Sweet Memories: The History of Kurushima-style Sukiyaki

How to make Kusumachi-style Sukiyaki just like they used to

Kurushima-style Sukiyaki (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Simmering onions and fatty Bungo beef. Thick donko shitake mushrooms and fresh tofu made with spring water. If you want to try local Oita ingredients all at once, then we recommend Kurushima-style sukiyaki, which originated in Kusu Town.

Kurushima Takehiko (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Kusu, The Town of Fairy Tales

Kusu Town is located in the center of western Oita Prefecture. The birthplace of Kurushima Takehiko, an author of children’s stories, and known as the town of fairy tales, Kusu has also attracted attention for its food culture. This is because of the exceptionally sweet and rich sukiyaki here, said to have been loved by Kurushima himself. This dish uses many local ingredients.

Kurushima-style Sukiyaki (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

First, Let’s Take a Look at the History of Sukiyaki

In Japan, many people can recall memories of eating sukiyaki filled with beef, when thinking of meals from their childhood. Sukiyaki is a type of food made by grilled and boiled beef, Napa cabbage, chrysanthemum leaves, tofu, Japanese leek, shiitake mushrooms, and more in a shallow pot. The food quickly became popular along with the introduction of the Western style of eating meat in the Meiji Era (1868 to 1912). It is said that the food spread across Japan as a symbolic image of westernization.

Kurushima Takehiko Memorial (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Kurushima-style Sukiyaki (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Kurushima-style Sukiyaki for People with a Sweet Tooth

You can’t talk about Kusu’s sukiyaki without mentioning an author of children’s stories who was born here. Kurushima Takehiko, born in 1874 and also called the “Japanese Hans Christian Anderson”, told fairy tales to children all over Japan. He made great contributions to children’s education, introducing Boy Scouting to Japan, establishing a kindergarten on his own, and more.

Head Director Goto of "Yamaji" (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Sukiyaki was the food that such a man as Kurushima loved more than anything else. A sweet tooth, Kurushima preferred a rich flavoring with lots of sugar and sweetness from onions. Let’s take a look at how it’s made at Sanro, a resturant that offers Kurushima-style sukiyaki. Their sukiyaki is a recreation based on a recipe recorded by one of Kurushima’s pupils.

Kurushima-style Sukiyaki (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Spread Out the Onions

Add oil to the pot and once it’s heated up, spread out lots of onions along the bottom of the pot. Sprinkle plenty of sugar over the onions.

Kurushima-style Sukiyaki (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Layer On Meat and Cover with More Sugar

Layer meat on top of the onions, one slice at a time, and sprinkle with even more sugar. They use Oita wagyu beef, a local brand of beef.

Kurushima-style Sukiyaki (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Adjust the Flavor with Soy Sauce

Place hard-to-cook ingredients over the meat, place vegetables on top, cover, and boil. Once the sugar has soaked into the meat, add the tofu and shirataki yam noodles, and finally, flavor with soy sauce. Adjusting the flavor with only sugar and soy sauce without any soup is how the Kurushima style is. If you have a sweet tooth, you can add lots of sugar and adjust the flavor to your liking.

Kurushima-style Sukiyaki (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Wait for 20 Minutes

For Kurushima-style sukiyaki, the pot is then left to carefully boil for another 20 minutes. This allows the sweetness of the sugar to soak into the ingredients and creates a rich flavor. The sweet flavor of the simmering onions also has an effect on the overall flavor. You eat the sukiyaki by dipping it in raw egg.

Kurushima Takehiko (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Enduring Hunger and Waiting for the Signal

Junji Yoshihara, assistant director of the Kurushima Takehiko Memorial Hall, tells us that, “It seems that carefully boiling the meat for 20 minutes is something that Mr. Kurushima was particular about. When cooking, he would be in charge of the pot himself and he didn’t allow anyone to touch the pot until he said, ‘Yokaro’ (or “Good” in the local dialect).”

At that time, it seems that it was difficult to come by high-quality meat. Mr. Yoshihara says that tough meat is more delicious when boiled well until it becomes tender. I’m sure Kurushima’s pupils waited for the signal of “Yokaro” while fighting off hunger. Maybe he knew that hunger itself was the best ingredient.

Oita Wagyu (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Combining Kusu’s Specialties into a Pot

Takaaki Hara, a representative from the Kurushima-ryu Sukiyaki Jikko Iinkai, tells us that, “Many of Kusu Town’s specialties are in Kurushima-style sukiyaki. Kusu, blessed with water and soil, is a treasure trove of delicious ingredients. For example, we have Oita wagyu, a type of beef with tenderness. Raising livestock has been popular in Kusu since ancient times.”

Raised by breeders in Kusu Town, the cows are shipped both within and outside the Prefecture when they reach 10 months old, and are often raised to become Oita wagyu, Matsusaka beef, and other brands of beef. Many breeders also grow rice or vegetables as part of a diversified farm. This is because a cycle is created where cow manure is used as fertilizer for the fields, and vegetable scraps and straw from rice fields are used as food for the cows. This is a type of circular agriculture that has been passed down for generations here.

Hara of Kusu city (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“The sukiyaki also has donko shiitake mushrooms in it, which are a specialty of Kusu. There are shiitake farmers in Kusu who have won national awards, and the town is a famous area for donko production. The tofu is made in town using mountain spring water, and we are also picky about only using vegetables that are locally grown. The deliciousness of Oita and Kusu are packed into a single pot. Kusu’s food is really delicious, but Kusu-grown ingredients are not yet well known. I hope that others will learn about the appeal of Kusu’s food and can enjoy locally-produced sukiyaki.”

Donko (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Kurushima-style Sukiyaki in School Lunches

In December of last year, Kurushima-style sukiyaki was offered for lunch at kindergartens, elementary ,and junior high schools in town. It is part of an initiative to teach children about the appeal of local foods and local stories related to sukiyaki.

However, the cost of the ingredients is an issue. It is difficult to meet school lunch budgets as high-quality Oita wagyu beef is used. Even so, there is still a desire to have children experience the delicious flavor of local meat. From this desire, volunteers from within Kusu gathered ¥100,000 in donations, making it possible to offer Kurushima-style sukiyaki as a school lunch.

Hara of Kusu city (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“What you ate as a kid stays with you as a memory. It makes me happy if someone is reminded of Kusu, thinking, ‘that sukiyaki I ate when I was younger was so good’. The stories about Kurushima Takehiko are part of our culture in Kusu. But we can only go so far when telling these stories with just words. I want people to learn about our local charm and history, using food culture as a gateway to stimulate the five senses. Look, while we were talking, the sukiyaki has boiled just right. Let’s eat.”

Credits: Story

Cooperation with:
Kusu Town Hall, Oita Prefecture
Dowa no Sato Kusu (roadside station)
Kurushima Takehiko Memorial Hall
Kurushima-ryu Sukiyaki Jikko Iinkai

Photos: Yusuke Abe (YARD)
Edit &Text: Masaya Yamawaka
Production: Skyrocket Corporation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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