Japanese local dishes (日本の郷土料理)

The term 'local dishes' refers to home cooked dishes that have existed for a long time as part of a culinary culture in a certain area or district. They are also called local cuisine. When they spread nationwide and become popular, they were no longer referred to as local dishes.

Local dishes are also called 'gourmet cuisine in a particular locality' when the dishes, made up in a food processing company, a restaurant, or a campaign for local development, became part of home cooking in a certain area or district.

Classification according to their establishment

Local dishes are roughly classified into four types according to the period in which they originated.

Before the Edo period
At that time, there were no refrigerators, and so local dishes were mostly tsukemono (pickles), himono (dried fishes), or kunsei (smoked products), which could be preserved for a long time (e.g. boiled abalone in the present Yamanashi Prefecture). The cooking methods of some foods from Europe, such as castella sponge cakes, were modified when they were introduced to Japan, while other foods came from China, like Shippoku ryori (special Chinese cuisine in Nagasaki Prefecture, to which Japanese cooking methods were introduced).

From the Meiji period to the early Showa period
Many foodstuffs and recipes were introduced to Japan from abroad during the Meiji Restoration. This influenced the creation and modification of many local dishes in Japan.

In the wake of the Pacific War
Due to the scarcity of food after World War II, substitute foods and foodstuffs hitherto uneaten, as well as many local dishes were created anew (e.g. romen noodle, ox tongue dishes of Sendai, or yakiudon (udon fried with meat or vegetables)].

Revitalization of local communities. As Japanese society became industrialized after a period of high economic growth, regional areas dependent on agriculture and fishing faced decline. In response, many local dishes were created as a feature to revitalize local communities.

Crisis and reinvention of local dishes
Some cooks, folk culture researchers and regional researchers focus on the dishes local people regularly eat rather than the local dishes promoted with the encouragement of tourist authorities, or through the revitalization of the local community, various events, or which are showcased by the media. These specialists warn that unique culinary cultures are now disappearing. The say this is mainly due to the development of retailers, such as convenience stores and supermarkets, and the progress of information technology. They argue that this has caused the uniformization or the homogenization of domestic culinary life and culture, and decreased the opportunity for Japanese to cook by themselves at home (e.g. fish dishes). Meanwhile, the food section of convenience stores and supermarkets often have a few dishes peculiar to their local communities. However local residents are often ignorant that those foods are unique to their own communities as 'local dishes,' assuming the foods are common ones nationwide.

Some local cuisine came about due to the use of the local specialty as their ingredients, and others were produced by some geographic and historical conditions peculiar to the community. Some cuisine changed or disappeared, due to changes in the ingredients, condiments, and recipes that are suitable for the land and climate, or to the trends of the age. As mentioned above, unique culinary cultures developed in accordance with the customs of people in each former regional clan.

In a sense, all dishes can be said to be local when made for the first time. Some of them, such as Edomae-zushi (hand-rolled sushi), okonomiyaki (savory pancake with various ingredients) and karashi-mentaiko (spicy salted cod roe), became so popular around the country that they are no longer recognized as local dishes.
However other dishes, though common nationwide and called by the same or similar name, have different ingredients, cooking methods and seasonings in each local community, and are sometimes referred to as 'food dialects.'
For example, some common dishes, such as zoni (vegetable soup containing rice cakes), sekihan (festive red rice) and oden (Japanese hotchpotch foods served in a pot), have different seasonings (soy sauce, salt, sugar, white miso or red miso, etc.) according to each local community, so they differ greatly from each other.

Classification according to their area and foodstuffs

For example, many places around Japan insist that yubeshi (a sweet citron-flavored steamed dumpling) is one of their unique local dishes. Local dishes also serve as the clue to understand how cultural exchange was carried out through foodstuffs and cuisine.

Insect dishes
Insect dishes, such as locusts boiled in sweetened soy sauce and larva of the hornet, are mostly local to high mountain areas, such as those in Yamagata Prefecture, Fukushima Prefecture, Gunma Prefecture, Nagano Prefecture, and the backbone of Kyushu mountains from Oita Prefecture through Kumamoto Prefecture to Miyazaki and Kagoshima Prefectures
This is thought to be because people in high mountain areas regarded insects as food, due to the difficulty in obtaining protein from fish, in contrast to those living on the seacoast. While having high nutritional value, individual insects are so small that the nutritional value obtained per insect is relatively low. Therefore, it is believed that the gathering of insects took place in regions where a large number of insects could be gathered with a relatively small labor cost. Insect dishes are mostly eaten in high mountain areas, as is mentioned above, and insects selected as food were the larva of hornets, collectable in a sizeable quantity at one time, locusts which were easily collectable in large numbers in rice paddies, diving beetles which could be collected easily in the past merely by soaking the head and bony parts of a fish in a reservoir, and pupas and adult silkworms collectable in mass quantity as by-products in the manufacturing process of the silk thread.

Fish and shellfish
Moreover, there are many local dishes, such as moray eel dishes, bonito dishes, saury dishes and headfish dishes, which were popular in coastal areas in many prefectures. Fishing villages were connected by the ocean current, including the black current, and by the shipping traffic, and as a result, the culinary culture spread. For example, Nachikatsuura in Wakayama Prefecture and Katsuura in Chiba Prefecture have many things in common, such as place names and culinary culture. Tideland fish and shellfish once existed in Kojima Bay, Okayama Prefecture and in other regions of Japan, but now their large-scale habitat exists only in the Sea of Ariake, so they are no longer used in local cuisine.

Local dishes as a way to boost the development of the local community

As is mentioned above, local dishes are being used throughout Japan as a way to boost the development or revitalization of local communities. In other words, there is a nationwide trend to invent or reinvent local dishes in order to boost tourism and industry. In some cases dishes have been changed dramatically, and in others merely the appearance has been changed, with the introduction of a fresh new design in packaging.

In rural areas, populations are aging and decreasing, so traditional culture is being lost and it is unlikely to be passed on to future generations. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries reviews local dishes as part of the culinary culture, and the ministry is due to choose the 100 best dishes for fiscal 2007 in order to find local dishes that use their own local foodstuffs for the purposes of publicizing them nationwide. This effort aims to use local dishes to foster exchange between urban and rural areas and revitalize regional communities, and the ministry announced this plan as 'the top 100 rural culinary dishes'.

Confusion with the gourmet cuisine in a particular locality campaigned for local development

While local dishes are utilized more and more for local revitalization, some people criticize the excessive commercialization. For example, some dishes are forcibly made out to be 'local dishes' or 'specialties' by a tie-up of local chamber of commerce and industry, a local commerce and industry association, a local government, the media etc, although these dishes originally have little relation to their local communities.

In addition, criticism surrounds the many local dishes that are in fact not eaten by local residents but only served to tourists. Some confections and pickles are called local specialties, and these products are sold as gifts, but in reality, most of these products are produced or processed in another area or country, with labels placed on the product identifying them as local dishes.