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What to Eat in Niigata: The Prefecture of Rice and Sake

By Callum Howe
September 2, 2020
Updated: October 29, 2020
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Even if you haven’t heard of Niigata Prefecture before, there’s a good chance you’ve tried their produce if you’ve visited anywhere else in Japan. This region is famous for its outstanding strawberries, fantastic seafood, but most importantly its excellent rice.

The prestigious koshihikari rice variety comes from Niigata and is said to be the fluffiest and freshest-tasting rice there is. This strong agricultural pedigree means that the countryside of the prefecture makes for some lovely days out, with gorgeous terraced rice fields cascading down the hillsides.

Of course, where there’s rice there’s sake, so you’ll find that many of the top breweries ply their trade here. Lovely mountain scenery, great food, and premium alcohol to relax with at night — what’s not to love? 

Before you rush off to catch the next train/plane/automobile there, let’s run through a list of must-try local delicacies to track down on your Niigata travels.

What to Eat in Niigata

Here are some must-try local specialties of Niigata Prefecture!

  1. Murakami Beef
  2. Noppe Stew
  3. Hegi Soba
  4. Echigohime Strawberries
  5. Sasadango
  6. Suruten
  7. Poppo-yaki
  8. Wappa Meshi

1. Murakami Beef

A yakiniku grill with mushrooms and thick-cut beef

If you’re willing to shell out that little bit extra for your gastronomic treats, then the world of premium Japanese beef is the one for you. Even if your budget is a little tight, there are varying grades of this meat at a wide range of price points. 

The famous wagyu cattle produced across Japan produce fantastically marbled beef, with flavor to die for. Niigata’s resident wagyu variety stands tall even among the heavyweights like Kobe beef and Ohmi beef. 

The center of beef production in the prefecture is the northern city of Murakami, which lends its name to the meat. The meat is predictably the best right at the city of its source, where you can enjoy it in upmarket steakhouses, teppanyaki grill restaurants, sukiyaki hotpot restaurants, and more!

2. Noppe Stew

Bowl of Noppe stew from Niigata on a bamboo mat

This classic vegetarian stew is as familiar to the people of Niigata as pasta is to an Italian — a common fixture in all kinds of meals from everyday lunches to special celebrations. It was historically made from vegetable leftovers such as lotus root, mushrooms, carrots, and konjac potato (konnyaku) simmered in a soy sauce and sesame oil.

The recipe differs somewhat between parts of Niigata, with some adding thickening agents like starch, and others tossing in some meat or fish as well. Although it might sound like a perfect winter dish, noppe is actually great in summer too, as it can also be served cold. 

3. Hegi Soba

A square platter with bundles of cooked noodles arranged on top

This regional recipe for Japanese food’s staple buckwheat noodle is one of the more popular products of Niigata cuisine, partly because of the attractive service style. The noodles are arranged into nice little bite-sized bundles on a wooden dish called a hegi.

But the uniqueness isn’t just in the optics; the noodles themselves also have seaweed included during the production process, giving them a distinctive flavor and a more-slippery-than-usual texture. You might want to make sure your chopstick skills are up to scratch before tackling a dish!

You’ll have to pick up these slippery noodle parcels and dip them into the range of condiments usually served alongside them, including mentsuyu dipping sauce, Chinese mustard, green onions, and sesame seeds. 

It’s thought that the idea of using seaweed in the recipe came about because it was common practice in the Uonuma area of Niigata to bulk up the limited wheat supplies with ground root vegetables when making noodles. 

The area was also famous for textile production, for which ground seaweed was used to process the cloth fibers. It seems like one of the weavers had the bright idea of tossing in some of the ground seaweed into their noodle dough for a change, and ended up creating one of the prefecture’s most famous dishes.

4. Echigohime Strawberries

Bright red strawberries with leafy green tops

The strawberries which thrive in Niigata are some of the best in Japan: big, plump, juicy, and sweet. The secret to their non-acidic flavor is that the particular echigohime variety grows even low temperatures, and so they are cultivated over a long period through winter, before being harvested in April. 

During the harvest time, it’s possible to go to the farms yourself and pick your own fruits directly — it makes for a great afternoon out for families. When you bite into your very own handpicked, juicy echigohime strawberry fresh off the plant, you’ll see for sure why they call this fruit the "Princess of Niigata." 

5. Sasadango

Niigata Sasa dango neatly packed in leaf parcels

Dango rice dumplings are a favorite sweet snack all across Japan — a kind of traditional wagashi sweet made from rice flour, formed into balls, and usually skewered on sticks of three or four. Niigata’s signature style of dango sees these delicious chewy treats filled with red bean paste, and wrapped in bamboo leaves instead of being skewered.

This Niigata food was originally made for a festival held in May, called Tango no Sekku, or more commonly nowadays: Children’s Day. However, you won’t have to wait until that day to get a taste —Niigatans love this snack so much that they now make it year-round.

6. Suruten

Fans of tempura will want give this next one a go: a special kind of deep-fried treat which hails from the Joetsu region of Niigata, just a few hours down the coast from the prefectural capital. Locals make it by salting squid overnight, then shredding and deep frying it the next day. 

The lengthier production process means that the flavors are even deeper than regular squid tempura. The dish goes perfectly with a tall glass of beer you’ll find it in most of the izakaya around its seaside home city.

7. Poppo-yaki

Poppoyaki, cylindrical cakes from Niigata on a tray

Moreish is the perfect word for describing these delicious Niigata snacks. They aren’t the most complex food on the list—a pancake-like cake of flour and brown sugar, formed into cylinders—but they’re right up the top of the must-try list. Those who don’t have too much of a sweet tooth will be able to enjoy them too, as the flavor is milder than your usual sugary cakes.

To get your hands on a fresh batch, your best bet is the food carts which set up around the city near popular tourist spots, and during major festivals. Failing that, you can pop into any of the souvenir shops around Niigata City to grab a packaged box.

8. Wappa Meshi

Wooden box with rice and raw fish from Niigata

The cylindrical, cedar wood box (called a wappa), which this dish is served in, gives it a real feel of tradition even though the dish itself is only around 70 years old. Inside you’ll find a bed of premium Niigata rice rice topped with the best of the seas and mountains of Niigata. Seasonal varieties feature different toppings, but you can expect mix of things like salmon, chicken, and oysters.

The dish was first created in 1952, and has since spread across Niigata to become one of the most prestigious dishes of the area. If you want to try the dish at its birthplace, head to the restaurant Inakaya in Niigata City, where it’s said to have been invented.

Although Niigata can sometimes be overlooked on the Japan tourist radar, it has plenty of rich culinary culture to discover for those willing to explore. At just over two and a quarter hours north of Tokyo by train, the prefecture is a perfect weekend getaway destination for any foodies visiting the capital. 

As always, we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface here! Get involved yourself, and you’ll be able to make your own Niigata best-of list, dozens of delicious foods long!

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Callum Howe
Originally from Fife, Scotland, Callum is a literature graduate, freelance writer, and English teacher living in Tokyo. An interest in Zen drew him to Japan, so you can often find him visiting temples around Tokyo and beyond. He loves getting involved with the local music, sports, and arts scenes.
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