Sunday, March 16, 2008

Niigata Prefecture

I spent a large portion of yesterday afternoon at the 2008 Sake No Jin, Niigata's annual sake festival. Niigata is the most famous sake-producing region in Japan, and hosts the largest festival: out of the prefecture's 97 kura, or breweries, 92 were in attendance this year, attracting upwards of 60,000 visitors to the two-day event.

The people of Niigata are also justifiably proud of their cuisine, and local delicacies include koshihikari table rice (considered the finest in Japan), a sweet winter strawberry called echigohime, wild salmon and nanban ebi, or northern red shrimp. Nanban means red chili pepper, and these shrimp derive their name from their bright red shells; their meat is sweet and succulent, with a silky texture. While I was plied with a vast array of incredibly delicious food today, nanban ebi certainly figured prominently. This photo is of a tremendously fragrant soup of miso and nanban ebi heads served during lunch at the renowned Sushi Marui restaurant; behind it, nanban ebi is included in an assortment of sashimi.

At a large dinner in the evening, more nanban ebi sashimi was upstaged by an even fresher option: live nanban ebi. I couldn't get a straight answer as to why the three shrimp in my bowl were only very gently twitching rather than jumping all over the place (general anesthesia? too much sake, like me?), but they made my task easier. The procedure for eating a live nanban ebi begins by twisting off the head: after that it's no more intimidating than peeling a shrimp normally. My first two passed complacently, but a third, a female full of salty-sweet roe, twitched a little as I decapitated her with my fingers. Caught up in the wanton slaughter of my food, I didn't remember to take a photo until this point, so this one is largely post-carnage.

Today it's off to Sado, a nearby island that is the home to several sake breweries, some hot springs, Charles Jenkins (an American soldier who defected to North Korea during the Korean War) and lots and lots of nanban ebi.


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