Kumamoto's Cuisine Part 2: Lotus roots, ramen, and more...
April 17, 2017
Photo: Phoebe Amoroso
Calling all adventurous foodies – Kumamoto should feature among your next destination list. While the beautiful agricultural region is famed for a raw horsemeat delicacy known as basashi (see Kumamoto Part 1), the unique gourmet discoveries do not end there. Here’s what to eat if you want to truly get to know Kumamoto.
A local cuisine medley...
For an introduction, I visited a store in Kumamoto that serves a local cuisine set lunch, offering a tasting overview and a feast for both the eyes and the belly.
Photo: Phoebe Amoroso
The lunch included some traditional dishes served all over Japan: simmered fish in a lightly sweet broth, shrimp and vegetable tempura, and chawan-mushi, a savory egg custard containing seafood, chicken and vegetables. But let me draw your attention to some highlights of Kumamoto cuisine...
Karashi renkon is a lotus root stuffed with a mustard-miso paste and deep-fried in a batter made from wheat and broadbean flour, eggs and sometimes turmeric.
Yasuka Karahashi, the storeowner, has spent the past few years researching dishes served in Kumamoto castle and local cuisine. Legend has it, she says, that karashi renkon was created for the sickly lord Tadatoshi Hosokawa, who ruled Kumamoto in the early 17th century. Lotus root was recommended to the lord as a form of medicine, but he initially refused to eat it, due to the fact that it was dug straight from the ground. But its transformation into a spicy, deep-fried dish won Tadatoshi over.
However, most people had to wait a lot longer to sample this delight. According to another tale, the shape of a sliced lotus root with its nine holes resembled the family crest of the Hosokawa clan, and thus commoners were forbidden from eating it until the collapse of the feudal system in 1869.
Crunchy and fiery, it’s rather fortunate that this moreish dish is no longer limited to the elite. Karashi renkon is now traditionally eaten as an otsumami, a small dish consumed with alcohol. But be warned – take small bites unless you enjoy a sharp shock to your nose from that mustard.
I visited Murakami Karashi Renkon, a specialty store, which offers a hands-on experience. The eye-catching dish is surprisingly simple to make – although third-generation owner Masaru Murakami kindly prepares the paste and batter in advance. He has also taken karashi renkon production to a new level by designing an automatic fryer. Launch your lotus root into the moat of oil and it’ll be gently guided along until it pops out 6 minutes later. Watch the video to see the whole process.
Hitomoji no guruguru
This is a spring onion with the leafy part wrapped around the harder stem, topped with vinegared miso. It is definitely one of those dishes that doesn’t sound like much on paper, but the sweetness and tanginess of the miso with the onion is so good in reality that one plate simply isn’t enough.
Dago jiru – dumpling soup
On the side of the Kumamoto feast was this home classic. It's a hearty soup with slightly chewy wheat flour dumplings and plenty of vegetables. Look out for regional differences – the soup in Kumamoto city is often made from a clear chicken and bonito stock, whereas the Aso region tends to use miso as the base.
Takana meshi – pickled mustard greens on rice
Again, this is a dish where words don't really do it justice. Simple but with a tangy, mellow flavor, takana (pickled mustard greens) are an incredibly popular topping for rice.
Know your noodles
Like many regions in Japan, Kumamoto is no exception when it comes to having its own kind of noodles. It boasts a special adaptation of a Chinese dish, as well as its very own ramen.
Kumamoto ramen – noodles in a pork bone broth
Although tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen is commonplace, Kumamoto has carved out its own particular style. According to Yuichiro Yamada, a professional noodle writer based on the southern island of Kyushu, where Kumamoto itself is located, Kumamoto ramen came from the town of Kurume to the north of the region. But whereas Kurume ramen is eaten as a snack, Kumamoto ramen is enjoyed as a whole meal. The soup is generally milder and lighter, and the noodles are also of medium thickness as opposed to thin. But perhaps the most distinctive characteristic is the topping of garlic chips. In short, Kumamoto ramen is delicious, but probably best avoided on a date.
Kurume ramen spread to the town Tamana in the north of Kumamoto Prefecture. Inspired by its tastiness and spying a gap in the market, Yasunori Yamanaka opened Komurasaki in Kumamoto city itself in 1954, along with his wife Chizuko and three craftsmen from Tamana. It was this restaurant that established the garlic tradition. “They thought there was something lacking in the taste,” explains Shizuka Yamanaka, the second-generation owner. They began experimenting by mincing garlic and deep-frying it to create chips, and they developed a garlic powder five to six years later.
Kumamoto ramen has slowly spread across the city, and with no shortage of creative adaptations. One store has transformed the garlic chips into a garlic oil, and offers a topping of raw eggs. And another store is hotting up the competition with different spice levels.
Taipien – a vermicelli soup – is yet another dish unique to Kumamoto. Originally created by Chinese merchants from Fujian in 1900, it took root in Kumamoto, growing in popularity after the Second World War. It’s so well established as a local classic that it is even served up in schools for lunch.
According to Shinji Inoue, manager at Kourantei, one of the first stores to serve taipien, the dish does not exist back in China but is a local creation adapted to Japanese tastes. The soup is particularly appealing: it’s a simple blend of pork and chicken stock, with a little salt and sesame oil. Add the low calorie vermicelli (mungbean noodles) and the whole dish feels light and healthy. Toppings include cabbage, seafood, chicken, and sometimes a boiled egg that has been fried on the outside, known as a “tiger skin pattern egg” in Chinese due to its orange stripes.
Don't forget dessert
No food adventure would be truly complete without ending on a sweet note. Found in specialty stores across Kumamoto are ikinari dango. Literally “all-of-a-sudden dumplings”, they are a quick-to-make snack served to any unexpected guests at home. Red bean paste and sweet potato are wrapped in batter and steamed, for chewy yet soft, sweet morsels.
It’s highly recommended that you pay Kumamoto an “ikinari” or “all-of-a-sudden” visit too. Although you may wish to do a little planning beforehand, as it will take some time – or several stomachs – to explore all of Kumamoto’s diverse and unique cuisine.
Text: Phoebe Amoroso