Five Flavors of Sendai
Sendai is a northern metropolitan city like that of Tokyo and Osaka, only way up along the north side of the main island in Miyagi prefecture. While Sendai isn’t known for very much beyond its Tanabata festival and grave site of Date Masamune, the city is making competition to be the food capital of the country. It is still far off from Tokyo and Osaka in terms of food quantity, but it is easily the leader of experimentation. Other cities might be a kitchen, but Sendai chooses to be a science lab. Those with an adventurous stomach will enjoy every mouthful.
Gyu-tan (Beef Tongue)
As any Miyagi local, travel website, and even my own boss will tell you, you haven’t really experienced Miyagi cuisine unless you’ve had Sendai Gyu-tan. What is it? Tongue! Most westerners turn tail and run at the thought of eating tongue from any animal, but if was as gross as we imagine then odds are it wouldn’t be a prefecture signature dish. In fact, it is so popular that there is an entire walkway of shops and restaurants advertising it as their specialty on the third floor of Sendai Station, dubbed Gyutan Dori (Beef Tongue Street).
Traditionally, it is meant to be had with tail soup. Both dishes were created as a way of using leftover animal parts after World War II ended. Since its introduction and popularity rise in the late 1940s/early 1950s any restaurant will serve it in a multitude of ways, from a rice bowl, all the way down to with plain miso. If you haven’t had your fill of it on Beef Street then make your way just outside the West Exit (the one with the stained glass) of the station to Ichiban-cho for the closest Aji Tasuke: the famous restaurant that started Miyagi’s craving.
Aji Tasuke Location: 4 Chome-4-13 Ichibancho, Aoba Ward, Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture 980-0811
Zundamochi (Soy Bean Mochi)
Japan loves their soy products, and Miyagi is especially big on it. Imagine if George Washington Carver had experimented with soy beans instead of peanuts, and that’s about as close as you’ll get to how many different uses they have created for it. Alongside soy sauce, soy flour, and soy milk, Sendai and the rest of Miyagi have taken a liking to zundamochi. What’s that? Well it’s after soy beans are removed from their shells and smashed together with water, sugar, and small bit of salt to make a sweet paste; the perfect topping for mochi. That’s not all. Beyond that of a mochi topping, zunda has been revamped time and again in Miyagi to become products such as ice cream, tofu, tea, and even milkshakes. Candy products such as Kit-Kats can even be found in zundamochi flavor. LOOK Chocolate even makes special zundamochi flavored chocolate bars, distributed exclusively in the Tohoku region of Japan. They are all exceptionally sweet and tasty.
Zunda Saryo is a popular café chain that specializes in all things zunda related. So when you’re done filling up on beef tongue and ready for dessert just find the closest Zunda Saryo. You can’t miss them with their bright green displays. There is one even in Sendai Station on the first floor.
Sasa Kamaboko (Fish Cake)
Miyagi is fortunate for being a coastal prefecture, thus it has plentiful fishing grounds. Seafood is a must in several areas. If fish is more your dish, then look no further than a helping of sasa kamaboko. It’s a type of fish cake, traditionally made from white flesh fish (flounder, tuna, etc) that has been minced and then seasoned. How it is prepared beyond its mincing and seasoning is dependent the area within Miyagi prefecture. It could be steamed flounder, fried mullet, roasted cod, or any other imaginable way. There might even be a special cheese or spiced filling in the center of the fish! By all means, try it multiple times if you find yourself traveling all about.
Traditionally, it is served in the shape of a bamboo leaf. Why? It is said to resemble the bamboo leaf was one of many family crests belonging to Date Masamune.
Photo by Alpha on Flickr
If a fish cake isn’t your ideal seafood then you’re in luck. Sashimi fans can still get their fill of raw meat with a warm bowl of zuke don. Similar to a gyudon (fried beef bowl), a zuke don is a rice bowl, but topped with fish that has been marinated with soy sauce. It can be found just about anywhere in the whole country. However, Sendai has been putting their own twist on the simple fish bowl. Introduced in 2009 by the Sendai Sushi Restaurant Association in part with Tohoku University’s Hokkirigawa-sensei, the “Sendai Zuke-don” was designed to stand alongside beef tongue as one of Sendai’s signature dishes. With the exception of using Miyagi rice and white fish, every restaurant that serves said “Sendai zuke-don” prepares it differently from every other just like they would their sasa kamaboku. Different fish used, different seasonings, different sauces. With over 200 kinds of fish caught along the Miyagi coast, food tourists will be in for a surprise no matter where they sit down for dinner.
Eating out in Sendai can feel a lot like spinning a roulette wheel when you order certain foods!
Sendai Aoba Gyoza
With all the meat on the menu, don’t think there isn’t anything for vegetarians other than soy paste. A more obscure, yet colorful dish is a vegetable dumpling called the Sendai Aoba Gyoza. Gyoza? Isn’t that a Chinese dumpling? Well, yes it is, but Sendai does its own take on it with plant life that grows only in the Sendai area. While most dumplings you’d picture are a pale golden brown, the Aoba gyoza is rich green, inside and out! Stuffed full of veggies, the outer shell is made from the leaf of the yukina plant, making it the side dish that stands out from the rest of the buffet.
Could it get better? YES! With nearly half of the dumpling made from yukina plant, Aoba gyoza cuts back on flour and oils. As a result it is less fattening, has less cholesterol, and is still delicious. Be warned. While it is traditionally served vegetarian style, just like every other Sendai specialty, chefs love to experiment and add their own twist on it. You might want to ask your server beforehand if they put any meat in the restaurant’s Aoba gyoza before ordering.
Itadakimasu (Let’s eat)!