Nagoya: Home to Japan's most unique cuisine?
Patrick St. Michel, CNN
(CNN) — Japan's Aichi prefecture has long been known for its automotive industry, anchored by homegrown car manufacturer Toyota.
Yet in recent years, the region has become just as celebrated for the food originating from Aichi's capital city, Nagoya.
Fittingly, part of the charm of the metropolis' cuisine is owing to an approach that's also made the nearby automaker such a force.
"One of Nagoya cuisine's unique points is how we constantly find new value for existing dishes," says Masumi Arakawa of the Nagoya-meshi Promotion Office, a group tasked with raising awareness of the city's food.
"I think that it's the same as Toyota and their method to production -- they keep improving on what they've made."
You'd think it would be tough to further enhance local menu staples such as miso-katsu, a fried pork cutlet slathered in a rich miso sauce renowned in Aichi, and tebasaki, a fried chicken wing enriched with a salty-sweet concoction and signature sprinkling of sesame seeds.
But Nagoya's local eats, served in countless restaurants and staples of family cooking, have gone from a small-town sensation to a national point of pride for the city.
A study conducted by the city of Nagoya related to domestic tourism found that more people visited the area to enjoy the food (50.9%) than to see the famed Nagoya Castle (49.9%).
Nagoya's local food -- referred to in Japanese as "Nagoya meshi" -- has a long and storied history within the region, with many of the signature dishes dating back to ancient times.
Arakawa says Nagoya meshi is rivaled only by Okinawan food as being the most unique in Japan.
A lot of that is owed to most dishes prominently featuring red soybean miso, a special variety of miso produced only in Aichi and a few surrounding areas.
It features different ingredients and takes longer to ferment than regular rice miso.
Miso-katsu: Easy to see why it's Nagoya's most famous dish.
Similarly, Arakawa stressed the soy sauce utilized in Nagoya meshi has a different taste than other versions, along with a darker color.
This unique base for most of Nagoya's dishes meant that, for a long time, those outside of the region didn't seek out these dishes.
"The trigger was Expo 2005 in Nagoya," Arakawa says.
"The media started talking extensively about Nagoya food."
The Nagoya-meshi Promotion Office launched soon after as a way to promote the city's food nationally and, eventually, worldwide.
Nagoya's culinary stars
Arakawa points to five dishes in particular that have proven popular all over the country: miso-katsu; tebasaki; hitsumabushi (pieces of eels coated in the local take on soy sauce, served on top of rice); miso nikomi (udon-style noodles served in a rich miso broth); and kishimen (a slightly thicker type of noodle served in a soup combining both of the key tastes of Nagoya cuisine).
That only scratches the surface of dishes that draw people from all corners of Japan to Aichi.
Nagoya has developed its own take on what it calls "Taiwan ramen," a spicier variety of the famous noodle.
Mixing elements of the eastern island with Aichi touches, it's the city's interpretation of what they would slurp down in Taiwan, introduced at the restaurant Misen in 1960.
Can't beat the originals
More and more Nagoya-centric restaurants are opening in cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, and they do a great job capturing the miso-centric taste of the city.
There are even festivals devoted to Nagoya meshi popping up across the nation.
But there's no better place to taste this emerging cuisine than in the heart of Aichi, where it all began.
For miso-katsu, you'll feel full if you hit up Tonkatsu Ishikawa and get one of their combos.
Patrick St. Michel is a freelance journalist living in Tokyo, Japan.