An Introduction to the Food of Kyushu, Japan with KLM and Atsuko’s Kitchen
In my early twenties I had something of an obsession with Japan. Not with the food, rather with other aspects of the culture, in particular with Japanese gardens and the Tea Ceremony. Of course as with many things in my life it might just have been linked with the man of the moment, who landscaped the garden of his small terraced house ‘Japanese Style’ using some of the principles of Japanese garden design to create a unique and tranquil space in the heart of London. We spent hours in the Japanese Garden in Holland Park contemplating the features there…and replicating some of them in (not so) sunny Earlsfield. I’m not entirely sure what the neighbours though, but we loved it.
More recently I’ve been learning a bit about Sake, which unfortunately for my liver I seem to love in all its variations (if you thought it was just a warm alcoholic wine, think again).
But, Japanese food is something I knew very little about and so I was delighted to be invited by KLM to join a select group of travel writers to celebrate their newest destination to Japan, Fukuoka and to learn about Kyushu, the island that is home to Japan’s sixth largest city, by exploring some of the food. Atsuko, our charming and enthusiastic teacher runs classes in Japanese home-style cooking. Not dishes where you need a lot of special equipment or a new store cupboard of ingredients but wonderful food that I can actually see myself making again.
Atsuko told us that Japanese food has five basic ingredients: Mirin, Sake, Soy, Rice Wine Vinegar and Miso Paste. And explained that the Kyushu has food with slightly stronger flavours and a little more salt than Northern Japan. Before we started cooking we were treated to some delicious canapes that she’d already prepared, before moving on to make three dishes ourselves and to enjoy a couple more.
Sushi, in my head, involved elaborate preparations of fresh fish, careful rolling and shaping and immaculate styling. I have tried. I seem to remember making an inordinate amount of mess with some dried seaweed and a bamboo mat. This version, Suko Zuzhi is altogether easier and I can see it being very adaptable depending on what ingredients you have available, although that may be a little sacrilegious given the dish is over 500 years old!
Prepared sushi rice is pressed into a lined deep baking tray to make a thin (about 1.5cm deep layer) and then lifted out, cut into neat squares then topped with a variety of pre-prepared ingredients.
We made egg ‘strings’ using a very thin omelette with a little sake and sugar which was rolled and sliced into ribbons.
Tuna flakes were a mixture of tuna, sake, sugar and shoyu (dark soy) all beaten up with chopsticks to create tiny soft fishy morsels. And, we added steamed prawns and blanched mangetout, with a little garnish of dill.
Simpler still was the garnish of spring onion with miso mustard sauce. Blanched spring onions were trimmed and then knotted into a pretty shape and topped just before serving with a mixture of white miso, rice vinegar, agave and karashi mustard.
This was a dish apparently created for a competition. A food loving Japanese shogun, the 6th Hosokawa, Lord of Kumamoto. asked local cooks to compete to create a dish that would be special but needed just a few ingredients. And the result was ‘higomoji no guruguru’, an economical and tasty side dish that can be enjoyed with just a glass of sake.
The most complicated of the dishes we cooked was Mizutaki Nabe. The nabe is hot pot which is generally cooked at the table and shared by the whole family. The Fukuoka version is made with chicken stock, chicken and vegetables and is served with Ponzu, a special citrus soy.
Yes it was delicious. But somehow quite healthy and light. I loved the idea of a table top meal for sharing although I suspect if and when I try this at home it will be using my tagine on the stove-top in the kitchen, at least until I am a little more confident with the ingredients!
Even the Buto no kakuni, the ‘square pork’ was wonderful, tender, melting and delicately spiced. I am not a fan of pork belly or any other fatty meat cut, but slow cooked this way the meat is very tender and the fat just falls away if you don’t want to eat it. But no kakuni is a braised pork dish which Atsuko prepared for us and which probably has origins in China. One of the key features of the food from Kyushu is the influence of its role as an international trading route for many centuries. The food is a fusion of Eastern and Western cultures from as far back as the 16th century.
We finished the evening with green tea and cake. And I am intrigued; the cuisine of ‘this’ Japan is so different to the westernised sushi and sashimi we eat in the UK and the base ingredients seem accessible. The historic and cultural influences are strong – For example, Atsuko told us that many dishes had a Portuguese influence, from the 16th and 17th centuries when the Portuguese dominated the spice routes. Perhaps I’ll be lucky enough to visit now that KLM offers three flights a week from the UK to Fukuoka via Amsterdam.
With many thanks to KLM and Atsuko’s Kitchen for the invitation to learn a little about the cuisine of Kyushu.