Monday, May 9, 2016

Abalone Cuisine at Karatsu

After spending 2 nights in Hiroshima, we began the second half of our journey with a road trip across Saga Prefecture in the western part of Kyushu. We took up our rental car early enough in the morning at our starting point of Fukuoka so we managed to reach our first stop, the coastal town of Karatsu right on time for lunch. And we dropped by this roadside diner-style restaurant called Uomata, a place recommended by our friend C whom we had dinner with at Hiroshima just the night before.

The Genkai Sea just right off the long coastline of Karatsu provided the perfect habitat for a number of seafood produce, perhaps none more famous than squids, abalones and sea urchins. Uomata has been in business for over 70 years and looked like those family-run restaurant passed down by generations, specializing in abalone and sea urchin cuisine.

The restaurant is located at the tip of Karatsu at a street corner of the thoroughfare running across town and not far off from the expressway exit from Fukuoka. The decor of the restaurant is simple and rustic, typical of a Japanese diner in the rural area, and operating the restaurant is a middle-aged couple both responsible for the serving and cooking duties.

Abalones and sea urchins are the specialty here, and most of the menu items contain either (or both) of the ingredients. While there were more elaborate meal set available (all the way to the 10000 yen kaiseki set), we decided to go for a "simple" donburi each for an easy lunch, plus a couple a la carte dishes.

Food took a little while to arrive but we were in no hurry on this lazy, drizzling afternoon. First were our bowls of rice. My awabi-don, or abalone on rice, was served with such heaping portion of sliced abalones that I felt like I was in some kind of abalone paradise. Loaded with umami flavors, the abalones were gently steamed and sliced thin, giving them a chewy texture without being rubbery. Not as intense as the dried abalones more typical of cuisine back home but with a more balanced taste. C ordered the awabi-uni tsukimi donburi which has double the umami taste with half the rice bowl filled with abalone slices and the other half with sea urchins. In the middle was a cracked raw egg which she would mix into the rice to eat. (with the egg resembling the full moon hence the name tsukimi, which means moon-watching) That looked divine too.

Next were the other dishes we ordered, essentially abalones cooked two different ways. Two live abalones were brought to our table and grilled hamayaki-style in their own shells on a mini-stove with butter and vegetables in an aluminium foil "pan". Getting over the slightly disturbing thought of having the pair of abalones still moving sitting in front of us waiting to be sacrificed on open fire, they were satisfying to our appetite. They were of enormous size too! (Even after they were cooked and shrunk, they were almost as big as our fist!) And we wiped up all the drippings putting two slices of bread to toast in the pan after we were done with the abalones.

The second dish was prepared by sakamushi, or steaming in sake, a much slower cooking method resulting in a much tender texture with the mellow sake flavor infused into the meat. It's served in a porcelain deep dish in the shape of the abalone shell with vegetables.

We were also warmed by the friendly owner couple. Not many English was spoken but they tried very hard to explain everything and chat with us. On each table they kept a guest book encouraging everyone to writing them notes, and they did spend time reading them and leaving a few words next to every comments. They told us there was a couple from Hong Kong that kept returning to the place every now and then to eat... well, after this heart-warming lunch, perhaps we will follow suit too?

When? April 27 2016
Where? Uomata, 1439-2 Hamatamamachi Hamasaki, Karatsu, Saga Prefecture
魚又 佐賀県唐津市浜玉町浜崎1439-2
Menu Highlights? Awabi-don

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