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.
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
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)