Thursday, November 29, 2012

Houtou ほうとう

Autumn and winter are the perfect seasons to visit Yamanashi prefecture, just over an hour from Shinjuku station.  Its famous vineyards aren’t so pretty at the moment, but thanks to the clear, cold air, you can see Mt Fuji, looming majestically, almost every time you look up.

Mt Fuji pops up when you least expect it.

Zenkouji near Kofu city is very beautiful and peaceful.

There's a vending machine for everything - even incense. 

Yamanashi is very active in promoting its fruits and wines. I have to confess, I tried some Yamanashi wine and wasn’t impressed. Perhaps there are some progressive vineyards doing great things, but at the ryokan we stayed at, I was given something that tasted like the overly sweet whites that gave German Riesling a bad name in the 80’s – but with a slightly vinegary  aftertaste. Blech. Like I said, there might be some excellent wines there, but I haven’t found them yet! My SIL has been to Yamanashi a few times, and often brings back delicious fruit liquors and juices. In fact, the grape JUICE is excellent. 

But wait! There is something else in Yamanashi, which is absolutely delicious and just perfect for this cold weather: houtou.

Houtou in a cast iron bowl to add to its "hearty" appeal.

The restaurant was a bit gourdy.
Essentially a chunky miso soup, houtou is distinguished by its thick, flat noodles  (they’re a bit like thick tagliatelle); and pumpkin. As long as you have those ingredients and the local miso paste, you can pretty much put anything you like in there. Common ingredients include pork, shiitake mushrooms, potato and sansai (mountain vegetables, like fiddlehead fern, butterbur etc). Kofu city has a heap of Houtou restaurants – just walk 10 minutes from the station in any direction. We just picked the most ‘rustic’ looking one, which was decked out with gourds. The legend is that local hero Takeda Shingen, invented the dish. Apart from being a fearsome samurai, he was apparently an enthusiastic promoter of local products.

Mr Takeda, houtou PR manager.

Just add vegetables

Add the miso right at the end - dissolve it gradually into the soup.

Finished! Chunky & satisfying. 
Houtou is easy to make at home – and I guess if you can’t get the proper noodles, then udon would do in a pinch, but houtou noodles are actually made in a slightly different way: more like dumpling dough, and they have a nice chewy consistency (you could use sanuki udon, I guess). Because the noodles are quite robust, there’s no need to boil them separately – just throw them in the pot with everything else.  I got a little souvenir kit, which had the noodles and miso. You still need to add dashi to simmer the vegetables and noodles in. Niboshi – dashi made from dried sardines – is typical. Healthy, delicious and filling - what more do you want? Well, maybe a decent glass of wine...