After traversing up and down Japan, chef Oliver Lange of Zuma shares his favorite dishes and destinations in Niigata, the famed rice region.
Oliver Lange knows a thing or two about rice. And that’s not only because the chef behind Zuma, the freewheeling, slightly clubby mini Japanese restaurant chain with locations in New York, Miami and Las Vegas, is constantly working with the prized ingredients.
It’s also because he just spent a good amount of time traversing all over Japan this past summer, starting with Niigata, the prefecture right along the Sea of Japan.
“Niigata is the most famous rice-producing region, known for their Koshihikari rice, which is widely considered the best in Japan,” says Lange. “The food reflects the countryside location, so we ate a lot of really interesting soba noodles and ramen with a rich, country style pork broth—and tasting a lot of rice and sake.”
Here’s his guide to the famed rice region in the center of Japan.
“Established in 1893 and located next to the Yahiko Shinto shrine, this sake brewery has a long history. It focuses on creating sake that pairs well with food, and they still rely on the original handmade process, which is intensely tedious and requires workers to be there around the clock—even sleeping there—during the months-long production time. Yahiko uses soft underground water and claims this is the secret to the pure, clean taste of the sake. However, the pro move here is to get the ice cream: It’s made out of sake lees. As for what I brought home, I really enjoyed the plum wine and I’m hoping to get it on the menu at Zuma soon.”
“The signature soup here is described as ‘ramen noodles in pork fat soup with gyoza.’ It sounds like a lot—and it was. But it was absolutely delicious and very different than any other ramen I’ve had in Japan. The broth was super hearty, with lots of flavor and fat that Niigata style ramen is known for.”
Kenichi Ishizuki Rice Growers
“This is one of the few rice farms that actually grows rice and processes everything at the same place—a very unusual practice in Japan. In this region, I’m struck by just how many rice fields there are as well as the care in which the farmers take in growing such fantastic rice.”
Mikuni Wagyu Farm
“This producer purchases only Holstein and Wagyu males from Hokkaido when they’re 8-months-old. They’re raised for another 20 months, and while they may not get a massage or a beer, they do get pampered!”
“At this traditional ryokan (Japanese guest house) with an onsen (spa), my room overlooked rice fields. We enjoyed kaiseki-style dinners in the dining room, and the whole stay was made even more memorable by the appearance of a sumo wrestler—the apprentice of a national champion. He joined us during dinner to say hello”
“When most people think of Asian hot sauce, they probably think of Sriracha. But in Japan, it’s all about this hot pepper paste that’s fermented in the snow and aged for years. When we visited, we tasted sauces that had been fermented for three and six years, and it was remarkable to taste the difference in what fermentation does to the same ingredient.”
“What a fish market! This was absolutely the cleanest fish market I’ve ever visited; it didn’t even smell like fish here. And Niigata is very close to the sea, so the fish coming in are extremely fresh. Everyday, this market sells out of everything that is brought in the same day. The auction starts around 4 a.m., and on the busiest day, 10,000 boxes of fish are sold, including 200 tuna.”
Hisui Wasabi Farm
“At Zuma, we use only fresh wasabi—it’s important in translating the best flavor. It was fascinating to see how the Japanese are working their very best to make the ingredient more readily available to restaurants—with this farm in particular creating a product that’s far superior to the powdered kind. We really loved seeing the care they take with this special ingredient, going as far to serve it as a topping for soft-serve ice cream”