A Steak in Shitamachi

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A Steak in Shitamachi
Author: Yōko Hiramatsu
Illustrator: Jirō Taniguchi
Specifications: ISBN  978-4163761206
237 pages
13.2 x 18.8 cm / 5.2 x 7.5 in (WxH)
Category: Nonfiction
Publisher: Bungeishunju Ltd.
Tokyo, 2013
Buy now: amazon.co.jp


Following Sandouitchi wa Ginza de (Sandwiches on the Ginza), this is a second collection of food-and-culture essays that first appeared in the literary magazine All yomimono. As in the earlier volume, author Yōko Hiramatsu travels about Japan in search of interesting culinary experiences. Since these 13 essays were originally written between 2010 and 2012, a number of them bear the marks of the triple earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster that shook Japan in March 2011.

In “Ume’s Pork Bowl,” Hiramatsu reports on the eponymous “soul food” of Obihiro, Hokkaido. She visits Panchō, a restaurant in operation since 1933 where the famous butadon pork bowl was originally invented. As she tells the story of how Obihiro became the home of this dish, she delves into little-known aspects of the early days when the area was first being settled. Pioneers from the main island brought pigs with them in expectation that they would adapt well to the cold north, and with a great deal of hard work established a thriving pork industry. When the local restaurant industry took off early in the Shōwa period (1926?89), tying into the region’s pork production was a natural move, and it led to the birth of the pork bowl. In Hiramatsu’s telling, the history of the pork bowl is effectively the history of the opening of Hokkaido. She does not neglect to offer a mouth-watering description of the dish in question, with its succulent strips of charbroiled pork?cloaked in a spicy-sweet soy-based sauce?arranged like flower petals atop a bowl of steaming rice.

Of Hiramatsu’s repeated trips to northeastern Honshu following the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, her first visit is to the minimally affected inland city of Hirosaki in Aomori Prefecture. In reporting on the food and cultural history of the city where novelist Osamu Dazai spent his youth, Hiramatsu learns that the samurai retainers of the Hirosaki domain were the first Japanese ever to drink coffee back in 1855, when coffee was issued to them as part of their stipend for its vitamin content. She roves the former castle town in pursuit of the “retainers’ coffee” story, relating anecdotes from the lives of residents and evoking a palpable sense of the city as it was in times gone by.

In?“A Taste of Sanriku,” Hiramatsu visits Kuji on the Pacific coast of Iwate Prefecture, where she has heard that the famous sea-urchin bentō boxed lunch sold to travelers at Kuji Station might be in existential danger following the earthquake and tsunami. While dining on one of the bentōs, still as tasty as ever, she listens to residents talk about their experiences at the time of the disaster as well as how the community has come together to rebuild.

Never satisfied with merely describing the local delicacies encountered in her travels, Hiramatsu gets to know the people behind the food and delves into the history of the regions she visits. At the same time, her descriptions of post-disaster conditions and recovery efforts in cases like the “Sanriku” essay will now serve as a valuable part of the historical record for future generations.