From the bustling, futuristic streets of Tokyo to the serene cobbled lanes of Kyoto, Japan is an alluring mix of traditional and modern. For this trip, I’m heading to the countryside of Kyushu, Japan’s third-largest island, southwest of Honshu. During my stay, I pay a visit to Nagasaki, Oita and Fukuoka, and discover three vastly different regions, each with their own culinary specialties.
My first stop is Nagasaki, Japan’s westernmost city and the capital of Kyushu. This coastal hub was a Portuguese fishing port in the 1500s, and today this colonial influence can be seen in the city’s European-style churches and Portuguese-inspired foods. Most famous of these dishes is tempura, which was based on the Portuguese recipe peixinho-da-horta (fried small fish) and takes its name from the word tempero, meaning seasoning.
Another renowned Japanese dish that sprang from the Portuguese influence is castella. Known as kasutera in Japanese, this soft, creamy sponge cake is made of flour, eggs and sugar. These days, the cake can be flavoured with local ingredients, such as green tea, honey or brown sugar, but the original plain version is my favourite.
Although I’m visiting at the height of summer, I can’t resist a stop at the famed onsen (hot springs) of Beppu in the Oita Prefecture. The region of Beppu is divided into eight major hot spring centres, known as Beppu Hattō, including one that is called Oniyama Jigoku (literally “monster mountain hell”), because of the crocodile farms that surround the springs!
A special snack is served at the hot springs, called the Beppu bun. This fluffy bun is filled with sweetened red bean paste, and then warmed in the steam of the hot springs. Although the flavour isn’t strong or distinctive, the dish is one of the most memorable culinary experiences in Japan because it speaks so strongly of the region.
My last stop is Fukuoka, the largest city in Kyushu, situated on the island’s north. In Fukuoka, a must-try dish is the hakata ramen. There are many different types of ramen in Japan, each drawing on the local ingredients and characteristics of the region. Hailing from the Hakata district, hakata ramen features a soup base made of pork bones, which have been boiled for hours to create a rich, milky tonkatsu stock. Believe me, once you take your first sip of the soup, you won’t be able to stop.
In Japan, the taste of the ramen is enhanced by the way you slurp the noodles: the louder you slurp, the tastier the dish will be, so be prepared to make some noise – and mess! Traditional toppings for the soup include charsu (roast pork), kikurage (wood-ear fungus), spring onions and pickled red ginger. For extra flavour, you can add ground sesame seeds or crushed garlic at the table.
I also tried the unagi-no-seiromushi, grilled eel served over rice in a traditional bamboo steamer. The eel is steamed together with the sweet soy-based sauce, so the rice is soaked in the luscious sauce – the taste is out of this world. The best place to try it is in the district of Yanagawa. Here they mix the juice from the eel with the sweet soy, which imparts the flavour and fragrance of the eel through the rice. Other Fukuoka specialties include mentaiko (marinated pollock or cod roe) and motsunabe, a rib-sticking stew of beef offal, cabbage and noodles.
My time in Japan is over all too quickly, but I’m left with some fabulous food memories and a desire to experience even more Japanese regions and cuisines. This trip has definitely given me an excuse to return.
In the meantime, we’d love to hear about your own gourmet adventures – be sure to share your foodie tips and tales here on Asian Inspirations.
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