If you are in Kumamoto, Japan, Kumamoto Castle is a must-see. Well-fortified with tall stone walls, it is one of the three premier castles of that area, the other two being Himeji Castle and Matsumoto Castle.
A well-kept secret is the Honmaru Goten Palace Restaurant, which serves up to 50 lunches daily for $30 each. The food served is what was served in the Edo Period (1603-1868) to visiting daimyo, or feudal lords. The restaurant does not take walk-ins so you must make reservations ahead of time. Thank goodness our son Reid can speak fluent Japanese because you must call for reservations, (096-325-0092) and the lady who answers the phone only speaks Japanese. She will ask a series of questions including, can you use a chopstick (o-hashi), do you eat sashimi, and can you sit on the tatami mat to eat your lunch (legs folded for at least an hour). If you can’t speak Japanese, just say “hai” when she asks a question as it is well worth every yen to eat the food that was served to the feudal lords or “daimyo” who visited Kumamoto Castle.
Finding the restaurant was not easy as we entered into a shoji door that was not marked at all.
We were escorted into the room and put our shoes and belongings in a cubby hole with our names on it. We were then escorted up the stairs that was more like climbing a ladder as it was very steep. We were taken to our table and sat on tatami mats in awe.
The first thing served the daimyo visiting was hot green tea.
Our lunch was brought on a lacquered tray in the most beautiful black lacquered dishes with gold “mon,” or family crest painted on the covers.
One piece of white-fleshed sashimi was covered on one side with white kelp, the exact size of the sashimi. Eaten together, the kelp gave a bit of saltiness and taste of the ocean to the fish, which was a perfect match of flavors. The bowl of rice was “tori-soboro,” or ground chicken with ginger, with shredded egg and mitsuba, a mild flavored leaf with the taste between watercress and celery. In another bowl was “yuba,” or tofu skin “shirae” a creamy tofu/ miso sauce. The clear broth had a piece of chicken, mushroom and daikon. In a small dish was a piece of “takenoko,” or bamboo shoot, and a slice of raw eggplant. The octopus, or “tako,” melted in our mouths, as it was so tender! The fishcake was glazed with kuzu starch. Another tiny dish had three pieces of dried “natto” or fermented soybeans. In the abalone shell was small shrimp, abalone slices drizzled with spinach juice and “karashi renkon,” or lotus root filled with mustard and miso, then fried, and pepeio mushrooms. Another dish contained “goma dofu” with “yomogi,” or Japanese mugwort, and “tsukudani,” or nori sauce.
You need to bring with you 3,000 yen each and pay for your lunch when you leave the restaurant.
“Tori Soboro,” or gingery ground chicken, is a great topping for rice. Place hot rice in a donburi bowl or in your lunch box, top with tori soboro, or stuff it in your rice ball, or “omusubi.”
Gingery Ground Chicken
Makes 2 cups, for 3-4 toppings on rice or 10 to 12 as a
stuffing for rice balls
Place in a skillet:
1 pound ground chicken
Add and stir to separate the bits of meat before starting to cook it:
2 tablespoons sake
2 teaspoons sugar
Place pan over low heat and cook, continuing to break up the meat into crumb-like clusters. At
first the liquid will look cloudy, but within a few minutes it well become clear and the meat will turn white.
Skim the liquid to remove the excess fat and then add:
2 tablespoons soy sauce
Continue to simmer for another 3 minutes, add:
1 teaspoon ginger juice
Turn up the heat to reduce the excess liquid in the pan. Remove from heat, let cool to room temperature, cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days. Reheat over low heat, adding a few drops of water, if necessary, stirring to break up clusters.
To make the egg omelet shreds to top with the tori soboro, use this recipe:
Usu Tamago Yaki
Egg Omelet for Shredding
Makes 6 small circles
Break into bowl, remove the chalazae or white squiggly clumps that cling to yolks:
3 extra-large eggs
2 tablespoons sake
3 tablespoons ichiban dashi*
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
Stir to mix but do not incorporate air when mixing.
Strain the mixture through a fine sieve strainer.
Add to strengthen the egg:
1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water, mixed to make thin paste.
Heat pan over medium heat, add a thin layer of canola oil to coat. Use a pastry brush to coat the pan well with oil. Pan should be hot before adding eggs. When ready, add 1/4 cup egg mixture and with swirling motion, completely cover the pan with egg. Cook over medium heat for 45 seconds or until edges of omelet start to shrink from the sides of the pan. Remove from heat and let the egg sheet continue to cook by retained heat for another 30 seconds before flipping it over.
The Japanese way is to trace around the edge of the omelet with the tip of a single chopstick to make sure it is not sticking to the sides of the pan. Work the chopstick under the sheet across its width and then lift up with chopstick and invert the omelet.
In a medium pot, add:
1 cup water
1 4-inch-by-2-inch piece dashi kombu
1/4 cup or one packet katsuo-boshi (KTA Super Stores sells katsuo-boshi in individual packets)
Simmer and remove dashi kombu after the stock comes to a slow simmer.
You only need 3 tablespoons for the egg omelet so use the remaining broth for clear soup or miso soup.
Honmaru Goten Palace, where the restaurant is located, was built in 1610 but was destroyed by a fire in 1877 during the Seinan Rebellion. Restoration was completed in April 2008.
“Karashi renkon” is a specialty dish of Kumamoto and brings back great memories for me because my grandmother, my father’s mother, used to make this dish every New Year’s Day. It was first made for Lord Tadatoshi Hosokawa who was ill at that time and a Buddhist monk encouraged him to eat more “karashi renkon” to get well.
Please feel free to email me at email@example.com if you have questions.