Japan was a whirlwind of new tastes, combinations, textures and satisfied stomachs. We’ve put together a list of our Top 13 Weird and Wonderful Local Japanese Food Dishes that stumbled upon during our wanders through Southern Japan; from Osaka all the way down to Kagoshima. Captured in super high quality phone snaps *cough*, here are our top 13 local picks to look out for on your next trip or to try and replicate at home (make sure to send us the recipe if you do!).
Originating in Fukuoka, the birthplace of ramen, comes a new dish set to blow your tastebuds away. Tsukemen is a thick soup served with a bowl of separate cold noodles where you select a few and dip them into the soup before gulping them down. This keeps the noodles from going mushy in the soup. With a thicker consistency than ramen, you can be sure you get a lot more sauce to noodle ratio with each mouthful.
It does have a slightly different taste to ramen; while there is still pork usually present with the dish, there is more of a dashi stock base to this one as opposed to the pork-based ramen. So slurp on friends, as loudly as possible, to show your appreciation of this fine new food you’ve just discovered.
2. Toriwasa (Chicken Sashimi)
You read that right. Raw chicken. Straight down the hatch. Although is it really that simple?
Jidori chicken literally means ‘chicken of the earth’. Bred free-range, with a vegetarian diet and the utmost care, these special birds live around 180 days before ending up on your plate. Their meat has a low fat content, and as a result of the way they are raised they can be eaten raw when slaughtered and prepared on the same day. We were lucky enough to test this theory a few times and can tell you – if you ever have the chance to try this sashimi, swallow any inhibitions along with a piece of this tasty meat. Usually served with a combo of soy, garlic and ginger dipping sauce this chicken is so delicious you won’t even realise it’s raw. It is tender, melt-in-your-mouth goodness; so unexpected for us growing up in a Western culture where raw meat is the devil.
3. Getanha (Brown Sugar Cake)
Getanha translates to ‘clog thong of Geta’. It gets its name from the Kagoshima prefecture where old clog thongs had the shape of a triangle where you would put your feet – this also represented the shape of a mountain.
This Japanese sweet cake is very simple to make, with brown sugar being the hero ingredient for both the cake base and the sauce. The end result is a soft mushy cake, that is so sugary you’ll be running around the backyard like a headless chook. As a result, it is best to eat a slice with a green tea to try and balance the bitter and the sweet. This is one of the lesser known dishes of Kagoshima, and there is hardly any information we could find on it’s origins and recipe. Luckily, our host was able to give us the information and it has been added to our ever growing list of foodie goodness.
4. Ayu (Grilled Sweet River Fish)
While we have both lived by the beach our entire lives, fish is usually served western style heavily battered or filleted at the very least with a side of chips. In a small town in Ikuno, they like to do things a little simpler. Freshly caught Ayu, a sweet river fish, is quickly scaled before being thrown onto a hot griddle, dowsed in salt on both sides and grilled to crispy goodness – whole.
Chopsticks out, the best way to eat this is to dig straight in – literally. After the first bite, we were hooked line and sinker! The meat fell off the bones, and the salted crispy skin gave a beautiful balance of bitter sweetness. We only recommend avoiding the internal bits that are left in, as these don’t cook as well and are very bitter if you accidentally eat some. This interesting cooking style will be one to try on the whiting when we return.
What is all the fuss from everyone in Kagoshima? Shirokuma! Shirokuma! Shirokuma! It’s almost like a chant emanating through the shopping mall. There’s a roped off section for the line of people straining their necks in order to select their favourite shirokuma flavour.
Shirokuma literally translates to white bear, also known as the polar bear. A lifesize stuffed figure of the grizzly animal can be found in the window of the famed Mugiya shop in Tenmonkan mall where this icy treat is said to have originated. This delicacy is a simple dessert dish made from a combination of shaved ice and condensed milk that results in a creamy cold, super sweet mound of sugary goodness topped with even more sugar delights. The original recipe uses canned fruit and sultanas to make a face in the ice, and it’s our favourite perhaps because we can fool ourselves that the fruit soaked in heavy syrup is a healthier alternative for us. We can dream right?
Other toppings looked incredibly appetising – including red bean and green tea matcha icecream, cookies and cream, custard, chocolate and many more.
6. Nanban Chicken
Jidori Chicken is present here once again where the thighs are fried then deliciously coated in a sweet and sour sauce and topped with tartare. Having only known tartare to go on seafood back in Australia, we assumed it was fish that sat on the plate next to our udon and sushi. We were quickly updated from our friends in Hyuga that this was one of the best dishes in Kyushu. A real Miyazaki area specialty. The tenderness of the salted chicken combined with sweet, sour and tartare sauces enveloped out taste buds immediately. There was no going back from here, Nanban chicken had us in its tasty grasp. This will be one dish going on our recipe roll at home.
7. Chicken Cartilage
We fought with this one. Going against all of our if’s, but’s and no, no, no’s… we tried the chicken cartilage. Grilled in a light soy sauce on the hibachi (Japanese barbeque), we made sure our cartilage was cooked as much as could be before putting the crunchy, charcoaled pieces in our mouths. And crunchy it was. So very crunchy. While the taste was quite yummy with all the barbequed chicken goodness, I’m not sure we could get past the fact it was so bone-like and left an almost slightly gritty feel between our teeth. I’m sure it would be a great treat had we grown up with it, but I think we will leave this one where it came from.
8. Kagoshima Kurobuta (Black Pork)
Served in a variety of styles, kurobuta should be on at least one of your plates if you visit the area of Kagoshima. Super tender, well marbled and full of flavour are some of the traits these cuts of meat have. The Kagoshima Kurobuta comes from a type of black Berkshire pig that is as highly regarded as the infamous Kobe beef in Japan. We were lucky enough to try two different cuts; ultra thinly sliced and cooked in shabu shabu, as well as panko crumbed fillet in Tonkatsu form.
Shabu shabu style will give you raw slices of the meat to cook quickly in a light dashi soup stock before dipping it into ponzu sauce (lemon and soy sauce combined) and popping it straight in your mouth. Tonkatsu pork is a thicker fillet, essentially like a Japanese schnitzel and coated in a barbeque style sauce with rice and miso soup accompaniments. We would highly recommend both ways, although why not try some in a completely new style altogether?
9. Akumaki Mochi
Wrapped in dried bamboo shoot leaves and tied with woven string, we weren’t sure what this was when we first spied them at the local post office of all places. Lucky for us our Kagoshima mum brought one home for us to try. Once unwrapped we stared at the see-through yellow glob in front of us. What was this going to taste like? We flipped a slice of the wobbling delicacy onto a plate and topped it with kinako soy bean powder. It proved to be a subtly sweet and slightly sticky dessert with a nutty earthy taste as a result of the rice being cooked in lye. Lye is a curing agent from volcanic ashes, also known as sodium hydroxide. All in all an interesting dish, and one that we recommend to try at least once.
10. Ginger Poles
Soy beans and tofu leftovers don’t usually strike us as a super tasty awesome treat. Yet somehow, the Japanese have managed to turn this ingredient combination into a sweet breadstick-like snack with the addition of spicy, sweet ginger. Making a great accompaniment to soju on ice, these morsels are ridiculously morish (especially with the increase of alcohol consumption) and remind us of a combination of ginger snaps and gingerbread. Find them in a local supermarket in Kagoshima and you will be one happy chappy.
11. Nikumaki Onigiri
This is the cheeseburger of Japan. Well, for us anyway. Onigiri is already an amazing rice ball snack that is cheap to buy and easy to make. The Miyazaki area have taken this one step further to give you Nikumaki Onigiri. Glutinous rice balls wrapped in marinated pork or beef, then topped with cheese and sesame and baked in the oven. It really does taste like a rice-style barbequed cheeseburger. What would happen if we added pickles? Oh the options! This would be an easy snack to make at home, the key is to buy or slice the meat very thinly to ensure even cooking in the oven.
12. Local Citrus Varieties – Yuzu, Kabosu & Mikan
There is so much to love about these fruits. Kabosu is a lime-like fruit that goes well with soy and udon dishes while mikan is a Japanese mandarin variety. Yuzu however is our number one favourite. It has already been dubbed the new superfruit in the UK, and we hope this will be heading to Australia next. We have already found it in multiple cities throughout Europe, so keep an eye out! Yuzu when eaten alone, is like a combination of a grapefruit, orange and lemon all rolled into one. As an ingredient, it creates some fantastic flavours that can really make a dish pop.
First up is Yuzu Red Pepper Powder, add it to your soy sauce, stock bases, pasta for a citrus spice kick that you won’t want to miss out on ever again. Next is the Yuzu Green Pepper Paste, you can add this to soy sauce for dipping, to flavour a stir fry or eat it with meat. Both of these have been purchased and shipped home for some very lucky family and friends to try when we get back. On a hike in the mountains in Hyuga, we didn’t expect to find a little shop selling Yuzu Soft Cream. Appearing white, you’d think it was vanilla until you took your first lick. Transporting us down memory lane, it’s like a creamy refreshing Splice ice-cream, except without the icy coating. If you are a weirdo like us, you’ll love the combination of the citrus and dairy.
So that’s it from us for now. All this talk of delicious local Japanese food is making us miss it terribly in Europe! If you have been to Japan, what kind of ingredients or food did you discover? What should we be learning to cook next?