Nobeoka is a relatively small, quiet town. It’s common for students from the English Village to complain that there’s nothing to do here, and I find it a little funny because those were more or less the same complaints we had when we were adolescents studying medicine in what then seemed to be, all at the same time, the middle of nowhere and the far end of everything. While walking around on weekends, Jamie and I find these random parks or shrines in the area. When I ask the Villagers about these places, most of them don’t know what I’m talking about. Perhaps it’s not as new to them as it to us, but in a lot of ways, they remind me so much of how I used to be. I hope they give Nobeoka the chance that I never really gave Dasma. I suppose, though, that you can’t force change on people, and that they have to decide, on their own, to try to see the good in the quiet.
What, then, brings bored adolescents and borderline gluttons together? Food, without a doubt. Nobeoka is known throughout the Kyushu island as the birthplace of the chicken nanban, which in theory is merely fried chicken breast marinated in nanban vinegar. Nanban restaurants have sprung up all over Japan, but our hosts at the university say that it originated from this city. There are two restaurants which are popular for their chicken nanban, Ogura and Naochan.
Ogura is a relatively westernized family restaurant. It’s more accessible, located just beside one of the main streets, which I guess is prime real estate. The interiors are a mash-up of western and Japanese influences, with your usual tables and booths alongside kotatsu set-ups.
Ogura’s chicken nanban is like a momma’s boy who grew up to be a badass – crisp on the outside, but soft on the inside. It’s sweet, sour, and salty at the same time. I was quite happy the first time I tried it, but my main problem with this version is that aside from a scoop of potato salad and heaps of shredded cabbage, Ogura also serves it with a mountain of tartar sauce. I hate tartar sauce. I hate anything resembling, tasting, or looking like mayonnaise. Other than this sad fact, it was really good. I had my nanban with a side of pork shogayaki, which was a little bit heavy on the marinade.
Naochan is this inconspicuous hole-in-the-wall that doesn’t even have its own parking lot. Legend has it, at least according to the Japanese man in the apron, that the nanban was invented out of a desire not to waste leftover ingredients. The family didn’t expect such an epic response, nor a longevity of more than 30 years. It’s a quirky little place, with a counter that can seat about seven people, and couple of smaller rooms inside. What makes it easier to find is that there is usually a long line of people waiting to be served. On our first attempt to eat in Naochan, there were about ten people waiting outside and they already had a sign up saying that they were no longer accepting new customers beyond that point. It was only 7 PM on a slow Sunday. Was it that good?
Naochan also has an open kitchen, so you get to see the entire process. This, for me, adds to the charm. Since we came in as a group, we were seated in one of the rooms with the tatami mats. For non-locals like me , this just adds so much to the experience.
As we discovered on our successful next attempt, it wasn’t that good. It was insanely, spine-tinglingly awesome. The texture and taste were so distinctly different, that I’d wait in line in the rain to eat it again. Best of all, there was none of that tartar sauce nonsense. Their version of the nanban is served with miso soup, Japanese pickles, seaweed, and the requisite shredded cabbage. The seaweed didn’t really taste like anything, so I guess it’s some sort of palate cleanser? I don’t know. All I know is that I walked out of Naochan a very happy girl.
Some of the Villagers ordered tataki, which is chicken lightly seared on the outside, but slightly raw on the inside. Because I am a curious and insatiable gaijin, I asked for a bite of tataki from Kodama-san. It looks a little bit like Hainanese chicken, but the taste is quite different. I don’t have anything I can compare it to, but as far as I’m concerned, this sets the bar pretty high for chicken tataki. It’s also an interesting, subtler complement to the nanban.
The winner of the nanban wars is, obviously, Naochan. If Ogura is a blush-inducing first love, Naochan is the last love, the one that shatters theories and the one you choose to keep coming home to. Itadakimasu!