As tonkotsu is to Fukuoka in the North, champon is to Nagasaki on the Western coast of Kyūshū- the local variant on ramen, inspired greatly by the tastes of the many Chinese students who flocked to the city in the late 1800s. The soft but flavourful cuisine of China’s Fujian province can be clearly seen through this enticingly colourful seafood dish; succulent squid and prawns combined with tender noodles, stir-fried carrots, beansprouts and cabbage, woodland mushrooms and a silent but knowing nod of agreement to the region’s saying bù tāng bù xíng, or ‘no soup, no meal’. As Nagasaki has a tendency to, the industrious and diverse city took these outside influences and blended them with the Kyūshūan love of pork and fishcakes to create champon- it has remained a favourite ever since and has more recently spread to other parts of the country and overseas courtesy of restaurant chains such as Ringer Hut.
Thanks to the collagen-rich stock and the high proportion of vegetables in the dish people like to think of champon as the healthiest of ramen and- unlike other ramen recipes- is unique in that the noodles and toppings are all cooked together in the broth, providing a slightly thicker soup than you would expect to find. Counter-intuitive as it might seem, Nagasakians eat a steaming bowl of champon to cool down in the oppressively humid Summer months- following the school of thought that sweating helps regulate your body temperature- its just as effective however as a Winter warmer to get you through the coldest, snowy day that Britain can offer with a smile on your face and a satisfied belly.
The four heavenly creatures in Japanese mythology are: Seiryu the blue-green dragon, Suzaku the vermilion bird, Byakko the white tiger and Genbu the black turtle. They govern over the four points of the compass, appear as major constellations in the night sky, embody four of the five classical elements and are representatives of the four seasons. These godly animals are honoured annually with festivals held for each of them throughout Japan, but their presence can also be felt watching over you more subtly during other times of the year, if you know where to look.
One of the most well known events of Spring is Hinamatsuri, or Doll’s day- red fabric-draped platforms appear in houses, shrines and businesses, and atop these pedestals sit ornamental dolls in the form of the Emperor, Empress, ministers, musicians and other courtly attendants. People celebrate, pray for the health and happiness of girls in their family, drink shirozake, and most popularly, eat bowls of seasoned rice strewn with a confetti of celebratory toppings. Literally meaning ‘scattered sushi’, chirashizushi -whilst not only being delicious- pays tribute to the four heavenly creatures by means of their respective colours; blue, red, white and black, all of which are present in the toppings: crisp, tangy vinegared renkon for Byakko; savoury, umami packed shreds of nori and mushrooms for Genbu; crunchy, fresh pieces of mangetout for Seiryu; and finally the saline, bursting bubbles of ikura for Suzaku. Like the dolls of the festival, these toppings perch on a carpet of shredded sweetened omelette, laid over a platform of seasoned su meshi rice, creating a meal perfectly balanced in textures and flavours.
By far one of the simplest sushi dishes to make in the home, chirashizushi doesn’t require any of the precision slicing or delicate wrapping of seaweed commonly associated with the cuisine, yet it makes a fantastic, vibrant dish to bring to the table for celebrations of all kinds. It also works incredibly well packed as a bento lunch for those special occasions when you won’t be at home, and is perfect for taking to a tranquil spot in the countryside for a leaf or blossom viewing party.
Sea bream or Tai is without a doubt Japan’s most beloved fish. Being a symbol of good fortune it is traditionally served during celebrations, which is alluded to in the term ‘medetai’, a phrase used to congratulate people on auspicious events. During the Edo period tai was so prized that it was reserved almost exclusively for the tables of the wealthy and a market solely trading in this king of fish was even set up in Osaka. Lucky bream shaped sweets are a popular favour handed out at Japanese weddings, and the hot, sweet, bean-filled pancakes called taiyaki can be bought at stalls and cafés all over the country. Ebisu- one of the traditional seven gods of fortune, is portrayed holding a fishing rod in one hand and carrying a huge red tai in the other. It is the symbol of wealth, prosperity and high quality; it even spoils at a slower rate to other fish thanks to the high levels of inosinic acid present in its flesh, making it an excellent choice for sashimi.
One of the best ways to enjoy this luckiest of fish is in this ‘surf & turf’ inspired takikomi gohan; the sweet, succulent pearly flesh of the tai is paired with meaty, earthy mushrooms and the spicy freshness only ginger can provide, to create a deliciously savoury rice dish that borders on the decadent. We’ve used a selection of our favourite mushrooms in this recipe, some frilly, some dense and some tender, but feel free to use whatever is available locally to you. If you’re fortunate enough to have some of the highly sought after, distinctly flavoured, matsutake mushrooms, they would make a phenomenal addition to your tai-meshi, combining both the country’s favourite fish and fungus into one memorable dish that spells out what the Japanese value most in food.
Crustaceans have always played a large part in the cuisine of Japan and one of our favourite uses of them is in kani meshi. It belongs to a family of dishes known as takikomi gohan which translates roughly as ‘cooked with rice’. In a similar way to a pilaf or kedgeree, takikomi dishes usually involve cooking rice in a seasoned broth to introduce extra layers of flavour along with the addition of vegetables or meat; in the case of kani meshi, this is the sweet juicy white flesh of a crab.
Whilst shopping for our kani meshi, we were distracted by some incredible looking Scottish langoustines, they were too perfect to resist- miniature, eight inch lobsters, fiercely armed and packed with a delicately perfumed flesh not dissimilar to prawns. We decided on the spot that they would make a fantastic variation on the standard crab kani meshi, and to compliment their sweet briny flavour we’ve added some seaweed and dried bonito to create a subtly flavoured rice that reminds us of holidays by the coast, both here in the UK and in Japan. Our kani meshi makes a great side dish in place of regular rice, and there’s a deliciously tactile pleasure in cracking the claws open and picking out the morsels of flesh from inside.