In praise of the lo­cal

Re­gional del­i­ca­cies to be savoured across the is­lands

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination - SIMON ROWE

FOR years I have rid­den my bi­cy­cle past an udon noo­dle shop called Men-me, in the cas­tle city of Himeji in west­ern Ja­pan. Some­times Tan­i­moto-san, the owner, waves to me, his hands pow­dered white with rice flour, his fore­arms knotty and sinewed from rolling dough for more than three decades. Black-and-white wood­block prints adorn the walls of Men-me, some de­pict­ing the nearby 500-year-old samu­rai cas­tle to which tourists troop past his shop daily. Tan­i­moto-san pounds, presses and cuts his dough into de­lec­ta­ble, firm and silky-smooth noodles ev­ery day to feed th­ese vis­i­tors. In win­ter, his udon comes in steam­ing bowls of bonito broth with seaweed, tem­pura and tofu toppings; in sum­mer, it ap­pears on bamboo plat­ters with a tangy dip­ping sauce and chilled beer.

Ja­pan is filled with such small and un­ex­pected gourmet ad­ven­tures, though I would have never thought so when I ar­rived in Himeji 17 years ago; fail­ure to un­der­stand a menu used to re­sult in the likes of raw chicken hearts be­ing de­liv­ered to my ta­ble. Th­ese days, many more English-speak­ing staff and English-lan­guage menus mean vis­i­tors can or­der with con­fi­dence. Also be aware lo­cal cui­sine dif­fers markedly through­out the is­lands of Hokkaido, Hon­shu, Shikoku, Kyushu and Ok­i­nawa, and is strongly in­flu­enced by the sea­sons. So, as win­ter fades to spring, here are eight dishes that of­fer a taste of the ar­chi­pel­ago.

NABE-MONO, ACROSS JA­PAN: Ver­sa­tile, easy-to-pre­pare and healthy, this is Ja­pan’s favourite win­ter dish. Nabe­mono sim­ply means hot pot food and, with re­gional dif­fer­ences in cli­mate and avail­abil­ity of in­gre­di­ents, vis­i­tors usu­ally are pleas­antly sur­prised. By re­gion, ex­pect salmon and miso broth in Hokkaido; udon, chicken, squash and Chi­nese cab­bage in Tokyo; veni­son, bur­dock, shi­itake mush­room and tofu in west­ern Hon­shu; blow­fish with cit­rus soy in Kyushu; duck or wild boar and dumplings made from buck­wheat in Shikoku. Or, in the case of chanko-nabe, which is what sumo wrestlers eat to fat­ten up, all of the above. More:

TAKO-YAKI OC­TO­PUS DUMPLINGS, AKASHI: This is a spe­cialty of the Kan­sai re­gion, which takes in Ky­oto, Osaka, Kobe and sur­round­ing ar­eas. Oc­to­pus dumplings are best sam­pled in Akashi, a small port city a short train ride west of Kobe. It is home to oc­to­pus cui­sine and the world’s long­est cen­tral-span sus­pen­sion bridge, con­nect­ing Hon­shu with the is­land of Awaji. My favourite is Izumo, a busy day­time-only restau­rant where defthanded cooks pour end­less jugs of smooth bat­ter into hot iron moulds, in­sert­ing each with a chunk of fresh oc­to­pus. When they are crisp and golden, they are whisked to your ta­ble in sets of 12 with steam­ing bonito soup and a dark savoury sauce as condi­ments. Izumo is a lo­cal favourite and would-be din­ers are some­times forced into nearby Uo-no-tana (Fish Shelf Street), a lively seafood mar­ket, where many other tako-yaki restau­rants can be found. An oc­to­pus some­times es­capes its mon­ger’s tubs and makes a quick get­away across the street. The sea lies pre­ciously close. More:

YATAI DISHES, FUKUOKA: In Fukuoka, cap­i­tal of Kyushu is­land, small mo­bile restau­rants known as yatai open along the banks of the Naka River each evening. Dining of­ten means sit­ting down as a stranger but leav­ing feel­ing like a lo­cal — con­ver­sa­tion with fel­low din­ers is an in­te­gral part of yatai dining. Hakata ra­men in pork bone broth, grilled squid (ika-yaki) and Chi­nese dumplings (gy­oza) are popular stan­dards. The small, tented Ipei, which over­looks the river, serves won­der­ful blow­fish (fugu) tem­pura and you can en­joy watch­ing the fish jump on the in­com­ing tide as the chef pre­pares your or­der. To drink, try Black Mist Is­land (Kurokiri-shima) shochuu, a spirit dis­tilled from sweet potato and popular among Kyushu res­i­dents. Edamame beans are the per­fect ac­com­pa­ni­ment. More: vis­

WAGYU BEEF, KOBE: At the equiv­a­lent of about $130 for 500gm, no one dis­putes that the in­sanely ten­der, heav­ily mar­bled meat, with a melt­ing point far be­low oth­ers, is the world’s most ex­pen­sive. The cost lies in the con­di­tion­ing. Wagyu cat­tle are raised in care­fully con­trolled en­vi­ron­ments, grain-fed, and given beer in sum­mer to stim­u­late their ap­petite. Sake is also brushed into their coats to soften their skin, and regular mas­sages are given to pro­duce a “hap­pier, more contented” beast. The truth lies in the tast­ing, and at Wakkoqu (“Ja­panese black”), a popular steak­house in down­town Kobe, you can savour a 130gm steak lunch with side dishes for about $50. More:

KAISEKI, KY­OTO: Steeped in the an­cient tra­di­tions of the tea cer­e­mony, kaiseki-ry­ori de­fines Ja­panese haute cui­sine and is best ex­pe­ri­enced in the old cap­i­tal of Ky­oto, where at­mo­spheric ry­otei, tea houses and ryokan inns abound. While the num­ber of elab­o­rately pre­pared dishes can range from eight to 15, depend­ing on the estab­lish­ment, they will al­most al­ways in­clude an aper­i­tif (shokuzen-shu), soup (sui­mono), sashimi (ot­sukuri), and lac­quered dishes con­tain­ing tasty morsels that have been sim­mered (ni­mono), grilled (yaki­mono), deep-fried (age­mono), steamed (mushi­mono) and vine­gared (sunomono). Miso soup, rice and pickles (tsuke­mono) are served to­wards the end of the meal, with a sea­sonal fruit or sor­bet to fin­ish. Au­then­tic kaiseki com­mands prices be­tween $100 to $400 for din­ner, but lunch rep­re­sents bet­ter value. Waku­den, in­side Ky­oto train sta­tion, serves kaiseki lunches from about $30. Stay at a Ky­oto ryokan and a kaiseki-style din­ner is usu­ally pro­vided. Seryo, perched in the misty north­ern foothills next to Sanzen-in tem­ple, is my rec­om­men­da­tion. More: waku­;

OKONOMIYAKI, HIROSHIMA: Half pan­cake, half pizza, this hum­ble post­war snack has evolved into one of

Street stalls along the river bank, Fukuoka, top; cooking okonomiyaki in Hiroshima, above right; kaiseki food in Ky­oto, above

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