Carp is the king of freshwater fish in Japan, with the most prized being Japanese crucian carp (nigorobuna), which is the original type of carp used to make funazushi and the kind Kitashina features. It is a wild, rich-tasting species that's found only in Lake Biwa, Japan's largest lake and one of the oldest lakes in the world.
Today, there are just five shops around the lake that specialise in making high-quality funazushi, as nigorobuna has become very rare and hard to obtain. Other places, including souvenir shops across the prefecture, use more common types of carp and offer a comparatively ready-made version – funazushi cured in salt for one summer and fermented in rice for a few months in autumn – for tourists seeking to try its reputedly pungent taste. Among them all, Kitashina is the one making the most authentic funazushi by using nigorobuna and applying the oldest, most traditional preparation methods.
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The good stuff is hard to get, though. Peak demand for Kitashina's funazushi is from November to February when customers order it as a New Year's treat, and later, to celebrate the arrival of spring. It can be sold out then, but a fresh batch, so to speak, is ready every year in mid-summer.
Before trying funazushi, Kitamura told me that it tastes like cheese – which it does, in its lacto- fermented, sour, salty and umami-rich way. It's reminiscent of a funky and creamy type of cheese, given that Kitashina makes funazushi with the roe-laden female nigorobuna in season from March to May. Like many mature cheeses, funazushi is an acquired taste; a food that takes some getting used to. But then so is eating raw seafood for many people.