You can only go to so many matsuri festivals before everything, well, starts looking the same. For the first couple months I was in Japan, I would drag my fiancé all around Tokyo looking for festivals to crash. Donning my favorite white and blue yukata (summer kimono), I would gouge myself with okonomiyaki (cabbage pancake), yakisoba (fried noodles), kakigori (shaved ice), and other traditional Japanese festival foods. Sometimes I would find something new – festivals up in Akita had kimidango (sweet pounded rice) and festivals down in Osaka had takoyaki (fried octopus in a ball). It was all the same.
After about six months, I was tired of festival food.
Then, during a hanami party up near Akita last weekend, I found my new favorite festival food: popped rice (ポン菓子). Initially skeptical, I opted to try out this Pongashi popped rice because it was cheap. I spent the rest of the afternoon swatting away friend’s hands – I was addicted to the sweet, soft popped rice.
Pongashi popped rice is twice as thick as cooked rice and four times as thick as uncooked rice. It is prepared by slowly roasting rice kernels over a small wooden stove. At the festival, the married couple who ran the booth took turns twirling the level (to rotate the kernels over the fire) and selling product.
The job is not danger-free; one must keep the dry rice in a tightly sealed container over an open flame. The heat and pressure from the fire changes the rice. Once the seal is broken (the container is opened), with a loud bang, the rice will expand four time its original size. We watched the old man preparing the pongashi puffed rice; when he opened the pressure container, the “BANG” was audible throughout the festival. The end result was an almost sweetish puffed grain with the consistency of popcorn.
This isn’t the first time I’ve eaten popped rice (I love eating rice cakes in America) and it won’t be the last. Next time I go to a festival, I will be on the lookout for a rising column of steam, a crowd, and a loud bang.
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