Brilliant neon signs reflected in the waters of the Nakagawa river. Delicious smells wafting through the air from the food stalls.
We are in Hakata, in the city of Fukuoka, where one can find a range of different seasonal foods on offer throughout the course of the year.
The Nakasu district, one of Japan’s best-known entertainment precincts, is a lively, bustling place resplendent with color and movement. It is hard not to get caught up in the spirit of the place. Enter any of the food stalls and you’ll soon be salivating at all the wonderful delicacies that can only be found here in Hakata. In an instant you understand the intrinsic appeal of Hakata and why it continues to attract so many visitors from Japan and around the world.
Fukuoka is surprisingly close to mainland China and the Korean peninsula, and boasts a long and rich history of cultural exchange over the seas. This provides the historical backdrop to the unique culture of this region, a major part of which is its food. Hakata boasts a number of signature specialties such as motsunabe (pot stew), Hakata-style ramen and mizutaki (chicken stew). And it goes without saying that the best place to sample these is in downtown Hakata.
Skilled artisans producing the finest karashi-mentaiko
Karashi-mentaiko (Alaskan pollack roe pickled in spicy pickling mixture) is one of Hakata’s best-known exports. There are several theories on the origins of this unusual delicacy. The most common theory holds that Alaskan pollack ovaries were originally pickled in a special spicy seasoning prepared from togarashi (chili pepper). Today, karashi-mentaiko is a popular accompaniment to rice enjoyed all over Japan. It adds a spicy piquancy together with the glorious texture of individual cod roe.
To find out the secret to the burgeoning popularity of karashi-mentaiko, we visited a dedicated manufacturer in Hakata called Yamaya Communications.
The production process begins with grading of the cod roe. Yamaya Communications workers travel all the way up north to the Sea of Okhotsk to select the finest roe to be made into karashi-mentaiko.
Likewise, only the best ingredients will do for the pickling blend. While other manufacturers mostly use water as the base, Yamaya Communications insists on a particular type of sake made by legendary local brewers Kitaya, which gives it a more full, round flavor. Other key ingredients include yuzu (citron) sourced locally in the Kyushu region and kombu seaweed from Rausu in Hokkaido. The distinctive Yamaya taste is augmented with a special blend of chili spices developed by Yamaya.
“The quality of what you put in determines the quality of the finished product,” explains Yamaya Communications sales manager Mr. Yasukouchi. “We are always looking to enhance and refine our seasoning mix. It’s based on the recipe that we have used since the company first started, but we will occasionally modify it as we think necessary, especially in response to feedback from our customers. The Yamaya taste is constantly evolving and improving.
Considerable time and effort is also devoted to the getting the process right in order to create the authentic Yamaya taste.
For example, the roe is massaged gently by hand prior to pickling. The amount of massaging depends on the state of the roe; on some days extensive massaging is needed, on other days very little at all. This is where the keen judgment of the skilled workers comes into play.
“The massaging process was suggested by some of our workers,” says the foreman Mr. Hamano. “The idea is that massaging enhances the flavor of the roe, which helps to give it that authentic Yamaya taste. We have skilled operators every step of the way, who are dedicated to maintaining the highest standards of quality.”
After massaging and seasoning, the roe is pickled gently for 168 hours to ensure consistency of flavor. The slow pickling is a big part of the distinctive Yamaya taste.
Freshly made karashi-mentaiko bursts in your mouth
In order to experience first-hand the wonder of freshly made karashi-mentaiko, we visited Motsunabe Yamaya at Hakata, a combined shop and restaurant operated by Yamaya Communications.
This is the only place where you can enjoy freshly prepared karashi-mentaiko.
Because it’s so fresh, the individual eggs are still perfectly preserved and they literally burst in your mouth. It’s an incredible taste sensation.