Basking in Nature’s Bounty! Top 5 Must-Try Local Dishes in Kumamoto
With mountains on the east and seas on the west, Kumamoto is a top-class agricultural region in Japan that is also teeming with delicious local dishes. Below are five of the local dishes and delicacies that you have to try if you visit Kumamoto.
First on the list is karashi renkon (lotus root stuffed with mustard), a dish that enjoys widespread popularity in Kumamoto mainly as a snack for alcoholic drinks. First karashi miso is made by mixing Japanese mustard with barley miso. Next, the mixture is put inside the holes of the renkon (lotus root). Finally, the renkon is covered in batter that is colored yellow using natural colorant, and fried to a crisp in oil. The crunchy texture and the pungent smell of the mustard make this dish an excellent partner to Japanese sake, shochu (white distilled liquor), beer and other alcoholic beverages.
Karashi renkon was originally meant as a nutritional fortification for the early feudal lords in Kumamoto that suffered from poor health during the Edo period (1603 – 1867). Kumamoto is the leading producer of renkon in the country, so many shops use the harvest of contract farmers in the region, while some of them even cultivate the renkon on their own. Make sure to taste this dish that has that kind of spiciness that can get you hooked once you try it.
Kumamoto is known as the “baniku okoku” (literally means “horse meat kingdom”) for having the largest consumption and production of horse meat in Japan. Here, horse meat is cooked and eaten in many different ways, such as yakiniku (grilled meat), shabu-shabu (thinly sliced meat boiled quickly with vegetables), smoked and hot pot, but the most famous way to eat horse meat in this region is in the form of sashimi called “basashi”. With the basashi, the fresh horse meat is eaten with sliced spring onions, grated garlic, grated ginger and other condiments. Various parts of the horse are used for sashimi, but most shops use the toro (fatty cut) at the topmost part of the boned rib, the marbled lean meat, and sirloin. Perfect with shochu (distilled spirits), basashi is a nutrient-rich dish for producing energy.
Ramen is a dish in Japan that is extremely popular even with tourists in the country. Kumamoto also has a delicious local ramen. It has a thick soup with a tonkotsu (pork belly and bones) base mixed with chicken bones. Its noodles are medium-thick straight noodles that are boiled hard so they have a strong body. This ramen has boiled egg, char siu (roasted pork fillet), menma (seasoned bamboo shoots), spring onions, bean sprouts, kikurage (wood ear mushroom) and nori (edible seaweed) inside, among other ingredients. Some even put in “mayu”oil that is made by cooking garlic in oil. It has a more mellow taste compared to such ramen variants as Hakata ramen that has the strong taste of tonkotsu, and its soup is not topped up when it runs out for the day, so it is characterized by the mild smell of pork bones.
Next on the list is Takamori dengaku, a local dish that has been passed on in the Aso-Takamori area. A traditional dish that has been eaten since the Kamakura period (1185 – 1333), it is made by grilling tofu, freshwater fish, seasonal sansai (edible wild plants) and other ingredients dipped in goma-miso (sesame seeds and miso) paste over charcoal while they are arranged in such a way that they surround an irori (hearth) (※1). The freshly grilled and piping hot ingredients smell so good and are overflowing in savory goodness. It is often eaten with delicious rice and the Kumamoto specialty Dago-jiru (rice dumpling soup) (※2).
※ 1: This is a hearth that is made by cutting a section of the floor into a square-shaped hollow part and then building a fire inside it. It is used for heating and cooking.
※ 2: This is a soup that has dango (rice dumpling) that is made from kneaded flour. In the Aso area, it is mostly cooked with miso, with such ingredients as pork, shiitake mushrooms and konsai (root vegetables) inside.
The last dish on this list is hitomoji no gurugu, one of the most famous local dishes that best represent Kumamoto. It is made by quickly boiling wakegi (Welsh onion), dipping it in ice water, and then wrapping the root with the leafy part. It is eaten with vinegared miso. It has a crispy texture and refreshing taste, making it the perfect accompaniment to alcohol.
The dishes showcased in this article are mostly served in specialty stores, Japanese restaurants and izakaya (Japanese-style tavern) in Kumamoto. Try them when you go on a trip to Kumamoto!
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.