Japan Eats

Out and about: Ama-san in Osatsu

The ladies of Mie offer the freshest catch in town

What makes the pursuit of fantastic and original cuisine so enticing is that it’s inseparable from the unique culture in which it was conceived. In an era where nearly everything that we dine upon is primly packed, shipped, and plainly arranged to follow the path of least resistance to the consumer, somewhere in the recesses of our consciousness we’re aware that what our palate is experiencing is no mere accident. Someone, somewhere was in a position to conjure up a flavor or a dish because it made sense given a situation and resources and people cross cities, states, provinces, mountains, nations, and oceans with their sights set on tasting “the real thing”.

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Two ama-san in Ōsatsu, Mie prefecture.

For many, one early morning excursion to the Tsukiji fish market followed by a sushi breakfast in the charmingly rustic shitamachi is an authentic enough experience of Japan’s culinary obsession with the treasures of the sea.

However, for the inquisitive and adventurous, I can point to about 1,000 women in Mie who can further satisfy your appetite.

To this day, in the small fishing village of Ōsatsu in the southern port of Toba City, Mie prefecture, nearly 1,000 fully active and hard-working ama-san (海女さん – literally “sea woman”) forage for the ocean’s offerings the old-fashioned way – by diving for them, leaving the air supply at home.

While the distinctive white garb and physically demanding practice have history in some other isolated regions of Japan, as well as in Korea, Toba City (including Ōsatsu) is the home to nearly half of the roughly 2,000 active Japanese ama-san – a significant figure in a city with a population of approximately 20,000. Put simply, 1 out of every 20 people in the city (roughly one out of every 10 women!) spends a good 2 hours in the frigid ocean waters most mornings foraging the key constituents of the local diet. The a.m. session was for a long time followed by a bit of rest in the ama-koya, or “ama hut”, with a second outing, once rejuvenated. Nowadays, dives are limited to just one in the morning, partially for safety reasons, but primarily because there are other options for the working woman today. Indeed, most of the ladies pursue other activities in the daytime. Somewhat unique for a fishing village, there’s a reasonable spread of rice paddies which allow for local farming in conjunction with the diving.

An ama-koya, or “ama hut”.

An ama-koya, or “ama hut”.

The other reason for the more “relaxed pace” may well be the fact that most ama-san are in their 60s and 70s, with the oldest active divers in their mid-80s. A handful of up-and-comers are in their early to mid-20s, though. While certain scenes in Ōsatsu may feel frozen in time, these hard-working ladies on the front line are combating the same social issues as the rest of the nation. One can easily forgive them for limiting their active duty to a “mere” morning dive. That said, with the village gradually making its way into the public eye, and with a surprising number of young women now actively seeking to succeed their mothers and grandmothers in the trade (the opposite of the trend we’re seeing in Japan’s struggling farming industry), it’s entirely possible that the vitality of a new generation of ama-san may bring about an entirely new image and lifestyle for women and the local fishing industry.

Don’t expect these ladies to don diving gear anytime soon, though. While “protecting tradition” and suppressing certain costs associated with gearing up may be the obvious reasons, the major factor is more simple: balance. The natural limitation placed on the divers in these conditions places a natural limit on just how much can be caught on any given day during any given season. It’s this balance that has sustained the city and the culture for generations, and the people of Toba see it as the key to continued sustainability for generations to come.

What does this have to do with your insatiable appetite? Well, where there’s a congregation of individuals partaking in a unique and impressive, but largely extinct cultural practice, you’ll also often find open arms welcoming the curious traveler – particularly when there’s food involved! So it is in the ama-san village of Ōsatsu, currently making the push for recognition as a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity‘.

Inside the ama-hut designed for tourists

Inside the ama-hut designed for tourists

Although a significant step up in terms of comfort compared to the real thing, a special ama-koya has been constructed specifically for those adventurous individuals who wish to dine only on the freshest morning catch, consisting of freshly grilled sazae, a form of conch or “sea snail”, abalone, as well as the occasional ise-ebi (a member of the lobster family).

It should be noted, however, that while it’s common for clams, scallops, and squid to also appear on the menu, these can’t be classified as part of the “ama-san catch”, as these are left alone by the brave divers. In fact, the primary target for ama-san is seaweed and sea grasses, including ise-hijiki, wakame, as well as awame, a particular variety of kelp which can only be found in local waters, typically only used in local Mie and Kyoto dishes. The varieties of local kelp and seaweed are most commonly prepared boiled or stewed with combinations of soy sauce, sugar, and mirin, often becoming part of soups.

The experience as a whole is most certainly one worth seeking out, as a comforting veil of both vitality and mystery seems to hang low over the waterfront village. Although technically a tourist attraction, the ama-koya offers a chance to get one step closer to the cuisine of local waters than you’ll find just about anywhere else, and the its location far down the oceanfront jetty will conjure a sense of discovery in even the veteran explorer. It’s worth noting that the real ama-koya are not open to the public – the coals burning there are used primarily as a heat source for the small enclosure rather than for preparing meals.

In Japan, quality seafood is never hard to find, but those with curious taste buds and who long to know just where their meal is from would struggle to do better, even in Tsukiji, making the ama-koya dining experience one you’d have a tough time duplicating just about anywhere.

Special thanks to Asami Murata for the photos and wealth of additional information.

Recipe: Tori to renkon tsukune (chicken and lotus root meatballs, teriyaki style)

Liven up your next bento with these chicken and lotus root meatballs

Tsukune are meatballs, usually made from either chicken or pork. They make a delicious meal, or an excellent addition to a bento (Japanese luchbox).

Here, we’re adding a twist to usual recipe by adding renkon (lotus root). The grated lotus root softens the meatball mix, while the other – roughly chopped – half of the vegetable provides some texture.

If you prepare this for a bento, garnish with shichimi (assorted spices) instead of asatsuki. The more adventurous can even use leftovers as filling for teriyaki meatball sandwiches (just add lettuce and mayonnaise!)

Chicken and lotus root meatballs

Chicken and lotus root meatballs

Ingredients (serves 3 – 4)

  • 300 g of chicken mince
  • 150 g of lotus root
  • 1 egg
  • 10 g of ginger (1 clove)
  • 50 g green onion
  • 1 teaspoon of sake
  • 1 teaspoon of soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon of potato starch
  • 2 tablespoons of sake
  • 3 tablespoons of soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons of mirin
  • 1 tablespoon of white sesame seeds
  • 3 – 4 tablespoons of chopped asatsuki chives

Method

Add 1 tablespoon of vinegar to a bowl containing roughly 2 cups of water. Peal the lotus root and place it in the water for ten minutes to whiten it and take out any bitterness.

Take the lotus root out of the bowl and remove any moisture with the paper towels. Chop half (75 g) of the lotus root roughly into pieces 1 – 5 mm square. Grate the other half of the lotus root.

Finely chop the ginger and green onion. Take a bowl and mix the chicken, ginger, onion, lotus root, sake, soy, egg and potato starch until sticky.

Pour 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil into a frying pan and warm it on a low heat. Moisten your hands with water and shape the batter into balls, then sauté with the lid on the pan. One one side becomes brown, turn them over. Sauté both sides for 5 – 6 minutes in total on a low heat. Repeat the process until you finish the mixture.

Next, prepare the teriyaki sauce. Mix all of the ingredients in a bowl. Once you have finished cooking the meatballs, turn the heat to medium and pour the sauce into the frying pan. When it comes to the boil, turn the heat to low and dunk the meatballs into the sauce – 1 minute for each side.

Boil the sauce down until it thickens. Plate the meatballs and pour the remaining sauce over them. Garnish with a pinch of sesame seeds and chopped asatsuki chives.

Recipe: Sudachi ponzu (citrus and soy sauce)

Make your own batch of this citrus and soy sauce.

Ponzu is a type of sauce made from soy and citrus fruit. In Japan, fruit such as kabosusudachi or yuzu are used to make ponzu. I chose sudachi because it’s currently in season. A little later in the year, I would have chosen yuzu.

Sudachi ponzu (citrus and soy sauce)

Sudachi ponzu (citrus and soy sauce).

You don’t have to use a Japanese citrus fruit when making ponzu. It can also be made with citrus fruit more readily available in western countries: lemons, limes, and so on.

The basic proportions are 5 parts fresh juice: 5 parts soy sauce: 2 parts mirinHanakatsuo is roughly flaked dried bonito, and is mainly used for creating dashi, the stock on which so much Japanese cuisine is built.

I recommend you use a glass jar or bottle to store ponzu, as this minimizes the chances of oxidization. You can try it after a week but I suggest you have it after it has been stored for a month. Make it now, and it will be perfect to have as a dipping sauce for nabe (hotpot) at the end of the year.

Ingredients

  • 500 ml soy sauce
  • 500 ml sudachi juice
  • 200 ml mirin
  • 5 – 10 g hanakatsuo
  • 10 – 15 cm of konbu (kelp)

Method

Squeeze the juice from 1.5 kg of sudachi fruit.

Mix all of the the ingredients in a large bowl (one which can hold 1.5 – 2 liters). Let the mixture stand for 24 hours and then remove the hanakatsuo and konbu. Store in a large jar or PET bottle and keep it in the fridge.

Recipe: Agedashidofu

Agedashidofu is a traditional Japanese dish which combines the chewy texture of deep-fried tofu with the soft texture of the raw ingredient. Such is agedashidofu’s popularity, its commonly featured on izakaya menus up and down the country.

For this dish, either kinu (silk tofu) or momen (cotton tofu) can be used. I prefer the texture of kinu tofu, but momen will be easier if you’re not used to handling tofu.

Agedashidofu

Agedashidofu

Here sweet green peppers are used to garnish the dish, but chopped asatsuki chives or dried bonito flakes also make an excellent garnish.

Ingredients (serves 2)

  • 250g tofu
  • 200g daikon (radish)
  • 1 piece ginger
  • 4 tablespoons of cornstarch (katakuriko in Japan)
  • 4-6 sweet green peppers as a garnish

Soup

  • 100ml dashi soup
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon mirin

Method

Wrap the tofu in paper towels and place it on a tray. Allow it to stand for about 30 minutes (or longer if necessary) to eliminate any excess moisture.

Grate the daikon and squeeze gently to drain any excess liquid. Now grate the ginger and remove the stems from the sweet peppers. Poke a few holes in these using a bamboo skewer so that they don’t explode when deep-fried.

Cut the tofu into 4 to 6 pieces, then heat a pan of vegetable oil to 170 degrees Celsius (338 degrees Fahrenheit). The oil should be just deep enough to cover the tofu. Now brush the tofu with a light coating of the corn starch and immediately deep-fry until the pieces have turned light brown. Take them out of the pan and place them on a tray to drain.

Quickly deep-fry the sweet green peppers (10 seconds ought to be enough).

Next, pour the dashi, soy sauce and mirin into a small saucepan and bring (what will be the sauce for the dish) to the boil.

Plate the tofu and pour the sauce around the pieces of tofu. Take care not to pour the sauce directly onto the tofu.

Garnish with the deep-fried green peppers, a tablespoon of grated daikon and a teaspoon of grated ginger.