Mushi Charo: From hellish waters, heavenly flavors

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Within the vast array of culinary techniques, steaming has an unfortunate reputation as dull, unfashionable and fit only for dieters. It certainly lacks the vibrancy and drama of, say, deep-frying in sizzling oil or grilling on a barbecue.

A visit to Beppu — where food is cooked in piping-hot jets of geothermal steam — might just change your mind.

With more than 2,000 sources within city limits, Beppu is Japan’s undisputed hot-spring mecca, and the Kannawa Onsen district is at its heart. While the area is most famous today for its aptly named “hells” (springs so hot they are for viewing only), for centuries Kannawa was the preferred destination for those looking to soak away their ailments in mineral-rich waters. Besides endless baths for all and sundry, there was another happy byproduct of all that volcanic heat: jigoku-mushi, or hell-steaming.

Hell-steaming is typically done in jigoku-gama (hell ovens), brick or stone chimneys that channel geothermal steam from underground vents. These can be seen all over Kannawa, including the municipal cooking center Jigoku Mushi Kobo Kannawa. But geothermal steam straight from the ground is dangerously hot and pressurized, and regular jigoku-gama don’t allow for fine temperature control.

Outside a small Chinese restaurant tucked away in Kannawa’s winding side streets, Shinichiro Maeda shows me how he manages to turn this superheated vapor into culinary magic.

“These are Ichiro, Jiro and Saburo,” says Maeda, head chef at Mushi Charo, gesturing at three stainless steel steamers that rumble and rattle with every vent of white steam they release.

Connected directly to geothermal vents, Mushi Charō’s three steamers offer differential pressure and fine-tuned temperatures for the perfect cook. | FLORENTYNA LEOW

Maeda’s custom-designed contraptions are essentially squat chimneys with legs connected by pipes to underground geothermal sources. Although the valve-operated steamers are structurally identical, they differ in distance from those sources, which affects their steam pressure. Small, built-in gaps vent excess steam, further lowering the overall pressure and allowing Maeda to fine-tune his cooking.

“I often use Jiro-kun for steaming, but Ichiro is always the one who gets photographed, so Jiro gets jealous,” Maeda says. “I turn Jiro off because he tends to spew steam whenever people are taking photos. He’s so cheeky.”

The effusive, enthusiastic Maeda has had an eclectic career. Besides his professional 40-year background in Chinese cuisine, he has also studied traditional Chinese medicine, shōjin ryōri (traditional vegetarian Buddhist cuisine), yoga, osteopathy and macrobiotics. Hell-steaming is the apotheosis of all these diverse interests.

“Hell-steaming is usually very vigorous,” Maeda says. “But when you cook food with a soft, delicate steam, it’s more delicious. You would normally have a lid on (to trap the steam), but with lots of places for the steam to escape, you’ll have a very gentle steaming method.”

Low-temperature steaming — Maeda prefers steam between 40 and 90 degrees Celsius depending on the ingredient — retains more nutrients and produces better flavors and tender textures than high-temperature steaming. It’s a matter of science: While heating ingredients releases some flavor compounds, too much heat can destroy these compounds and result in undesirable textures. Chawanmushi (savory egg custard) is one example of the technique at its finest, as the dish is all too easily ruined by overly hot steam.

One meal at Mushi Charō might be enough to dispel steaming's bland and flavorless reputation for good. | FLORENTYNA LEOW
One meal at Mushi Charō might be enough to dispel steaming’s bland and flavorless reputation for good. | FLORENTYNA LEOW

Maeda asserts that fish tastes better steamed at 40 or 50 C, so I later try steaming a large salmon filet over barely simmering water with the lid off in my home kitchen. The results were so absurdly tender and buttery that I may never grill salmon again.

Outside his restaurant, Maeda moves on from the steamers to talk about clouds. Everything in Kannawa, he says — the air pressure, wind, earth, the will of the sun — is connected. In that sense, he believes the area is a sacred place, which is why he still gets butterflies just walking around the town and learning from natural phenomena. There are so many ways to hell-steam, he says. His is just one way.

“Low-temperature steaming is a fairly familiar concept now, but at the time (when we were looking into this around 2007) no one really understood what that meant,” says Mushi Charo owner Haruko Yasunami.

Born and raised in Kannawa, Yasunami long believed hell-steaming had more potential than previously thought. After she met steamed food researcher Kazumasa Hirayama, who designed Maeda’s steamers and introduced Yasunami to low-temperature steaming in the mid-2000s, she knew that this was the culinary watershed she’d been searching for. In 2016, she worked with Maeda to open Mushi Charo in the hopes of developing hell-steamed cuisine and introducing more people to its potential.

“It’s all possibilities,” Maeda tells me as I sit down to lunch at the restaurant. “You can do as many things as there are ingredients.”

Fickle ingredients spoiled by other cooking methods thrive in low-temperature steamers popular across Beppu. | FLORENTYNA LEOW
Fickle ingredients spoiled by other cooking methods thrive in low-temperature steamers popular across Beppu. | FLORENTYNA LEOW

Steamed whole with seeds and all, Mushi Charo’s yuzu yields little shot glasses of intensely fragrant, bitter juice. Dried fruit becomes astonishingly sweet and supple after a low-temperature geothermal bath. Coddling hunks of pork cartilage in soy for six hours transforms them into a rival to Okinawan-style sōki (braised pork spareribs). Few ever get quail eggs right — the yolks are invariably powdery and overdone — but here they are impossibly tender and gooey.

The star of the show may be Maeda’s Chinese medicinal chicken soup steamed in a qi guō, a traditional Yunnanese ceramic pot. Geothermal vapor, rich in silicic acid and sodium chloride, enters through the central chimney, but unlike regular, perforated vessels, the steam is unable to escape. It condenses within, slowly turning chicken and other ingredients like dried shrimp and white cloud fungus into a delicate, savory broth not unlike Cantonese-style double-boiled soups.

Mushi Charo is one of a small handful of restaurants in Kannawa specializing in hell-steamed food and perhaps one of just two attempting to stretch the limits of the technique. The barriers to entry are high: You have to first own the rights to a hot-spring source, which costs several million yen before construction and maintenance. More crucially, Kannawa’s protective legislation prohibits new hot-spring wells from being drilled within 80 meters of existing ones.

None of that may matter very much down the line as the temperature, output and pressure of Beppu’s hot springs have fallen slightly over the past few years. But it won’t deter Maeda, who doesn’t need 100 C steam to cook. If the temperature drops, he says, the food will taste even better.

5 Furomoto, Kannawa, Beppu, Oita Prefecture; 0977-85-7775. Open Fri.-Mon. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. & 6 p.m.-9 p.m. (closed Tue.-Thu. and every second Sunday of the month). Lunch and dinner from ¥3,000. Located 10 minutes by car and 15 minutes by bus from JR Beppu Daigaku Station.

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