Summer has officially come to Tohoku!
It’s not only bright sunlight and the sound of cicadas that are the symbols of Japanese summer, but also festivals!
Hearing the world ‘festival’ or ‘matsuri‘ in Japanese, I automatically think of colorful vintage-style vinyl banners, cheerful atmosphere, visitors in ‘Yukata’ or traditional Japanese summer clothes and many old-school festival games like scooping for goldfish, shooting games, darts, lotteries, etc. During summer, there are local festivals of all sizes, big and small, pretty much every week in Sendai.
From left to right: Darts, Fancy mask shop, Lottery
And one thing that you will surely find at every festival, food! Whatever the festival, most venues are overwhelmed with a huge variety of food stalls, both savory and sweet! In my experience, the food sold at festivals is attractive, unique and quite difficult to find in an ordinary restaurant. That’s why I am always excited looking around and trying to taste them all! Today I will bring you to a summer festival in Tohoku and meet some of the delicious food to be found there.
One important point that festival savory snacks have in common is that they are easy to carry and eat. Normally there are only few tables and seats set up in the festival area, or sometimes no tables at all! So we might need to eat while standing and festival food is generally designed for this purpose! You can find several kinds of skewered food, or food that you can use a skewer to pick and eat it (holding your plate in one hand and a skewer in the other). The containers are usually disposable-type.
The pictures above are Takoyaki (left) and Okonomiyaki (center); both use the same kind of batter. Takoyaki is made in a grilling pan with many round molds. The batter is poured into the mold, followed by octopus and other tasty fillings. Then, by quickly turning over the half-cooked mixture inside the mold, it becomes a ball. Drizzled with sauce, mayonnaise and topped with bonito flakes and nori seaweed, you will get delicious Takoyaki! For Okonomiyaki, the batter is mixed with chopped cabbage and shaped like a pancake. Many toppings can added like sliced pork and egg, then sauce, mayonnaise, bonito flakes and nori seaweed. The picture on the right above is also a variety of Okonomiyaki, but is folded into a roll to make it much easier to eat on the go!
There are other commonly found dishes similar to Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki, for example, Obanyaki and Tamago-sembei. Obanyaki is like a stuffed pancake. You can find both sweet (red bean paste, cream, etc.) and savory (egg, etc.) fillings. For Tamago-sembei, it is a thin batter topped with egg. Tamago-sembei and savory Obanyaki are topped with the same sauces and toppings as Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki.
But it is not only Japanese food you will find at these festivals, but also western food like sausages and steak! Especially at beer festivals, there are a huge amounts of sausages, beef steak or roasted pork being sold there.
The picture in the center is one of the most famous food of Miyagi prefecture, Kamaboko fish cake, and actually one of my favorites! The grilled tender and bouncy Kamaboko is indeed fragrant and tasty. Moreover it is skewered, so it is easy to take a bite (try my original recipe using kamaboko in cooking at home!). The picture on the right is ‘Tamakon’, or skewered konjac balls simmered in soup. You should eat it with ‘Karashi’ or Japanese mustard; its hot, spicy flavor makes the Tamakon even more delicious. This dish has next to no calories and is very healthy for you!
Tamakon is one of popular items in the dish ‘Oden’, a Japanese hot-pot consisting of several kinds of food simmered slowly in soup: boiled eggs, stuffed cabbage, chikuwa fish cake, daikon radish, etc. It is normally sold in winter, but you can find it in summer as well!
But wait, there’s more! The picture above on the left is Yakitori or grilled chicken. You can choose which part of the chicken you want to eat: thigh, skin, chicken meatball or thigh with long onion. Some stalls also sell skewered beef or pork, or delicious beef tongue (Gyutan) which is one of the most famous products of Sendai. The picture in the center above is grilled Ayu fish; summer is the best season for Ayu! Seasoned only with salt, you can taste its wonderful natural sweetness. The picture on the right is grilled Dango and grilled corn. Dango is a Japanese dumpling made of rice flour, which is kneaded until soft. Skewered grilled Dango with miso paste is delicious with a tender and chewy texture.
The picture on the left is Beef-tsukune or meatball with Japanese-style sauce, stuffed with cheese! The center pic is Beef menchi-katsu or deep-fried minced beef, made of Sendai’s great quality beef. And the right one is Karaage or deep-fried chicken with fries. Deep-fried food is another genre of food that is always sold at the festival. You can find deep-fried cheese rings, onion rings, spiral potato fries. For people who love potato but don’t want to eat fried ones, you can also opt for a baked potato with butter as well.
These are only just some examples! The list goes on forever…from yakisoba, grilled squid, grilled oysters (seafood from Tohoku region is really fresh and tasty! I can confirm that!), corn dogs, Chinese steamed-buns, creamy croquette and a whole lot more! Are you full now? You can’t be! Because we have dessert waiting for you (and there is always room for dessert…)!
Sweets and Drink
Just like the savory options, snacks and sweets sold at festivals are always easy to carry; usually skewered or served in a cup. In a hot summer like this, surely you want to eat something cold and refreshing, right? So the most famous dessert in the festival is…shaved ice!
Shaved ice or ‘Kakigori ‘is served with your favourite flavour syrup; you can choose from plenty of flavors! Most of the time is also topped with sweet condensed milk. Just one spoonful can cool the heat from your body. If you’re more of a creamy person, there are also several flavors of soft-cream to offer relief from the heat.
To our left we have candied strawberry or Ichigo-ame. The contrast between the intense sweetness of candy and sourness of strawberry is truly perfect! There are also candy apples or Ringo-ame and just the candy/toffee on its own, Mizuame. The second picture is a cotton candy shop. The cotton candy here is usually sold in a colorful bag. And the last picture on the right is, of course, Sembei or Japanese rice cracker! Sembei is usually a savoury snack, not a sweet, but there are many kind of flavours to choose from. The sembei pictured above is a plain one with no sauce. Sembei is super tasty and addictive with its crispiness coupled with the fragrance of grilled rice.
Another sweet that you will typically find at a Japanese festival is the chocolate-coated banana! There are all kinds of colors and a variety of toppings. This one is actually white chocolate (just…blue!) with sprinkles and ‘koala’s march’ chocolate biscuit on top!
Along with these sweet examples, you can find churros, crepes and traditional Japanese sweets like Taiyaki, Mitarashi-Dango (Dango with sweet and salty sauce), etc.
After all that food, no doubt you will want something to wash it doen! Drinks are usually sold by the bottle. On some occasions, like beer or wine festivals, there will be a number of stalls dedicated to selling just beverages.
For instance, the center and right pictures are of Tazawako beer, one of the best beers in the world! It is a product from Akita prefecture. And, of course, there is almost always a long queue of festival goers waiting to sip this fine beer.
Everything looks so delicious, right? This is only the beginning! I strongly recommend you to come and enjoy Tohoku festivals for yourself! If you are planning to visit Tohoku this summer, don’t forget to add one of Tohoku’s great festivals in your list – I am sure it will be a fantastic experience that you (and your stomach!) will never forget!