From the shining weeb mecca of Akihabara to tiny fishing villages in Fukui, I’ve seen it all. Join me today in my culinary journey through the southern gastropolis of Miyazaki, Japan.
The southernmost of Japan’s main islands, Kyushu is home to Fukuoka, the ramen capital of Japan. Fukuoka is known for its distinctive Hakata-style ramen, a type of noodle soup with straight, thin noodles and savory pork-flavored broth. Ichiran, the largest ramen chain in the country, got its start in this city. The allure of Hakata-style ramen has drawn many a wayward foreigner into its bloated web, but hidden to its south are a number of wonderful local dishes that rival even the most prestigious of Fukuokan eateries. In search of the ultimate southern Japanese cooking, we turn our attention today to one of these locales: Miyazaki.
Miyazaki City is the capital city of Miyazaki prefecture, one of the two southernmost prefectures of Kyushu. Together with the neighboring Kagoshima prefecture, it is often referred to as the “Southern Country.” In the late medieval period, most of modern day Kagoshima and Miyazaki were dominated by the powerful Shimazu clan, an ambitious military family that gradually conquered all of their rivals in Kyushu before submitting to the famous unifier of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, in 1587.
These days, Miyazaki is more known for its distinctive palm trees, and the only conquering going on is the subjugation of my appetite for southern-style food.
When I first arrived in Miyazaki, I was surprised to find that its train station had been newly remodeled. The automatic ticket gates, shiny new shopping malls, and numerous palm trees were not entirely unlike the tourist centers along the beaches of Waikiki in Honolulu. However, in contrast to its Hawaiin cousin, Miyazaki is not a well-known tourist area, and most of the city center is dominated by local residents.
I am not one to criticize the sleek, modern dining experiences that litter tourist zones around the center of cities such as Honolulu or Kyoto, but I am admittedly partial to food that feels more “local,” regardless of the fluidity of the term. After all, what is the point in traveling to a new place if you can just eat the same food for less at home? If we define “local” as an establishment that caters to the tastes and spending habits of long term residents, then to hunt for local food in Kyoto is to search for hay in a needle stack designed to poke holes in your wallet. In contrast, Miyazaki’s relatively low-key position in the national tourism industry makes it easy to avoid the tourist traps and stumble into eateries favored by local clientele. And sure enough, within hours of arriving at Miyazaki Station, I had found my first regional delicacy.
Chicken nanban is a savory fried chicken dish. The chicken is taken from fatty parts of the bird, deep fried in a bread coating, slathered in a sweet vinegar, and finally topped off with a generous helping of mayo and egg-based taretare sauce. An alternative version of the dish common in Shikoku uses a different sauce, but to suggest substituting the taretare in Miyazaki would be paramount to culinary malpractice.
Supposedly originating in northern Miyazaki prefecture in the mid-1900s, chicken nanban has proliferated across the country in recent years as a staple menu item at many student cafeterias, including at my own university when I studied abroad in Nagoya. Having enjoyed it in the past, I was eager to try the real deal. Thankfully, it proved easy to track down, as most restaurants in the area feature it somewhere on their menu.
The word “nanban” (which means “southern barbarians”) was a term generally used to refer to Europeans in the late medieval and early modern periods. Most Europeans first arrived on the shores of Kyushu before traveling further north to the seat of government, giving the impression that they came from the south. The Portuguese were arguably the most famous of the southern barbarians, as they were the first to make regular trading voyages in the 1500s. Their cultural legacy on the Japanese archipelago is rivaled only by the Dutch. Relics of early interaction with Portuguese sailors include tempura, a dish made of deep-fried vegetables and meat, and the Japanese word for bread (“pan”), which comes from Old Portuguese.
Unlike the direct Portuguese origins of tempura as a favorite dish of Portuguese merchants in Nagasaki, chicken nanban’s connection to the southern barbarians is a little less clear, especially given its modern upbringing. Some hypothesize that the sweet vinegar sauce from the original dish evokes Portuguese flavors, but I think the name is more a product of 20th century marketing than anything else.
Regardless of its origins, at this point chicken nanban is a staple of izakaya pubs and family restaurants across Miyazaki, and I would be remiss in my duty as a culinary pilgrim if I did not partake at least once or twice. The long journey, as it turned out, was worth it.
If you can withstand the heat, it’s best to eat chicken nanban as soon as it is ready before the sauce softens the breaded coating on the chicken. The taretare sauce’s thick, creamy texture goes perfect with the nice crunch of the breading. As advertised, it’s very sweet with a slight tang of sour, and it will almost certainly add a few pounds to your physique if you aren’t careful.
Jidori no Sumibiyaki
Next up on my list was jidori no sumibiyaki, another chicken dish. Jidori specifically refers to a breed of chicken popular in Miyazaki, whereas sumibiyaki refers to the cooking method, charcoal grilling. In short, it’s a plate of charcoal-grilled local chicken.
Although most forms of this dish use chicken leg meat, the presentation has a couple of variations. The first and most common to my knowledge is for the chef to grill the chicken in advance and deliver it on a platter with a lump of yuzu kosho, while the other is for customers to grill the mean themselves on a charcoal grill placed in the center of the table. Because sumibiyaki is usually served in an izakaya pub, it is often accompanied by other side dishes, such as fried vegetables or gyoza, ordered at the diners’ discretion.
The first variation I tried was the self-grill method, which I ordered along with a plate of assorted vegetables. We had the option of dipping the grilled the meat and vegetables into either a ponzu (citrus and vinegar) sauce or a dry salt rub mixed with chili pepper. The salt-pepper mix was particularly good, but probably best to be avoided if you are looking to minimize your sodium intake.
As a passionate fan of yuzu kosho, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try jidori no sumibiyaki in its original form, so I made sure to stop by another izakaya later in my stay. Yuzu kosho (literally yuzu lemon pepper) is a spicy paste made from fermented chili peppers mixed with citrus juice and salt. The color depends on the type of chili pepper used. It’s a staple in Kyushu eateries, appearing as a self-serve condiment with a frequency rivaled only by soy sauce, but unfortunately it is quite hard to find outside of the southern island.
Japanese food is not often very spicy, so yuzu kosho really adds a nice citrus-y zest to savory dishes. The izakaya I visited had a red variety that they made in-house, just so you know they aren’t messing around. It went fantastically with the charcoal-grilled chicken.
I saved the best dish for last: my final night in Miyazaki was my chance to try karamen, a spicy Southern Country take on ramen. “Karamen” literally means “spicy noodles,” but it differs from mainstream ramen in several key ways. As a karamen newcomer, I decided to orient myself by first visiting the poster boy of the Miyazaki karamen movement, Karamenya Masumoto.
Karamenya Masumoto first opened its doors in northern Miyazaki prefecture in 2001 before expanding across Kyushu and beyond, marking this dish as a distinctly 21st century phenomenon. The broth is usually a soy sauce base, but the chain allows you to customize it heavily. A tomato broth variant is particularly popular. Other distinctive ingredients include enormous chunks of garlic, leek, minced meat, and a couple of fried eggs. The standard noodles at Masumoto are called “konnyaku noodles,” named after the plant-based konjac (konnyaku) jelly. The noodles are actually soba noodles made from wheat, but the restaurant’s recipe is specifically designed to give them a chewy texture reminiscent of real konnyaku.
Despite its claims to spiciness, Masumoto’s karamen can be customized based on preference, with spicy levels ranging from 0 (if you’re a weak baby) to 30+ (spice king). I ordered a level 12 bowl, which was moderately spicy but not at all difficult to eat. I don’t have a super high spice tolerance, but even I could have probably upped the ante a few levels without combusting. I think I will need more training before I am ready to tackle level 30, though.
I tend to prefer spicy ramen, so I wasn’t shocked to discover that karamen is, in fact, Very Good. The spicy garlic broth has a savory flavor reminiscent of one of my favorites, Kumamoto-style ramen, but the copious amount of leek and fried egg give it a distinct taste and texture. Masumoto’s large menu of potential modifications clearly rewards repeat customers, so I will have to stop by again next time I am in town. I definitely recommend this one to anyone with even a passing interest in noodle dishes.
It would take weeks to truly plumb the depths of Miyazaki’s culinary offerings, but unfortunately I am limited by the likely attention span of my readers and the length of my experience in the southern prefecture. Miyazaki, I look forward to one day returning and picking up where we left off.
The Final Word: Miyazaki, a prefecture in southern Japan, has some of the best local food I’ve had so far in the country, and I’ve travelled pretty widely. I recommend visiting if you can find a way to pencil it into your Japan trip somehow.
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