I believe that one of the best ways to truly immerse yourself in the culture of a city or a country is through their food — eat what the locals eat, and taste the produce of the land. I have never heard of the Japanese city of Okayama before I set foot there, but after exploring it for almost 3 days and tasting all their delicious food; I believe I can now say that I understand the city a little bit more. From the freshest of fruits, to the most tender of meats, and snacks that are synonymous to its local folk tale — Okayama has one of the best produce in the region, and my tummy was delightfully satisfied.
Okayama is the capital of the Okayama prefecture, located in the western part of the Japanese island of Honshu. It is midway between the cities of Osaka and Hiroshima; and via Shinkansen is about 45-minutes from Osaka, and 35-minutes from Hiroshima. The city is convenient to get to, and due to its location, is often used as a transit hub between the two more well-known cities.
If you’re in the area, don’t forget to visit Okayama. The city is worth exploring and is great for a proper stop for a day of two — it is home to one of Japan’s top 3 gardens, beautiful castles and shrines, and of course, fantastic food. During my visit to Okayama in autumn, I had amazing experiences with the food in the region; and here is a list of all the delicious and amazing eats I had. When you’re in Okayama, make sure you try them too!
1. White Peaches
In Okayama, it’s all about peaches. Even their folk hero “Momotaro” actually means the “Peach boy” — and his likeness, as well as peaches, can be seen all over the city in pictures, statues and as decorations. Cultivation of peaches in Okayama began during the Meiji Period (late 19th century), when peaches were brought over from China. Ever since then, they have become one of Japan’s biggest peach producers, producing some of the sweetest, juiciest and most succulent peaches in the country. White peaches are the most popular, and they are in season during the summer from late July to mid-August. During my visit in autumn, I was lucky enough to get my hands on some late season peaches — and boy, were they soft and absolutely delicious!
2. Fruit Parfait
Okayama is not only famed for their peaches; they are actually known as Japan’s “Fruit Kingdom”. The prefecture produces the best grapes, as well as other fruits like strawberries, blueberries, Asian pears and persimmons. During summer, one of Okayama’s most popular activities is fruit-picking — just imagine plucking your own fruits from the trees and eating them on the spot! But if you’re not into fruit-picking, or visiting during the off season; another way of enjoying Okayama’s fruits is by having a fruit parfait. You can’t visit Okayama and not have one, or more! I had my parfait at Brasserie Chaleureux in Okayama’s AEON Mall — the fruits, and everything in that dessert was divine.
3. Kibi Dango
Kibi Dango is a millet dumping — sort of like the Japanese sweet Mochi made with glutinous rice, starch, syrup and sugar. It is most famous in Okayama because it is the local folk hero, Momotaro‘s favorite dumpling. Kibi Dango makes the perfect souvenir from Okayama as they can be found in the cutest packages (with pictures of Momotaro and his trusty animal friends), and comes in all sorts of flavors like peach, orange, sesame and green tea. It’s a great snack too, and I couldn’t help but buy them in all their flavors to be enjoyed back home.
4. Beef – Chiya
Many people don’t know this, but Okayama has its very own brand of wagyu beef — it is called Chiya gyu (beef) and yes, it is melt-in-your-mouth perfect. Chiya beef originates from cattle bred in the highlands of Okayama prefecture, more specifically in the Chiya area of Niiimi City. The meat is tender and juicy, and I had the opportunity to taste this high-end beef at one of Okayama City’s muslim-friendly restaurants, Megu. The restaurant offers set meals with Chiya beef, served in either the shabu shabu or sukiyaki style. I have never been so excited to dip the perfectly marbled meat into a vegetable-filled pot, and then taste it in all its glory. A Chiya beef meal set at Megu costs about JP¥6,500 (US$60), but it is worth every penny!
Another specialty in Okayama that is not to be missed is the Demikatsu-don, and the best place to try it is at Ajitsukasa Nomura. The restaurant has been running for three generations with its own version of the dish, and the place gets pretty packed during meal times. Demikatsu-don is a rice bowl topped with cabbage and deep fried pork cutlets in a thick demi-glace sauce. At Ajitsukasa Nomura, the Demikatsu-don is ordered and paid at a machine at the entrance of the restaurant — and you can choose if you want a bowl with half rice (which I ordered for only JP¥550~US$5), full rice, or extra rice. The rich demi-glace sauce was to-die-for, and I would return here again in a heartbeat.
6. Ebi Meshi
The Ebi Meshi is yet another specialty dish of Okayama — it is rice cooked with demi-glace sauce and shrimp, which gives the rice a caramelised blackish color. I had my taste of this dish at Sun Restaurant within the Okayama Station; and they serve the Ebi Meshi in a couple of different styles — as a rice dish with egg shreds, omurice (wrapped in an omelette), or with a hamburger patty. I especially like this dish because it is simple, delicious, and costs about JP¥700-800 (US$6-7) per plate, which is pretty affordable. Oh, and apparently, you can only find the Ebi Meshi in Okayama!
7. Okayama Ramen
Okayama’s ramen is actually not called Okayama Ramen; and neither is it the Chuuka Soba — which is the version of the noodles I am talking about here. However, Yamato is one of the most popular ramen shops in Okamaya and attracts a queue outside their small establishment, and they serve a hearty bowl of Chuuka Soba. Chuuka Soba means Chinese soba, which is a combination of Chinese-style noodles in a Japanese soba broth. I guess one of the reasons Yamato’s Chuuka Soba is so good is because they use their own house sauce of ramen broth mixed with ketchup and some other secret ingredients, which makes the soup slightly thicker and fishier! A small bowl of Chuuka Soba here costs JP¥520 (US$4.5).
8. Sushi (and Barazushi)
There’s no way I’d be in Japan and not have sushi! During my visit, I had the rare opportunity to learn how to make sushi from a sushi masterchef, Chef Yasuo Namba, who is the founder of Okayama’s famous (and huge!) 42-year-old sushi restaurant, Kidoairaku. It was a joy watching him work his sushi magic, and the raw salmon, tuna, mackerel, squid and octopus I had in my bowl of sushi was sooooo fresh and soooo good! I had a taste of fugu (puffer fish) tempura too.
And if you’re looking for something local, Okayama’s style of sushi is called barazushi — a bed of rice covered with various sushi toppings, which are raw and cooked ingredients from the land and sea. The dish dates back to the Edo period, when the local feudal lord decreed that common folks could only eat out of one bowl. The ingenious people thus came up with barazushi, where they dumped all sorts of ingredients into that one bowl!
9. Chiffon Cake at Cafe Moni
Cafe Moni was packed with the local Japanese youngsters during my visit, and is another one of the local establishments in Okayama that has been awarded the muslim-friendly status. The cafe serves up one of the best chiffon cakes I’ve ever tasted! They have different flavors everyday; and during my visit, we ordered all three flavors off the menu — chocolate banana, cream cheese, and raisins. The chiffon cakes are served with a scoop of ice cream and cream, and was rich and spongy and oh so yummy. The cafe offers pretty good coffee, light meals and lunches too.
10. Fake Food Replicas
Now this isn’t exactly food that can be eaten, but I’ll count it as one of the most memorable food experiences I had while visiting Okayama — making fake food replicas. Japan is big on fake food replicas, where restaurants love teasing potential patrons with realistic food displays outside their shops. It takes a lot of skill to make fake food look like actual food, and I had a go at Ms Reiko Kojoh‘s studio, La Luce Dolce in Okayama’s Hokan-cho. She runs fake food and candle making classes, and it was extremely fun spending a couple of hours learning from her. I made a fake fruit parfait using resin and paint — and I firmly believe that my masterpiece looks like the real deal!
*She Walks the World visited Okayama, Japan on the invitation of Okayama Tourism and JTB Malaysia. However, as always, all opinions and suggestions stated here are my own.