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Kyushu Cuisine – What’s The Buzz?

The award ceremony for Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants will be held in Takeo City, Saga Prefecture on March 24, 2020.  Also known as the “Oscars of the regional food world,” the ceremony is the brainchild of William Reed Business Media Ltd., the British company that publishes Restaurant magazine and runs the International Wine Challenge. The influential list is compiled by the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy, a group of industry leaders including food journalists, restaurateurs and gourmands, and serves as a different metric than the Michelin Guide for what constitutes “the best.” (NOTE: since going to print the event in Saga was cancelled due to fallout of COVID-19.)

The Asia list began eight years ago, and ceremonies have been held in major Asian cities like Singapore, Bangkok and Macao. This year, the regional city of Takeo will host Japan’s first-ever Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants event, and the significance of this cannot be understated. Looking at last year’s list, Japanese restaurants captured 12 of the 50 spots, and several of these were restaurants located outside of Tokyo, like La Cime in Osaka and La Maison de la Nature Goh in Fukuoka. Even foreign industry insiders are starting to realize what kind of hidden gems lie in Japan’s outlying areas.

At the ceremony, the top 50 restaurants are announced by their ranking, and there are many sponsored prizes as well. In addition to the 318 members of the Academy and the award-winning chefs, the sheer number of foodies poised to descend on Kyushu for this event is astounding. Using this occasion to spread the word about what makes Kyushu great, we sat down with Takeshi Fukuyama, the owner-chef of La Maison de la Nature Goh, and Hideyuki Kaneda, who opened Restaurant Ao last year after training at Ryugin, a regular Best 50-placing Japanese-style restaurant in Tokyo.

Chef Talk

Takeshi Fukuyama and Hideyuki Kaneda, two chefs on the forefront of fine dining share thoughts on the growing interest in Fukuoka.

Takeshi Fukuyama

La Maison de la Nature Goh
2-26 Nishinakasu, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka

• When the world’s best chefs ask you what kind of place is Kyushu, what will you tell them? 
Not only is Fukuoka closer than Tokyo to where ingredients are produced, it is easier to obtain high-quality ingredients. It is not a huge city, but there are also hot springs and other places to relax nearby.

• What “Made in Kyushu” ingredients that you are currently using would you like the world’s best chefs to know about?
Many people come to Fukuoka just for the food. Foreign visitors, in particular, enjoy it when I take them to green tea, yuzu citrus and strawberry farms. Also, anyone I serve sparkling wine from Ajimu Winery to, including chefs and wine journalists, loves it.  At my restaurant, another popular spirit for pairing is Asakura brand shochu from Shinozaki. It is a barrel-aged barley shochu, and some of my guests end up buying a bottle before they leave. What else? Last year, I visited a katsuo-bushi (bonito flake) factory in Kagoshima Prefecture, and that was amazing.

• What expectations do you have for the Kyushu food scene going forward?
One of the best things about Kyushu is its low food mileage. I would like to develop more partnerships with excellent growers so I can get ingredients to the table faster. I would also like to see more chefs open attractive restaurants—the kinds of places that make you want to visit just for the food—in Kyushu’s hot spring towns and other tourist destinations. Slowly but surely, these kinds of restaurants are starting to pop up.

Hideyuki Kaneda

Restaurant Ao
4-11-3 Narayamachi, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka

• When the world’s best chefs ask you what kind of place is Kyushu, what will you tell them?
The ocean and the mountains are nearby, so there is a wealth of great ingredients. The food is good and reasonably priced, and you can get anything you need. Also, the pace of life is slower here, so you don’t always have to be on edge.

• What “Made in Kyushu” ingredients that you are currently using would you like the world’s best chefs to know about?
The Jerusalem artichokes, figs and cinnamon from Tomita Nouen, a farm in Karatsu (Saga Prefecture) are truly spectacular, and I also use them in my restaurant. For many of the products, the farm is the only place in Japan you can get them, and the quality is bar none. When it comes to meat, right now, I am big fan of Nozaki Beef from Kagoshima and Akagyu Beef from Aso in Kumamoto. I would also recommend Kunisaki Oysters from Oita. They are small but packed with umami, not to mention they are farmed under strict conditions, so you know they are safe.

• What expectations do you have for the Kyushu food scene going forward?
Fukuoka is home to tons of cheap and delicious restaurants, but I would like to see more fine dining options other than sushi. With both cheap bars and three-star restaurants, I think Kyushu has the potential to become like San Sebastian, a world-class foodie town in Spain.

Kyushu Specialty Products and Produce

Fukuyama and Kaneda mentioned some of their favorite suppliers in Kyushu. On the next page, we introduce a few of them. Or visit Kyushu and discover your own!

Sparkling Wine from Ajimu Winery

Sanwa Shurui, a liquor manufacturer in Oita has been making wine since 1971, and in 2001, it opened a winery in the bucolic town of Ajimu. It has garnered accolades for strictly managing the entire wine-making process, from soil development to wine growing to brewing. Ajimu Sparkling Wine, a five-time gold medal winner at the Japan Wine Competition, is made from 100% chardonnay grapes grown in Ajimu. The wine undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle, which is a rarity among Japanese wines. The end product is a clean-tasting clear and dry sparkling wine with fine, creamy bubbles.

Ajimu Sparkling Wine  (750ml) ¥3,182 (tax excl.)
• Ajimu Winery
798 Shimoge, Ajimu-machi, Usa City, Oita Prefecture

Asakura by Shinozaki

Shinozaki is a long-standing brewer and distiller located in Asakura, the breadbasket of Fukuoka. Asakura is aged in barrels for six years like whiskey, resulting in a high-end barely shochu with a mellow aroma and flavor. Due to restrictions on what can be legally categorized as shochu (namely, the color must be filtered out), Asakura is sold as liqueur. With a gorgeous amber color that only a brewer can achieve, Asakura clocks in at 40% alcohol by volume, but the first sip is best enjoyed straight.

Asakura  (500ml) ¥3,333
• Shinozaki
185 Hiramatsu, Asakura City, Fukuoka Prefecture

Tomita Nouen

Cutie King figs are harvested in late June, while Viollette de Sollies are harvested in mid-September.

Tomita Nouen is a farm in Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture run by Hidetoshi Tomita. His focus is on specialty produce rarely grown in Japan, like French black figs (Viollette de Sollies), green figs that you can eat skin and all (Cutie King) and Bushukan (Buddha’s hand) citrus, genko, a citrus fruit that used to only grow wild on the island of Madarajima. As a pioneer in the cultivation of these products, Tomita had to develop his own growing techniques through a process of trial and error. Restaurant Ao uses Tomita Nouen’s cinnamon in its ice cream, and the aromatic spice is a hit with Ao’s clientele.

Tomita Nouen
• 1471 Hamatamamachi Hirabaru, Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture

Nozaki Beef

In Japan, the French word domaine (region) is becoming more commonplace to describe regional brands of beef raised by individual farms, but Nozaki Farm was the first in Japan to adopt this concept. Nozaki Beef has won high praise for its exquisite flavor, almost single-handedly accounting for the meteoric uptick in sales at the luxury teppanyaki restaurant on the top floor of the swank Westin Hotel Tokyo. Located in the rural outskirts of Satsumasendai City in Kagoshima Prefecture, Nozaki Farm carefully raises Wagyu cattle under strict quality control measures, and its beef, which is prized for its umami-packed marbling, has won multiple first-place awards.

Nozaki Farm
7-47 Goryoshitacho, Satsumasendai City, Kagoshima Prefecture

Kunisaki Oysters

Kunisaki Oysters are a local brand of oysters grown in Kunisaki City, Oita Prefecture by Marine Farm, a subsidiary of equipment manufacturer Yanmar Co., Ltd. Drawing on Yanmar’s technical expertise, Marine Farm effectively utilizes the Kunisaki Peninsula’s unique tidal flats and its nutrient-packed offshore fishing grounds to cultivate high-quality oysters. The oysters are farmed with a technique to prevent bacterial contamination, and only those oysters that pass a rigorous inspection are allowed to ship. Despite their smaller than average size, the oysters are sweet and filled with umami, which has resulted in a dedicated following of professional chefs.

• Marine Farm, Yanmar Co., Ltd.
3286 Musashimachi Itoharu, Kunisaki City, Oita Prefecture
Click here to purchase

Kyushu Produce – Fresh and Flavorful

Or why Fukuoka’s Restaurants are so Good!

As an island nation, Japan may seem to be a maritime nation, but it’s also a mountainous country, and both of these natural factors combine to give Japan abundant food resources. On the southern end of the archipelago, Kyushu, whose geography has blessed it with the fruit of both the mountains and sea, is Japan’s richest region. Here, the vegetables, fruit, meat and fish are all some of the best in the world, and close proximity to producing areas gives Kyushu’s restaurants a leg up on the competition. What’s more, Kyushu is also home to many volcanoes, like Mt. Aso and Sakurajima, so no matter where your base of operations is, you’re never far from natural hot springs. With delicious food and ample hot springs, the best thing Kyushu has to offer is nothing short of ultimate relaxation.

Kyushu is composed of seven prefectures, each of which has its own personality and local delicacies. In southern Kyushu, the soil has excellent drainage, making the area perfect for field crops. The stockbreeding industry is also alive and well there. The soil in Miyazaki and Kagoshima is particularly conducive to growing sweet potatoes, and these prefectures boast a long history of producing shochu (distilled spirits) from sweet potatoes. Kyushu accounts for about 25% of Japan’s agricultural output in the stockbreeding sector, and the livestock farms in southern Kyushu produce world-class beef, including Miyazaki Beef, which has been served at the official Academy Awards after-party for three years in a row, and Kagoshima Beef, the first-place winner at the National Competitive Exhibition of Wagyu. The pork and chicken from this region have developed excellent reputations in their own rights.

Meanwhile, rice cultivation flourishes in northern Kyushu because it has more flat land, and delicious water and rice led to the development of a robust sake culture. Kurume in Fukuoka and Kashima in Saga are known for their many sake breweries, which attract sake fans from throughout Japan and all over the world.

Northwestern Kyushu borders the Genkai Sea, where the Tsushima Strait separates Kyushu from the Asian continent. The sea is home to world-class fishing grounds, which has given the area a reputation for delicious fish. In particular, Nagasaki Prefecture, which borders the Tsushima Strait, the Genkai Sea, the Ariake Sea and the East China Sea, boasts a wide variety of delectable seafood. The prefecture has the second longest coastline in Japan, so the coastal fishing and aquaculture industries are robust (and the same can be said for the rest of Kyushu).

The entire island of Kyushu is a wonderland of fruit cultivation. Strawberry brands include Ichigosan, a new brand that Saga Prefecture debuted last year after seven years of development, and the well-known Amaou from Fukuoka. Meanwhile, Miyazaki’s fruit, like the Taiyo-no-Tamago mango and Tamatama ripe kumquat, has gained nationwide attention. With a warm climate and mountainous terrain, Kyushu is also home to many citrus farms. Kumamoto’s dekopon mandarin oranges and banpeiyu pomelo are well-known, as is Miyazaki’s hyuganatsu. In recent years, thin-skinned, juicy non-Mandarin citrus fruits from Saga, like the Setoka, Hamasaki and Kiyomi, have grown in popularity.

With such abundance as this, people from all over Japan flock to Kyushu for the food. Every time awards like Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and Michelin stars are announced, people come to Kyushu just to visit the award-winning restaurants, so Kyushu’s food has the potential to revitalize the region. When people like this visit, they fall in love with the area, which has led to an increase in transplants from other regions, such as office workers who quit to become farmers and help tackle the problem of abandoned farmland. It is exciting to see how this infusion of new blood will help further enrich Kyushu’s food scene.

Meanwhile, would you like to hear our predictions for food trends in Fukuoka?

It is only natural that food should be healthy, so the focus going forward will be on eating tasty food as an enjoyable dining experience. Here are a few keywords and phrases that have piqued our interest.

“Clean Eating”
This refers to eating foods as close as possible to their natural form. You should eat food fresh and with minimal processing. This means not adding sugar, preservatives or other artificial seasonings. You should opt for organic, pesticide-free foods whenever possible. Check the labels and avoid foods that contain chemical additives you’ve never heard of. Avoid drinking alcohol, soft drinks and fruit juices that are not 100% juice.

“Good Food”
The Tokyo Olympic Village is slated to only use domestically sourced GAP-certified food and drink. GAP, which stands for Good Agricultural Practice, is a certification granted to producers who undertake measures to ensure food safety and the conservation of the environment. GAP certification is a tough process that requires producers to pass a screening of over 100 criteria.

“Fermented Foods”
Fermented food is the hot topic in the food scene today. Noma, the Danish restaurant that has been named the best in the world several times, uses fermented foods in many of its dishes. Japan is home to a wealth of fermented foods including miso, soy sauce, shiokoji (a mixture of salt and rice malt), amazake and natural yeast. Taking another look at these traditional foods is the path to healthy, delicious and fun eating.

The restaurants that rank in lists like Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and the World’s Best 50 Restaurants all operate in innovative genres. Even if these chefs’ cuisine is based on one culinary tradition (say Japanese or French, for example), their individual sensibilities are what yield fresh and exciting new experiences that strike a chord with diners the world over.

“Vegan and Plant-based Foods”
Vegan is a natural choice when you consider your body and the planet. The focus now is on making plant-based foods that are both delicious and enjoyable to eat for everyone, not just the believers; eat healthy without sacrificing fun or flavor.

“Drink Local”
Old wisdom states that locally made drinks are the best accompaniment for local dishes. Today, the focus is turning toward reducing food mileage for both food and drinks. What’s more, local alcoholic drinks are popular with tourists, as are teas and other non-alcoholic offerings.

Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn255, Mar 2020)

Food & Drink
Published: Mar 2, 2020 / Last Updated: Mar 10, 2020

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