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Kumamoto's Cuisine Part 1: Basashi

April 10, 2017

Horsemeat image: Phoebe Amoroso

Say Konnichiwa to Kumamoto...

Kumamoto – when written in Japanese characters – translates literally as Bear Base. However, paying a visit to the region, the only bear you're likely to encounter is the mascot Kumamon, a cartoon with wide-eyes and red cheeks. But while Kumamon might be the embodiment of kawaii, there's a lot more to discover in the region than his cheeky face...

Located on the island of Kyushu in southwest Japan, Kumamoto prefecture is home to the largest active volcano in Japan, Mount Aso, and is mainly an agricultural region. The area boasts the greatest output of tomatoes and watermelons in Japan, and claims second place for eggplants.

This winning combination – the promise of walks through the striking scenery of Aso Kujū National Park and then refueling on sumptuous fresh produce – means that Kumamoto is rightfully gaining popularity with overseas visitors.

The region's capital goes by the same name, Kumamoto, and is renowned for its beautiful castle. Sadly, much of the city suffered damage after a strong earthquake in April 2016, which means the castle is currently under reconstruction – although it still looks stunning when lit up at night.

However, there's much more to Kumamoto city than one prominent landmark. The center is a mesh of covered pedestrian shopping arcades, and narrower back streets crammed with independent stores, cafes and second hand shops. Wedged between two rivers, both lined with walking paths, downtown begs you to take a stroll and explore, and soak up the bustling yet laid-back atmosphere.

Moreover, the city boasts one of Japan's most striking gardens, Suizenji, a hill garden framed by conical mounds and elegantly shaped pines that reflect mesmerizing shapes in the central pond.

Of course, all the excitement of all these sights is prone to make one a little hungry. Which is fortunate because there is a lot to eat in Kumamoto. So allow me to introduce its most famous cuisine – basashi, otherwise known as raw horsemeat sashimi. For other delights and delicacies (for there are many), check out Kumamoto's Cuisine Part 2.

Basashi – raw horsemeat

If you gallop off into the history of eating horsemeat in Kumamoto, you'll soon discover it's a murky path and stumble across many tales. All relate back to the city's most famous daimyō (feudal warlord) Kato Kiyomasa (1562–1611), founder of Kumamoto Castle. According to Yasuka Kurahashi, owner of Aoyagi, a store specializing in Kumamoto cuisine, the most common legend says that a shortage of food in a battle abroad left Kiyomasa with no choice but to eat his horses.

There is a fair and healthy amount of skepticism towards these stories, as there was a strong taboo attached to the consumption of four-legged animals in Japan at the time. Yet, regardless of when horsemeat first found itself wedged between two chopsticks, it wasn't until after the Second World War that ordinary people of the region were able to enjoy it, when the influence of American culture led to an increase in meat consumption.

Horsemeat, known generally as baniku, became a staple in Kumamoto and is commonly found in supermarkets. Kurahashi recalls growing up eating umadon, a fried horsemeat rice bowl, instead of the fried beef version, a home-cooking dish ubiquitous across Japan. Kumamoto now consumes the most horsemeat in the whole of Japan, with the majority imported from Canada.

The fat in horsemeat melts at a lower temperature than beef and has a light sweetness, making it particularly suited to being eaten raw. Indeed, its cool temperature has led it to be paired with “warming” foods to provide a balance – grated raw ginger, garlic and sometimes raw onion too. High in protein but low in calories, it's said to be good for one's health.

Often considered a delicacy, horsemeat is also known as sakuraniku, literally "cherry blossom meat", which highlights how many hold it in high regard and consider it to have a color as beautiful as the blossoms. Although basashi (horsemeat sashimi) is the most common form, various cuts are cooked in a variety of ways. In Kumamoto, which consumes the most horsemeat in the whole of Japan, stores may serve everything from horse offal stew to horsemeat sausages.

A good way to sample a range of cuts and cooking styles is to order a course meal. I visited one of the oldest specialty stores in the city, Suganoya, and began a baniku adventure by ordering a “steak course”. The meal begins with a couple of horsemeat-based appetizers, before a spectacular plate of mixed cuts of basashi are brought out. This included koune, the fatty part of the mane, which was firm, oily and definitely a new textural experience, but the shimofuri (white fat marbled meat) dissolved slowly on my tongue like it was destiny.

Next up was a wonderful combination with one of the homeliest items in Japanese cuisine – natto, fermented and slightly sticky soybeans. A somewhat infamous love-hate dish, their salty tang is moreish and so the natural sweetness of basashi provides the perfect complement.

Then, for full appreciation of cooked horsemeat, the steak is served – tender and pink in the middle. Its flavor is like a lighter version of beef and would likely fool an undiscerning diner.

Perhaps the crowning moment of the course, though, is the horsemeat sushi, which is almost too beautiful to eat. It's smooth and sweet, but with a distinctive kick and a punch from the wasabi and pickled ginger.

Although eating horsemeat may seem a strange concept to some, a visit to Kumamoto is not replete without sampling this dish. And – while I wouldn't want to trample on the merits of the cultural experience – plainly put, basashi is delicious. Don't say neigh.

Text and images: Phoebe Amoroso