We head to Kanazawa to visit the birthplace of this “hungry tuna” dish that doesn’t contain tuna.

Just about every part of Japan has its own meibutsu, or “famous things,” regional foods or handicrafts that are seen as representatives of the local culture. In the case of the town of Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, its edible meibutsu is seafood, especially mixed sashimi rice bowls sold in and around the city’s fish market.

But it turns out Kanazawa has a second meibutsu food, at least in the minds, and stomachs, of locals: hanton rice.

If you’ve never heard of hanton rice, don’t feel like you need to hand in your Japanese cuisine foodie card. Even among Japanese people, the dish isn’t widely known. The people of Kanazawa, though, have been enjoying hanton rice for generations, and it’s so popular that you can even find hanton rice bento boxed lunches for sale in convenience stores there.

We wanted to try the most authentic hanton rice we could, so we headed for the first restaurant to serve the dish…maybe. Depending on who you ask, there are two different restaurants where hanton rice is said to have originated, but our source directed us to Grill Otsuka.

As soon as we saw the restaurant, we knew we were in for a treat. In Japan, it’s a safe bet that any restaurant that has a line of customers stretching out the door is going to be good, and if it’s got a line even on a rainy night like this, odds are it’s going to be very good.

Grill Otsuka has an extremely at-home atmosphere – it looks and feels quite a lot like you’ve popped into someone’s house for dinner. This is a restaurant, though, and opening the menu shows all sorts of classic casual favorites like tonkatsu, hamburger steak and curry rice. But what we were here for was the hanton rice, which is priced at 1,150 yen (US$7.70).

Hanton rice gets its name by combining approximate pronunciations of the English “hungry” and French “thon,” meaning “tuna,” and was chosen to communicate that hanton rice is a hearty seafood dish. It’s similar to omrice, a.k.a. omuraisu, Japanese-style rice omelets, but topped with fried shrimp and fish, and drizzled not only with ketchup but tartar sauce too.

We’ve got one more course of linguistics to chew on, though, since despite the ton/thon/tuna part of its name, the fish used for hanton rice at Grill Otsuka isn’t tuna, it’s marlin. In Japanese, marlin is called kajiki maguro, with maguro by itself being the word for “tuna.” Marlin isn’t actually a kind of tuna, but it’s sometimes mistakenly thought to be so in Japan, on account of the fish’s in-Japanese names overlapping. That seems to be what happened here, though it’s possible that the hanton rice served at other restaurants is made with other kinds of fish.

The gist, though, is that hanton rice is omrice topped with some sort of fried fish and other seafood, and the even more important thing to remember is that it’s delicious. Rather than dance delicately on your taste buds, hanton rice wastes no time in delivering strong, satisfying flavors and eliminating any hunger pangs, and that combination of immensely satisfying qualities has earned it the nickname of “the kids plate for adults” among fans in Kanazawa.

Earlier we said that there are two restaurants that can be said to be the originator of hanton rice, so to find out a little more about the dish’s history, we spoke with Grill Otsuka’s owner, Masaki Otsuka, and his mom. As you can guess from their surname, Grill Otsuka is a family-run business, with Masaki’s grandfather being the original founder.

Hanton rice was first made in the kitchen of Grill Otsuka, but it wasn’t served to customers. Instead, it was what’s called makanai in the Japanese restaurant industry, a not-on-the-menu meal that’s cooked up for the staff to eat during their shifts. Looking at hanton rice, you can kind of tell that it has its roots in makanai, as there’s sort of a hodgepodge feel to its ingredients and presentation.

Hanton rice was such a hit among the staff, though, that when one of the cooks working for Masaki’s grandfather eventually left to open his own restaurant, he wanted to put hanton rice on his menu. He didn’t want to do this without Masaki’s grandfather’s permission, though, so he went back and asked the original owner of Grill Otsuka for his blessing, which he gave. Then, after that former cook’s restaurant had been serving hanton rice for a few months, Grill Otsuka began offering it to their customers too. But whether that makes Grill Otsuka the first restaurant or the second to serve hanton rice, there’s no question that it’s good stuff.

Kanazawa has a reputation as a traditional town, with its preserved teahouse district and gold artisans preserving the traditions of its past. At the same time, like any town, it’s also a town where the local people are always in the process of making new traditions in the ways they live their daily lives, and hanton rice is definitely a Kanazawa cultural tradition that’s worth experiencing for yourself.

Restaurant information
Grill Otsuka / グリルオーツカ
Address: Ishikawa-ken, Kanazawa-shi, Katamachi 2-9-15
Open 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m., 5 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
Closed Wednesdays

Photos ©SoraNews24
● Want to hear about SoraNews24’s latest articles as soon as they’re published? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
[ Read in Japanese ]