Saturday, June 27, 2009

BTO: FUKUOKA: Foodie haven

Business Times - 27 Jun 2009

FUKUOKA: Foodie haven

From street stalls to shirako, Fukuoka offers a gastronomic tour of Japan. By Edwin Soon

AMONGST the sister cities of Oakland, Bordeaux and Auckland, Fukuoka in the prefecture of Kyushu, Japan, with a population of 1.3 million, is closest to Singapore. The urban and cosmopolitan Fukuoka city centre is a scant 10 minutes taxi ride from the airport. Here, gastronomic delights await food lovers; from the ubiquitous steaming bowl of noodles to sushi omakase.

Fukuoka's yatai or street stalls offer a taste of local flavour. Born from the ashes of WWII, these cramped box-carts still serve up typical fare like drinks, hot food and camaraderie - to salarymen and the curious tourist.

By day, the yatai are nowhere to be found. At sunset however, dozens of lantern-lit yatai stalls are wheeled out, to line and illuminate a canal, or a side street of the Tenjin, Nagahama and Nakasu districts - and a little food city has miraculously emerged for the evening. The 150 yatai open air food stands offer varied dishes from yakiniku to tempura but it is tonkatsu ramen - noodles in boiled pork bone soup, that is the must-try.

Another local speciality is mentaiko or marinated fish ovum. Inspired by Korean cuisine (Korea is a mere 200 km. away), mentaiko, or Pollock (cod family) roe is a recent delicacy introduced to Fukuoka after WWII by a Busan-born Japanese man. Thanks to a chilli pepper marinade, Fukuoka's mentaiko is spicy, and is a favourite snack of sake and beer drinkers. Many, though, will enjoy mentaiko with rice or as a pasta or pizza topping. Devotees head to special shops just to purchase their hoard - the best versions will be a single mass of unbroken eggs, surrounded by a thin, elastic membrane and is pink to dark red in colour.

But what of the finer aspects of dining out? From oyster bars to the experimental kitchen of Japan's Martha Stewart, there's something for everyone.

First-timers to Japan probably head out for steak, Japanese-style. Fukuoka's finest meats served sukiyaki or shabu-shabu style can arguably be found at Chinya - a restaurant located on several floors of a nondescript building, across from a car wash. The butcher's display of prime cuts of marbled steaks of various grades at street level confirms you are at the right place. For years, Chinya chefs have cooked at the tables of countless diners who have experienced fragrant beef that melts in your mouth whilst seated on tatami mats. You'll get smoked here too, but you won't regret it.

Those seeking fresh seafood should look no further than Chikae. However the food is not for the faint-hearted. Huge sunken tanks and ponds that contain all manner of seafood are the centrepiece of this brightly lit large restaurant. Whilst there are many cooked dishes, the highlights are the squid and fish, netted from the tanks and prepared as sashimi. As you savor the raw flesh of your seafood, admire the exquisite artistry of the carcass presented alongside. The fish tail and fins will wag whilst the squid eyes toggle at you as you literally devour your seafood alive. Welcome to Japan.

Purists will seek out Sushi Takao. Adobe-like walls and completely unadorned - this eight-seater restaurant is minimal and stark. In this cavern-like interior, everything points to every successive morsel of sushi that is presented before you. The sushi rice is not seasoned with vinegar but is a blank canvas - more so for you to taste the freshness of the seafood. A signature starter is the shirako - creamy and rich. Available as part of the kaiseiki only.

If you can spare a few hours for lunch, head to Umenohana. Located in a hotel, it is a traditional restaurant that takes inspiration from Buddhist cuisine. That is, a tofu multi-course kaiseiki, interspersed with meat, cooked seafood and sashimi. Here dishes are lovingly prepared and served on beautiful tableware. Tofu is presented in endless versions including a fried vegetarian 'fish' ball. Not to be missed is the opportunity to make your own tofu skin at the table - Zen-like patience is required as the tofu simmers and hardens, one layer at a time.

Cookbook author and TV celebrity homemaker Harumi Kurihara has been called many things - from the 'Delia Smith of Japan' to the 'Rising Sun's Martha Stewart'. Having sold more than 7 million cookery books and over 5 million copies of her magazine, Suteki Recipes (Lovely Recipes), she freely shares recipes at her restaurant. As each dish exits the kitchen to the buffet table, it is announced. If you like it, there are recipe cards that you can take home with you. This is true Japanese fusion - dishes include macrobiotic rice, Mulligatawny soup, burdock noodles, seaweed salad, Goan fish curry, mashed sweet potato, gratin - 30 dishes in all. The tofu panacotta with caramel sauce is a delectable dessert.

Ask any local what their favourite meat is and they will tell you it's chicken. The quintessential chicken restaurant is Hanamidori and it serves Mizutaki (chicken broth hotpot). According to the 100 year-old Fukuoka tradition, a broth is made with pieces of chicken. The meat is removed, dipped in a signature vinegar sauce and eaten. Then chicken innards are cooked in the broth followed by minced chicken balls and finally vegetables. In this highly concentrated broth, some water is added together with rice and a beaten egg - the result, a delectable chicken porridge.

As if attesting to Fukuoka's reputation, the Yanagibashi Fresh Food market beckons - even to those who do not cook. Here you will find butchers, fishmongers, vegetable suppliers, locals coming to market or looking for a quick bite. Living up to its nickname 'Fukuoka's Kitchen', the Yanagibashi Fresh Food Market is hectic, colourful and comes with a fish market (complete with all manner of live, wiggling catch-of-the-day), meat sellers and vendors selling every conceivable type of cookware, vegetable shops and more. For a economical and delightful lunch, make your way to the heart of the market for some local flavour.

3-7-4 Nakasu Hakata-ku Fukuoka-shi 
Tel 092-291-5560 Price per person S$100.

Chikae 2-2-17 Daimyo Chuou-ku Fukuoka-shi 
Tel 092-721-4624 Price per person: S$200

Sushi Takao 
5-15-4 Watanabedori Chuou-ku Fukuoka-shi 
Tel 092-711-7711 Price per person: S$280

B1F, Canal Grand Plaza, 1-2 Sumiyoshi Hakata-ku, Fukuoka. Tel 092-263-1711

Hakata Excel Hotel Tokyu 2F, 4-6-7 Nakasu, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka-shi Tel 092-262-3777

Five branches across Fukuoka.
Tel 092-263-0322, 092-737-9696, 092-273-1219, 092-432-1801, 092-523-6622

Yanagibashi Market 
1-1-10 Haruyoshi, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka 
Tel 092-761-1811. Closed Sundays and holidays

Visiting in January? Head for the Salon du Chocolat - Every year, during the last week of January, a chocolate fair takes place in Fukuoka - at the Iwataya departmental store. Chocolate aficionados typically get to taste creations by chocolatiers and 40 pastry chefs from around the world such as Bernachon, Decluc and a host of other exhibitors from 15 countries, covering 60 brands. Visitors can choose to taste and then 'eat in' with a hot drink accompanied by a selection of three chocolates (1,000 Yen) , or take away tasting boxes of a dozen different chocolates within special themes - from 3,600 Yen.

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