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Hometown heritage focus with Satoshi Takahashi #12: 'Damako' rice ball hotpot

Kuniko Ishii serves "Damako nabe" hot pot at her home in the town of Gojome, Akita Prefecture, on April 16, 2022. (Satoshi Takahashi)

In this series, Japanese photojournalist Satoshi Takahashi focuses on the diverse heritage of his home prefecture Akita in northern Japan. For this 12th article, Takahashi looks into a local specialty, "damako nabe" hotpot, by traveling to the town of its origin, Gojome.

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    If you want a couple of dishes that truly say"Akita," you can't go wrong with "Damako nabe" and "kiritampo nabe" hotpots (nabe).

    The former, "Damako," is derived from a dialectal verb "damakeru" meaning "rolling something into a ball." Hence, the pot features "damako mochi," or bite-size balls of mashed cooked rice, that are boiled in soy sauce-based broth with gobo (burdock root), maitake mushrooms, seri parsley, green onion and "hinai jidori" -- local free-range chicken. The dish supposedly originated in the town of Gojome and the surrounding area, and has long been prepared for all occasions, from everyday meals at home to celebrations and special events.

    Kuniko Ishii, 77, a member of a group working to preserve local food culture, cooked a pot for me. She said, "In the past, as a lot of sculpin was caught in the river nearby, we also enjoyed damako nabe with miso-based sculpin soup."

    Ishii revealed another of her unforgettable stories. Some two months after the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, she and her friends visited the devasted town of Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, to serve hot meals to victims. The backdrop was that a group of 43 from Gojome and the neighboring town of Ikawa had been staying at a hotel in Otsuchi on that day, but had escaped the tsunami thanks to the staff's directions. The guests were sent off by the hotel's president, chief chef, and 3 members of a fire company, who all stayed behind, and were killed in the waves.

    "We were indebted to the townspeople of Otsuchi," reflects Ishii. During their stay, rendered speechless by the destruction, they stood by the victims and cooked damako nabe for them. The bond created then developed into the friendship of today. "I recall them telling me, 'This is good. I want more.' A hotpot can connect people, and I wish to cherish each such relationship."

    The hotpot, an indispensable part of the local food culture, warmed my heart. Happiness flowed through me, as I realized once more this was my home.

    (The Japanese original of this article by Satoshi Takahashi was published on May 11, 2022.)

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    Satoshi Takahashi was born in the city of Akita, Akita Prefecture, in 1981. Residing in Phnom Penh from 2007 to 2018, he captured the social problems of Cambodia through his photographs, which were published globally. In 2019, his publication titled "RESISTANCE" (whose subtitle roughly translates to "the undaunted spirit of Cambodians") won the 38th Domon Ken Award sponsored by The Mainichi Newspapers Co.

    More information in Japanese can be found at the following Mainichi Shimbun page online:

    Domon Ken Award: https://www.mainichi.co.jp/event/aw/domonken_archive.html

    In Photos: Hot pot of 'Damako' rice balls, free-range chicken warms up Japan's Akita Pref.

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