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Taste Japan | Fusion of Flavours
In the beginning, Dejima was that fan-shaped man-made island built in 1636 to segregate the foreigners, mainly the Portuguese, from the Japanese population, in a bid to control the missionary activities. In 1641, the Tokugawa shogunate (last Japanese feudal military government) banished all foreigners from Japan, and the Dutch Trading Station in Hirado was moved to Dejima. For more than two centuries till the 1850s, the enclosed quarter was the only sanctioned foreign presence in Japan, the only window open to overseas trade. For a good 218 years, Dejima played a central role in the modernisation of Japan.
Fast forward to the present day, Dejima’s surrounding area has been reclaimed and much of her past, restored. Residences, walls, structures and warehouses etc have been painstakingly reconstructed, and you can even see a miniature Dejima in the Dejima Museum.
The backstory of Dejima and her colourful trading history is the perfect way to understand the fusion culinary scene in Nagasaki. This city boasts of one of Japan’s most diverse dining scenes and at a culinary crossroads, Nagasaki’s flavours embraces the best of the east and west.
Meet Nagasaki’s Shippoku cuisine, what you get when you cross European, Chinese and Japanese cooking, a culinary blend unique to the city. The literal meaning of Shippoku is table cloth, signifying the Chinese banquet style of eating at a round table. Shippoku cuisine is an original creation of the Chinese living in the Chinese quarter, and was intended to entertain Japanese and foreign visitors. Over time, the cuisine evolved as a result of exchanges between the Japanese in Nagasaki and the Chinese, Portuguese and Dutch traders who have come through for the important “Sugar Road” enroute to Edo (modern day Tokyo). Today, it is being served in many Nagasaki households and even in traditional Japanese restaurants, as a feast around a lacquered round table.
We had the privilege of dining in Sakamotoya, a 120-year-old restaurant and the first ryokan to offer Shippoku cuisine in Nagasaki. You know the meal is going to be souperb when it begins with this hearty greeting “O-hire O-dozo” which means “Enjoy the fin of the fish too” by the host, known as the Okattsama (local dialect for ‘house madam’). O-hire is a clear broth with fish containing slices of sea bream, and the term means that the whole bream, including the fin, was served, alluding to the generous and immaculate hospitality.
When dining in Shippoku style, few rules apply. The ease of the cuisine lies in the common sharing of the food round the table, diners serving themselves, creating a relaxed atmosphere. No dish sequence to follow, no complicated rules on cutlery. Food is passed around in dishes of various sizes. We were pleasantly surprised by how the different elements from the various countries’ cooking blended so harmoniously together. One of my favourites was a dish with the sea bream, mochi and mushroom in a bonito kobu stock – so syncretic and so distinctly Shippoku! Like much of Japanese cuisine, the flavours are kept clean, allowing the superior ingredients to shine in their own right.
The constantly evolving flavours of Japan were also evident in Rakushintei, a quaint restaurant in a quiet building. Affectionately known as the Heart Lounge, the restaurant is the only one in Nagasaki with a focus on healthy eating. The chef has swopped out the much-loved short-grain sushi rice in kaisendon for the healthier 16-grain mixed rice. He has also curiously but successfully paired the kaisendon with hikado, a Shippoku dish of vegetable and hashed meat stew, typically eaten only during winter. Originating from Picado of Portuguese influence, the dish has gained popularity with the Japanese and became known as hikado, enjoyed by mainly the older Japanese. I was surprised that many younger Japanese have not even heard of hikado!
Rakushintei’s renditions have won him the hearts of many locals, particularly the seniors who are into healthier eating. It is the chef’s desire to sustain a menu driven by health, created with locally farmed or sourced produce, inspired by seasonal changes. “Food is very important for health, especially as you age. My passion is to create more healthy food for people,” the 46-year-old chef left us with his wise words.
And we leave you lingering over Japan’s flavours, seasoned with care, culture and creativity.
Read more on SouperChef Anna’s travel to Japan on our e-magazine. Download Here.