Japanese food is renowned worldwide for being pretty good. Sushi, ramen, teppanyaki—you name it, they’re popular on six out of seven continents (and penguins would probably enjoy sashimi too). Visitors to Japan sing the praises of fresh, high-quality and delicate domestic cuisine, and the number of Michelin stars afforded to the country speak volumes about the quality and care put towards creating some excellent food. The Japanese even win awards in Italy for their skills in producing the borderline-sacred Neapolitan pizza. When it comes to food, they know what they’re doing.
But Japan has a dirty secret hidden in its southern lands: Nagasaki.
Famous for being the only port that was open to foreign traders during sakoku (“closed country”, a period of national isolation from 1636 to 1853), Nagasaki has for centuries been a gateway into which foreign culture, including foreign food, poured into a reluctant Yamato. The food that was brought into Nagasaki during the Edo period morphed and changed gradually to fit the local palate. Merchants and immigrants introduced items that today are considered indispensable ingredients for modern Japanese cuisine, such as cabbage, round onion, pumpkin, sweet potato, pork, and sugar. Some entire dishes, like peixinhos da horta brought by the Portuguese or jiaozi from the Chinese, spread north throughout the country and eventually became a permanent part of Japanese food culture.
After Japan reopened to the outside world in the Meiji period, its history and well-established population of ‘expats’ cemented Nagasaki as the OG capital of all things foreign in Japan—a reputation it still maintains. Today there are some items unique to Nagasaki cuisine, dishes that were devised to celebrate exotic culinary imports or satiate foreigners who were missing a taste of home. But unlike the nation-wide (or world-wide) popularity of tempura and gyoza, curry rice, tonkatsu and ramen, for some reason these special dishes haven’t really found a foothold in hearts and on tables elsewhere. They remain relatively niche foods, relegated to the status of chiho meibutsu (regional specialty) and eaten while on holiday with mixed feelings of curiosity and obligation.
Why haven’t these localised imports really caught on? Our guess is because they’re pretty shit. Nagasaki is the home of foreign foods that have been weirdly twisted and adapted until neither foreigner nor Japanese really like them very much. They’re the culinary version of an ugly baby, with a face only a mother could love. Does Nagasaki have some of the worst famous food in Japan? Check them out and decide for yourself.
Case 1: Nagasaki Champon (長崎ちゃんぽん)
Champon is a noodle soup that consists of thick egg noodles cooked in a chicken and pork bone broth, topped with sauteed pork, seafood and vegetables. It’s supposedly based on a Fujian-Chinese dish called menmian, which is a soup of simmered noodles. The official story goes that, around the middle of the Meiji period, the owner of Nagasaki Chinese restaurant Shikairo created the dish in order to provide a cheap, satisfying and healthy meal to the large number of Chinese students in town.
I don’t know if today’s champon is representative of the original dish or if it changed over the past two-hundred years to reflect local tastes, but compared to the Fujian cuisine I do know, Nagasaki champon is a little underwhelming. The noodles are thick and straight, cooked until they’re soft in a broth that’s unfortunately flavourless despite it’s creamy colour. The toppings are similarly mushy and flavourless, and the entire dish is the colour of watery milk tea save for desperate splashes of pink and green from sliced fishcakes and green onions.
Slightly better is champon’s close relative, sara-udon—sara meaning “plate” and udon meaning, well, udon. The roots of the dish are murky, and although it’s very similar to a crispy fried noodle dish you can probably find at Chinese restaurants around the world, Shikairo also takes credit for creating this one. For the base, diners can choose from thin noodles or chow mein-style thick noodles. The topping is, as you can see, pretty much the exact same thing as champon—still pretty flavourless and made uncomfortably gloopy with the addition of cornstarch. The saving grace here is the crispy noodles, which add some crunchy texture and make it feel less like food for old people with no teeth.
Sara-udon is saved by one other thing: Worcestershire sauce. In a strange and fortunate (for us, the diners) culinary shake-up, this savoury English sauce is often sprinkled on top of sara-udon to jazz up the flavour. The bad news is that putting Worcestershire sauce on champon is generally considered a bit weird or wrong. It’s anyone’s guess as to why.
(Champon and sara-udon are actually available around Japan at the Ringer Hut restaurant chain, but you’d be hard-pressed to find them anywhere else!)
Case 2: Turkish Rice (トルコライス)
A mysterious food that some Japanese may not even know much about, which says a lot about its popularity outside of Nagasaki (though apparently there are Osaka and Kobe versions as well). Everything about this dish is a head scratcher, from it’s name to its origins to what comes out on the plate. Nagasaki Turkish rice is a platter that includes a pilaf or fried rice, “Napolitan spaghetti” (spaghetti with ketchup), a small salad, and a slab of tonkatsu, all topped with a curry sauce. It’s overwhelmingly brown and orange in colour, and with two different types of carbs and a slab of meat, it’ll definitely keep even the heartiest of eaters full for a good long while.
Its origins are a mystery, but the Internet points to a recipe for a pilaf-style dish called “Toruko meshi” published in an 1893 newspaper. By the 1950s the dish had somehow gained local popularity along with spaghetti, curry sauce and tonkatsu, despite the fact that most Turkish don’t even eat pork. It’s a cherished dish of the locals, and part of the running joke that in Nagasaki the adults don’t know how to ride bikes (a rarity in Japan; Nagasaki is too hilly) and eat food meant for children (Turkish rice somewhat resembles a kids’ meal).
To show solidarity with Mook (who had to eat both the champon and the Turkish rice), I chose a similar but slightly less bewildering dish: omu hayashi. This Japanese-Western classic is a bed of rice pilaf with a fluffy, slightly runny omelet on top, covered in a red wine demi-glace sauce known as “hayashi sauce”. It has its fans and its haters, but under the circumstances I thought it was an okay choice.
Case 3: Kakuni Man (角煮まん)
Another Nagasaki specialty that isn’t really special at all, kakuni man are easily recognisable as gua bao pork belly buns. Unfortunately, the kakuni man found in Nagasaki are diminutive, looking rather limp and sad compared to their hearty Chinese and Taiwanese counterparts.
Case 4: Sasebo Burger (佐世保バーガー)
Sasebo is a city in the north of Nagasaki Prefecture that was formerly home to a post-war US military base. A local restaurant inevitably started making burgers to attract hungry service men, having figured out how to make a burger by simply asking soldiers about it. The Sasebo Burger is said to be Japan’s first natural-born burger, and is renowned as the ‘soul food of Sasebo’.
The Sasebo Burger looks like food from a Playskool set, with its large floppy bun, flat burger patty, and pale slabs of bacon that hang out the side like flapping tongues. It’s topped with an egg, because this is Japan, and slathered with ketchup and mayo. There’s only so much room in a tummy for mediocre food while on holiday, so we skipped this one. As a burger snob, Mook couldn’t be bothered.
Possible exception: Shippoku Ryori (卓袱料理)
The Nagasaki specialty that may actually be good—perhaps the strangest, and unfortunately the one we didn’t get to try—is the weird multi-kulti mash-up known as shippoku ryori. This is a large multi-course meal served family-style on those great Chinese tables with the rotating plate in the middle. The food is a combination of Chinese, Japanese, Dutch and Portuguese, with braised pork belly being served alongside sashimi and empanadas. It’s an intriguing meal that really explores the influence immigrants have had on Japan’s food culture, but it comes with a hefty price tag and is best eaten in a group.
There you have it, the cuisine of Nagasaki. Unusual interpretations of foreign food at its best, some of the most awful food in Japan at its worst. But whether you love it or hate it, the food in Nagasaki definitely illustrates the area’s unique history as a multiculturally pioneering land in a famously closed island nation. And when all the other food in Japan is so good, there’s no harm in shaking it up every once in a while, eh?