Translated by Jasmine Nishino
Traditional Snacks From Niigata That Make Perfect Souvenirs
Written by 須田絢香
Niigata is a prefecture up in the north that is known for producing delicious rice and for its delicious seafood from the Sea of Japan. Let us introduce some snacks loved by the locals just as much as their rice and fish!
Niigata is a prefecture in Japan that is a major producer of rice and has an active fishing industry. Therefore, when people think of specialties of Niigata, many would think of rice, sake and fresh seafood.
However, Niigata is not only limited to those three specialties! Niigata has plenty of tasty snacks as well.
In this article, we would like to introduce some simple snacks that have been loved by the locals for generations.
1. Taste of Outdoor Stands: Poppo-yaki
Poppo-yaki is a snack that is favored by the people of Niigata, mainly in Shibata and Murakami in the Kaetsu district. It is a baked confectionery that has the light sweetness of brown sugar and a chewy texture.
The name Poppo-yaki comes from the sounds of the steam coming out of the baking oven, which sound like the toots coming out of a steam locomotive. In Japan, there are places that refer the steam locomotive as a poppo, or a 'shu-shu poppo', for the sounds that a steam train makes when in motion. Some also say that the name comes from the sounds of the steam escaping the oven, which attracted attention from customers.
It is commonly sold during the ennichi (*1) celebrations at shrines and cannot be found in stores. In outdoor stalls, you can purchase around three sticks for about 100 yen. Sometimes it is sold in quantities of nine or fifteen.
Poppo-yaki can only be found at an ennichi, but the bread company Yamazaki has created their own Poppo-yaki Style Steamed Bread that can be enjoyed year round. It is a limited product only sold around the Niigata and Yamagata areas, so try and look for it in supermarkets or convenience stores there.
*1: Ennichi: Celebrations or festivals held in temples or shrines.
2. Sasa Dango from the Sengoku Period
Sasa dango is a type of Japanese confectionery called yomogi dango (*2). It is a steamed or boiled rice cake with a bean paste center that is wrapped in a bamboo leaf. With one bite, you can taste the flavors of the yomogi grass and bamboo in an instant.
According to documents recording the history of Niigata called the Hokuetsu Fuudoki, the sasa dango was originally a portable preserved food during the Sengoku period, and is still wrapped in bamboo leaf even today.
The sasa dango became known as a ”rice cake confectionery with bean paste inside” after the Meiji Period when sugar became easier to get.
It is now a Japanese confectionery that represents Niigata and can be found in souvenir shops around stations and sold inside the shinkansen cars as well. They make great gifts too, however, their shelf life is quite short and should be eaten in 4-5 days at most.
*2 Yomogi dango: A rice cake with a grass called yomogi kneaded inside.
3. Local Ice Cream: Momotaro
For over 40 years, a local Popsicle that has been loved by the locals is the Momotaro. It is a popular product made by Seihyo, a Niigata-based company.
The ”momo” in the name Momotaro means peach in Japanese, however, this frozen treat is actually strawberry flavored. It has an icy texture almost like a shaved ice and a refreshing sweetness.
The origin of this product comes from an ennichi as well. It was first served when ice was crushed and formed into a shape of a peach and strawberry syrup was poured on top. Aside from the Momotaro, there is the Kintaro type that is red bean flavored and Momoe-chan that is pineapple flavored, both of which are just as good.
4. A Snack That Represents Niigata, the Kaki no Tane
When people think of snacks from Niigata, the first one that comes to mind is the kaki no tane. Kneaded sweet rice is cut out into its distinctive shape, flavored with soy sauce and then baked. It is a favored snack to accompany alcoholic drinks among the Japanese. The secret to its flavor is the delicious sticky rice from Niigata.
Many rice snack companies such as Kameda Seika sell it nationwide in supermarkets, but it is said that the true kaki no tane originates from a company called Naniwaya Seika.
This snack got its distinctive shape originally from an accident. At first, they were making oval coin shaped snacks using metallic cutters. But one day the metallic cutter got crushed and the snack had to be made using the deformed cutter. The rice snack that was produced looked like the pit of a persimmon, and that gave the snack its name, ”kaki no tane” (persimmon pit).
The kaki no tane has become a popular snack with alcohol in Japan. It comes in various flavors such as the classic soy sauce and chili pepper, unique ones such as the wasabi and pepper, or even a chocolate coated classic kaki no tane. There are even some seasonal flavors as well.
With a fairly long shelf life, this snack is also a very popular souvenir.
Perhaps there were some snacks you've never heard before. By knowing the names and origins, you might even have found something that you would like to try while in Niigata too. In Niigata, there are plenty of local specialties that are loved along with rice and sake. All these products listed in this article can be found easily in local supermarkets, souvenir shops, and shops in stations for under 1000 yen.
On your next visit to Niigata, why not try some of these wonderful Niigata snacks out?