Savor Hokkaido’s warming winter menu

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Autumn in Hokkaido is a comma before the long period of white winter. Autumn’s food season too scurries almost directly from summer to wintry tastes, so here’s a look at how the locals keep warm, starting in November and feasting all the way into May.

Hokkaido residents never tire of ramen. There are many regional twists on this noodle dish, such as adding butter, corn, Hokkaido potatoes, cabbage or, for a special wintry treat, a thin layer of melted lard on top of the soup. The scalding oil traps both flavor and heat and is used for any soup base, but especially miso ramen, which originated in Sapporo in the 1950s as a healthy, light taste.

The second wave of miso ramen started in the ’60s with a small shop whose kanji could be read Junren or Sumire. The ramen featured a thick, filling soup infused with the complex taste of full-bodied pork and its oils merged with rich, robust miso. Though it was neither healthy nor light, the people of Sapporo loved this new, hearty version of miso ramen, and the owner’s sons opened two separate shops that have since grown into Sapporo’s most famous ramen chains, Junren (www.junren.co.jp) and Sumire (www.sumireya.com).

Yuki-mushi (snow gnats) fluttered past my hand on a recent visit as I pushed open the door to Junren’s main branch, a 10-minute walk from Sumikawa Station. The rich miso-based soup satisfies deeply, literally warming you inside and out. Seasoned egg, crisp bamboo shoots, fresh-cut green onion and sliced pork: all typical ramen staples, but each specifically prepared to enhance the robust flavors of the soup.

Alternatively, you could drink yourself warm. One spot the locals like to keep for themselves is Tokumaru (r.gnavi.co.jp/h216200/lang/en), a grilled-chicken and oden restaurant near Nishi-Juitchome Station. Housed in a restored Japanese-style home with dark wood beams crisscrossing its high ceiling and a rustic beauty, Tokumaru warms the soul as soon as you step inside.

The sake will do it too: As well as over 25 varieties direct from local breweries all over Japan, Tokumaru also offers wines from Hakodate and Otaru.

The food itself should be savored. I started with the oden, served instantly and simmered in an elegantly light soup that never overpowers the separate tastes of the fish cakes, daikon, boiled egg, konyaku (devil’s tongue) and a crisp bamboo shoot. The chefs grill the skewered chicken and vegetables behind a glassed-in counter, as the warmth and smell of the cooking charcoal rises to the vaulted ceilings.

Looking for more than just great food to stoke the fires within? When heading out to the ski hills of Kokusai, Sapporo locals enjoy the unlikely fusion of traditional Japan and Indian curry at Hoheikyo Onsen, (www.hoheikyo.co.jp) a place affectionately known as Curry Onsen.

You don’t actually soak in curry at this hot-spring resort: The restaurant serves it for dinner, the two Indian national chefs in the kitchen attesting to this authentic culture combination. After a full day on the slopes, bring hunger as your secret spice; the curry alone will never win a prize within Sapporo’s strong tradition of Indian food, but patrons are here for the total experience.

At home, Hokkaido residents keep warm with simmering, versatile one-pot dishes, or nabemono. Popular all over Japan in wintertime, nabe enjoys an extended season in Hokkaido, and locals typically eat it a few times a week to keep out the cold. Aside from the traditional chicken or fish with vegetables, favorites include everything from yudōfu (simmered tofu) to shabu shabu (thinly sliced beef seared in broth) to oyster or crab nabe to curry nabe with udon noodles. Of course, Ishikari nabe sings the sweetest as Hokkaido’s own original one-pot dish (see sidebar).

If you find yourself at a full stop this winter in frigid wonderlands, keep warm like a local with a blanket of Hokkaido tastes.


Recipe: Ishikari nabe

No writeup of Hokkaido winter food is complete without mentioning Ishikari nabe, the rich one-pot dish featuring local salmon, vegetables and tofu. Ishikari is only 30 km north of Sapporo on the coast, and worth a trip to taste the real thing.

It’s easy to make, too — simply follow this recipe provided by long-term Sapporo resident, food blogger and cookbook contributor Deborah Davidson (dosankodebbie.wordpress.com). (K.K.)

Serves 4

4 large filets of fresh (not salted) salmon

½ head of cabbage

3 potatoes

1 onion

1 Tbsp konbu dashi granules

600 ml milk

600 ml water

Salt, pepper, butter and miso to taste; mellow, light-colored miso is better for this than dark, pungent miso

Alternatives: tofu, mushrooms, etc

Season the salmon filets with some salt and a little pepper, and cut into large bite-size chunks. Precook the potatoes in a microwave (try 8 minutes at 600 W). Then peel the potatoes, and cut into chunks to match the salmon. Also cut the cabbage and onion into chunks to match the potatoes and salmon.

Place the water, konbu dashi, onion and cabbage in an earthenware nabe pot. Place over medium heat and bring to the boil, then add the salmon and potato chunks. Reduce the heat and allow to simmer briefly, until the salmon is cooked through.

Warm the milk in a microwave. Dissolve up to 3 tbsp of miso into a little of the warm milk. When the nabe ingredients are cooked, turn off the heat and pour all the milk and dissolved miso into the pot. Drop in a few dollops of butter to taste.

Take the nabe pot to a hotplate on the dinner table to keep warm while serving.