THE DAWN OF SUSHI #02

FEATURE

“I hope to express the past, present, and future of funa-zushi on one plate.”

Carp before pickling. Front: Pickled funa-zushi Pickled rice with carp becomes runny like porridge during the fermentation process.

The freshwater fish known as nigoro carp, which are indigenous only to the Lake Biwa and Lake Yogo areas, have been used as ingredients in funa-zushi since long ago. The many orange eggs carried by the females are especially prized, and fishing begins with the coming of spring.

“If you remove the scales, you can remove all the internal organs except the eggs from the gills without cutting open the fish. This is how to control the flavor—after figuring out how to remove the organs without damaging the eggs,” explains Tokuyama. He can’t see inside the fish, so he relies only on experience and the sense of touch to remove the organs. His successors—his son and daughter—have yet to acquire this skill.

After removing the organs, he stores the fish in salt until the end of the rainy season in July. After this, Tokuyama removes the salt and washes the fish in water. Then the fish dry in the sun for several hours, sometimes as long as 12 hours. “I have to pay attention to the weather carefully on the drying days, taking into mind the heat as well as the humidity. I usually check on them about once an hour.”

Finally, the pickling process can begin. It starts with alternately stacking cooked rice and carp in a tub and closing it off, setting a heavy rock on the lid. Days later they add water to cut off the air supply and stimulate the natural fermentation that ripens the fish. After about 6 months, the process has softened the fish to the bone, and it’s ready for the table. Sometimes this process can take over a year.

Funa-zushi requires considerable time and labor. Around the time of completion, one will notice a fruity citrus fragrance from the lactic acid in the rice, and its consistency resembles a thick porridge. When eating the fish, it’s customary to cut it into thick pieces and remove the rice.

Tokuyama’s funa-zushi has no particular smell. The sour yogurt-like flavor lasts from the moment the fish is in your mouth, and the thick flavor of the fish eggs is gradually released as you chew. The dewy skin provides an outstanding texture.

Funa-zushi on its own is delicious, but it’s also excellent as a side dish with sake. Tokuyama recommends only one type of sake to pair with his funa-zushi. A local sake established over 480 years ago by Tomita Shuzo called Shichi-hon-yari, which is only made with rice and yeast. According to Tokuyama, a sweet wine would also be compatible.

Tokuyama continues to explore ways to pair funa-zushi with other foods. He considers a combination of funazushi and honey or making a paste from the fermented rice and adding it to other dishes as a thick sauce. For Tokuyama, the challenge and curiosity of continuing the quest for odd and original combinations seem to have no end. “Constraining oneself to an inflexible vision of from generations ago hinders progress. Is it not best to change these dishes to suit our modern palates?” asks Tokuyama. He has devoted himself to innovation. This summer, Tokuyama completed his laboratory for testing combinations of ingredients and new cooking methods.

When cutting funa-zushi that has just been pulled out of the barrel, brilliant orange fish eggs appear. The fermented rice carries the fragrance of carp and a soft acidic flavor.

His work extends beyond the kitchen. Tokuyama has exhaustively explored the Yogo Lake area, venturing deep into the mountains to harvest wild vegetables and mushrooms. Fishing for eel and smelt has also become an important daily routine. He uses his experience and knowledge of the mountains and lake he has known since he was a child. His customers experience his untiring efforts to create the best environment with the best bounties of the land.

“What I’m thinking about now,” he tells us as his eyes light up, “creating strange encounters with foods from different seasons. Japanese culture and cuisine pay respect to the seasons. Shun means “in season,” the time of year when certain foods are the most delicious. Hashiri, or “early season,” items are foods that are appreciated earlier in the season, and nagori are the vestiges of seasonal foods that are eaten begrudgingly after the season has passed. Just as these words imply, a distinctive feature of Japanese cuisine is tasting the changes of the seasons. But what happens if you dare to shift away from that tradition? For example, taking winter foods and preserving them, letting them ripen, and then combining them with foods that are seasonally summer dishes. If these foods encounter each other beyond their seasons, it’s exciting to think about the impression that could leave on one’s palate. It’s unheard of.”

These are not Tokuyama’s only unique ideas. He has his eyes focused overseas as well. Japan’s nare-zushi, which were the beginnings of funa-zushi, seem to have their roots in Southeast Asia. A very long time ago early in the Yayoi period, paddy farming spread to Japan, and one convincing theory says that nare-zushi was also brought to Japan at that time as a nonperishable. Nare-zushi researcher and cultural anthropologist Naomichi Ishige frequently sets out on trips to investigate and trace the roots of nare-zushi in Asian countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos to further his knowledge. One cannot help but feel the extraordinary passion these men have for making delicious funa-zushi, as well as for studying and championing this one food that has transcended time and culture.

“At some point, I hope to express the past, present, and future of funa-zushi on one plate,” says Tokuyama. Funa-zushi is a nonperishable food handed down from generations; it’s the manifestation of ancient wisdom. Funa-zushi has evolved to suit our modern palates. It will continue to change, and we will discover new methods and flavors. Maybe Tokuyama will soon transcend time on a single plate.

However, original ideas can only become a reality with honed skills and an in-depth knowledge of, and respect for, the ingredients. Creating a new form of funa-zushi is weighed down by pride. Pride in cuisine and the pioneers who shared Japanese food with the world. Undoubtedly, Tokuyama is a man who is on a quest in the world of Japanese food culture. He is an heir and a pioneer. Moreover, the funa-zushi into which he has poured his life has become his signature dish, and by tracing its roots into the eternal past, he can convey to the present and the future with a culinary time capsule.

Words: Akiko Wakimoto
Photography: Jun Hasegawa

Carp before pickling. Front: Pickled funa-zushi Pickled rice with carp becomes runny like porridge during the fermentation process.

The freshwater fish known as nigoro carp, which are indigenous only to the Lake Biwa and Lake Yogo areas, have been used as ingredients in funa-zushi since long ago. The many orange eggs carried by the females are especially prized, and fishing begins with the coming of spring.

“If you remove the scales, you can remove all the internal organs except the eggs from the gills without cutting open the fish. This is how to control the flavor—after figuring out how to remove the organs without damaging the eggs,” explains Tokuyama. He can’t see inside the fish, so he relies only on experience and the sense of touch to remove the organs. His successors—his son and daughter—have yet to acquire this skill.

After removing the organs, he stores the fish in salt until the end of the rainy season in July. After this, Tokuyama removes the salt and washes the fish in water. Then the fish dry in the sun for several hours, sometimes as long as 12 hours. “I have to pay attention to the weather carefully on the drying days, taking into mind the heat as well as the humidity. I usually check on them about once an hour.”

Finally, the pickling process can begin. It starts with alternately stacking cooked rice and carp in a tub and closing it off, setting a heavy rock on the lid. Days later they add water to cut off the air supply and stimulate the natural fermentation that ripens the fish. After about 6 months, the process has softened the fish to the bone, and it’s ready for the table. Sometimes this process can take over a year.

Funa-zushi requires considerable time and labor. Around the time of completion, one will notice a fruity citrus fragrance from the lactic acid in the rice, and its consistency resembles a thick porridge. When eating the fish, it’s customary to cut it into thick pieces and remove the rice.

Tokuyama’s funa-zushi has no particular smell. The sour yogurt-like flavor lasts from the moment the fish is in your mouth, and the thick flavor of the fish eggs is gradually released as you chew. The dewy skin provides an outstanding texture.

Funa-zushi on its own is delicious, but it’s also excellent as a side dish with sake. Tokuyama recommends only one type of sake to pair with his funa-zushi. A local sake established over 480 years ago by Tomita Shuzo called Shichi-hon-yari, which is only made with rice and yeast. According to Tokuyama, a sweet wine would also be compatible.

Tokuyama continues to explore ways to pair funa-zushi with other foods. He considers a combination of funazushi and honey or making a paste from the fermented rice and adding it to other dishes as a thick sauce. For Tokuyama, the challenge and curiosity of continuing the quest for odd and original combinations seem to have no end. “Constraining oneself to an inflexible vision of from generations ago hinders progress. Is it not best to change these dishes to suit our modern palates?” asks Tokuyama. He has devoted himself to innovation. This summer, Tokuyama completed his laboratory for testing combinations of ingredients and new cooking methods.

When cutting funa-zushi that has just been pulled out of the barrel, brilliant orange fish eggs appear. The fermented rice carries the fragrance of carp and a soft acidic flavor.

His work extends beyond the kitchen. Tokuyama has exhaustively explored the Yogo Lake area, venturing deep into the mountains to harvest wild vegetables and mushrooms. Fishing for eel and smelt has also become an important daily routine. He uses his experience and knowledge of the mountains and lake he has known since he was a child. His customers experience his untiring efforts to create the best environment with the best bounties of the land.

“What I’m thinking about now,” he tells us as his eyes light up, “creating strange encounters with foods from different seasons. Japanese culture and cuisine pay respect to the seasons. Shun means “in season,” the time of year when certain foods are the most delicious. Hashiri, or “early season,” items are foods that are appreciated earlier in the season, and nagori are the vestiges of seasonal foods that are eaten begrudgingly after the season has passed. Just as these words imply, a distinctive feature of Japanese cuisine is tasting the changes of the seasons. But what happens if you dare to shift away from that tradition? For example, taking winter foods and preserving them, letting them ripen, and then combining them with foods that are seasonally summer dishes. If these foods encounter each other beyond their seasons, it’s exciting to think about the impression that could leave on one’s palate. It’s unheard of.”

These are not Tokuyama’s only unique ideas. He has his eyes focused overseas as well. Japan’s nare-zushi, which were the beginnings of funa-zushi, seem to have their roots in Southeast Asia. A very long time ago early in the Yayoi period, paddy farming spread to Japan, and one convincing theory says that nare-zushi was also brought to Japan at that time as a nonperishable. Nare-zushi researcher and cultural anthropologist Naomichi Ishige frequently sets out on trips to investigate and trace the roots of nare-zushi in Asian countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos to further his knowledge. One cannot help but feel the extraordinary passion these men have for making delicious funa-zushi, as well as for studying and championing this one food that has transcended time and culture.

“At some point, I hope to express the past, present, and future of funa-zushi on one plate,” says Tokuyama. Funa-zushi is a nonperishable food handed down from generations; it’s the manifestation of ancient wisdom. Funa-zushi has evolved to suit our modern palates. It will continue to change, and we will discover new methods and flavors. Maybe Tokuyama will soon transcend time on a single plate.

However, original ideas can only become a reality with honed skills and an in-depth knowledge of, and respect for, the ingredients. Creating a new form of funa-zushi is weighed down by pride. Pride in cuisine and the pioneers who shared Japanese food with the world. Undoubtedly, Tokuyama is a man who is on a quest in the world of Japanese food culture. He is an heir and a pioneer. Moreover, the funa-zushi into which he has poured his life has become his signature dish, and by tracing its roots into the eternal past, he can convey to the present and the future with a culinary time capsule.

Words: Akiko Wakimoto
Photography: Jun Hasegawa

Hiroaki Tokuyama carefully makes thick cuts of the finished funa-zushi. Here we see his passion for cooking and his respect for the ingredients.

The entryway to Tokuyamazushi, which opened in 2004. Customers come from all over the world to visit and see what Tokuyama has made.

TOKUYAMAZUSHI
1408 Kawanami, Yogo-cho, Nagahama-shi, Shiga
+81 (0)749-86-4045
Reservation required
www.zb.ztv.ne.jp/tokuyamazushi

Hiroaki Tokuyama carefully makes thick cuts of the finished funa-zushi. Here we see his passion for cooking and his respect for the ingredients.

The entryway to Tokuyamazushi, which opened in 2004. Customers come from all over the world to visit and see what Tokuyama has made.

TOKUYAMAZUSHI
1408 Kawanami, Yogo-cho, Nagahama-shi, Shiga
+81 (0)749-86-4045
Reservation required
www.zb.ztv.ne.jp/tokuyamazushi

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