Photo/IllutrationToasted rice balls (Photo by Masahiro Gohda)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Rice balls sit on the cooking grid placed over a “shichirin” charcoal grill. When the sesame seeds on their surface start to pop, a mouthwatering toasty aroma fills the air.

Yokoyama Shoten, a cooked-dishes shop, can be found at the back of Furukawa Market, about a five-minute walk from JR Aomori Station. Considered the “residents’ kitchen,” the market has been popular with locals since old times.

Toasted rice balls are the diner’s specialty, and they cost 180 yen ($1.60) each.

The store goes by the name Harue Shokudo (Harue Diner), after the name of its 84-year-old proprietor, Harue Yokoyama. In the store, it is as if time stopped in the Showa Era (1926-1989), and visitors are struck by a sense of nostalgia. A glimpse through the plastic curtain shows the store that will become crowded with two or three people, and Harue welcomes the customers wearing a white headscarf, chopping vegetables and grilling fish, slightly hunched.

Dishes such as a stir-fry of “mizu” and “nemagaridake” edible wild plants as well as grilled fish are on display. When she sells them by weight, Harue places them in a plastic bag which she closes tightly, wraps in newspaper, and secures with a rubber band. Customers can also eat the dishes while sitting on chairs placed just in front of the shop.

It was during the first half of the 1970s that Harue took over the shop which her mother-in-law had opened at the spot after the war.

She kept up the business while raising two children. Nearly half a century has passed, times have changed, and only one of the three markets in the area remains.

“It used to be so lively. The passage of time is scary,” says Harue, sounding a little sad speaking in the gentle Tsugaru dialect.

Yet Furukawa Market caught on in 2009 when shops began selling “nokke-don,” bowls (“donburi”) of rice which customers top with fresh seafood of their choice, and it has been attracting many tourists since.

Harue Diner also draws visitors from afar who read about it in magazines. Nevertheless, regular customers asking for “two salty ones” are its mainstay.

Some regular customers even order their own preferred versions of the toasted rice balls.

Although Harue is only a little over 150 cm in height, she has large, strong “worker’s hands,” as she calls them. Using them, she shapes the rice balls and toasts them on the grill. They turn out crispy and toasty outside and nice and steamy inside, and they are flavored with salmon flakes. When you bite into the piping hot rice balls, you won’t be able to resist ordering other dishes.

Harue Yokoyama single-handedly runs Yokoyama Shoten (Harue Diner), which is open from morning, and fresh cooked dishes go on sale before noon. The shop closes around 4 p.m., and sometimes earlier if the dishes sell out. It is closed on Sundays.

INGREDIENTS

(For five rice balls)

4 bowls of rice

1 slice mildly-salted salmon (amajio-sake)

Salt

Black sesame seeds

METHOD

Rinse rice, immerse in water and cook in rice cooker. (At her diner, Harue cooks rice in a pot.)

Grill salmon, flake, and remove bones.

Mix salmon flakes in cooked rice. Moisten palms and rub in some salt. Take slightly less than a bowl of rice and shape. Rub salt on palms again and hold. Dust with sesame and hold again. Repeat process, since sesame tends to fall off.

Grill rice balls slowly over cooking grid on low heat to prevent them from burning. Turn when somewhat browned. The rice balls are done when the aroma of sesame rises and they are slightly browned all over.

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From The Asahi Shimbun’s Watashi no Ryori column