FANCY yourself a sushi fiend, heh? Ever been to Kyushu, the island below Honshu? It is to sushi what Ibiza is to party people: the place to be. I lived in Oita Prefecture, at the northern most point of the island and it is while living in this coastal area that I discovered some truly amazing sushi neta, the seafood that sits atop nigiri, the vinegar soaked rice ball.
Until that time, I, like most other sushi enthusiasts, considered O-Toro, fatty tuna belly and Fugu, poisonous puffer fish, also from Kyushu, to be the crème de la crème of all neta. I went along with this emblazoned in my mind for about a year before I befriended a stern sushi master chef in Oita by the name of Kimura-san. I mentioned my love of O-Toro and my unabashed commitment to its being the finest of all fish. He smiled and asked, “have you never tried Seki Saba and Seki Aji”? I said no and asked what they were. He didn’t say much nor did offer any to me that night but instead decided we would drive from Oita City to the town of Saganoseki on the Bungo Straits to sample some fresh from the ocean.
The swiftly moving waters of the Bungo Channel are home to two of Japan’s most sought after sushi/sashimi fish and it was here that he would introduce me to this particularly fine pair of neta. We didn’t go to a restaurant, but rather to the port where his fishing buddies off-loaded their daily catch of rod and reel harvested Seki Saba, mackerel, and Seki Aji, horse mackerel. He purchased a fine specimen of each, on sight, as weighing the catch is illegal because the extra handling of the fish destroys its delicate, tasty flesh. He then got out his folding table, cutting board, knives, and proceeded to prepare the fish using the ikijime technique of paralyzing and bleeding the still flopping fish in order to preserve freshness, and when executed by a master, with knife skills of a samurai, it is an art unto its own. Once the prep was complete, we ate the fresh sashimi with a kabosu lime and soy sauce mixture and freshly grated, raw wasabi from the clean rivers and mountains of interior Oita. Kimura-san then took shari, sushi rice, from a bamboo container and made sushi. It was an otherworldly delicious picnic. The firm, slightly sweet flesh melted in my mouth.
Right around the corner from Oita City is the town of Hiji, which is home to a special type of flounder called Shiroshita Karei, meaning under the castle. Long ago, a feudal castle sat on the edge of Beppu Bay and at this point, a fresh water spring spilled into it, and this is the only place that this special flounder, with intensely sweet, slightly springing meat is found. It pairs perfectly with the local kabosu, and like its point specific sushi partners to the south, is considered a national sushi delicacy, commanding much higher prices and serious adoration from sushi maniacs across the archipelago. If you sincerely consider yourself a true sushi fiend, then you must visit Kyushu and sample these fish for yourself because getting it locally is always better than eating it far from its source. In the next piece, we will continue the Kyushu sushi journey with a stop in Saga Prefecture, on Kyushu’s Sea of Japan coast. Until next time: happy eating and safe travels.