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A taste of Kyushu, Japan with chef and author Atsuko Ikeda

The Japanese island is home to flavoursome noodles and ultra-fresh seafood.

Famous in Nagasaki, champon is a flavourful noodle dish topped with various fried ingredients, such as pork belly, seafood and vegetables.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Atsuko Ikeda
Published 28 May 2022, 15:00 BST

Japan is famous for its otsumami, meaning ‘the nibbles you have while drinking’, which come in many forms: hot or cold, raw or cooked, meat, fish or plant-based, with different varieties found across the country. While Osaka’s Dotonbori district is the place to seek out takoyaki octopus balls and okonomiyaki pancakes, the city of Fukuoka, on Kyushu, my native island, is the home of yakitori (skewered chicken) and yatai (street food stalls) serving an array of other snacks.

Read more: 11 dishes that define Japan

Japan’s third-largest island, Kyushu, is known as ‘food island’, thanks to its abundant produce. Kyushu has fertile soil and a climate that’s just right for growing fruit and vegetables. It’s also known for its excellent seafood. Seasonality is at the core of Japanese cuisine and food culture, too. We even have a specific word, ‘shun’, which describes the exact moment when a vegetable is at its best, a fruit at its sweetest or a fish at its most flavourful.

In springtime across Japan, we’ll eat plenty of vegetables like cauliflower and watercress and lots of delicious seafood like sake-steamed clams. It’s also the time of year when we celebrate hanami — the act of viewing the cherry blossom — which is all about meeting friends, eating bento and having a few drinks.

Summer in Japan is hot and humid, so we gorge on thirst-quenching vegetables like cucumber, edamame beans or tomatoes. Cold or chilled dishes like cold noodle soup are popular for helping people beat the heat, too. It’s matsuri (festivals) season, too, where yatai stalls serve seasonal specialities.

Autumn is the season of hearty appetites — there’s a feast of riches from the land, such as mushrooms and aubergine, but also from the sea (mackerel and salmon) and the sky (duck). Winters are cold, so we rely on hardy vegetables like potatoes and cabbages to keep us nourished, along with onions and garlic, which are said to heat our bodies, not to mention crabs and oysters, in season throughout the winter.

This is an edited extract from Otsumami, by Atsuko Ikeda, published by Ryland Peters & Small, £20.

Atsuko Ikeda is a chef and author of Otsumami. She also runs Atsuko’s Kitchen cookery school in London.

Photograph by Atsuko Ikeda

Three must-try dishes

1. Champon: Tonkotsu ramen is Kyushu’s culinary calling card, but champon is also not to be missed. Famous in Nagasaki, this flavourful noodle dish is topped with various fried ingredients, such as pork belly, seafood and vegetables.

2. Chicken nanban: A classic example of what we call ‘yoshoku’, or Western-influenced cuisine, this completely addictive fried chicken is dipped in sweet and sour sauce before being topped with tartare sauce.

3. Yobuko Ika: The town of Yobuko is known for its fish market, particularly for the ika — translucent squid — sold there. Sweet and crunchy, it’s best enjoyed sashimi-style, and restaurants will usually cook the tentacles as tempura afterwards.

The essential ingredient

Yuzu kosho is a paste made of fresh yuzu zest, green chillies and salt. It gives dishes a lift and a slight heat; it goes particularly well with grilled chicken, hotpot and sashimi.

Published in the June 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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