazawa. While living there for the summer of 2000, I’d get corn bread — that is, buttery bread stuffed with corn kernels — at a place called Don Q., and an apple almost everyday, always in the basement section.

Years later, I realized that Japanese department stores sometimes had food festivals in their upper floor event halls; some focused on a specific prefecture (let’s say it’s like a state or province), whereas others covered the entire country.

Last week, at a Hokkaido Food Festival — Hokkaido being Japan’s northernmost prefecture, known for its dairy, miso ramen, salmon, and melon, among many other edibles — I found an exotic (for me, anyhow) treat to sample:

Brown bear, known in Japanese as 羆 (ひぐま/higuma). Although brown bears were historically hunted by the indigenous Ainu culture, they also have greatly influenced Ainu life for generations, with both having shared the often frigid and remote terrain of Hokkaido. (link in Japanese)

n.b. bear meat can also be found in Aomori prefecture, the one atop Honshu island most famous for apples, but Hokkaido is where its consumption is just a bit more common. (link in Japanese)

Want to know how it tasted? Check out my YouTube video!

A Real Oyster Cracker

Some call them water crackers, Philadelphia crackers, or Trenton crackers, but they’re most commonly called oyster crackers.

Although Westminster Bakers Co. claims to have invented them as early as 1828, officially that record is from an 1847 listing for the Adam Exton Cracker Bakery. No matter what the correct answer is, they’re ever-so-slightly modeled after oysters, and started off as a popular topping for oyster stews.

American oyster crackers
Westminster Baking Co. Oyster Crackers, Santa Barbara, California, United States

To me, oyster crackers have always been reminiscent of being slightly less salty versions of Saltines.

But what if I told you that there’s a “leveled up” version of these so-called oyster crackers that actually contain the aphrodisiacal mollusk?

For a sample of those, you might have to go — or these days, find an awfully generous local — to grab you these snacks. Why?

Because they’re in Japan.

A random stop in Kurashiki, a pleasant little canal town known for its centuries-old rice warehouses, helped lead me to bicchu kurashiki Setouchian (in Japanese, 備中倉敷 瀬戸内庵). This particular store specialized in local gastronomy, and I must say they had some delicious offerings that you may never have expected to see; for instance, I remember going back for sample after sample of their orange butter and (famous in the region) peach butter.

I did end up buying a jar of the peach butter, but what struck my attention for a bit of Japanese food fusion was the oyster senbei:

oyster senbei cracker kurashiki japan
Bicchu Kurashiki Setouchian (牡蠣薄焼き煎餅 – 倉敷市、備中倉敷 瀬戸内庵), Oyster Senbei/Cracker, Kurashiki, Japan

Senbei (煎餅・せんべい) are rice crackers, local snack staples throughout much of the country. Many are flavored with sesame seeds, seaweed, and/or soy sauce. This one, however, had oysters BAKED IN, ostensibly from the nearby Setouchi Inlet.

It was an umami feast, but after a few of those, I needed something sweet.

So that’s where the peach butter came into play ….

Sea Urchin …Cream Cheese? (Japan)

If you don’t know what uni (うに/海胆 sea innards/海栗 sea chestnut) is, I’ll fill you in on a dirty secret- it’s not the roe of sea urchin, per se. Rather, it’s what secretes the roe.

Not hungry anymore?

I used to think uni tasted like how a durian smells, but I’ve grown out of that association, too. What do you reckon?

No matter how one feels about uni, what I believe to be one of many cool aspects of Japan is the frequent presence of food fairs somewhere on the upper levels of department stores. Those top floors are usually reserved for limited time events, say, jewelry or art festivals, a display of local shamisen, or a collection of typical foods from a certain region/city of Japan.

During my last visit to Fukuoka, on the island of Kyushu — mind you, this was a few years ago — I decided to take a chance by popping in various department stores, hoping that a food fest would be occurring. Sure enough, there was a showcase for specialties from relatively nearby Kumamoto prefecture.

Whereas there’s always a nuanced selection at these events – in this case, watermelon sugar and horse stood out – one item stood out a bit more than the rest:

fukuoka-kumamoto-food-fair-uni-sea-urchin-cream-cheeseUni cream cheese, produced in Amakusa city, well-known for its sea urchin harvest. Quite honest to the description – in Japanese, it says “Amakusa uni kaiseki (a quick bite of Amakusa uni before a having tea)” on the right, and “cream cheese” on the left.

In spite of my willingness to try nearly anything once, uni was not a like-at-first-bite for me, way back when. I’ve since jumped on the bandwagon, and in all fairness, I’d spread a bagel or baguette with this stuff any day.

Japanese Convenience Store Sandwiches

When I studied abroad in Japan years ago, I discovered that konbini (コンビニ), or convenience stores had a variety of plastic-wrapped sandwiches, similar to the Uncrustables brand in the United States.  Basically, the ingredients were shoved into a crust-less square of white bread, making your midday nibble very easy to clean up.

Whenever I got nostalgic for a sandwich, I’d try one.  It served a dual purpose– 1) I learned some Japanese through not knowing what the package said, and 2) reminded me that I should really be focusing on Japanese oyatsu (お八つ), or snacks.  (Helpful vocab check: サンド する (sando suru) means “to make a sandwich.”)

Though a few different brands exist, the most prominent one was  ランチパック, the “Lunch Pack.”  Yamazaki Baking started with the peanut flavor in 1984; that and egg have been their best sellers to this day.

Now, consider all of the sandwiches that you’ve eaten in your life.  There’s the egg with cheese and bacon, the BLT (bacon, lettuce, and tomato), pastrami, turkey club, meatball…all good.  Bread seems like a natural home for those ingredients.

Suddenly, you’re offered an all-expenses paid trip to Japan, with one caveat.  The only food that you can consume is a plastic-wrapped konbini sandwich.

Monty Hall is on the sidelines, egging you on.  You give in, take the trip, and begin to realize you may have chosen the wrong door.

We will start off easy.  Yamazaki Lunch Pack, peanut flavor.  Their top seller, and approachable to various palettes.  It’s really more of a peanut cream as opposed to a peanut butter, but the most important aspect is that bread + peanuts = fine and dandy.

3 種類 の チョコ/3 types of chocolate — chocolate creme, whipped chocolate, and a chocolate bar.  Hmm.  Analogs, analogs…right, s’mores.  OK, marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate.  Some casual restaurant chains offer chocolate on pizza.  Pastries.

But they don’t generally use white bread.  Still, it could be worse.

キャラメル板 チョコ & ホイップ/Caramel chocolate bar and whipped cream.  The flavor combo sounds good, but doesn’t it sound a lot better at a patisserie, on a flaky crust?

Rather, who craves this?  I should probably save that question for the next four entries.  Whoops.

豆大福風/sweetened rice cake dough with red pea paste and whipped cream.  We’ve made it to murky waters.

Traditional Japanese desserts are generally made with sweetened glutinous rice (求肥/ぎゅうひ) and bean paste; one of the most famous ones is called daifuku, or 大福.  I find Japanese sweets, or 和菓子 (wagashi) to be rather monotonous, though I do like that they are intended to be consumed in tandem with green tea.

Though, stuffing glutinous rice into bread and whipped cream?  Pass.

桔梗信玄餅風/Kikyou Shingen Mochi-Style.  What???

If you saw mochi and guessed that glutinous rice was part of the deal, then you’re right.  It also contains kinako, roasted soybean flour, and kuromitsu, black sugar syrup.  So, where’d the flavor originate?

Kikyou is the Japanese word for “balloon flower,” or “Chinese bellflower.”  Although in Northeast Asia it’s a common cough suppressant, the name here refers to that flower being used as an historic crest of the Shingen clan.  Shingen Takeda was a powerful leader during the Warring States period in the 1500s. Furthermore, his family name was apparently borrowed for a type of cloth bag called the shingenbukuro, which is the image you see on the plastic wrapper, the very same one that would ordinarily wrap the dessert inside of this bread.

And it’s a food in itself, made of fried tofu.

雪下キャベツメンチカツ/Sekka (Yukioroshi) Kyabetsu Menchi Katsu.

This flavor of Yamazaki Lunch Pack takes cabbage that has been stored beneath the snow – as opposed to in the fridge – specifically from Inawashiro (猪苗代町), in Fukushima prefecture, northern Japan.  Then, it’s added into a fried minced pork cutlet with tartar sauce.

On a nice baguette, that sounds reasonable.  The type I tried?  Not again.

三浦半島産かぼちゃ入りのコロッケ/Miurahantou-san Kabocha Hairi no Korokke

Due south of Tokyo lies the relatively small Miura peninsula, in Kanagawa prefecture.  Whereas they’re also known for watermelons – don’t get any ideas, Yamazaki – Miura pumpkins are famous throughout Japan.  This bread pocket has a fried croquette made of pumpkins and onion dressing.

Which of the above would you most/least want to try?


Want to find out more about Yamazaki Baking’s Lunch Pack’s?  Check here.

What is Katsuobushi? (Japan)

What is katsuobushi (鰹節/かつおぶし, or okaka おかか)?

Take a skipjack tuna, also known as bonito.

Gut it.

Dry it.

Ferment it.

Smoke it.

If you were a student in an introductory course to the food of Japan, you probably already knew that fish was going to be a common theme.  But katsuobushi, or more specifically, its shavings, are key.

Larger, thicker shavings are called kezurikatsuo and combined with kelp (brown seaweed, or kombu), are vital in preparing dashi (だし), a fish-based soup stock.  Those of a smaller, thinner variety are hanakatsuo.

These plucky condiments are frequently found crowning okonomiyaki, hiyayakko (a cold tofu dish) and takoyaki, and most unusually, are reborn when in close contact with heat;  save a little for Sunday school.

Tokyo - Katsuobushi (2)
Katsuobushi Processing Machine – Basically, you throw the prepared fish into it, and out comes fish shavings.

I saw this machine in Tsukiji Market in Tokyo.  What do you do with it?  Shove one of those katsuobushi bricks into it, and out comes…

Tokyo - Katsuobushi (1)
Katsuobushi Fish Shavings

If you don’t have access to those heavy-duty machines, then how is katsuobushi made?  You could buy a katsuobushi kezuriki (鰹節削り器/かつおぶしけずりき) and do the labor yourself.  These days however, it is easy enough to find the end product in Japanese/East Asian supermarkets.

Tokushima Ramen (徳島ラーメン)

Located on Shikoku, the smallest of the four primary islands of Japan, Tokushima is a small seaside city best known for a 400-year old dance called the Awa Odori, an historic indigo trade, a citrus fruit known as sudachi, and Tokushima Ramen (徳島ラーメン).

Tokushima ramen may not be one of the better known bowls of noodles throughout Japan, having only been popularized at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum in 1999.  It’s saltier and sweeter than the average Japanese ramen, generally has thin and soft noodles, and unbeknownst to me at the time, comes in three different types of broth.

Tokushima Ramen at 麺王

The most common broth is brown, using tonkotsu (豚骨), or pork bone broth, and a darker soy sauce.  Fried pork, spring onions, and a raw egg (already mixed-in in my photo) round out the Tokushima style.

Other types of Tokushima ramen might be yellow, due to chicken or vegetable broth and a lighter soy sauce, or whitish, using tonkotsu and a lighter soy sauce.   Also, rice is a common accompaniment to Tokushima ramen, as if there weren’t enough carbs on the table.

The Sweet Potatoes of Kawagoe (Japan)

Kawagoe (川越), a roughly 30-60 minute ride from major train stations throughout Tokyo, is also known affectionately known as Koedo (小江戸/Little Edo), whereas Edo refers to Tokyo’s former name.  As Kawagoe made it through World War II only receiving minor damage, many of its most famous structures, the 蔵造り (くらくり/koora-zukoori), or warehouses, survived:

Old Town Kawagoe, Japan

For that reason, it is one of the gems of Saitama prefecture, and one of the reasons that I visited.

Alas, there was another motivating factor for the short-haul north of Tokyo– the 芋 (いも/ee-mo) , or sweet potato.

“Imogura,” the Kawagoe Sweet Potato Mascot

That freaky fella above is called いもグラ (ee-mo gu-ra).  It is one of hundreds (seriously) of ゆるキャラ (yooroo kyara), or mascots designed for companies/tourism bureaus throughout Japan.  There are even annual competitions among said mascots; if you want to forego nightmares for some time, don’t click this link (in Japanese).

Kawagoe is one of the sweet potato centers of Japan; this was particularly important for the region during the war, as other foods were quite scarce, and more susceptible to pests/extremes in weather.

Although I referred to the character 芋 to refer to sweet potatoes, that character can also mean potato, or country bumpkin.  You see, the other part of Japan best known for sweet potatoes is present-day Kagoshima prefecture, on Kyushu island.  A section of that prefecture used to be called Satsuma, which begets another way to say sweet potato, 薩摩芋 (さつま・いも/satsuma ee-mo).  More still, loanword enthusiasts would appreciate the term スイートポテト , which literally reads “suii-to poteyto.

Stroll through Kawagoe, and you’re bound to come across numerous food shops and souvenir stores vending this hardy tuber; sweet potato noodles, a sweet potato-centric set menu, desserts, ice cream, candies, and who knows what else?

Fortuitously, I found one of my favorite sweet potato snacks, daigaku imo (大学芋/ dai-gakoo ee-mo).  It means college potato, and is made of caramelized sweet potato sprinkled with black sesame seeds.  The sign showing its name is written in Japanese above, and the dish itself is photographed below:

My time in Kawagoe was rather limited – if judged solely by the food I didn’t get to try – so I must revisit.  That said, here are a couple more delights sampled on that day:

Grilled sweet potato-coated karintou (花林糖・かりんとう).  Karintou are sweet, deep-fried  snacks made of flour, yeast, and often brown sugar.  Though they often look like things you’d find crawling across the floor, to me, they’re delicious.

Termites!  No, no.  Actually, these いもかりんとう饅頭/まんじゅう (ee-mo karintoh-man-juu) were excellent.  Manjuu are typically made with rice powder, flour, buckwheat, and red beans (adzuki), but these used burdock and carrot powder for the outside, and sweet potatoes inside.


Are you as big of a fan of sweet potatoes as I am?

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