Basashi cuisine from sushi to pizza

Basashi cuisine from sushi to pizza

KUMAMOTO —

Horse meat. The English language doesn’t have an elegant culinary term such as “beef” to describe it, perhaps betraying its underlying taboo in the Anglosphere. This is unfortunate since “baniku,” as it is known in Japan, is both healthier and tastier than beef. And while “baniku” occupies a special place in Japanese food culture, the country is by no means a major producer. Neighboring China is the world’s biggest, with Japan not even making the top 10.

But, like many things in Japan, the emphasis is here on quality, not quantity, and the Japanese produce some of the tastiest meat in the world. If the Chinese are known for “eating anything that moves” then the Japanese could be said to “eat anything that moves raw” and “baniku” is no exception. It is “basashi,” or “baniku sashimi,” with its mellow taste and elegant texture, that should be resolutely avoided by any gourmand with even a hint of addictive personality disorder. I learned this the hard way on a recent trip to Kyushu’s Kumamoto prefecture, Japan’s iconic “basashi” region.

Although Nagano and nearby Oita prefectures are also known for “basashi,” Kumato’s geography and culinary culture makes it stand out as both a place to produce and consume the meat. “Basashi” takes its place among a brilliant rainbow of sensory delights, from the sweeping slopes of Mt Aso, where horses have been raised for centuries, to the region’s “kyodo ryori,” or local cuisine—which includes such dishes as “karashi renkon” (deep fried lotus root with mustard miso), “hitomoji no guruguru” (rolled green onions with “yuzu” miso) and boldly flavored rice shochu.

While “basashi” is usually sliced into thin morsels and eaten with sweet shoyu, grated ginger, a garnish of shiso and shredded daikon; the uses of “baniku” aren’t just confined to the raw. The famous Umazakura on the city’s main drag, Shimodori, offers almost anything the creative equivore could imagine. From yakitori and yakiniku to shabu-shabu and fried rice, you name it, and it can accompany “baniku.” How about a “baniku” pizza? It’s also on the menu.

Speaking of creative uses of horse meat, I am on a personal quest to find a “basashi burger” and had all my expectations exceeded by the delicious specimen found at Gull, a quaint restaurant owned by Akira Oki and his wife, both of whom spent a number of years living in Canada and have a keen sense for foreign tastes. Nestled between a basil bagel and best enjoyed with the more subtle flavor of tartar sauce, Oki’s Sakura Burger is both lighter and less gamey than beef.

The term “sakura” has become synonymous with “basashi” as it refers to the delicate pink color of the meat. For a more Japanese spin on “sakura,” I visit the well-heeled Suganoya on Kumamoto’s Ginza-dori for some “basashi” sushi. Between the tender “nigiri” and subtle flavors of the “sakura-natto gunkanmaki,” I find myself having an “I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-fish” experience. Paired with a glass of shochu on the rocks, I am in rapture.

Shochu is the drink of choice in Kumamoto and I drop by Okadaya off Shimodori to sample some of their vast collection of artisanal booze. Mr Hashimura, the outgoing and knowledgable owner, is happy to guide me through the dozens of bottles of Kumajochu—or Kumamoto shochu—on the shelf. The izakaya also serves excellent food and I sample some baraniku basashi, a flavorful rib cut framed by lines of silky fat. For a nightcap, I stop by Jeff’s World Bar, owned by American expat Jeff Morrow. Although this is much more of a pub than a dining establishment, the affordable prices (3,000 yen lets you drink till dawn) are a good way to get intimately acquainted with Kumajochu and Jeff tells me that they will be adding their own “basashi” pizza to the menu in the near future. As I unwind with a glass of “shiro” on the rocks, I realize my love-affair with “sakura” will be long and pricey. A look at the way the horses are raised gives an idea as to why.

“So where are you from?”

“Tokyo, and before that America,” I reply.

“America, huh?” There is a pause. “There are a lot of animal rights activists in your country.”

I can’t deny it. Instead, I casually mention the luscious slices of “basashi” that I had for dinner the night before at the popular Kenzo, and after a couple more minutes of testing the waters it seems the owner of Koga Farms is satisfied I am not here to ambush him. I am actually very lucky: between the reputation of sensationalist documentaries like “The Cove” and the recent scare over E. coli poisoning at yakiniku restaurants, none of Kumamoto’s other horse ranchers are willing to speak with me. But Koga Farms is a bit different.

It’s a smaller, family-run operation that prides itself on quality and is considered to raise some of the best horse meat in the region. In fact, owner Kiyokazu Koga proudly explains that they are one of the very few ranches that have Kumamoto born and raised horses. With horses needing over 4,000 yen worth of proprietary feed per day, most horse ranches in Japan import young horses from abroad by cargo plane (Canada, the U.S. and Australia are the big suppliers) and then raise them to maturity in Japan for approximately three to four months. This is the type of meat you are likely to find in most restaurants, and while Koga admits that many of his horses are from Canada as well, the crème-de-la-crème of his operation were born and raised locally, including some on the pastoral expanses of nearby Mt Aso.

Horses have plenty of space

Koga is clearly concerned about the treatment of his animals and a visit to his ranch shows the careful conditions under which they are kept. Despite housing hundreds of animals, the ranch is clean and not unpleasant smelling. Horses have space and are able to interact with each other—as providing a low-stress environment is important in developing high-quality meat. With mature horses selling for around the price of a small car and choice cuts of meat going for over 20,000 yen/kg it’s understandable that they take good care of their investment. I ask Koga about the future prospects of the “basashi” market and, like in many industries, low-cost foreign competition is casting its shadow on Japan’s traditional horse ranching methods, though there is growing demand for the unmatched quality of its meat.

Between its culinary delights, rich yet affordable drinking culture and natural wonders such as volcanically active Mt Aso, Kumamoto makes a great place to take respite from Tokyo’s intensity. In addition to the majors, Kumamoto is served by two low-cost airlines (Skynet Asia Airways and Skymark Airlines) and tickets can often be found for less than 15,000 yen one way. Overall lower lodging and transportation prices compared to Tokyo mean you’ll be able to use more of your money for succulent “basashi,” which is a good thing, because after trying it you’ll have a hard time thinking about anything else.

More Information
Kenzo: www.basashi-kenzo.com
Suganoya: http://service.suganoya.com
Umazakura: www.umasakura.com
Gull: www.yokablog.jp/blog/purin64
Jeff’s World Bar: http://jeffsworldbar.com
Koga Farms: www.the2929.com
Skynet Asia Aiways: www.skynetasia.co.jp
Skymark Airlines: www.skymark.co.jp

History

While it is believed that horses were introduced to Kyushu from Korea more than 2000 years ago, the origins of modern-day horse consumption in the region are a bit foggy. Eiko Honda, professor of Nutrition at the Prefectural University of Kumamoto, tells me the most probable theory. This is that Kato Kiyomasa, a “daimyo” of Higo (now Kumamoto Prefecture) introduced the practice of eating horse meat in the late 1500s as a response to food shortages during the Seven-Year War (1592-1598)—a devastating attempt to conquer Korea’s Chosun dynasty.

It’s interesting to note that the consumption of four-legged animals was restricted by Buddhist dictate for nearly 1,000 years until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. However, archeological evidence shows that by the Edo Period (1603-1868), deer, wild boar, bears, dogs, monkeys and horses were being eaten in considerable quantities. Thus, it would not have been unreasonable for a daimyo of the era to turn to horse meat in times of desperation. Regardless of the origin, it wasn’t really until the end of World War II that Kumamoto and the rest of Japan witnessed the start of a “basashi” boom.

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp)

  • -1

    goddog

    I love eating horse. This is a great article. Whinny my friends.

    Sincerely, Mr. Ed

  • 2

    SamuraiBlue

    However, archeological evidence shows that by the Edo Period (1603-1868), deer, wild boar, bears, dogs, monkeys and horses were being eaten in considerable quantities

    This was called "Kusuri gui(薬食い)" or eating medicine and is found frequent in literature of that time.

  • 0

    Zenny11

    Interesting article.

    Horse-Meat is also widely consumed across the globe, I like to eat it as it as it is a stable in our cuisine back home.

  • 1

    Virtuoso

    I've never had decent basashi in Tokyo. For some reason, you apparently have to go out in the sticks. Good stuff can be found in Nagano.

  • 6

    Frungy

    I've eaten horse meat in France and Japan, and frankly I've been unimpressed each time I ate it, and the cost always exceeded the taste experience.

    Personally I believe this is another meat like whale and dolphin that is eaten only because of its taboo and rarity factor, not for the taste, and frankly that's a lousy reason to eat a meat, it's like those snobs who swallow down the French Noveau vintages because they're expensive... and are too stupid to realise that for the same price they could be enjoying a top Australian or Californian wine that was infinitely superior in complexity and flavour ... but they continue to drink the French wine simply because of its reputation. If you're doing that you're not a gourmand, you're an idiot.

    Personally, for the same price as horse meat burger in Kagoshima I could be enjoying veal in Hokkaido, Echizen crab in Fukui, or any of a dozen other dishes that are far tastier, better value and generally more enjoyable dining experiences.

  • -1

    goddog

    You have some interesting ideas Frungy. Some people are name droppers and do not know the difference between tastes of food and drink, but want to try to impress.
    I often here talking about wonderful caviar, and then say that Japanese Ikura etc. is garbage. Personally, there are so many varieties of fish eggs sold and eaten in Japan, and are very inexpensive and much more interesting and taste than caviar. Caviar is over rated and actually tastes similar to Kusaiya.

    I do enjoy good horse meat. The first time it was offered to me I tried it with a smile and did not actually like it but practiced over and over again and learned to appreciate that, kusaiya, natto, shiokara, and even shirako.

    Being open minded about food from around the world is a fun challenge.

  • 0

    cleo

    Eating horse surely comes falls in the same category as eating dog, cat, hamster or budgie.

  • 3

    lucabrasi

    @Frungy

    But in France (or Germany) there isn't any taboo or rarity value. You find it in any supermarket, and it's cheap as chips.

  • 0

    SamuraiBlue

    cleo Just because it is not in your food culture does not mean it cannot be appreciated. I find it strange considering eating horse and/or whale meat is a taboo in the first place.

  • -1

    keika1628

    Cleo I'm of the same mind about the dog, horse and the budgie and would protect them with my life. But the hamster and the cat are much loved when they are a couple of centimetres thick on the motorway. How could anyone eat an intelligent animal such as a horse? It's just not English. Yes I am a snob . I would only just give way to a cat on a farm.

    I did enjoy reading the article written by Jesse Veverk and it was put together very well and i look forward to the next episode of perhaps a Welch Rarebit Pizza with Horse Radish Topping instead.

  • 2

    Laguna

    I've lived in Kumamoto for almost 20 (!) years and have developed a love for basashi. The restaurants mentioned in the article are beyond my price range; I usually go straight to the butcher (there are several who handle basahi near my place) and pick up the oddly-shaped select cuts for a song. With fresh ginger and the right shoyu, it is heaven - my 16-year old son can eat a half-kilo in a sitting.

    A point the article failed to mention is that it is against Federal law to export horses for consumption, whether by humans or animal. Thus, American horses are usually exported to Canada as general livestock, and from there to Japan. Sad for the horses, sure, but nature is red in tooth and claw.

  • 2

    BreitbartVictorious

    "America, huh?" There is a pause. "There are a lot of animal rights activists in your country." I can't deny it. Instead, I casually mention the luscious slices of 'basashi' that I had for dinner the night before at the popular Kenzo, and after a couple more minutes of testing the waters it seems the owner of Koga Farms is satisfied I am not here to ambush him.

  • -1

    Laguna

    Sorry - slight correction. Horses may be slaughtered for animal food as well as for human consumption; however, the latter currently does not take place, and law prohibits the transfer across state or international borders of horse meat. A quote I read said:

    "There is no possibility under the current law for a state-inspected meat plant to ship any meat, interstate or internationally, for human consumption," said USDA spokesman Neil Gaffney.

  • 1

    Osakadaz

    I tried it at Mt Aso and found it awful.This made big news in Australia a while back as it was discovered that young horses that didn't quite make it in the racing industry were being shipped to Japan in large numbers to be eaten.My friend raises racing horses here in Aus and told me that they are injected with steroids, vitamins antibiotics and all sorts of nasties.

  • 1

    Frungy

    lucabrasi Jul. 23, 2011 - 03:20PM JST But in France (or Germany) there isn't any taboo or rarity value. You find it in any supermarket, and it's cheap as chips.

    I found it quite pricey when I ate it in France (I ate it at a restaurant just outside Tolouse) and it was quite expensive.

    I did a quick google search and found a report by Librairie des Haras nationaux showing that horsemeat is one of the most expensive meats in France, about the same price as veal, so I'm afraid lucabrasi that you need to check your facts a little more carefully. (http://www.haras-nationaux.fr/uploads/txvm19docsbase/DIPECO03HORSEMEAT_01.pdf). I didn't eat any in Germany.

    0 Good Bad

    goddogJul. 23, 2011 - 02:30PM JST

    I often here talking about wonderful caviar, and then say that Japanese Ikura etc. is garbage. Personally, there are so many varieties of fish eggs sold and eaten in Japan, and are very inexpensive and much more interesting and taste than caviar. Caviar is over rated and actually tastes similar to Kusaiya.

    I completely agree! Is it just me or does a lot of the caviar on the market these days seem to be more and more "oily", and nowhere near the quality it was 10 or 20 years ago? By contrast I find a lot of the Japanese fish eggs to be cheap, delicious, my favourite is ebiko (shrimp eggs?), and it's dirt cheap and not at all greasy.

    I do enjoy good horse meat. The first time it was offered to me I tried it with a smile and did not actually like it but practiced over and over again and learned to appreciate that, kusaiya, natto, shiokara, and even shirako.

    By all means then please enjoy it, however I'm always wary when people say that something is an acquired taste, and my automatic retort is usually, "What, like burning rubber?" ;) . I try natto on average once a year and I still don't like it, although initially I found the taste of miso soup strange (strange but enjoyable). I suppose food is a lot like art though, one person's priceless masterpiece is another person's drunk spider on a canvas.

    Being open minded about food from around the world is a fun challenge.

    I'll try anything once... or twice, even a dozen times if it's not actually unpleasant and if someone else is paying (I refuse to pay good money for a dish I don't enjoy).

  • 0

    Frungy

    lucabrasi Jul. 23, 2011 - 03:20PM JST But in France (or Germany) there isn't any taboo or rarity value. You find it in any supermarket, and it's cheap as chips.

    I found it quite pricey when I ate it in France (I ate it at a restaurant just outside Tolouse) and it was quite expensive.

    I did a quick google search and found a report by Librairie des Haras nationaux showing that horsemeat is one of the most expensive meats in France, about the same price as veal, so I'm afraid lucabrasi that you need to check your facts a little more carefully. (http://www.haras-nationaux.fr/uploads/txvm19docsbase/DIPECO03HORSEMEAT_01.pdf). I didn't eat any in Germany.

    0 Good Bad

    goddogJul. 23, 2011 - 02:30PM JST

    I often here talking about wonderful caviar, and then say that Japanese Ikura etc. is garbage. Personally, there are so many varieties of fish eggs sold and eaten in Japan, and are very inexpensive and much more interesting and taste than caviar. Caviar is over rated and actually tastes similar to Kusaiya.

    I completely agree! Is it just me or does a lot of the caviar on the market these days seem to be more and more "oily", and nowhere near the quality it was 10 or 20 years ago? By contrast I find a lot of the Japanese fish eggs to be cheap, delicious, my favourite is ebiko (shrimp eggs?), and it's dirt cheap and not at all greasy.

    I do enjoy good horse meat. The first time it was offered to me I tried it with a smile and did not actually like it but practiced over and over again and learned to appreciate that, kusaiya, natto, shiokara, and even shirako.

    By all means then please enjoy it, however I'm always wary when people say that something is an acquired taste, and my automatic retort is usually, "What, like burning rubber?" ;) . I try natto on average once a year and I still don't like it, although initially I found the taste of miso soup strange (strange but enjoyable). I suppose food is a lot like art though, one person's priceless masterpiece is another person's drunk spider on a canvas.

    Being open minded about food from around the world is a fun challenge.

    I'll try anything once... or twice, even a dozen times if it's not actually unpleasant and if someone else is paying (I refuse to pay good money for a dish I don't enjoy).

  • -1

    goddog

    Thanks for the nice comments Frungy. WOuld love to go out and eat with you some time.

  • 0

    TrentonGaijin

    Had horse sashimi once at a motorcycle rally near Mt Fuji. I might've been more than a little drunk, but I don't recall it being anything special (good or bad). Haven't been tempted to try it again....

  • 0

    ihavegreatlegs

    I enjoy it with a lot of shoga, but not when it is tough or stringy.

  • 0

    calm down

    I dont eat it,but I chew it and blow bubbles with it

  • 0

    lucabrasi

    @Frungy

    Point taken. I guess I was comparing French prices with Japanese. I'd still say that it's not at all rare in France, though :)

  • 0

    Frungy

    lucabrasi Jul. 24, 2011 - 09:48AM JST @Frungy Point taken. I guess I was comparing French prices with Japanese. I'd still say that it's not at all rare in France, though :)

    Fair enough, although food in Japan is expensive by almost anyone's standards. I agree it's not rare in France, I saw it a number of times, and even specialised butcheries that only deal in horsemeat. I didn't really notice it in Germany, but my German isn't 100% so I might have missed it.

    @Goddog - Anytime mate. I love eating with people who appreciate good food. If you're feeling adventurous I might even cook!

  • -1

    SamuraiBlue

    I believe the original recipe for steak tartar consisting of horse meat not beef.

  • 1

    chewitup

    This is unfortunate since “baniku,” as it is known in Japan, is both healthier and tastier than beef.

    There is a lot more to consider than just that! I would never eat horse, a dog or a human, and I don't care if the meat is given a fancy name, is found to be healthier or is tastier!

  • 0

    Farmboy

    Eating horse surely comes falls in the same category as eating dog, cat, hamster or budgie.

    Back where I come from, people ride horses, and we don't eat our transportation.

  • -1

    Smorkian

    I like the occasional basashi. I had a bit this weekend at an izakaya for the first time in a while; pretty tasty. It seems a lot of yakiniku restaurants around me sell it...

  • 0

    jeffrey

    ". . . should be resolutely avoided by any gourmand with even a hint of addictive personality disorder."

    A gourmand by definition has an eating disorder as the historic meaning of the word is someone with refined tastes but who eats too much (a thin gourmand is be a contradiction in terms). Younger people often use the word when they simply mean gourmet.

  • -1

    Ranka Sacrates

    i eaten cow, pig, snake, aligator, and frog.. but i never had the chance to eat horse meat... It sounds tasty, but alas.. their are a bunch of animal right activists and horse lovers around here so it'll be near impossible for me to even get to try it :( pouts

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