Marketing Regional Cuisine: A Fukui Snow Tiger in Suburban Tokyo
“There was a famous gourmet writer, Kitaōji Rosanjin, who wrote that a piece of deep-fried tofu, grilled and covered with a mound of shredded daikon looks like a tiger hiding in the snow. Our dish, a grilled abura-age (deep-fried tofu) covered in shredded daikon called yukitora [snow tiger], gets its name from this description. It resembles the snow from Fukui Prefecture.” That’s how the chef Kashiyama Kyoko explained the name of her restaurant to us, one that borrows a poetic image from one of twentieth-century Japan’s most famous foodies.
You walk several minutes from Nishiogi Station down the road towards Tokyo Christian Women’s University in order to reach Yukitora. After turning down a narrow alleyway, you can find a small restaurant specializing in the little-known cuisine of Fukui Prefecture. It’s next door to the macrobiotic restaurant Komenoko
Although it is called Fukui “cuisine” there are only a few items on the menu – such as the famous Echizen crab – that actually shout out “Fukui” to a Tokyo diner. The most popular items on the menu, a thick grilled abura-age and a grilled mackerel (yaki saba) are served in a way that emphasizes their natural flavors with minimum preparation. This is stuff you also can eat in the local regions of Fukui. The thick cuts abura-age that the shop is named for, and the fat mackerel grilled on a skewer are ingredients with rich umami. But it does raise the question of why someone in Tokyo would open up a restaurant devoted to such a “minor cuisine,” like that of Fukui.
Tauchi Nobitaka, who runs the shop together with Kashiyama explained that the restaurant was conceived by a group of four friends who met while studying at Aoyama University. “As for the ingredients, Fukui mackerel, crab, and so forth, we decided on these because Kashiyama’s grandfather had always run a shop using these things to make local food.”
Kashiyama explained how she came up with the idea of reviving these tastes from her childhood. “Originally, actually quite a long time back, he had a small grocery selling everything from wash powder to candies, and off to the side there was a space where you could eat mackerel. At first, it was mostly a bentō take-out place. But after a while, my grandfather opened a larger izakaya-style space nearby. It was in Fukui City in Fukui Prefecture, but it actually takes thirty minutes from the station by car to get there…. I was born in Fukui, and raised in Saitama. I grew up in Saitama, but I spent the summer and winter holidays in Fukui.”
According to this story then, a group of college classmates got together and decided to open a shop where they could meet and enjoy good food, and based on Kashiyama’s background settled on the concept of a Fukui restaurant. Two of the former classmates are outside partners and not involved in the daily business, and Tauchi has no experience in hospitality, so the largest burden clearly falls on Kashiyama. She is a licensed professional cook with a sake sommelier (kikisake-shi) certificate. She is in the restaurant every day.
“During my student years, I worked in restaurants, and then, of course, later I was cooking as a housewife. Then I worked as a cook in an izakaya, and also in the daycare center,” she explained with a laugh. “Yes, I was the cook making lunch for the kids.”
Like many other restaurateurs we interviewed, they found that opening a small restaurant in neighboring Kichijoji or Ogikubo would be difficult, so they came to Nishiogi. But when they started they realized they were in an area of Tokyo with a great deal of competition among small restaurants. One way they have tried to build up business has been to mobilize the connection to Fukui.
“The owner of the building told us that in Nishiogi you should not do really flashy advertising,” Tauchi said. “You should not go around passing out advertising leaflets. Kashiyama is very good with SNS, so we have done that. Also, we have a big core group of people from Fukui. There is the Meiringakusha, a dormitory university students from Fukui between Kichioji and Nishiogi created by the provincial association.”
Meiringakusha is a boys-only dormitory just a ten-minute walk from the restaurant, and students often pass down the main road near the restaurant.
“It is just a weak link,” Kashiyama said, “but we want to create ties to Fukui. We have good relations with Meiringgakusha, and we have entered the Prefectural Association (kenjinkai), the Fukui Support Society, that sort of thing. And we get quite a few customers from Fukui. Now there are many regular customers from Fukui.”
One reason that they are able to attract Fukui diners is that there are not so many restaurants from the area in the city, Tauchi explained. “Compared to Osaka or Hokkaido regional restaurants, I would say the number [of Fukui cuisine restaurants] is about a hundred to one. There are some in Ginza, but none along the Chuo Line. So, people living near Nishiogi who are from Fukui will come here when they are feeling nostalgic, or people who are on a business trip from Fukui will come here for a visit.”
So what specifically about this cuisine attracts people from Fukui? “Crab is Number One,” Tauchi said. “That’s right,” Kashiyama continued. “Then there is the Mackerel Highway (saba kaido) [the road along which mackerel was transported from the West Coast of Japan to Kyoto]. I believe that Fukui cuisine is all about the original ingredients. It is different from the Tokyo [soy sauce-based] style cuisine. It just uses dashi -- Kansai style -- a more lightly seasoned style, with the rice called Echizen Hikari, etc. With many dishes, you can enjoy the ingredients in their natural state.”
“In the old days, this was known as the country that never runs out of food,” Tauchi said. “It was highly prized in Kyoto, and so there was the so-called Mackerel Highway.”
“It was transported to Kyoto,” Kashiyama said. “And then it is also said that Koshihikari [the rice variety] was developed in Fukui. Because the ingredients were so good in Fukui, it was simply taken for granted. There is a book called “Washoku Is in Fukui.”
In short, in a region with plenty of fresh ingredients, the main features of the cuisine are to cook it in such a way that the original flavors are highlighted. The famous ingredients are crab, mackerel, and also abura-age, a type of thick-cut tofu that is deep-fried so that it can be easily preserved. It is often grilled or put in soups. We asked Kashiyama about the special nature of abura-age from Fukui.
“The unique point of Fukui’s abura-age is that it is cut quite thickly,” she said. “It is not atsu-age [also a familiar form of fried tofu, usually thicker than abura-age]. It might sound odd, but it is not really that heavy.” Made only of beans, water, and oil, this was originally temple food, Kashiyama explained. Yukitora offers two varieties of abura-age made by two fierce competitors in Fukui City, Taniguchi-ya and Tōfu-an, that were started by two brothers. The restaurant even offers a set where you can compare both varieties. “In Fukui, you would never find the products of these two brothers offered together!” Kashiyama said laughing, but in Yukitora, you can try both to see which you prefer.
The other famous dish is a whole mackerel grilled on a skewer, Kashiyama explained. “In the old days, mackerel would go bad quickly. In order to be able to transport it all the way to Kyoto, it would be grilled... On the ocean side, they would not put extra salt on it. They would simply take it out of the salt water and roast it right there on a skewer, and then it would be transported on to Kyoto. My grandfather used to eat it like that on a skewer. After grilling it, you can eat it during the next two days with no problem. Of course, you take out the innards. There are many kinds of mackerel. This one is Pacific mackerel (masaba).”
The ones served here are called drunken mackerel, which refers to the feed given to the farm raised fish. “They are called drunken mackerel because part of their feed is sake lees (sake kasu). It’s mixed in with the other stuff and is supposed to relieve stress, makes them a bit drunk.”
The other famous item from Fukui is the Echizen crab, the magnificent large male snow crab, that can grow more than 50 cm long. Snow crab is caught all around Japan, and there are many local names, with the male being twice as large as the female, known as Seiko crab. Fukui has its own names for both. Fukui has been able to create its own brand around these crabs, including a crab museum and crab festival. (There is a video on how to eat the smaller Seiko crab.)
Customers will be able to eat this at Yukitora starting in November, Kashiyama explained. “We eat this simply boiled. It is best boiled in seawater. And then there is the Seiko crab, the female version. Back home we also call this Kōbako crab. It is quite small. My grandfather’s generation used to have these as a midday snack, they said. They’d just wrap some up in a newspaper.”
The crabs are a seasonal dish. “The fishing for the crabs is allowed from November 6,” Kashiyama said. “So, they arrive here around November 9.” Because Yukitora is a small restaurant, crab is not always available, even in season. Customers must reserve the large Echizen crabs; the Seiko crabs can also be reserved, but there should be some available for customers without reservations.
Friends who come in from Fukui have contributed to enriching the authenticity of the offerings. “Mackerel and abura-age, there are not many other things with a history. “Sauce cutlet” (sōsu katsu, a katsu don with tonkatsu sauce) was also invented in Fukui. It’s popular in Nagano, Fukui, Fukushima, those areas. Actually, many customers from Fukui have come in and helped with the menu. For example, you don’t need any pickles in Fukui cuisine. And sake also is introduced by various sake brewers, new things, things that are not on the menu…. A lot of it is introduced by customers,” Tauchi said.
“Customers have introduced sake brewers to us…. And the Fukui Prefectural Society, the Fukui Support Society, Tokyo Fukui … something… society, they all come in,” Kashiyama added.
Kashiyama deals with all the supplies as well. “All of them are directly sent from Fukui. The rice comes from my grandparents’ hometown, Futsukaichi City. I ate it since I was little, so I have it sent to the shop.”
The rice that she uses is a variety of Koshihikari with a Double AA rating. It is sent to the shop as whole-grain rice and then using a small rice mill, it is milled to medium polish to serve in the restaurant.
As a sake sommelier, Kashiyama also deals with the sake. There is always Denshu (from Aomori), but the other sakes are from Fukui. “Fukui sake is usually on the sweet side,” she said. “But there are beginning to be drier ones. We have Kokuryū, Born, and Hayase, all ranked highly in Fukui. Born is quite well known abroad, and Kokuryū is very well-known in Japan.”
Kashiyama is also doing all the cooking in the restaurant, both lunch and dinner. Tauchi mostly helps with the service. Clearly, Kashiyama does nearly everything else, which is not easy for one person to manage. At lunch, they can only serve about ten people, she said. At night, there are often only two or three customers, sometimes none. It is actually about all they can handle, she said. Increasing the amount of business would not be feasible, but at the same time, the current level of business is not enough to make a real profit.
“When there is a reservation, we can call on a part-timer, but even then, a full house would be difficult to cope with. It is really not easy to make money in the restaurant business. At night, it’s the same. On average, we can say there are usually about ten people at lunch, one, or maybe three people at dinner, like that.”
Even though they would like to garner more profits, it is not easy to accommodate a large increase in guests. In any case, at this point, most customers are people living in the neighborhood, families with children, etc. At lunch, it is mostly women. Business is clearly not easy.
Koshiyama is the mainstay of the restaurant. She also likes to wear a kimono to work. “It is a hobby I learned from my grandmother,” she said. Yukitora is a restaurant being gradually transformed by visits from Fukui customers. It is also a place where customers who have never been to Fukui can get a taste of the region, from the hard-working cook and manager in the kimono (James Farrer, Oct. 27, 2018).
(English text by James Farrer; interview by James Farrer and Fumiko Kimura, July 13, 2018; Japanese transcription and editing by Fumiko Kimura; translation by James Farrer; copyright James Farrer 2018, all rights reserved)