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Funazushi in Shiga: The origin of sushi

Shiga Cuisine; Funazushi

Finally, we are off the evil black list. Gee, it really felt like we did something wrong to have the tag pop up with the warning whenever our website comes up.

So, finally, we are back to business as usual. As I was reading Kyoto Foodie’s post on the kikizake event in Otsu, Shiga, although the event was not just for sake breweries from Shiga, it made me think of Shiga and it’s super controversial food funazushi.

Back in December, I was thinking to make a type of sushi called izushi with really fresh salmon and kōji-kin culture. I had a recipe for izushi with salmon, seaweed, daikon, carrots, ginger, rice, bamboo leaves, and koji to let all the ingredients ferment at low temperature for two months. I believe this is the type of sushi made before the current nigiri sushi style that started in Edo period. Occasional sampling of izushi from Hokkaido were all good, so I wanted to challenge making this dish for sometime. Now well into May, the challenge is going to be put back on the long list of things I want to do, among other things, hopefully this year.

Although my project never got started, this curiosity of mine triggered interesting conversation with our friends at the end of last year. “Why don’t you use funazushi rice as a starter rather than koji“? I have heard of the name of this traditional dish from Shiga, but did not know how it was made or how it tasted. So, our friends invited us to join their annual visit to a restaurant, Sumimoto in Nagahama, who specializes in Shiga regional cuisine and serves funazushi and duck dishes along with other local fresh water fish dishes.

Nagahama is on the east side of the Lake Biwa, easily accessible from Sekigahara JR Shinkansen station, less than one hour from Kyoto or a couple hours from Tokyo. Between the JR station and historical Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine, there’s several blocks of very cute, narrow streets with old houses or store houses converted into nice shops or restaurants. Kurokabe Square, this historical shopping mall district, is the center of the town where they host a big festival, Hikiyama Matsuri. Later this year, I stumbled upon this festival where school kids become kabuki actors for a day and perform on yama or decorated floats that shift the performers from place to place for each performance.

OK. Back to food. At Sumimoto, first thing I noticed was everything on the menu sounded exotic and it read like being in totally foreign culture. “Moroko? Isaza? Funa no ko?” Luckily, our friend knew what to order, so we let him. We ordered several things on the menu along with Shiga local sake; funazushi, moroko,funa no ko, duck sashimi, duck BBQ, and udon cooked in funazushi rice broth.

Funazushi at Sumimoto is salty, sour, creamy, smelled and tasted like blue cheese or smelled like old socks. As it may sound very odd, it was perfect appetizer with sake which brought out the best and long lasting umami from the tiny servings of this fermented fish. The owner of the restaurant was telling us it is nearly impossible to buy nigorobuna caught Lake Biwa, but somehow they manage to make their batches every year with just three ingredients; salt, funa or crucian carp, and rice.

So, what is funazushi anyway? And, why doesn’t it require any koji starter to kick off the fermentation? According to Funazushi no Nazo, a book I picked up at the end of the weekend, nigorobuna or C. auratus grandoculis, a fresh water fish from Lake Biwa, is cleaned, the ovaries are left intact, and it is then cured in salt for anywhere from one month to two years. Next, after rinsing and a brief drying, the fish and cooked rice are carefully layered one over the other in a deep bucket or wooden cask called an i to daru (18L barrel). To finish up, a heavy weight is placed on top and the layered mixture is fermented anywhere from six months to over a year. This is the tradition that was passed down for over 1,300 years in Japan. This form of sushi appears in the Engishiki, a law book penal code from the 10th century. This is probably the first well-documented appearance of sushi in Japan. Everyone says that if you try bad funazushi for the first time, you are going to hate it forever. Guaranteed! So, we must have been really lucky to be lured to such a good restaurant. Later in April, a local lady from Nagahama confirmed this and approved the fact that my first funazushi experience was at Sumimoto.

Aside from funazushi, these are the other fine dishes we had that day.

  • moroko-small fresh water fish
  • Shiga Cuisine: Moroko

  • Funa no ko-funa sashimi with roes sprinkled over
  • Shiga Cuisine: funa no ko + funa sashimi

  • Kamo sashimi- literally, thinly-sliced raw duck breast. The duck served that day was caught in Ishikawa prefecture, they said.
  • Shiga Cuisine: Duck sashimi - kamo sashi

  • Yakigamo- sliced duck barbecued on the table
  • Shiga Cuisine: duck bbq

  • Kamo no kimo ni- duck hearts cooked in teriyaki type sauce
  • Shiga Cuisine : kamo kimo- duck hearts

  • Funazushi udon- to finish off the meal, we ordered udon served in a funazushi rice broth. It was salty, had deep umami, and was just so good. Biggest hit that night!
  • Along with these wonderful dishes, we had two kinds of private-label sake made for the restaurant by Uehara Shuzo, the brewery famous for their Furosen brand. The bottle of Sumimoto Yamahai went so perfectly with funazushi and Kamo ha Kore was, as the name indicates, a perfect match for duck dishes, especially barbecue.
    Shiga Sake: Sumimoto and Kamo ha kore by UeharashuzoShiga Sake: Kamo ha kore! Sake to go with duck
    With our friend’s advice to enjoy this delicacy at home economically, we bought some rice from the bed of funazushi and took it back home. (The rice was just a small fraction of the cost of funazushi itself). As it aged, it became more sour, and to this day, after five months, a tiny bit of this heap of living bacteria still occupies a small corner of our refrigerator, maintaining its white porridge-like color and consistency.

    If you are looking for a special Shiga meal in Nagahama, Sumimoto is definitely a great place.

    10-1 Omiyacho, Nagahama, Shiga
    TEL: 0749-65-2588

    Duck is served in the winter. They have other seasonal dishes throughout the year.

    Here’s how Sumimoto make their funazushi

    Please visit other funazushi related posts on Tokyofoodcast:

      Tokyofoodcast on the Trail of Funazushi
      Funazushi 101
      Dishes from Japan’s biggest lake
      Making Funazushi
      Funazushi Finale

    Please also visit Tokyofoodcast on flickr for more pictures from our Shiga trip and the Hikiyama Matsuri.


    6 Responses to “Funazushi in Shiga: The origin of sushi”

    1. Ah! I love all things fermented…well, maybe not hakarl, but the funazushi sounds pretty cool. Take me next time you plan a trip to Shiga!!

      It was fun seeing you yesterday, Ets! I think that was the first time we actually walked, rather than tottered, off the tasting floor together. Let’s organize something again soon.

      Posted by Melinda | May 22, 2008, 5:49 pm


    1. [...] Funazushi – This dish from Shiga that smells like blue cheese or used socks is believed to be the very original form of sushi. Today the extreme scarcity of fresh water fish like funa from Lake Biwa is causing a great concern for not only locals but all foodies in love with this stinky dish. [...]

    2. [...] good bottles that I had a hard time picking one to share. On top of that, the pairing of sake with funazushi, a local traditional food speciality, made my choice even harder. In the end, I had to choose [...]

    3. [...] The sushi that springs to mind today, has little resemblance to the original version, the closest version to the original that the Japanese  have is called funazuchi. [...]

    4. [...] The sushi that springs to mind today, has little resemblance to the original version, the closest version to the original that the Japanese  have is called funazuchi. [...]

    5. [...] Funazushi in Shiga ↩ [...]

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