World-Famous Gastronomy of Tsuruoka: Savoring Local Dishes with Local Ingredients
In December 2014, the city of Tsuruoka in Yamagata Prefecture was designated by UNESCO as the first Creative City of Gastronomy in Japan. Besides being one of the largest granaries in the country, Tsuruoka is blessed with a wide variety of seafood as it is located on the Japan Sea coast. This area continues to delight the palates of food connoisseurs across the globe. The rich ingredients available here lend themselves to various preparations including local, as well as Italian dishes with distinctive features. The following is a brief outline of Tsuruoka, a gastronomical paradise drawing worldwide acclaim.
Rich local crops and seafood
At the foot of the Three Mountains of Dewa, known for a national spiritual tradition of Shugendo, lie the Plains of Shonai, one of the richest granaries in Japan. People cultivate over 50 varieties of local crops, passed down from their ancestors. Dadachamame, known as a brand of edamame (green soybeans), is one of such local crops. Only selected green soybeans from a designated area that meet specific taste and sweetness criteria may be marketed under the name of dadachamame.
Tsuruoka is also home to Atsumi turnip, cultivated with a distinctive slash-and-burn method, and Tsuyahime, dubbed the most beautiful brand of rice in Japan. To the west of the Shonai Plains lies the Japan Sea, which yields a rich variety of seafood thanks to the warm Tsushima Current.
Seafood ingredients specific to Tsuruoka include the large iwagaki oyster, soft and tasty squid, and the typical winter fishes of hatahata and kandara cod, all landed at Nezugaseki. Those seasonal food ingredients have been passed down among households including in the form of local specialties and through ritual meals served for festivities. The unique local gastronomy has also been nurtured by vegetarian dishes to worship the Three Mountains of Dewa.
Italian dishes featuring seafood and local crops
Following its designation as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy, Tsuruoka has surprised the world with innovative Italian dishes featuring its local crops. Dadachamame Risotto, showcased at Expo 2015 in Milan, Italy, brought Tsuruoka’s local crops world recognition with a taste that amazed even the Italians. Dadachamame Risotto was presented by Mr. Masayuki Okada, Managing Chef of a local Italian restaurant, Al-ché-cciano.
He is one of the leading figures of the “local production for local consumption restaurant” movement in Japan. Italian cuisine typically features vegetables with less water content cultivated in southern Europe. In contrast, local crops in Tsuruoka contain much more water, which brings out distinctive flavors. Mr. Okuda succeeded in raising awareness of local crops around the world by leveraging these distinctive flavors. Developing recipes by finding how to transform the weaknesses of each crop into strengths was a formidable challenge not only for the chef himself, but also for the whole city of Tsuruoka.
The variety of fresh seafood landed from the Sea of Japan almost equals that from the Mediterranean. The availability of seasonal fishes and seashells to match the variety of Italian cuisine is essential for offering Italian dishes to meet the objective of local production for local consumption. With its world-class Italian dishes featuring local ingredients and a communicative chef, Tsuruoka is playing a pivotal role in creating a new gastronomic culture in Japan.
Taking the gastronomic paradise to a higher level
The gastronomic city of Tsuruoka was built on sustained efforts by its citizens to inherit local crops while preserving marine resources. Indeed, Tsuruoka’s philosophy of “gastronomic paradise” is now moving to the next level. “Tsuruoka Tourism,” focused on the experience and learning of gastronomy, was launched as a new initiative to promote unique inbound tourism, featuring moso (bamboo shoots) digging in spring, dadachamame harvesting in summer, and red beet harvesting and pickling in autumn. The first Tsuruoka Gastronomy Field Museum is scheduled for 2020, timed to coincide with the Tokyo Olympic Games. It is highly recommended to visit Tsuruoka, a gastronomic paradise in Yamagata Prefecture, where food connoisseurs gather from around the world to savor the very best foods.