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Hokuriku Foreigner Focus 4: Aussie chef taking traditional Ishikawa foods to new places

Benjamin Flatt, left, and his wife Chikako Funashita. The couple runs "Flatt's" inn together, where Benjamin also makes traditional Noto Peninsula fermented foods. (Mainichi)

Hokuriku is a region located several hundred kilometers away from Tokyo -- on the coast of the Sea of Japan -- and is essentially made up of three prefectures: Toyama, Ishikawa and Fukui. There are no major cities in Hokuriku, but the region offers a rich variety of foods, profound traditions as well as a wide range of famous tourist attractions. The wonders of Hokuriku have not only attracted Japanese people to the region, but foreigners too. There are approximately 37,000 foreigners living in Hokuriku, which is just over 1 percent of the total number of residents in the region (approximately 3 million). This section provides a glimpse into the lives of various foreigners who have based themselves in Hokuriku, and who have integrated themselves within the region.


Australian Benjamin Maxwell Flatt is an expert in the creation of all things local and fermented and traditionally found on Ishikawa Prefecture's Noto Peninsula, from "ishiri" squid sauce to "konka iwashi" sardines fermented in rice bran and "yunanba," yuzu citrus fruit and red chili peppers pickled in salt.

Benjamin Flatt's homemade "konka iwashi" fermented sardines. "Konka" means "rice bran," and the fish are pickled in the bran with chili peppers and salt. The dish is a favorite appetizer in Noto, Ishikawa Prefecture. (Photo courtesy of Flatt's inn)

The 51-year-old resident of the town of Noto makes it all by hand, and uses it in dishes he cooks up at the "Flatt's" inn he runs with his wife Chikako Funashita, even in Italian food. In other words, Benjamin is using his chef's skills to express these traditional Noto foods in new ways. On the inn menu, you may find Carpaccio made with locally caught fish, or spaghetti with a hint of "ishiru" fermented sardine sauce. Every Italian dish has at least a bit of Noto flavor.

"I'm using Italian culinary techniques to make 'Noto Italian,'" Benjamin told the Mainichi Shimbun.

Benjamin is originally from a restaurant-owning family from southeastern Australia, and began working in a Sydney eatery at age 18, polishing his Italian culinary skills. Chikako and Benjamin met when she stayed with his family as a homestay guest. He was besotted, and asked her to marry him.

The couple moved to Japan in 1996, and began their matrimonial life together in Chikako's hometown of Noto. At first, however, her father Toshihiro (now 69) and mother Tomiko (now 68) refused to accept the marriage. Nevertheless, Benjamin cooked with his parents-in-law and helped run their inn.

Grilled anglerfish with liver sauce, prepared by Benjamin Flatt. (Photo courtesy of Flatt's inn)

Two months after arriving in Noto, Toshihiro gave Benjamin a cooking knife, "and I felt like I had been recognized as a member of the family," the Australian said.

The biggest impressions life on the Noto Peninsula made on Benjamin were from the first time he tried various local foods, especially sardines.

"I was surprised by how delicious they are with a bowl of rice," he remembered.

Chikako and Benjamin opened Flatt's in 1997, moving the inn to its present location in a single-story wooden building overlooking the sea in 2011. Guests are treated to meals of freshly-caught seafood, and garden and mountain vegetables, all locally sourced. Benjamin's ishiri sauce is made lovingly from Japanese squid organs and Noto Peninsula sea salt.

From his parents-in-law, Benjamin learned to share tasks and to use even a fish's head and bones.

"The Noto life is the result of these lifestyle lessons," Benjamin commented.

The Hokuriku region of Japan. (Mainichi)

These days Benjamin goes to Tokyo and serves his Noto-flavored creations at various events. He also stays connected to the local area, joining Noto festivals and keeping up with everyday tasks like cutting the lawn. His days are full and satisfying.

"He may have become a Noto native," says Chikako of her husband, who has so thoroughly enmeshed himself in local life. "It seems like this place has become his hometown, somewhere he can really relax."

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What is "ishiri"?

"Ishiri" or "ishiru" is a sauce from the northeastern Noto Peninsula made by fermenting fish meat and organs in salt for a year or more. "Ishiri" is based on squid guts, while "ishiru" is made from sardines. It has a very particular taste, and is often used to flavor local stewed dishes. There are eight ishiri and ishiru makers in the town of Noto, producing a total of some 250 metric tons of sauce annually.

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