If you want to travel somewhere you can lay back and relax in Japan, Kyushu is the place. Formed by volcanic eruptions, the land is chock-full of fiery hot spring resorts and fertile soil. Along with this natural abundance, Kyushu connected Japan with the rest of the world for centuries. This made the locals develop a refined taste palate. The Flavors of Kyushu are a perfect combination of Japanese, Chinese, and European influences.
Today, I’ll focus on the foods you simply can’t miss out on in each of Kyushu’s regions. But don’t limit yourself to these – almost anything you try in Kyushu shall taste amazing!
Tonkotsu Ramen or Hakata Ramen (豚骨/博多ラーメン)
Not all Japanese noodles are made equal. They’re all quite tasty, but few noodle dishes are as good for your health as Tonkotsu ramen (pork bone broth ramen).
Tonkotsu ramen takes root in Hakata – one of the oldest towns in Japan, today a part of Fukuoka city. That’s why you may sometimes hear people order “Hakata ramen”. However, this type of ramen is so popular you can try it anywhere in Japan these days.
You can make broth for tonkotsu ramen at home, but it’s not easy. Pork bones are boiled for hours on end to draw out maximum flavor and health benefits. In addition, to make authentic Kyushu tonkotsu, use the famous Kagoshima (south Kyushu) local breed of pig – kurobuta (黒豚).
This gelatinous soup is known for its good effect on joint health and digestive lining. To make it even more nutritious, tonkotsu ramen also includes toppings like scallions, grilled pork chops, eggs, sesame, and much more. You’ll love the locally fabled al dente noodles in it too!
Motsunabe (もつ鍋) – Tripe Hot Pot
Hakata is rich with culture and diversity – so it’s no wonder many delectable specialties come from this part of Fukuoka. Motsunabe is a hot pot that keeps the soul warm and cozy in the winter.
The main ingredient is beef or pork belly (tripe). That may not sound too appetizing as is, but in fact, it’s cooked in a way that makes the meat incredibly tender. Paired with cabbage, chili pepper, and garlic chives, you get a delicious hot pot full of rich flavors that keep the cold away!
Mentaiko (明太子) – Pollock Roe
Fukuoka and Busan, one of the largest cities in Korea, are a mere 3-hour ferry drive away. Thanks to the proximity, the cultures share quite a few yummy recipes. The originally Korean dish Myeongnan soon became Mentaiko in Japan and Ikra Mintaya in Russia.
Mentaiko is yet another Kyushu food that became widely loved across Japan. It’s a popular side dish to rice, and it’s often found inside onigiri (rice balls).
Made from the roe of the Alaskan Pollock, mentaiko is salted and spiced. A fishy flavor is subtle if present at all. Mentaiko has a delightful texture and it comes in a few flavors:
- Tarako – just lightly salted
- Mentaiko – salted and marinated for an umami flavor (or countless varieties found in the shops)
- Karashi-Mentaiko – salted, marinated, and spiced in chili pepper.
This salty delicacy has a strong flavor, so it’s usually eaten in small amounts. Today, you can even buy it mixed with mayonnaise or butter for a unique, quick condiment that gives a punch to anything you eat. It’s especially popular in spaghetti and as a flavor of salty snacks. It can even be used in dips and spreads.
Yobuko Ika (呼子イカ)
If there’s one food you should travel to Saga prefecture for, it’s Yobuko squid. You want the real deal – you won’t find it elsewhere in Japan.
That’s because Yobuko Ika is a specialty that is best served very fresh, caught that day. It’s famed for its sweetness and crispness. The longer a Yobuko squid sits, it loses its crunch.
They’re eaten fresh out of the sea – making this dish the very heartbeat of tourism in the town of Yobuko, part of Karatsu city in Saga.
A way to supply super-fresh yobuko ika was developed in the ‘80s – a set of cages that filter seawater 24 hours a day. Today, each restaurant that serves yobuko ika has its own dedicated cage, so don’t worry about ika freshness when you’re in Karatsu.
Few affordable “student meals” are as nutritious and delicious as Nagasaki’s own champon.
Created back in the Meiji era when many Chinese students got their education in Nagasaki, champon is essentially an everything stew including ramen. The dish is an example of Chuka ryori (中華料理) – Chinese cuisine adopted in Japan.
The main difference between making your regular ramen and champon is that you don’t mix broth and noodles when serving. In champon, the noodles are cooked together with the soup.
Usually, meat and veggies are fried and then added to the meat-based broth, but champon can also include seafood like kamaboko fish cakes.
Sara Udon (皿うどん)
“Plate noodles” (Sara udon) are another popular noodle dish you’ll find in many restaurants across Nagasaki. What makes sara udon different from other Japanese noodles? It’s a dish served on a plate, like spaghetti, instead of in a bowl. It’s a cozy comfort food you can make at home.
On the other hand, the name is a bit misleading as the dish doesn’t actually contain thick udon noodles. Instead, sara udon is made with oil-fried, thin, crisp noodles. These are sometimes called “pari pari”.
Like champon, sara udon is a dish with variable ingredients, but usually very cheap. You most often find the noodles topped with stir-fried veggies like bean sprouts and cabbage, and some seafood (often squid, prawns, or fish cakes like Satsuma-age) or pork.
If you find yourself in Shimabara, you must try Guzouni. This local variant of Japan’s traditional New Year’s soup Ozouni is available all year round in Nagasaki prefecture. For an authentic experience, try it near Shimabara Castle where the dish came into existence during a rebellion in 1637.
This soup is hearty and nutritious. In essence, guzouni is what you get when you add mochi (chewy rice flour cake) and a bunch of veggies, mushrooms, and fish to bonito soup stock. Unlike the typical festive food Ozouni, guzouni doesn’t contain miso.
Ikinari Dango (いきなり団子)
It’s a regular Sunday afternoon in Kumamoto prefecture, and ikinari (suddenly), your friend decides to visit. It’s just natural you want to be hospitable and offer some food. When people from Kumamoto have unexpected guests, they prepare ikinari dango – sudden dango.
You need three things – azuki bean paste (anko), sweet potatoes, and mochi flour. The three are wrapped together and then quickly steamed. This quick cake is a wonderful treat with a great mixture of textures and a slight saltiness that accompanies its sweetness marvelously. It’s also a popular Kumamoto souvenir to bring home!
If you like miso soup, dagojiru will blow you away.
This simple but hearty soup usually contains veggies like potato, daikon radish, carrots, and burdock root. It’s flavored with classic miso or soy sauce soup. Then, elongated, thick dumplings (dago) are made out of flour and added to the soup for a unique texture you won’t find in any other miso soup.
Ever wanted to try chicken tempura, just better?
Toriten, a local Oita specialty, is just that – chicken fried in a heavenly crispy tempura batter. But unlike your regular tempura, the batter for toriten is spiced with soy sauce, ginger, mirin, or garlic.
Chicken Nanban (チキン南蛮)
Chicken nanban is not what you’d traditionally consider Japanese cuisine. In fact, the dish takes its roots in Portugal, and its Japanese twist developed in Miyazaki prefecture.
This is a way of making crispy chicken dressed in nanban sauce (rice vinegar, soy sauce, mirin, and sugar) and topped with tartar sauce. The sweet and tangy dressing pairs great with the crispness of chicken and the creaminess of tartar.
Most of the time, chicken nanban in Miyazaki is made of local free-range chickens. It makes for an extra-tasty specialty you really should try when you visit Miyazaki.
Jidori no Sumibiyaki (地鶏の炭火焼き)
When you’re a prefecture that breeds its own premium chickens (jidori), of course you’ll have a bunch of exciting ways to prepare mouth-watering chicken. Along with chicken nanban, Miyazaki has a fabulous grilling technique to bring out the best in its chicken specialties.
Diced and salted chicken thigh is thrown on a grill that’s fully ablaze with oil. The quick cooking gives the meat a blackened sheen and a wonderful flavor of the grill.
The result doesn’t necessarily look appealing, but the taste is beyond this world (especially with a yuzu-kosho dip).
If you’re into Japanese history, you might have heard of the old province of Satsuma and the Satsuma domain based in the Kagoshima castle. Try the subtle flavors of the region’s long history through Satsuma-age, a simple fishcake.
It’s said that the fishcake was brought to Kagoshima from Okinawa in the 19th century. Indeed, in Okinawan cuisine, a similar fried surimi-and-wheat flour cake is known as chikiagi. Thus, people in Kagoshima call it tsuki-age or tsuke-age, while the rest of Japan knows it as Satsuma-age.
It’s easy to make Satsuma-age at home. You need surimi – preferably meat of a white fish (cod, haddock or whiting) and some flour. Make a thick mixture and deep fry. You can eat it as is, or add it to your ramen or sara udon.
Kurobuta – Black Pork (黒豚)
You might have heard of Wagyu beef, but premium beef is not the only super high-quality meat product from Japan. Along with Wagyu beef, Kagoshima has its own, wildly popular heritage breed of pig. The breed originates from the Berkshire pig, and owes its name Kurobuta (black pig) to the animal’s dark fur.
The kurobuta is famous for its high fat content which produces incredibly tender and soft meat. Even with the cuts that are typically tough and chewy, kurobuta gives a soft texture that melts in your mouth.
Of course, black pork comes at a premium price. That’s why it’s best to try it in the heart of Kagoshima, where the pigs are bred. Get yourself a “kurobuta tonkatsu” – pork cutlet, the next time you find yourself in Kagoshima – you’ll love it!
Being a remote island, that was in fact a part of a whole different kingdom, Okinawa differs from the rest of Kyushu greatly. With its unique tropical culture and Chinese influence, Okinawans and other islands of the Ryukyu kingdom have their own unique food culture. We wrote more about Okinawan cuisine in a separate blog post.
The Delectable Kyushu
Being an island with incredibly fertile land, great expanses of untouched nature, and so close to unpolluted seas, it’s no wonder Kyushu can offer an experience to remember to any traveler who likes new flavors.
However, the mixture of cultures and the people of Kyushu were key in creating such diverse food culture. It’s their ingenuity that birthed such legendary recipes like tonkotsu ramen and Satsuma-age – and what better reason to visit Kyushu than taste the flavor of its history?