Imoni: the Food of Friendship

The disappearing of the sound of cicadas a touch of cool wind are telling us that Summer has said goodbye and Autumn is coming.

When thinking of Autumn, pictures of beautiful autumn leaves and sweet Japanese persimmons come to my mind. But if you ask people from Yamagata, one answer that you will surely hear is “Imoni”.

Imoni is a kind of Japanese hotpot. The word Imoni comes from “Imo” which means tuber crops (like potato, yam, taro, sweet potato) and “Ni” which means simmering. The key ingredient of Imoni is taro, or Sato-imo in Japanese. Other ingredients are varied, depending on the area and personal preference: for example, sliced pork, beef, daikon raddish, konjac, carrot, long onion, Chinese cabbage, burdock root, mushrooms, and so on.

Imoni originates from Yamagata prefecture. Imoni in Yamagata is mostly made using a shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) based soup. In contrast, Imoni in Miyagi Prefecture is normally made with miso (Japanese soybean paste) based soup. I guess it may because miso from Miyagi prefecture is famous for its quality and delicious taste. Imoni is also cooked throughout the other prefectures of Tohoku as well, but it is not as popular as in Yamagata and Miyagi.

left: shoyu-soup Imoni / right: miso-soup Imoni

However, the most important ingredient of Imoni, which is more powerful than any recipe, is cooking and eating it together with family or friends. Actually, the process of cooking Imoni involves much more than simply putting ingredients into a pot and simmering them. For example, when I cooked Imoni with my circle members, the process began with some members leaving early to reserve a place at the riverside of Hirose River. Then we searched for some proper-sized stones to be used as the base of a campfire. The firewood and charcoal were added and lit and (this step was really difficult) we had to blow on the fire to make it hot enough to cook! Next we put a large pot with water on it, and added the soup base. The ingredients that take the longest time to be cooked, like carrot, taro, konjac, burdock root, must be added first. The mixture was simmered until the ingredients became soft. During simmering, more firewood and charcoal were added to keep things going – we needed to control the fire closely to make it continuously hot. After that, the rest of the ingredients like long onion and sliced beef were added. When all the ingredients became tender, the seasonings were added to adjust the taste. And our Imoni was ready!

Once it was done, everyone filled their bowls with the freshly made Imoni, and enjoyed the warm soup together. The properly simmered taro was tender and a bit chewy and full of the flavours soaked up from the soup. The tender and juicy meat with sweet vegetables was also fantastic. I literally forgot all about the coldness of the autumn wind!

This kind of Imoni cooking is called “Imoni-kai”, meaning Imoni party. This is a great bonding event between friends – there is nothing better than over coming the challenges of buying all the ingredients, lighting a fire and cooking together, by enjoying a delicious meal together at the end (before the next challenge of cleaning together hahaha).

If you come are travelling to Miyagi or Yamagata in the Autumn period, you may see a lot of firewood for sale in front of the convenience stores. This is for Imoni parties! Also, in the supermarket, there are a lot of large pots especially for Imoni for rental or sale. At many tourist attractions, you can also find Imoni festivals for locals and tourists. I highly recommend you to come and enjoy the gorgeous autumn leaves while warming up yourself with some delicious Imoni!

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