Yamagata Life Diary: My Favorite Imoni
In Yamagata, when September rolls around, we all know what that means.
Imoni season, of course.
But with the heat of this summer, which remained brutal throughout September, this year October seems a better time to talk about comforting and warming imoni.
The beef and taro soup known as “imoni” is a yearly rite of passage in Yamagata – the focal point of many autumn get-togethers. When the days start getting cooler, people will gather on riverbanks around large, steaming pots of imoni – which in Yamagata city means thinly sliced beef, satoimo (taro), konnyaku, leeks, maitake or shimeji mushrooms, and other seasonal vegetables in a soy sauce broth. Local moms and grandmothers have very strict ideas about how imoni should be made, and – as my Yamagata friends tell me – if you make it the “wrong” way, you will be sternly corrected.
Like many regional dishes which are a source of local pride, imoni is more often found in home kitchens than fancy restaurants, but there are of course places you can go to eat it. And my absolute favorite place to go for imoni serves it all year round. I like its simplicity, consistent deliciousness, and the fact that it tastes like it came from my mother’s kitchen.
This place is the Endo Main Store in Yamadera, and the imoni there is prepared by Makiko-san, the Endo proprietress who is well-known to local residents and the legions of tourists who descend upon Yamadera throughout the year. The Endo Main Store is basically never closed (neither pandemics nor winter storms can cause it to close its doors), and Makiko is there for most of its open hours. She is one of those people who treats everyone she meets as a long-lost family member – and the nice thing about her is that she is genuinely interested in you, and will do everything she can to make sure you enjoy your time in Yamadera.
And this extends to her cooking. The food at the Endo Main Store is simple and local, hand-prepared with regional ingredients which make the offerings fortifying and delicious. Visitors to her store can try “hojukko” steamed dumplings filled with seasonal fillings, sweet “zundakko” dumplings which have a pink glutinous rice filling and sweet soybean paste topping, and of course everyone is familiar with the large pot of tama-konnyaku situated at the store’s entrance. These balls of konnyaku will be speared on a stick and served with hot mustard, if you so wish.
But my favorite thing to eat is Makiko’s imoni. It contains the traditional lineup of ingredients, but is also distinguished by its large wheels of “ofu,” or dried wheat gluten. The flavor is simple and deliciously balanced – and though I didn’t want to pry too much into the recipe details, Makiko told me that it takes three kinds of soy sauce to get the flavor she wants. It’s easy to tell that it has been carefully and lovingly prepared, and you can see this appreciation on the faces of the people who sit down to enjoy a bowl of it.
So if you’re in Yamadera, and if you’re looking to enjoy some local cooking, stop by the Endo Main Store. More likely than not, Makiko will be there to greet you – and she will be very happy to make your acquaintance.