It was my first time stepping into Nara, and my first introduction to its cuisine came from the lady at the front desk of Hotel Wellness Yamatoji, and the meals served at the resident restaurant, Yamato. I was surprised how interesting some of the local products are, and wondered how it hasn’t made waves overseas yet.
There are plenty of packaged food options that you can find in the gift shop in HMI Yamatoji, and in numerous kiosks around the area. They make a lovely gift, as they are difficult to find outside of the Kansai region. One option is somen (素麺), as they are relatively inexpensive and easy for anyone to cook with. The thin white noodles are light are delicious with just a light broth or dipping sauce. They come in different flavours as well, such as sweet potato, pumpkin and plum. This can be found in other areas of Japan, but it is very plentiful in Nara. There is also Narazuke (奈良漬け), pickles made with sake. While I’m not a fan of pickles, it makes a unique snack and gifts for those who are.
When you first start shopping around in Nara, you will notice that there are many products made with kudzu (葛). Its root starch is used to make cakes, sauces and snacks. It has a chewy and resilient texture which makes it suitable for making mochi and noodles. There is also kuzuyu, a thick herbal tea and kudzu kiri, a transparent noodle, both made using the starch.
There is other fresh food that you should try but will not be able to bring back. One is kaki no ha zushi, or sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves. The wrapping adds a nice subtle aroma and taste to the sushi that is unique. Another is the simple chagayu, which is rice cooked in green tea. Goma tofu, made from sesame and kudzu instead of soy beans is commonly served as a side dish at restaurants, and is something that you should leave room for.
Going around the shops in Nara can be very interesting, as you see a great variety of snacks and local handicrafts, especially near the major temples and shrines in Nara City. It’s hard to resist the colourful and cute boxes featuring cartoon deers snacking on senbei or sipping green tea, but look out for the traditional food wrapped in beautiful pastel colours as well. These food products have been perfected over a number of centuries, and are the pride of locals.