Gateway to Japan’s cuisine and the place where modern food culture began

Nagasaki Prefecture has many peninsulas and capes. The coastline is a complex mixture of bays and inlets, and it has a length of 4184km, the second longest in Japan after Hokkaido. On the other hand, as can be seen from Nagasaki City’s nickname, “The City of Hills,” the inland area is characterized by a lack of flat land and a large number of mountains and hills. The fact that Nagasaki Prefecture is blessed with both produce from the sea and the mountains is largely due to these topographical features.

Restaurant cooperating in the coverage: Nagasaki Prefectural Government Restaurant Chez Dejima

Until the influx of rich foreign food culture, Nagasaki’s food culture was simple, consisting mainly of fish such as sardines and locally grown ingredients such as sweet potatoes. Because of its geographical proximity to East Asia, Nagasaki had long traded with China and the Korean Peninsula, but trade with China and Portugal flourished especially from the middle of the 16th century, and a variety of ingredients and dishes were introduced from these countries.

Photo provided by: Nagasaki Prefecture Convention and Tourism Association

Furthermore, during the Edo period, when the country was closed to the outside world, many Western dishes were introduced to Nagasaki by the Dutch on Dejima Island, which led to the birth of new dishes one after another. As a result, a resplendent “Wakaran gourmet” culture blossomed in Nagasaki, combining Japanese, Western, and Chinese cuisine, including Shippoku cuisine (Chinese-style table cuisine).
Foods that came from abroad include potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and strawberries. In terms of dishes, prototypes of dishes such as stewed pork cubes, hatoshi (shrimp toast), Nagasaki tempura, and hikado (diced meat and vegetables in a soup) have been transmitted. Sugar and confectionery are also among the important foods that have been handed down. All of these ingredients, dishes, and seasonings are now commonly consumed throughout Japan, but they were all originally introduced to Nagasaki first. In this sense, Nagasaki Prefecture is the gateway to Japan’s cuisine and the place where modern food culture began.

Currently, Nagasaki Prefecture’s food culture area is broadly divided into six parts: Nagasaki area (Nagasaki City, Tokitsu Town, Nagayo Town), Central area (Isahaya City, Omura City, Higashisonogi Town, Kawatana Town, Hasami Town), Shimabara area (Shimabara City, Unzen City, Minamishimabara City), Northern area (Sasebo City, Hirado City, Matsuura City, Sasa Town, Nishiumi City), Goto area (Goto City, Shin-kamigoto Town, Ojika Town), Iki-Tsushima area (Iki City and Tsushima City). In each of these areas a unique food culture has sprung and been handed down to the present day against the backdrop of their different geography and history.

< Nagasaki area (Nagasaki City, Tokitsu Town, Nagayo Town >
The homely taste of black hanpen (fish cake) and sakura shrimp

Nagasaki City is located in the central part of the prefecture. The facing Nagasaki Port is a good natural harbor surrounded by mountains on three sides, where fishing has been prosperous for a long time. It was also suitable for commerce, so trade with China, Portugal, and the Netherlands was actively conducted, allowing a variety of foods and dishes to be introduced from overseas. Most of the dishes that later became Nagasaki’s specialties were born from this international environment.
Among the dishes that originated in China, one of the most well-known is stewed pork cubes. During the period of isolation, Chinese Dongpo pork was arranged in a Japanese style to become the Shippoku dish “tobani,” which eventually became the pork kakuni (stewed pork cubes) eaten on its own. In Nagasaki, a cooking method close to the original is still the mainstay, with pork ribs with the skin stewed in a sweetened broth. It is similar yet different to the pork kakuni that is popular throughout the country.

Among the dishes that were introduced from Portugal and the Netherlands and have taken root are Nagasaki tempura, similar to fritters, hikado, which was derived from stew, and pasty, a stewed dish covered with a pie crust in Western style. Nagasaki tempura is said by some to be the origin of Japanese tempura in general, but both of them have basically become famous as specialties of Nagasaki City.

The “Sugar Road” which changed the Japanese confectionery culture

Photo provided by: Nagasaki Prefecture Convention and Tourism Association

Notable among the goods unloaded at Dejima during the period of isolation were sugar and confectioneries. These were transported to Osaka, Kyoto, and Edo via the Nagasaki Kaido route, which led from Nagasaki to Saga and Kokura, and ultimately brought about a major change in Japan’s culinary and confectionary culture. In response to this historical fact, each prefecture and city in Kyushu where the route went through has named Nagasaki Kaido “the Sugar Road” to promote local revitalization.

< Central area (Isahaya City, Omura City, Higashisonogi Town, Kawatana Town, Hasami Town) >
A center of whale food surrounded by three bays

Photo provided by: Nagasaki Prefecture Convention and Tourism Association

The Central area of Nagasaki Prefecture, located roughly in its center, faces three bays: Tachibana Bay, Omura Bay, and Isahaya Bay. Inland rises Mount Tara as a source of water, and there flows the Honmyo River, the only class A river system (Japanese river classification) in the prefecture. In such a rich natural environment, fishery and agriculture have flourished in the area since ancient times. This has led to the creation of many dishes using whales caught in the surrounding seas, as well as local cuisine using the region’s specialty agricultural products.

Photo provided by: Higashisonogi Town

Whaling has been practiced in Nagasaki since the Jomon period. During the Edo period, whales caught in the surrounding seas were gathered in Higashisonogi in Omura Bay and distributed to various parts of Japan, leading to the development of whale-eating culture. Even today, whale is often eaten on festive occasions, and the prefecture is said to have the highest per capita consumption of whale meat in Japan. Whale stew is one of the whale dishes that emerged in the modern era. It is often eaten in the Central area as a stew with potatoes and whale meat.

Photo provided by: Nagasaki Dietetic Association

Isahaya City, where rice, vegetables, and fruits have been cultivated since ancient times, has a number of unique local dishes that use plenty of vegetables. A typical example is nuppe, a dense dish made by stewing vegetables such as taro, burdock root, radish, and carrot. It is basically a vegetarian dish, but whale meat or chicken are sometimes added and served on festive occasions.

< Shimabara area (Shimabara City, Unzen City, Minamishimabara City) >
Traditional cuisine born from historical events

Photo provided by: Nagasaki Prefecture Convention and Tourism Association

The peninsula almost completely surrounded by water is the Shimabara area. With the Ariake Sea to the northeast and Tachibana Bay to the southwest, it has long had an active fishing industry. In the central part, there are Mount Fugen and Heisei Shinzan, and a variety of agricultural products have been grown in the space that extends from those mountains to the plains. Many of the traditional dishes of this area were born spontaneously from the abundance of ingredients, but there are also some deeply related to historical episodes and accidents.
The Nirayama Reverberatory Furnace in Izu-no-kuni City was registered as a World Heritage site as part of the iron and steel making, shipbuilding, and coal industry. The Izu Peninsula was recognized as a UNESCO World Geopark in April 2018.

Image provided by: Miyazaki Prefecture

It is said that guzoni was first made by Amakusa Shiro, the general of the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637, when he a nd his 37000 Christian followers were besieged in their castle, to nourish their strength and stamina for a drawn-out battle. Even today, it is served at home on festive occasions, such as New Year’s and other festive days. It is usually made by boiling rice cakes and various other ingredients in broth in an earthenware pot and eaten as-is.

Photo provided by: Nagasaki Prefecture Convention and Tourism Association

Rokube is a local dish that is said to have originated during a famine that occurred in 1792 when a volcanic earthquake caused a tsunami that devastated farmlands.
At the time, the people were eating sweet potatoes, which grew even on barren land, as a staple food to survive the famine, but a man named Rokube from Fukae Village (now Fukae-cho, Minamishimabara City) came up with the idea of making noodles from sweet potato flour, which was used for non-perishables. This is said to have been the prototype for the Rokube dish that has been handed down to the present day. Rokube used to be poor man’s food, but it is now widely enjoyed as a simple but tasty local dish with various flavor arrangements, such as by using improved sweet potato varieties.

< Northern area (Sasebo City, Hirado City, Matsuura City, Sasa Town, Nishiumi City) >
Nourishing non-perishables and festive Nanban cuisine

The Northern area is located in the northern part of the prefecture. The facing sea is dotted with islands, and mountains and hills inland extend to the coastline, resulting in a land pattern with few flat areas. In other words, although the area was suitable for whaling and other fishing activities, it was not conductive to agriculture. This environment has given birth to unique traditional dishes such as yudeboshi-daikon (boiled and dried radish), a non-perishable.

Photo provided by: Nagasaki Prefecture Convention and Tourism Association

On the other hand, geographically speaking, it is located at the westernmost tip of mainland Japan, so it has a long history of trade with China and Korea, as well as with Europeans, which gave birth to many dishes influenced by that. In recent years, lemon steak, influenced by the American military stationed in Sasebo, was invented and has become a specialty.

Photo provided by: Hirado City Dietary Improvement Promotion Council

Arumado, a paste with eggs, is said to have been first made in the Hirado area during the period of isolation. The Western-style name is said to derive from the Dutch word “almatore” (to wrap) or the Portuguese “armado” (to arm). When cut in two, you can see the egg is colored red around the perimeter, and it has long been a popular dish for festive occasions such as Kunchi (an autumn harvest festival) and New Year’s. Recently, an increasing number of local kamaboko (fish cake) stores have begun to sell the dish on a regular basis, making it an increasingly common item on the dinner table.

< Goto area (Goto City, Shin-kamigoto Town, Ojika Town) >
Noodle cuisine from China gives rise to the famous Goto udon

Photo provided by: Nagasaki Prefecture Convention and Tourism Association

The Goto area (Goto Islands) is located 100km out to sea from Nagasaki Port and is the westernmost point of Kyushu. The waters near Goto are one of the best fishing grounds in western Japan due to the influence of the Tsushima Warm Current and coastal currents, and the fishing industry has been active in the area since ancient times. In the Edo period, the area is said to have flourished due to whaling.

Photo provided by: Nagasaki Prefecture Convention and Tourism Association

On the other hand, rice cultivation did not flourish due to the extremely small amount of cultivable land, and for a long time, agriculture was centered on the cultivation of minor grains and potatoes. Kankoro, a traditional non-perishable food made by cutting sweet potatoes into thin slices and drying them in the sun, is a remnant of this tradition. Since the Goto area is located only 80km from the Korean Peninsula, a large amount of Korean and Chinese culinary culture was introduced in the past, and many unique dishes based on it have been created.
Kankoro mochi is a rice cake made by mixing kankoro, a non-perishable food made by drying sweet potatoes in the sun, with glutinous rice and pounding it into a paste. In the past, when it was made as a non-perishable for winter, it was a simple rice cake sweetened only by sweet potatoes, but in recent years it has become something akin to a wagashi (traditional Japanese sweet) with added sugar, and is gaining popularity as a local specialty.

Photo provided by: Nagasaki Prefecture Convention and Tourism Association

It is believed that the original Goto udon was introduced to Japan by a Japanese envoy to the Tang Dynasty who stopped in Goto on his way back from China. Recent research suggests that it originated from somen noodles in the Yantan area of Yongjia County, Zhejiang Province, China.
The main local way of eating it is “jigoku-taki.” The dried Goto udon noodles, which are hand-pulled using camellia oil, are boiled in an iron pot and returned to their original state, and then dipped in a broth made from flying fish caught off the coast of Goto.

< Iki-Tsushima area (Iki City and Tsushima City) >
The cultivation of Taishu buckwheat since ancient times

Iki and Tsushima are islands in the sea between Kyushu and the Korean Peninsula. Both have been trading with the Korean Peninsula since antiquity, and various culinary customs have been introduced from the Korean Peninsula and the continent. Iki, with its large arable land, began producing barley shochu (a type of liquor), later called Iki shochu, about 500 years ago by introducing distilling techniques from China. On Tsushima, where farmland is scarce, the cultivation of Taishu buckwheat, which is similar to the original species of buckwheat that is said to have originated in southern China and the Himalayas, began in the Jomon period. Today, both of these products are well-known throughout the country as local specialties.

Photo provided by: Nagasaki Prefecture Convention and Tourism Association

Taishu buckwheat is a type of buckwheat similar to the original variety, introduced from the continent via the Korean Peninsula during the Jomon period. As Tsushima is a remote island, there is little chance of interbreeding with other varieties, and small buckwheat that retains the characteristics of the original species is still cultivated there. The noodles made from it have a strong resilience when pounded and a subtle bitterness. In 2018, it was registered under the country’s Geographical Indication protection system, the first time this has been done for buckwheat in Japan.

Nagasaki's main local cuisine