The Rich Cuisine and Regional Color of the Nature-Blessed Land of Fire

Because of its active volcano Mt. Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture is called the Land of Fire. Kumamoto is located in the center of the Kyushu region, with Mt. Aso in the northeast and the Ariake and the Yatsushiro (Shiranui) seas in the west. The Amakusa Islands are connected by the Five Bridges of Amakusa to the tip of the Uto Peninsula that projects out into the sea. Formerly called the Land of Higo, it was a territory once governed by the military commander Kiyomasa Kato in the Edo Period. Kumamoto Castle, constructed by Kiyomasa 400 years ago, was heavily damaged during the Kumamoto Earthquake in April of 2016.

Video Clip Source: SHUN GATE, Japanese Food Culture Information Site
Reporting Support: ANA Crowne Plaza Hotel Kumamoto New Sky, Local Cuisine Hayakawa

The Great Hero Kiyomasa Kato and His Trajectory in Kumamoto

All of Kumamoto Prefecture is subject to the weather of its Pacific Ocean coastline, and areas outside of Aso have a yearly average temperature of 59 to 62 degrees. There is a large temperature difference between summer and winter, due to winter’s short daylight hours. There are also quite a few differences between the region's climates, due to the many various mountains, seas, plains, and islands.

Kiyomasa Kato, who the citizens of Kumamoto Prefecture affectionately call Mr. Seishoko, is a hero who rebuilt the prefecture after its destruction during conflicts in the Azuchi-Momoyama to early Edo Periods. Known as a man of great ideas, he freely poured his efforts and the leading technologies of the time into building the famous Kumamoto Castle in 1607.

One of Kiyomasa’s great achievements was his flood prevention project. His original techniques were created with his efforts to improve every river in the province and developing new rice fields. Mariko Morita, Kumamoto native who studies local cuisine and life environment studies professor at Shokei University says that it’s because of Kiyomasa that places like Aso City, Kikuyo Town and Otsu Town are known as rice producers. “Shira River flows from Aso to Kumamoto City, and that river basin is a grain-producing region now because traces of Kiyomasa’s flood prevention projects are still there. Irrigation channels like the Babagusu-Ite (Hanaguri-Ite) in Kikuyo Town are now tourist attractions that were added to the ‘World Heritage Irrigation Structures’ list in 2018.”

Kiyomasa left all sorts of effects on food culture as well. For example, in Kyushu, natto consumption is highest in Kumamoto Prefecture because of a story that during the time of the Imjin War, Kiyomasa carried simmered soybeans that fermented into natto. Professor Morita says, “The beans were wrapped in straw and fermented by his horse’s body heat. He ate them and liked it, and there are even people today who call them koru-mame (“these beans”), after the way he said in his accent, ‘What are these beans?’” Stories about the kettle-toasted tea culture of the Korean artisans brought over to work on Kumamoto Castle, horse-meat sashimi that is typical of the prefecture, and even Korean candy have anecdotes tied to Kiyomasa. There is a towering bronze statue wearing an impressive eboshi at the entrance to Kumamoto Castle celebrating these great contributions.

ome, and Mom’s Homemade Dumpling Soup

Before we introduce each area, let’s touch on a food that is spread all over Kumamoto Prefecture: “dago-jiru” (dumpling soup). You can find local foods that use assorted grains as a substitute for rice all over Japan, but for Kumamoto Prefecture, that is dumpling soup. “Dago” means “dango” (dumpling), and the soup is made with flour dumplings, field vegetables like burdock root, radish, and carrot, and seasoned with miso and soy sauce.

Because the dumpling’s ingredients and flavors differ based on region and household, dumpling soup is a food that reminds locals of home.

Generally, dumplings are made with kneaded wheat flour. The standard shape is “tsukkiri-dago,” made by stretching and pinching off pieces of dough, but long, flat noodle shaped “nobe-dago” are mainstream in Aso. Around Kumamoto City, people make “ikinari-dago-jiru,” dumplings with sweet potato filling in soup. In Kikuchi and Kamoto, the dumplings are made with boiled sweet potatoes kneaded into the dough itself, called “princess dago-jiru.” It seems this name stuck because the dumpling’s texture is smooth like a princess’s skin. And since wheat isn’t easy to get in Aso, rice flour is used for dumplings instead. In Hitoyoshi-Kuma, in the south of the province, whale blubber is sometimes added.

Amakusa, already known for its unique cuisine within the prefecture, has “sen-dago-jiru,” dumplings made from grated potatoes, mixing the potato’s fiber and starch. And since Amakusa is surrounded by the sea, their soup’s characteristic ingredient is seaweed. It’s said that sen-dago-jiru was first eaten in the orphanage built in Kawaura Town by the missionary Father Ferreira who formerly lived in Amakusa. Moreover, in Amakusa you can also find “oshi-hocho,” a soup with noodle-shaped dumplings.

According to Kiyomi Tozawa, born and raised in Uki City’s ocean-facing Misumi Town, and Head Chef of Japanese Cuisine at ANA Crowne Plaza Hotel Kumamoto New Sky, dumpling soup is home cooking. “It’s a food found all over Kyushu, but everyone in Kumamoto Prefecture eats it. It’s found on the dinner table year-round, regardless of season. The broth is made with rehydrated sea slug, seaweed and shiitake. My mom’s dumpling soup was flavored with soy sauce, and she added lotus root, squash, and torn up Nankan-age (thin-pressed fried tofu). It’s a food that has memories of all the different flavors of the families that make it. And it’s even served at restaurants, so it’s fun to compare all of them.”

Now, we’re going to introduce the cuisines of the prefecture in 4 parts: the north, the center, Amakusa, and the south.

< Prefecture’s North Area >
Aso Pickled Mustard, Made With Mustard Greens Grown In Aso’s Climate

Image Source: SHUN GATE, Japanese Food Culture Information Site

The north is an area identified by the line from Tamana City to Koshi City, Kikuyo Town, Nishihara Village, South Aso Village, and Takamori Town. Its west side, facing the Ariake Sea, is rich in seafood, and on its east side stand gently sloping mountains. Rice and other crops are grown at Kikuchi Field, with the east-to-west flowing Kikuchi River as its water source. With Tamana City’s Tamana Ramen, said to be the roots of Kumamoto Ramen, 1300 year-old Yamaga Hot Springs on the border of Fukuoka Prefecture, and a giant forest that spans approximately 4.6 square miles across Kikuchi Valley, the north has plenty of tourist attractions.

Aso is an area that has a strong presence even in the north. A plateau representative of the Kyushu region, it has an average yearly temperature of a cool 59 degrees, with heavy rainfall. The active volcano Mt. Aso, boasting the world’s largest caldera, at 15.5 miles north to south and 79.5 miles around, is surrounded by majestic nature. The green mustard found in the Aso region, longer and narrower than those found in other places, is called “Aso Takana” (Aso Mustard). Its flavor is concentrated due to the volcanic ash soil and cold temperatures, making it perfect for pickling. Aso pickled mustard, made by pickling Aso mustard harvested between March and April, is a preserved food able to be eaten year round. Also, in the Aso region there is a pickle called the Akado pickle, made from the pickled stems of the Akado taro, which is mostly grown in Aso City. Red in color and served with soy sauce and grated ginger, it’s called the “horse-meat sashimi of the field.”

Sharing a prefectural border with Fukuoka Prefecture, Nankan town is named Nankan (southern gate) because it was once a checkpoint. Because there was a lot of coming and going from the outside, it has a lot of culture. The famous “Nankan-age” from Nankan Town was born from the deep-fried tofu recipes that were brought when immigrants from Shikoku’s Iyo-Matsuyama area arrived after the 1637 Shimabara Rebellion. One sheet of Nankan-age is 7.87 inches square, and because it is made by double-frying thinly sliced and dried tofu, it is able to be stored long-term. It’s used as-is in soups and stews, or used as a replacement for seaweed in futomaki (thick rolled sushi), called “Nankan-age makizushi”.

< Prefecture’s Central Area >
The Feudal Lord’s Favorites, Horse Meat and Lotus Root with Mustard

The central area includes places like the Uto Peninsula that sticks out into the Ariake Sea, Kumamoto City, where you can see Kumamoto Castle rising up, and Yamato Town, deep in the mountains. The Uki area has flourished since the old times as a strategic exchange point, and the Kamimashiki area has the Aso-Kumamoto airport. On the tip of the Uto Peninsula are famous places like the World Heritage Site Misumi West Port and Okoshiki Beach, where a beautiful sandy curve appears at low tide. And Kumamoto is a very rare area rich in water sources due to the fact that 100% of its domestic water comes from underground sources.

There are many regions in Japan where horse meat is eaten, and Kumamoto Prefecture, number one in Japan in horse meat production, is no exception. The origin of horse meat consumption in Kumamoto is Kiyomasa Kato’s experience with food scarcity during the Imjin War, when he had to eat his horse to survive. A beautifully-marbled horse-meat sashimi is preferred nowadays by locals as a treat on a special occasion, where the sweet soy sauce, garlic, and ginger mix into a rich umami flavor in the mouth.

Image Source: Kumamoto Prefecture(※Unauthorized copies prohibited)

Mustard lotus root is a dish with origins in the Higo Domain’s feudal lord. Tadatoshi Hosokawa, feudal lord at the time, was frail, and was advised by a Zen priest to eat lotus root. To get him to eat the lotus root grown in Kumamoto Castle’s moat, a chef stuffed it with miso and mustard, battered and fried it. The holes in the sliced lotus root resembled the design of his family crest, so Tadatoshi greatly liked it, and gave the chef who invented it a sword and name. And so, from then until the Meiji Restoration, mustard lotus root was passed down as a Hosokawa family secret recipe.

< Amakusa Area >
Sweet Potato Cooking of the Exotic Christian Neighborhoods

Image Source: SHUN GATE, Japanese Food Culture Information Site

The Amakusa area is made up of more than 120 islands of various sizes. Connected to the mainland of Kyushu by the 5 bridges called the Five Bridges of Amakusa, the islands float on the ocean like a beautiful painting, as if they were in a totally different world from the rest of the prefecture’s areas. Sakitsu Village, in Amakusa City’s Kawaura Town, is a World Heritage Site as one of the settlements where the Secret Christians practiced their beliefs in secret when Christianity was prohibited. Churches were built in the fishing village, where peoples’ lives and Christian beliefs blended together that became a scenery distinctive of Amakusa.

The Amakusa area, being enclosed by the ocean, is naturally rich in marine products. Only salt-pickled fish could be eaten in the mountainous areas, but sashimi is commonplace in Amakusa. Since the water is warm in summer, the fish aren’t eaten raw, but dried. An interesting local food from this area is “pork salad.” Although it uses the word “pork,” the actual ingredient is octopus, easily caught locally. The dish was originally a Ryukyuan dish of stir-fried pork and bitter melon, but in Amakusa, pork is uncommon, so they came to use octopus instead.

Amakusa is rich in marine products, but isn’t suited to rice production due to the lack of water sources with lots of slopes. So, instead of rice, they eat a lot of sweet potatoes. Koppa-mochi (“wood splinter” mochi), made by mixing slightly firm boiled sweet potato and mochi, has influences from the culture of Nagasaki. Gane-age (“fried crab”) is finely chopped, battered, and fried sweet potato. Its unique feature is the ginger in the batter, as well as the tea seed oils (from the c. japonica and c. sasanqua) used to fry them in. Because the shape resembles crab (“gane” in the local dialect) legs, it was given the name “gane-age”–fried crab.

< Prefecture’s Southern Area >
A Temperate Region that Receives the Blessings of the Kuma River

Spreading out below Yatsushiro City, the southern part of the prefecture is blessed with a temperate climate. Shared cuisines like “akumaki” can be found here due to the proximity to Kagoshima and Miyazaki Prefecture. Many citrus fruits are cultivated along the Yatsushiro Sea coast, and rice, soft rush (used to make tatami mats), and seasonal vegetables are cultivated in the plains areas. The volume of tomatoes grown in those fields is the highest in Japan (From the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries “Vegetable Production and Shipping Statistics, Planted Area By Prefecture 2019, Yield Per 10a, Harvest And Shipping Quantity”). With it’s calm waves, the Yatsushiro Sea is an ideal fishing ground. It is abundant in fresh seafood like the local specialty beltfish, sardines, gizzard shad, and shrimp. In the Akishita region, they’re often made into sugata-zushi (seasoned fish stuffed with sushi rice) and eaten on special days like New Years or festivals.

In the Kuma River Basin, known as one of Japan’s big three rapids, excess rice that is harvested is paid as an annual tax, and rice shochu is popular because the hard water of Kuma River is suited to making shochu. Kuma Rice Shochu, made with that high-quality rice, stands alongside scotch whiskey and cognac as a brand recognized in the world by its place name.

The clearwater Kuma River, flowing through the Hitoyoshi Basin, is the largest river in Kumamoto Prefecture, extending 71 miles. Wild sweetfish live in Kuma River and its tributaries, and there are traditional inns and restaurants that still serve sweetfish dishes. There are many ways to eat it, from simple salt grilled sweetfish, to kanro-ni (sweetened boiled fish) that uses grilled sweetfish, sweetfish sushi, and se-goshi (a kind of sashimi). Served as an appetizer with Kuma Rice Shochu, it’s indispensable at a drinking party.

A local food that’s never missing at celebrations is “tsubon-jiru.” It’s called tsubon-jiru (deep bowl soup) because it was served in a deep bowl (tsubo). It was originally made as a treat during the fall festival, but nowadays it appears in this region on New Years and other special occasions. Because it’s a food that celebrates the autumn harvest, it uses plenty of field vegetables like burdock root, carrot, radish, and taro, and the broth and seasonings are, just like dumpling soup, different for each family. At the Aoi-Aso Shrine in Hitoyoshi City, the more than 400 year-old Okunchi Festival is held every October, where it is standard to serve chestnut sekihan (red rice), nishime, and 9-ingredient tsubon-jiru.

Tozawa-san, who loves local foods, says, “Kumamoto has everything–fruits of the sea, fruits of the mountains, and fruits of the fields.” We are currently holding cooking classes to popularize traditional Higo vegetables. Kumamoto Prefecture has given form to a unique food culture that incorporates the influences from its rich natural surroundings. From the north to the south, we’d love for you to experience its local flavors.

Kumamoto's main local cuisine