Tonoya Yo: the fundamentals of fermentation in Japan, modernized
Tono, Iwate Pref. – The peaceful, slow-moving town of Tono lies in the rural heart of Iwate Prefecture, far from Tohoku’s most famous and visited tourist spots. Surrounded by forested mountains, Iwate is best known for its bucolic landscapes and colorful folk heritage, let alone for its warm and rustic food culture.
And yet, over the past decade, this calm backwater has quietly established a reputation as a gastronomic destination worthy of a detour. A small but constant drizzle of cognoscenti – chefs, restaurateurs, sake mavens and assorted foodies – made it there. Their goal: Tonoya Yo, a boutique inn and restaurant unlike any other in the country.
Quietly located on a quiet residential street, Tonoya Yo is housed in a former rice warehouse that once graced the property of a wealthy prefectural hinterland farmer. Transported, refurbished, and fitted out in a seamless blend of traditional and contemporary craftsmanship, it provides atmospheric accommodation that perfectly complements the inventive multi-course meals prepared by chef-owner Yotaro Sasaki.
Coming from a family of innkeepers, he has hospitality in his DNA. Even before her great-grandfather registered the hotel business as Minshuku Tono in 1921, it had provided lodging and food to visitors to the city for generations.
Sasaki learned the basics of Kyoto cuisine from his father, who trained in the ancient capital. Ever since he branched out to create Tonoya Yo 10 years ago, leaving the family inn in the hands of his brother, he has drawn deep into regional traditions while borrowing influences from further afield, even outside of Japan. . In doing so, he created a repertoire of impressive originality and unconventional left-field magic.
This becomes evident from the start of your meal. Before the first course is served, you’ll be served a drink – not champagne or a cocktail, but a frothy, creamy liqueur the consistency of eggnog. This is doburoku, the unfiltered, unrefined country cousin of modern sake.
Produced in farming communities across the country since ancient times – long before the sake we know today was developed – doburoku is often discouraged as “Japanese moonlight.” At best, most doburoku are dashing; at worst it’s undrinkable and funky, but Sasaki’s is sensational, with an elegant balance of sweetness and acidity enhanced by a soft, milky texture on the tongue.
As in other rural communities in Japan, the Tono region has long adopted the tradition of illicit farm doburoku. Minshuku Tono also brewed it, although under Sasaki’s father the practice was allowed to cease. Long before he started cooking, or even dreamed of running a hotel, Sasaki’s first project was to claim this birthright.
While still in his early twenties, he became the first person in the country to obtain a doburoku brewing license. It took him a few years of intense study and bureaucratic maneuvering, followed by a decade of experimentation to finally produce a drink he was satisfied with.
Twenty years later, his craft has evolved into a thriving cottage industry, with a list of products that also includes “Dobuqueur” (doburoku with added fruit juice), amaze and even “Dobusu” vinegar. Guests range from Tokyo’s must-see Gem by Moto sake bar to the two Michelin-starred Mugaritz restaurant in Spain’s Basque Country.
The not-so-secret ingredient in this success story is the quality of the rice Sasaki uses in the brewing process. He cultivates practically everything he needs in rice fields rigorously maintained according to organic principles. He says that doburoku produced without agricultural chemicals develops quite different microorganisms and associated aromatic components during the fermentation process.
He grows a variety of rice once widely cultivated in the region, but now largely abandoned by other farmers in favor of modern hybrids. Called Tono Ichigo (“Tono # 1”), it is both stronger and more resistant to pests and burning. More aptly, it can be used both as table rice and also for brewing.
For Sasaki, growing rice and brewing doburoku are not side projects. They are at the heart of everything he does at Tonoya Yo. Ask him how he designed the distinctive dishes he serves his guests, and the simple answer is “I developed them to match my doburoku”.
This gave birth to the other central pillar of Sasaki’s cuisine: fermentation. Animal and vegetable, it marinates and preserves, salt and dries, quails and ages and transforms with mussels.
This is not a simple whim or a nod to contemporary culinary fashion: it recreates, while modernizing, the kind of diet that the people of Tono ate out of necessity, especially in the dead of winter, when it was snowing. Cut off from both the coast and the main population centers further inland, and with little fresh produce, their essential food came from preserved foods.
In a winter dish, Sasaki uses scallops that have been salted and marinated in nuka (rice bran from his doburoku production) for several months. Sour and salty, they serve as a condiment when served with kuzukiriLight but hearty transparent noodles made with arrowroot starch.
Another noteworthy course is its drunken shrimp. The large shrimp are soaked in sake, then seasoned with closed katsuo, the lightly salted and fermented innards of skipjack. As you slowly sip and nibble, you end up with the lingering flavor of the seaside on your palate.
Drawing inspiration from his visits to Italy, Sasaki produces homemade prosciutto-style cured ham and hard cheese similar to Parmesan. Ham features in an intriguing home-made dish nama-fu – small blocks of soft gluten that he prepares from local Nanbu wheat – which are pan-fried to give them the texture of polenta, then draped in strips of his Tono prosciutto.
And then there’s his version of a popular local dumpling dish known as hittsumi. He makes the dough extra large, almost as if it were lasagna, then sprinkles it with homemade cheese and finishes it with confit. hoya (salted sea squirt), grated on top much like karasumi (bottarga eggs).
It also has a remarkable chawanmushi. Not only does it incorporate sake kasu (lie) in the steamed egg custard, he also includes a piece of pork sausage which he allowed to ferment until it develops a flavor almost as tangy as Thai sai krok sausage.
They are cold, warming and nourishing dishes, with all the micro-organisms as a bonus from the fermentation chambers. But he has other signature creations that are less tied to a particular season.
He takes some candied sea urchin, forms it into small blocks which he covers with a layer of matsumo seaweed. Enclosed in this spiky jade green coating, they are presented atop smooth rust-colored rocks, evoking the mysteries of the maritime environment.
Or he cooks slightly tender, thin sasami wild pigeon breast meat in warayaki style, seared over flames made with straw from its own rice fields. The meat, firm but tender, and still full of juice, goes well with aka-kabu (little scarlet turnips) that have been wrapped and left for months in fermenting rice, a tangy style of pickle known as narezushi.
The progression of the dishes, each as unusual as the next, culminates on a comforting note with a portion of Tono Ichigo rice. It comes with a simple bowl of soup that you’d swear seasoned with miso, but is actually made from the rice bran that the seafood has been marinated in. Just another one of the amazing discoveries Sasaki made during his cooking studies.
Currently, meals are only served to those who have booked to stay in Sasaki’s stylish and comfortable rooms (accommodation available for up to six). This ensures that every visit to Tonoya Yo remains an exclusive and highly prized experience.
The Japan Times Cube’s annual Destination Restaurant Selection showcases the abundant culinary culture on offer outside of Japan’s major cities.
Zaimokucho 2-17, Tono, Iwate 028-0521; 0198-62-7557; tonoya-yo.com; meals are served only to overnight guests. For details and costs, contact Tonoya Yo nearest Tono station; non-smoker; main cards accepted; English not spoken
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