At the mention of Akita Prefecture (秋田県), what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Is it beautiful snow-covered scenery during winter? Or the famous hot springs at Nyuutou Onsen (乳頭温泉) nestled within Towada-Hachimantai National Park (十和田八幡平国立公園)? Or Tamagawa Onsen (玉川温泉) featuring the charm of the old Showa era (昭和時代)?
Akita has an abundance of beautiful sights to see including its two signature lakes. Tazawa Lake (田沢湖), which is the deepest in Japan and Towada Lake (十和田湖), the largest crater lake on Honshu (本州). It also hosts a number of colourful and vibrant festivals such as Akita Kanto Matsuri (秋田竿燈まつり) and cultural symbols such as the Namahage (なまはげ).
But this fascinating Japanese prefecture isn’t only worth a visit for this but also the incredible flavours created through its local delicacies. The dish we’ll be taking a look at today is kiritanpo (きりたんぽ).
Kiritanpo is a signature dish of northern Akita which is made from mashed rice which is shaped into a cylinder by applying it over cedar sticks. The kiritanpo, which can be eaten its plain form or with miso (味噌), are then grilled, typically in the open hearths of traditional Japanese homes which are used for cooking or as fireplaces. Once cooked, the kiritanpo are removed from the sticks and cut into small pieces.
As Akita Prefecture is a well-known producer of high-quality rice and chicken i.e. hinaijidori (比内地鶏), these ingredients are naturally featured in the kiritanpo thus allowing you to savour the best of the prefecture’s local flavours.
The grilled kiritanpo can be consumed as they are or put into a hot pot with soup stock made from chicken bones. As the kiritanpo doesn’t get overcooked and lose its shape, it is regarded as a perfect ingredient in hot pots and usually sold as a set with hot pot ingredients in Akita. The dish is such an important dish in Akita Prefecture that it is often served during the winter for school lunches.
The word “tanpo” comes from the cotton wrapped around spears used during training sessions in the old days, while “kiri” means “cut up”. Legend has it that a feudal lord from the south was in the mountains of Kazuno City (鹿角市) where he chanced upon a cottage that offered long sticks of grilled rice which resembled the tanpo thus the dish became known as such.
Kiritanpo is said to have originated from Kazuno and Odate City (大館市) is regarded as the best place to enjoy the dish and is, therefore, more commonly found in the northern part of the prefecture. Originally, kiritanpo was largely a family dish but Odate was the first place to offer the hot pot version in Japanese traditional ryokans (旅館) and ryoteis (料亭) thus earning the reputation as the original and best place to have this dish in Akita.
Before kiritanpo gained nationwide popularity, it was hardly found in cities within the southern part of Akita such as Yurihonjou (由利本荘市), Daisen (大仙市), Yokote (横手市) or Yuzawa (湯沢市). However, in 2007, a survey of the top 100 local dishes conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries found that kiritanpo was the third most popular dish in the area.
The hot pot version of the dish is called nabekko (なべっこ) which features a soup stock made from boiling chicken bones that is then mixed with dark soy sauce, Japanese wine, sugar or mirin (ミリン). Typical ingredients in the hot pot include burdock, maitake (舞茸) mushrooms, Hinaijidori, leeks and dropwort. On the other hand, there are ingredients which are seen as not suitable to be added to this dish such as Chinese cabbage which causes an increase in the water content, items made from fish such as chikuwa (ちくわ) which will alter the taste, carrots which are said to change the aroma and shiitake (椎茸) which will affect the taste.
Depending on the type of rice used for the kiritanpo, the cooking time will differ as well e.g. the uruchi rice (うるち米) cannot be cooked too long as this will cause the kiritanpo to disintegrate so the kiritanpo should be removed from the pot once it’s served. Takeaway versions of the kiritanpo tend to have rice flour added to it so they are said to be more vulnerable to the cooking heat and likely to break apart compared to kiritanpo made on the spot.
If you happen to be visiting Akita Prefecture in the month of November, you should visit Odate for the Kiritanpo Hassho Matsuri which will be taking place for three days at the beginning of November 2017. Details of the event have not been announced yet but you can check their Facebook page for further updates. Last year’s edition featured a variety of stage performances and experience workshops for visitors as well as the opportunity to sample the delicious kiritanpo.
You may also be intrigued to know that the certification test for the Kiritanpo Master (きりたんぽ師) was also held during the three-day event and successful candidates were issued with a golden identification card.
Kiritanpo Hassho Matsuri Website *Automatic translation available
Be sure not to miss Kiritanpo Day which is marked on 11 November every year as the numbers 11-11 resemble the kiritanpo sticks when they’re cooking on the fire. There are events held at various places within Akita on this day to commemorate the occasion and promote the kiritanpo so do keep a lookout for these if you can make it to the area in November.
Kiritanpo events tend to feature the kiritanpo mascot, Tanpo Komachi-chan (たんぽ小町ちゃん). As the brainchild of Kazuno City, Komachi-chan is the image character of the city and participates actively in promoting kiritanpo. It is probably not surprising that her birthday coincides with Kiritanpo Day i.e. 11 November 2004 and the time of her birth also happens to be a string of 1s i.e. 11.11am.
Now that you’ve read so much about the kiritanpo, how about giving this local dish a try the next time you are in Akita?