By Yuka Matsumoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterMIYAKO, Iwate — Small glass milk bottles are being reused to create a local specialty of this port city east of Morioka.
When people usually order donburi, they are brought a large bowl of rice topped with the desired ingredients. In Miyako, however, some restaurants serve donburi with the toppings on the side in the milk bottles. Stuffed into the bottles are the bounty of marine and agricultural products from the Sanriku region of which Miyako is a part, such as uni sea urchin roe, salmon roe, freshwater fish and various vegetables.
Diners arrange the bottled ingredients as they wish on the bowl of rice. While it is fascinating just to take a look at the bottles filled with fresh, colorful seafood and vegetables, it is also fun to spread the ingredients over the rice on your own.
This specialty is called “bin-don,” with “bin” meaning “bottle” and “don” an abbreviation of donburi.
It made its debut in autumn last year through the initiative of Miyako Kanko Bunka Koryu Kyoukai, the city’s tourism and cultural exchange association, to draw visitors to Miyako, which has continued to undergo reconstruction since the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011.
Currently, bin-don are available at 10 restaurants in Miyako, up from six last year, and most of the dishes are priced at around ¥1,500. The bottles come in large or small according to the ingredients, with some even containing okra, tomato or yamame trout (masu salmon). Each restaurant gives its take on how to bottle the ingredients. Some create beautiful layers using colorful foods, while others place moist or slippery ingredients at the bottom to make it easier for all the food to come out of the bottle.
Among the 10 establishments is Jodogahama Rest House, which faces the scenic Jodogahama beach where peculiarly shaped white rocks stand. The shop’s bin-don is based on Pacific cod caught off Miyako, which boasts the largest catch of this fish in the nation. The cod is marinated in soy sauce and bottled with ingredients such as salmon roe and seaweed.
Dining on this bin-don, I found the cod rich in umami. I then poured over the rice the accompanying dashi broth prepared using scallops and horsehair crabs. The aromas of the various seafood bathed my palate.
The restaurant was partially destroyed by the tsunami during the 2011 earthquake. After reopening, it regained its customer numbers through efforts such as developing new menu items.
“We don’t want to promote [our restaurant] by taking advantage of the traces of damage,” said manager Jun Shimazaki, 39.
He said that bin-don was created to make them different from rice bowls with seafood toppings offered in other parts of Japan, calling bin-don “an innovative type of rice bowl, not just offering distinctive ingredients.”
However, why on earth are milk bottles used for the cuisine in the first place? According to locals, the inspiration came from a local specialty that has been sold for many years: bottled bin-uni. This fresh uni placed in what looks like a milk bottle has an exceptionally sweet, rich flavor.
In the inland parts of the Sanriku area, dairy farming is a major industry and it is said that local fishermen came up with the idea for bin-uni when they saw empty milk bottles at home.
Filling these bottles with fresh uni and seawater did not require the addition of alum, a substance often used to prevent the uni from losing its shape.
“However, uni is harvested only in summer,” said Kaoru Kanazawa, 43, who works at Miyako Kanko Bunka Koryu Kyoukai. “I was wondering if we could bottle other flavorful seafood in other seasons.”
Kanazawa, who returned to his hometown two years ago after having lived outside Iwate Prefecture, proposed his idea to local restaurants.
Kanazawa’s idea gained support from the likes of Junichi Utsunomiya, 44, the manager of the restaurant Gyosaitei Sumiyoshi. The restaurant’s bin-don features beautiful layers of local seafood, using ingredients such as large pearl-like salmon roe, scallops and grilled uni. Utsunomiya named this bin-don Red Hot, saying he expressed his passion creating it. The item has become so popular that the restaurant had long lines during the Golden Week holidays.
During my visit to Miyako, I often heard locals say of the reconstruction efforts: “It’s not good enough to restore things to how they used to be. We also have to move forward.” Don’t look back and never stop. These milk bottles are filled not just with local ingredients, but also with the future.
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