2019.01.11 Seijima Island Cuisine
Seijima Island (by the Seto Ohashi Bridge) showcased its local cuisine for the first time at the 2016 Triennale. Boxed lunches full of island specialties were quite the hit, and people waited in long lines to try just one. Join us as we dive into the world of shima-meshi (island food), with Yuji Tanimoto (of the Industrial Activities Office in Sakaide City) as our guide.
With Tanimoto, we turned to the Seijima Community Association and asked them to tell us about their local cuisine. Hamada was the first to pipe up.
“Iwakurojima Island has their cha-gayu (tea-flavored rice gruel), but here we have cha-meshi (tea-flavored rice) with takuan (pickled daikon). In the mornings as you walk around town, you never say ‘How was breakfast?’ You always ask ‘How’s the cha-meshi?’” He explained how cha-meshi was made. “You cook about half-and-half rice and barley, then pour some bancha (low-grade green tea) on top.”
Tojo jumped in too. “We always added sweet potatoes at my house.”
“Did you grow the tea on the island?” asked Tanimoto. “When I look at old photographs of Seijima, there is almost no forest—it’s all covered in fields.”
Nobody had heard of anyone growing tea, but the consensus was that “most people grew potatoes, barley, and maybe pyrethrum (a bug-repellent chrysanthemum).”
The talk next turned to the sea. Seijima is blessed with a fast-running tide and rich fishing grounds. The many fishers here have their own food culture, called funa-meshi (boat-food), that they make while out at sea. Most boats have a small cooking area on board—surprising considering most boats are all-wooden!
Tojo, a veteran fisherman, explained what funa-meshi is. “Freshwater is very precious while you’re out at sea. So to make the rice (after all, you can’t have a meal without rice), we would rinse it first in seawater before cooking it. The rinsing gives the rice the perfect salt flavor. Any fish we couldn’t sell on shore got cooked up and eaten, along with veggies we brought along. I also remember drying fish on board to bring back home for the family.”
Any discussion of island food is not complete without understanding the dishes for special occasions. The mothers of the community association were happy to explain.
“You have to understand that in the old days, practically every home would host special Buddhist memorial services for the dead. They could happen any number of times during the year, and the services weren’t small gatherings, either. All the women of the family—mothers, aunts, cousins, you name it—would gather the day before to prepare the food. If you didn’t have many women in the family, you were in for quite the day!”
Many reminisced on what they used to eat back then.
“I remember serving igisu tofu along with sushi, like bara-zushi and maki-zushi.”
“We always had nishime (simmered vegetables) and namasu (vinegared fish and vegetables).”
“Don’t forget the suimono (clear soup)!”
Namasu is a common Japanese dish of fish and vegetables seasoned in vinegar. On Seijima, the fish not sold at market were used—such as shark, mahi-mahi, drum, or croaker. Daikon, cucumber and other seasonal vegetables were added in too.
Igisu tofu is another one of the island’s specialties. Most Japanese people have never heard of it. Subana, one of the wives in the community association, walked us through what the dish is.
“Igisu tofu is made with igisu, a type of seaweed common here. To be honest, igisu tofu doesn’t have much flavor by itself, so we always add sesame miso when eating it.”
“This is what the igisu looks like.”
She handed us a bag. We opened it up and were immediately hit by a sea smell. The black clump on the left is before drying, and the lighter one on the right is after drying.
“From the end of July until mid-August or so, the igisu gets left on beaches by the retreating tide. Collecting the igisu was a job for children. After the children collected it, the women would strain out the sand and then dry the seaweed in the sun—hang it and lay it out, hang it and lay it out…making it was hard work.”
Hard work is right. The ladies had mentioned memorial services, but other community events, like Daishi-ichi (celebrating the birth of Kukai (Kobo Daishi)), autumn festivals, or weddings, meant bringing out the finer foods too. The better the food, the better the welcome, and hard work was put into preparing and arranging dishes like tempura, sushi (bara-zushi and maki-zushi) for guests. But tai-somen (red snapper over noodles) just might be the star of the show.
“Tai-somen is something you eat when you want to celebrate,” explained Subana. “Medetai (celebrate) sounds a lot like mende tai (tai on noodles). So at big weddings or festivals, the tai-somen is loaded onto big plates, and paraded out while singing. The long noodles in the dish are to ensure long life.”
Subana showed me a picture of tai-somen that was prepared for an ancestor festival. “Splendid” only begins to capture how incredible it looks.
“When you eat the fish, you have to cut it into small pieces to make it manageable. Then you pour on the broth the fish was cooked in and voilà. Tai-somen,” explained Subana.
“You can prepare it different ways,” she continued. “Some households put the eggs inside so the fish can keeps its shape, and look more presentable.”
“Those are quail eggs, right?” we asked.
She laughed. “Chicken eggs,” she corrected. “It really gives you a sense of scale. This fish would have been 2 kilos or so (4 pounds).”
Tai also features in the school song of Seijima Elementary. Groups of boats used to go out longline fishing, specifically for tai.
The islands of the Seto
Rise high up in the spring
The boats are crossing back and forth
A lively, joyous scene!
Gold scales flash in sunlight
The teeming sea is full of life
And boats to bring it in!
Tai (red snapper) features prominently in the cuisine and culture of Seijima.
At the last Triennale in 2016, the islanders made tai-meshi (rice cooked with tai) for guests. “Tai-meshi is another food for special occasions,” explained Subana.
Above is a picture of one of the Seijima shima-meshi (island food) boxed lunches at the Setouchi Triennale 2016. The lunches contained wakame seaweed tempura, bamboo shoots, pumpkin, cucumber, and more. And of course, on the left, tai-meshi. Ten islanders worked to make 500 of these lunches.
Everyone is already excited and planning what to make for guests to the 2019 Triennale this year.
“How about shrimp and anago (conger eel) tempura?”
“Maybe we could do a sticky mekabu-don (wakame seaweed over rice)?”
There is no end to the ideas being considered.
We hope we’ve given you a little taste of Seijima’s shima-meshi (island cuisine), and whetted your appetite for the Setouchi Triennale 2019. Please come out and have your fill!
(To learn more about Seijima and the other four islands in the area (Shamijima, Yoshima, Iwakurojima, and Hitsuishijima), please check out our previous blog post, “The Five Islands of the Yoshima Region”