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.

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.

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.

Muchimhoe, the Seafood Feast of Daegu (South Korea)

Daegu muchimhoe street sign
Entering the Muchimhoe District, Daegu, South Korea

Given Name: 무침회*
Alias: Muchimhoe
Place(s) of Origin: Daegu, South Korea
Place Consumed: Daegu, South Korea
Common Features: Seafood (but not fish), gochujang*
Background: I’d be hard pressed not to find a good meal from the Korean peninsula…heck, even that duck bbq in Pyongyang was quality.

After checking in at my hotel in Daegu, I asked about representative dishes from the area.  Aiming for multiple meals that would make a marine biologist blush, it appeared that I forgot to look at a map in the planning stages of this trip (meaning, three hours before I left)- Daegu isn’t exactly on a coast.  OK, but it’s not far from one either.  A staff member reminded me of this, and proceeded to introduce me to “muchimhoe street*.

muchimhoe meal
Muchimhoe with Korean banchan, Daegu, South Korea

Verdict: Excellent, as expected.  Ssam* up the gochujang-laced seafood mix into the lettuce, add a bit of egg and dig in.  Even with the overpowering taste of gochujang, I was able to make out the turban shell, squid and conch, but there were definitely other mollusks present.  Generous amounts of sesame seeds were sprinkled on top, and there weren’t any bones either, so there’s another +2.  A very aquatic affair, with seaweed and sea grass as part of the banchan, and the soup had a salty, “beachy” tinge to it.

Amusingly, the grandmotherly-type figured that as a foreigner, I’d have no idea how to eat anything (Korean).  However, she took this a step further and literally fed me the first bite.  So…if you’re into that kind of thing, keep it to yourself.

Glossary
* 무침회 muchimhoe – “muchim” = mixed with various seasonings; “hoe” = a dish with raw food
* gochujang 고추장- fermented, spicy and slightly sweet red chili sauce made with glutinous rice and soybeans; if you’ve eaten bibimbap, you’ve likely seen gochujang
* muchimhoe street – if you look at the linked map, take exit 1 from Bangogae (반고개) metro station, and walk towards the red pin.  The red pin is Naedang-dong (내당동), the most famous area for this specialty in Daegu.
* ssam 쌈  (Korean) – “wrap”

Vuelva a la Vida (Mexico)

Ciudad del Carmen, in the Mexican state of Campeche, is not a star in Mexico’s tourism constellation.  It’s a petrol-oriented city on the Gulf of Mexico, hot year-round, and lacking in terms of attractions– its most-visited point of interest is Puente El Zacatal (The Zacatal/Pasture Bridge), the longest in the country.  Coincidentally, I had driven over this bridge in 2018, but didn’t stop to check out the city.

But, then you must remember, Ciudad del Carmen is still in Mexico, so the food’s probably good.  Considering that Campeche is the center of the shrimp industry on Mexico’s gulf coast, as long as you stick with seafood, you’re in good hands.

Shrimp Traffic Circle, Ciudad del Carmen, Mexico

Eager to try the local version of one of my favorite crustaceans, I randomly stopped for a bite at a restaurant called Coctelería Cajun, located right by El Zacatal Bridge.

Now, if you’re a fan of ceviche, you will find that the Mexican variety is quite different from the Peruvian.  In Mexico, ceviche and cóctel go hand-in-hand, offering up a mix of fish and seafood submerged in Clamato/tomato juice/ketchup and served in a glass or bowl.  Although I’m partial to the Peruvian exemplar, I’ve got a weakness for mariscos (seafood), so I had to try something.

That something became Vuelva a la Vida.

Meaning “return to life,” it is a popular hangover cure throughout Mexico.  Throw in a whole range of things from beyond the shore…think shrimp, squid, clams, mussels, and then on top of that, add in red onion and cilantro, and if you’re like me, some wildly spicy salsa.  Don’t fret, for the sweetness of the tomatoes in the liquid base will help soothe some of the spiciness.

Though I really don’t ever want ketchup unless it’s beside a french fry, I couldn’t resist the assortment of marine life swimming in the glass.

Next time, I will see if they can add crab to the motley crew.

Calamari Hot Dog at Casa Kun, Mexico City

Mexico City is thus far, one of my favorite cities in the world.  It has some precious architecture, both classical and modern, the temperatures are great, and the food.

Oh, the food.

Today’s pick comes to us from the Renacimiento neighborhood of the Mexican capital, close to the city’s main boulevard, Paseo de la Reforma.  After a mostly filling lunch of quesadillas, I was still hankering for a botana, or snack.

Randomly, I had passed by a restaurant called Casa Kun; on its menu was a dish of octopus prepared in peanut sauce.  I was not peckish enough for that, but given that the menu sounded delicious, I did a search online for meal recommendations.

That’s when I found out about the squid hot dog, or hot dog/jocho de calamar.

I’ve had my share of mystery meat hot dogs, and even an eel dog in Tokyo, so there was no way I could turn this one down.

Calamari Hot Dog, Casa Kun, Mexico City, Mexico

If you’re sensitive to “fishy” tastes, then the calamari hot dog would not offend you.  You are able to enjoy the flavor of the squid, the house-made mayonnaise, and the surprisingly tasty bun without any one flavor overpowering the others.  It was served with fried baby octopus, roasted potatoes with scallions, and chile de árbol salsa.

Want to watch me try the calamari hot dog for the first time?  Check out my YouTube.


Address:
Río Amazonas 73, Col. Renacimiento,
Renacimiento, Cuauhtémoc, 06500
Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico

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