Translated by Lester Somera
Saitama's Gourmet Dishes - A Foodies' Paradise Of Japanese Cuisine
This article introduces great places to enjoy the cuisine of Saitama Prefecture: grilled eel, sweetfish, soba, shaved ice, and more!
Written by MATCHA
Saitama prefecture, which adjoins northern Tokyo, has a great number of interesting sightseeing spots and fantastic natural sights. Since it is readily accessible from Tokyo, many people come to visit here for day trips all year long. There are famous dishes and meals that can only be eaten in Saitama too, which makes it popular with foodies as well.
Let's take a closer look at some of the foods that make up Saitama's unique gourmet scene.
Saitama Prefecture’s Grilled Eels (Unagi)
When they hear the word “unagi,” most Japanese people probably think of Hamanako in Shizuoka prefecture. However, Saitama prefecture also has a long history with this dish. There are many well-established unagi restaurants in the prefecture, and of those restaurants, the places in Urawa and Kawagoe are particularly famous. Let’s take a closer look at the history of unagi in these areas.
The Unagi of Urawa
In the Edo period, there was a great deal of swampland around the Urawa district of Saitama city, so it was a fertile breeding ground for freshwater fish. For that reason, people came in droves to catch fish there, and the area thrived. The eels caught by those fishermen became renowned for their flavor, and this was the beginning of the "Unagi of Urawa", which brought so many visitors.
In front of Urawa Station, there is a statue with an eel motif, "Urawa Unako-chan". When you visit Urawa Station, stop by and take a look.
The Unagi of Kawagoe
Eels began being eaten in Kawagoe starting around the Edo period. Because eating meat was prohibited, the koi carp, loaches, and eels which could be caught from the Irumagawa and Arakawa rivers served as precious protein sources for the people who lived in Kawagoe.
The special product used in preparing the eel was famous soy sauce. The notion of eel being delicious with soy sauce spread through Kawagoe, and now it is connected to Kawagoe’s unagi culture.
There are unagi restaurants which specialize in kabayaki style, where the eel is soaked in a salty-sweet sauce before cooking, and others which specialize in shirayaki style. Shirayaki unagi is grilled directly over the flame without receiving any seasoning, sauce or oil. You can enjoy the original taste and aroma of unagi; add just a bit of salt and wasabi before you dig in.
The Sweetfish Dishes of Chichibu
Chichibu, in the northern part of Saitama prefecture, is famous for its sweetfish (ayu) dishes. The Aragawa River in Saitama spans 173 km, and runs from north to south throughout the entire prefecture. Because Chichibu is situated by the upper reaches of the river, the water is clean and there is a thriving sweetfish population in the area.
The food in the photo is sweetfish rice, made by cooking rice and grilled sweetfish together. The aromatic fragrance of the sweetfish permeates the rice in this popular dish.
Fried sweetfish is another enjoyable variation, with a crispy exterior and soft sweetfish flesh on the inside.
Since the Chichibu region is surrounded by mountains, there are large temperature variations within the day, and between summer and winter. This is the ideal environment for growing high-quality buckwheat to make into soba noodles. Thanks to this environment—unique to Chichibu—and to the fresh water of the Arakawa River, the soba dishes made here are superb.
Shaved Ice Made From Chichibu’s Fresh Water
In addition to sweetfish and soba noodles, the Chichibu region is famous for its shaved ice (kakigori), which makes good use of the chill of winter: it is made of frozen mountain spring water. That is why it is rich in mineral content and has a mellow taste. We recommend you try the shaved ice by itself first, then drizzle on syrup little by little as you eat.
You can try delicious, different flavored syrups depending on the season including mandarin orange, white peach, persimmon, strawberry, and grape.
Kawagoe’s Candy Alley: Wheat Bran Confectioneries and Amezaiku Candy
Kawagoe is affectionately known as Koedo Kawagoe, or Little Edo Kawagoe, a nickname that refers to the preserved Edo era townscape of Kawagoe, where visitors can check out stores and buildings that have been largely unchanged for centuries.
One would have to say that fukashi, sweets made from wheat bran, is Kawagoe's most popular gourmet item. Wheat bran is a processed foodstuff, with its primary ingredient being gluten—a protein component included in wheat flour. This is coated with black sugar, and the flavored result is called fukashi. At the street of sweets in Kawagoe, long fukashi are popular, and we recommend picking some up as souvenirs.
Experts in amezaiku, or candy craft artistry, also do live performances on this street. If you get the chance to see these skillful candy-shaping techniques of these craftsmen up close, you are quite lucky. They will take requests for shapes that you would like them to make, as well. Naturally, amezaiku are edible, but you can also buy and take them home as memories.
Enjoy the Izakaya Menus at the Minami Ginza Shotengai in Omiya
A great many dining establishments are gathered at one location in the Omiya district of Saitama, known as the Minami Ginza Shotengai. Close to the east exit of Omiya Station, if you duck underneath the arch that reads Minami Ginza, you will find a street tightly packed on both sides with rows of yakitori restaurants, traditional Japanese restaurants, izakayas, ramen shops and the like. At night, Minami Ginza Shotengai is crowded with visitors. Here, you can experience a unique atmosphere and sample various kinds of food from several different restaurants.
There are plenty of delicious dishes to choose from in Saitama, and since it's very accessible from Tokyo, why not come for a gourmet visit?
For other great sightseeing destinations in Saitama, please refer to our special feature on Saitama Prefecture.