I’ve recently returned from Fukuoka, Japan. Nestled on the Western coast of Kyushu, it’s a city not as well frequented by tourists than those in Honshu. In fact, during my five-day sojourn, I only saw a handful. Bliss.
For food lovers, Fukuoka is famous as the home of rich, creamy Hakata tonkotsu ramen, and it is common to see large queues forming outside of the many establishments dotted throughout the city. I love my ramen, and I had some real beauties during my visit, but it is another dish, very untypical of the region, where I had my most interesting experiences.
As a child growing up in Tokyo, my most favourite food was Sukiyaki, that one pot meal consisting of thin, premium quality wagyu beef, slowly simmered at the table, alongside negi, Chinese cabbage, chrysanthemum leaves, shitake, shirataki noodles and just grilled tofu, in a sweet mixture of soy sauce, sugar and mirin, in a shallow iron pot. The ingredients are dipped in a small bowl of raw, beaten eggs after being cooked in the pot, and then eaten.
Sukiyaki is, for me, one of the greatest examples of Japanese cuisine. To this day, it is the dish I crave the most and one that I search the ends of the earth to find the best of the best.
There are two quite different styles of the dish, the Kanto style from eastern Japan and the Kansai style from the west of the country.
In the Kanto style, warashita (a mixture of sake, soy sauce, sugar, mirin and dashi) is poured and heated in a pot, and the ingredients, beginning with the beef, are added and then simmered together. In Kansai-style sukiyaki, the thinly sliced meat is heated in the pot first, in some sugar. When the meat is almost cooked, sugar, sake and soy sauce are added, then vegetables and other ingredients are added last.
In Fukuoka, I was surprised to find two differing styles, and not exactly in the traditional way I expected. Being able to compare both, only two days apart, proved to be quite an experience. This is my tale of two sukiyaki. The good and the bad.
Having read about chef Kinoshita’s restaurant branch in Singapore, I was keen to try his acclaimed, original restaurant in Fukuoka. This seemed the best choice in the city for me to have real deal sukiyaki.
Walking into Kuroya Nishi-Nakasu, I was first struck that the restaurant was not very attractive.
Taking off my shoes and sitting on a raised platform, I ignored the décor, ordered the top-level premium A5 Kuroge Wagyu Beef and eagerly awaited my its arrival.
After a small appetiser and salad, out came the pot. I was stunned to find it full already, the beef partly cooked and most of the vegetables also inside. The heat on the table burner had been turned up to maximum and within moments, the pot was boiling, the meat cooking very rapidly. By now the server had placed everything so densely in the pot that it was overflowing. The warashita sauce was not visible at all. With everything boiling in a frenzy, the meal became a race against time, all the ingredients too hot to put in my mouth.
The server returned, but only sporadically. I had to call attention to ask for a reduction in the heat. There was eventual realisation that it was all too hot. This was not my idea, of the refined, slowly cooked, gentle experience of a sukiyaki meal.
Perhaps the biggest shock for me was the lack of presentation of the raw meat. When you order top premium beef, inspection of this best-of-the-best beef with its ultra-fine marbling is expected. Here, the meat boiling away in the pot from the get-go could have been a lesser cut – how could one know?
To me, this was a hurried and seemingly uncaring dinner. There was no incredible flavour slowly released from slow cooking – this was fast, frantic, overcooking! Needless to say, I left the restaurant disappointed. This didn’t seem to be either in the Kanto style or the Kansai style. This was a confusion. Was this the way sukiyaki was meant to be on Kyushu?
I did get my answer to that question, as what followed two days later, my second Sukiyaki, was breathtakingly different.
Feeling frustrated from my experience at Koruya, I did some googling and found some excellent reviews from a chain sukiyaki restaurant with a glowing reputation. Located in an upscale shopping mall alongside Hakata Station, I took my chances and booked a spot for Kanto style sukiyaki at Ningyocho Imahan, J.R Hakata City.
Lunch here was the polar opposite of my experience at Koruya and turned out to be the best sukiyaki I have ever had in Japan. In a small, atmospheric room, this was sukiyaki theatre as it should be. From the set-up of the iron pan and the presentation of the incredible marbled beef from Simane prefecture and the freshest vegetables, to the kimono clad waitress who prepared the entire meal in classic tradition, privately and with absolute precision.
Just a little warashita was poured, and the first large, thin slice of marbled beef added and cooked for only around 20 seconds before being placed in my bowl of freshly beaten raw egg for eating. It melted into my tongue. Spectacular, and cooked just over rare – perfect.
The vegetables, tofu and shirataki noodles were then slowly placed in the pan with a little more warashita, the faster cooking vegetables served up first.
More beef followed as the rest cooked down. More warashita, and a little water to thin. The temperature always perfectly controlled. Over the course of almost 30 minutes, every part of the meal was cooked perfectly, the flavours intensifying, the calm and skill of the waitress evident and welcome.
To say the meal was satisfying would be an understatement. It was sublime. I could not believe the difference in my two sukiyaki experiences. Due to the cooking styles, the end result was two dishes that had no resemblance to each other. I can only conclude that Koruya was either having an off-night, or their style of cooking this most traditional of dishes was lazy and uncaring.
If you are a beef lover and a lover of the hot-pot style, sukiyaki is in a field of its own. But it must be done right. I was amazed that Koruya appeared to take such shortcuts. Where was the emphasis on the quality of the ingredients and the care and love in the cooking?
Once you find perfection as I did at Ningyocho Imahan, there really is no turning back. I will certainly be repeating my experience at this temple to my favourite dish in the world.
KUROYA NISHI-NAKASU 黒家西中洲店
1-17 Nishinakasu, Chuo Ward, Fukuoka, 810-0002, Japan
NINGYOCHO IMAHAN (JR HAKATA CITY)
〒812-0012 Fukuoka, Hakata Ward, Hakataekichuogai, 1−1 JR博多シティ９Ｆ, Japan