I’ve long been a fan of mackerel and bibimbap, so to discover a marriage of the two in an ostensibly random Japanese city was a delicious coincidence.
Availing of the the Hokuriku Area Pass, a 4-day Japan Railways train ticket that covered many hotspots in Ishikawa, Toyama, and Fukui prefectures, I took a day trip from Kanazawa to Obama, a port city in Fukui.
Historically, this region was called Wakasa (若狭), which held a prime location on Wakasa Bay. For hundreds of years, it supplied Kyoto, the ancient imperial capital of Japan, with abundant seafood. Together with Awaji province (present-day Hyogo prefecture) and Shima province (today’s Mie prefecture), Wakasa was one of Kyoto’s miketsukuni, basically the food pantry.
In particular, mackerel, or saba (鯖) in Japanese, was very popular at the time, so much so that the route from Obama to Kyoto came to be known as the “mackerel highway,” or saba kaido (鯖街道).
With such a prominent local delicacy — actually, due to overfishing, Japan has been importing mackerel for decades — I found out that one of Obama’s most famous dishes was called 鯖ンバ, or sabanba.
OK, so it’s not such a well-known meal — never mind that the one restaurant serving it, Yamato-an, is best known for tonkatsu, or fried pork cutlets — and let’s not forget that the dish is a fusion of Japanese food and Korean food. (link in Japanese) The manager at the time was fond of bibimbap, the Korean comfort food of mixed rice, vegetables, and an egg, so the epiphany came to add mackerel to it.
In Japan, sabanba falls under the category of B級グルメ, or B-grade gourmet. That is, it’s a dish with inexpensive ingredients and mass appeal. Regardless of that appellation, sabanba is still a fun, tasty, and variegated meal that spotlights one locally historic ingredient.