Wakayama Prefecture has a wealth of traditional local foods, hands down one of the more popular dishes is mehari-zushi. Though somewhat misleading, these large rice balls are more vegetable than sushi, and are in fact vegan. Originating from Wakayama’s Kumano region, this dish is so popular that you can find it in many places throughout the Kansai region also offer it. Still, the mehari-zushi from Kumano are by far the best.
What is Mehari-zushi?
So, what is mehari-zushi? Though sushi is in its name, it is quite different from what most imagine when one says “sushi”. Mehari-zushi is a rice ball covered with pickled takana or Japanese red mustard. So why is it a kind of sushi it contains neither fish nor vinegary rice? Technically, this is a type of nare-zushi, an ancient type of sushi that consists of at least one fermented ingredient.
(see our post of funa-zushi for the difference between nare-zushi and haya-zushi).
Even though the mustard leaves are fermented, they do not have a very strong fermented flavor. Rather, it still has a mild vegetable-like flavor. If you or your traveling companions are picky eaters, or simply bit wary of Japanese food, mehari-zushi is pretty mild as far as traditional Japanese dishes go.
In ancient times, people would make the rice balls very big; roughly the size of a softball! Its original size was so big people would describe it by saying [目を見張るほど大き], lit. me wo miharuhodo oki. Thus, mehari-zushi (wide-eyed sushi) was born.
Mehari-zushi at Mehariya
The mountainous region of Kumano region often experiences hard frosts in the winter. It is these frosts that make their red mustard particularly tasty.
In Kumano, one of the most popular places that specializes in this dish is Mehariya, which is close to Kumano Hayatama Taisha.
In addition to being wrapped with mustard leaves, Mehariya include a center of finely chopped takana inside their rice balls. The additional greens give a more pronounced, but not overpowering flavor.
Of course, you get their meahrai-zushi to go, but if you eat in the restaurant, you can order a meal set that includes several other small dishes.
5-6 Yakushimachi, Shingu, Wakayama Prefecture
10 minutes on foot from Kumano Hayatama Shrine