5 Famous Foods You’ll Find in Nara
History through food.
The former capital of Japan has a food culture dating back over hundreds of years to the days when Nara was the center of Japan’s culinary and courtly society. Eating in Nara offers visitors the opportunity to travel back in time with dishes that haven’t changed in centuries. Here are just some of the delights that await people interested in Japan’s appetizing traditional fare:
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One of Japan’s most popular snacks are mochi, small rice cakes usually covered with sweetened bean paste or dustings of sweet soybean flour. This tasty snack has a long history in Nara and even now visitors crowd around shops like Nakatanidou to witness mochi being prepared in the traditional way using a wooden hammer to pound the rice into shape.
Fans of trying all the varieties of this scrumptious snack often search for the characteristic mochi unique to the area known as kuzu mochi. Instead of rice, this treat is made of two simple ingredients, kuzu starch and water, making it a popular treat for meat eaters and vegans alike. This snack is often enjoyed with thick dark molasses giving it a perfect blend of the syrupy rich flavor with the kuzu mochi’s chewy texture.
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The water in the Miwa area is considered some of the purest in Japan. Every year, tour groups hike Mount Miwa simply to get a cupful of this legendary liquid. While it is refreshing consumed by itself, its soft taste also has another use: when combined with flour and salt, it makes a special kind of noodle called Miwa Somen.
These noodles are renowned for their thin shape and delicate flavor. Typically because of their subtle flavor, they are eaten with soy sauce, broth and sweet sake along with pickles, seaweed, ginger and other such flavorings to give them a fuller taste. The dish can be enjoyed hot or cold.
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A fish dish that is eaten days after it is made may sound inedible, but under the skilled hands of Nara chefs, Kakinoha Zushi has become one of the characteristic dishes of the area. The secret to keeping the fish fresh is the same thing that makes the dish so distinctive: the persimmon leaves that wrap the fish. The leaves act as a potent antibacterial killing any dangerous microbes that would usually make the fish nauseating, allowing the cured fish wrapped up inside to be eaten days after it would usually be impossible to stomach.
The popular alcoholic drink sake has a long history in Japan and nowhere more so than in Nara. Most experts agree that the first sake, known as “temple sake,” and many of the modern techniques used to brew the beverage originated in Nara. As a result of this long history, one of the original words for sake was Narazake.
One of the problems with brewing this heavenly drink was a waste product known as lees. Of course, no byproduct that came from a sacred temple was ever going to be wasted, so the sediment left over from brewing Sake was used to make to pickles with a unique taste. Admittedly you may want to have a few drinks while you wait as the treat can take approximately three years to make.
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As well as its ancient sake production, Nara was also traditionally associated with green tea, especially the legendary Yamato tea which is believed to date back to the 800-810. When a monk known as Kuukai brought tea back from China, Nara was so crazy for the drink that a uniquely Japanese culture arose around enjoying the tea. A later Nara resident, Murata Jukou, would develop this culture into a prototype of the modern tea ceremony.
One of the oldest uses for this drink was in the form of a rice porridge called Chagayu. While the filling food is typically enjoyed with green tea, there are also variations made with other types of tea including hojicha, sencha and even the smoky flavors of bancha.
The porridge has become as associated with the Nara area as oatmeal porridge has with the Scots. Much like the Highlanders, the dish is often eaten as a breakfast dish to fill you up for the day ahead. Ask any true Nara resident and they will tell you that mornings begin with chagayu.