By Yuka Matsumoto
ALONG WITH foie gras and truffles Caviar is one of the world’s top three luxury foods, and is typically known as an imported product from Russia. Japanese people love the idea of putting plenty of the salted sturgeon roe on a bowl of rice and bolting it down.
I’d heard rumours that this delicious dish was available at Okuhida hot spring resort in Takayama, Gifu Prefecture, Located at the foot of Mt. Yake, an active volcano in the Northern Alps, the resort boasts one of the largest quantities of hot spring water in Japan. Here, you can eat caviar chazuke-style, in which hot liquid is poured over rice.
Okuhida caviar is served on top of rice at the Okuhida Garden Hotel Yakedake in Takayama, Gifu Prefecture, as a sturgeon swims in an aquarium in the background. Photo/Japan NewsYomiruri
I put some caviar on cooked rice before pouring hot dashi broth and tea over it. Combined with the aroma of bonito, the modest salty and savoury flavor of the high-end delicacy went well with the rice in the broth. The dish costs 5,000 (Bt1,460) before tax, which sounds very expensive for a chazuke dish. However, the price would double if commercially available caviar was used.
Named Okuhida caviar, the delicacy is offered at the Okuhida Garden Hotel Yakedake. Rather than the texture of regular caviar, which bursts when eaten, this Takayama variety has a smooth texture that melts in the mouth.
“This is because the caviar is fresh, which is different from imported ones as they have been pasteurised,” says Seiichi Ishida, 66, president of the hotel.
Hiromi Oki holds up a sturgeon at a breeding facility. Photo/Japan NewsYomiuri
The hotel also offers the caviar with a savoury naan prepared by an Indian chef, as well as sturgeon sashimi. The fish itself was also delicious as it had a rich flavour with a firm texture similar to that of sea bream.
The caviar produced in the Okuhida region is designed to go well with washoku Japanese cuisine as its salt concentration is set at 3.5 per cent, less than half that of imported products. Okuhida caviar is now used in a long-established restaurant in Kyoto and a popular Japanese restaurant overseas.
But why on earth is caviar offered at a hot spring resort deep in these mountains in the first place?
“We raise sturgeon for caviar using underground water from the Northern Alps,” Ishida explains.
Okuhida caviar served with naan, foreground, and sturgeon sashimi. Photo/Japan NewsYomiuri
Although sturgeon look like an ocean shark, the fish lives in freshwater rivers and lakes in the Northern Hemisphere. While the famous Hida brand of beef can also be enjoyed in Tokyo, Ishida wondered if there were any other high-end delicacies that could be appreciated only at his hot spring resort in Okuhida.
While searching for such a delicacy and raising suppon Chinese softshell turtles using hot spring water, Ishida received 600 sturgeons from a construction company after it gave up on farming the fish. He decided to give it a try and started farming it in 2006.
When I visited a farming facility, sturgeon were slowly swimming around in pools. “It takes at least 10 years for their eggs to develop. It’s a long-term job,” explains Hiromi Oki, 69, who’s in charge of breeding. In sections for pregnant female sturgeon that have grown about two metres long, the light is blocked out so that algae will not grow in the water and it will stay clean. Sturgeon raised in water that flows from underground do not develop diseases, so it is not necessary to use medical agents, Oki says.
The Okuhida hot spring resort has now become one of the nation’s largest caviar production areas – along with Miyazaki and Kagawa prefectures –cultivating about 12,000 sturgeon and shipping nearly 100 kilograms of caviar a year. The shining “black diamond” is definitely a gift from the mountains.