Each area or prefecture in Japan has it’s own delicacies, and Nara is no different. The Nara region (near Osaka and Kyoto, in Kansai) is famous for its kakinoha-zushi, which translates as ‘persimmon leaf sushi’. This delicacy is a must try for visitors to the city, or a possible option of omiyage to bring back for your Japanese co-workers.
Persimmon is a type of fruit that comes from Asia and is mainly grown in China and Japan. Like tomatoes, persimmons are actually berries but are considered pieces of fruit (or vegetables, in the case of tomatoes.) The inside of a persimmon is soft and stringy with large, embedded seeds. The outside is grainy and quite bitter so most people throw away the skin. However, for kakinoha-zushi, it is the leaves of the persimmons which are used rather than the fruit itself.
The leaves have an antibacterial quality, and are also treated with salt to make them stay fresher for longer. The sushi is made by first curing the fish (in kakinoha-zushi, typical types of fish to use are salmon, mackerel and trout) and then pressed into a mold filled with sushi rice (which has usually been mixed with vinegar.) Once the fish and rice have all been squished tightly together, the sushi is cut into bite-sized chunks and each individual chunk is wrapped securely in a persimmon leaf. The little sushi bundles are put into a presentation box (traditionally a wooden box) to be stored for a few days before consumption.
So what does kakinoha-zushi taste like? Well… actually, the taste isn’t all that different to standard sushi. I’m sure that a Japanese person who has spent their entire life eating a variety of different types of sushi would be able to instantly tell the different between standard sushi and a plate of kakinoha-zushi, but for tourists, the subtle difference in taste is not particularly noticeable. If I were given a blind tasting test, I’m not sure I’d be able to tell them apart. However, I’d say that there was a certain something about it that tastes different to standard sushi – probably the flavour of the rice was most noticeably changed. Also, I noticed that the curing process had left the flavour of the salmon pretty much unchanged, but it was noticeable in the flavour of the mackerel, which is not usually my favourite piece on a sushi platter but was the one I liked best in the kakinoha-zushi form.
As a popular local food, there are probably dozens of restaurants which serve this unique sushi dish, as well as at souvenir shops – we even saw some for sale at the Kansai International Airport (though I don’t particularly advise taking a box with you on a long-haul flight). In central Nara, just a few minutes walk away from both of the main stations, there is a small shop where you can purchase boxes of beautifully presented kakinoha-zushi. Izasa is a shop which sells sushi products of all sorts, including sushi rolls wrapped in thick kelp and other things aside from persimmon leaves.
Boxes of 6 pieces are available for 700-800 yen, and large boxes with 20 pieces go for about 2,800 yen. You can also buy large variety boxes including kakinoha-zushi and several other types of wrapped sushi for 5,400 yen per box.
Trying local foods is one of the best things about travelling in Japan, and kakinoha-zushi should top the foodie hit list of anyone traveling to Nara. The subtle taste may not be easily recognisable to tourists, but it’s still a fun culture experience to try even if you aren’t able to tell the difference between a plate of gourmet morsels and a plate from the 100 yen sushi conveyor belt.
Izasa Website*Japanese Only