Interesting one to bring up after that whole European horsemeat scandal. While I have the same aversion most people do to horsemeat, I also kind of recognise the insincerity. I mean, once horses were our companions and transport. Now they are the playthings of rich people. Perhaps something of a nostalgic attachment? Anyway, cherry blossom meat is raw horse, served either on its own or as part of sushi. It’s said to be low in calories and low in fat, but it’s not something I can’t see myself trying, despite savouring the raw flesh of cows.
On Kyushu, Japan’s most southwesterly island, chefs specialize in preparing a delicacy nicknamed “cherry blossom meat” (sakura-niku) for its intensely red hue. This is basashi, or raw horse meat, and its tender texture has lured many fans to the city of Kumamoto, where it’s served as sashimi or nigiri. Diners eat the thin slices much like other kinds of sashimi: dipped in soy sauce, and served with grated ginger and Japanese horseradish.
Consuming meat, equine or otherwise, is a fairly recent acceptable practice in Japan. For more than 1,000 years, eating meat was punishable by law. On January 24, 1872, however, Emperor Meiji led by carnivorous example and publicly announced that he ate meat. He saw animal protein as a means of modernizing and enhancing the population’s health and strength, particularly with regards to the army. The Meiji Period (1868-1912) undid many long-standing taboos surrounding the consumption of meat, and by the 1960s, basashi had started popping up on menus around Japan.
While Nagano and Ōita are also known for their basashi, Kumamoto remains a favorite place to try the delicacy. Many recommend pairing it with another Kyushu specialty: shōchū.
Need to Know
Take the Kansai Kisen Ferry from Osaka or Kobe to Beppu, then board the JR Trans-Kyushu-Express to Kumamoto (Only a handful of trains leave each day, so plan accordingly). Kumamoto is lined with restaurants specializing in horse meat, both on its own and incorporated into other dishes (including blended with the fermented soybeans known as nattō).
Nowadays, Japanese wagyu beef and shimofuri (marbleized) beef has become world renowned for how delicious it is. Have you however, heard of Sakura-niku (literally translated as cherry blossom meat)? You may wonder what it is for having the term for cherry blossom, “sakura” in its name.
What is Sakura-niku
In Japanese, sakura-niku refers to horse meat or cheval. There are many people who do not eat horse meat due to religiouss or cultural reasons. Horse meat has traditionally been eaten in Japanese food culture and it is particularly famous also as a local cuisine of Kumamoto. Horse meat is low in calories and fat and high in protein. It is rich in minerals (particularly iron and calcium) and vitamins so it is considered to be healthy. It is however, less common and a bit more expensive than beef, pork or chicken so it is something that is eaten more often by the gastronome.
Why the name Sakura?
There are several reasons.
The first is the color of the flesh. When fresh horse meat is cut, the flesh looks a vibrant pink color so it was called the sakura meat. However, as mentioned above, horse meat contains many elements that oxidize easily so once it comes in contact with air it oxidizes fairly quickly and turns a brownish red color.
The second reason originates from the historical background. During Edo Period of Japan, due to sumptuary laws and Buddhism, there were periods of time when eating meat was not permitted. People were not able to openly eat horse meat, and so sakura meat was a secret term used to refer to horse meat. The reason for its naming was the color of the flesh as the first reason mentioned above, and that it was in season and tastes the best around the time of cherry blossoms. Similarly, other meats that use names of plants as their secret names include Botan (peony) for wild boar meat, Momiji (maple leaf) for venison.
Sakura Meat Cuisine
There are some dishes that use sakura meat that are unique to Japan. Definitely try them if you find some that interest you.
1. Basashi (Sashimi)
This is sashimi of horse meat. Similar to fish, fresh cuts of raw horse meat is eaten. It is common to eat it with a sweet soy sauce along with grated ginger or grated garlic. There is even soy sauce that is specifically for basashi that is available for purchase. The part of the meat from the mane is considered rare and delicious.
This is cooked in a hot-pot style similar to sukiyaki and shabushabu.
3. Uma Nigiri Zushi (Sushi)
Fresh, high-quality horsemeat looks beautiful like blooming cherry blossoms. You can see how it got its name. It is also very tasty eaten with the wasabi.
4. Sakura Natto
The horse meat is chopped very finely and is eaten with scallion, natto and quail egg.
Where to Eat Sakura Meat
Shibuya Niku Yokocho (Shibuya Meat Alley)
In an area with a distinct Japanese atmosphere, similar to Shinjuku’s Golden Gai, there are a total of 24 meat shops in rows without any partitions. It is a very relaxed atmosphere. One of the 24 stores called Nikuzushi offer delicious uma-nigirizushi for a reasonable price. If you are a meat-lover, we would urge you to make a visit to the street because it is a place that offers a variety of meat dishes.
Ebisu Yokocho (Ebisu Alley)
Nikuzushi that was introduced above also has a location in Ebisu Yokocho. Here is another place you can eat very good horse meat. At Ebisu Yokocho, there are a number of restaurants that offer Kansai style Kushi-katsu (breaded and meat/vegetables fried on a skewer), beef tongue, fresh seafood etc making the entire alley a place worth visiting.
Within Tokyo, there are also a number of other restaurants that specialize in serving horsemeat. We recommend not only viewing the sakura as part of hanami, but also experiencing eating sakura meat.
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