Spring usually comes in early May in Hokkaido, and it is high season to pick sansai, or edible wild mountain plants. Among them, the Alpine leek — kitopiro in Japanese and pukusa in the native Ainu language — is the most attractive.
With its intense garlic-like flavor, the plant is an important ingredient in Ainu cuisine. Traditionally, women gathered the wild plants while the men were out fishing and hunting.
Ainu cuisine? Even for Japanese people, it is hard to imagine the food of the north’s indigenous people, repressed by Japanese rule for over a century until relatively recently. The majority of the remaining Ainu population is to be found in Hokkaido, but its recipes can be found in Tokyo’s Okubo district, served at HaruKor — probably the only restaurant in Tokyo that specializes in Ainu cuisine.
In the Ainu language, the word haru means “food,” while kor means “to have,” and so the restaurant’s name expresses a wish for plentiful food.
HaruKor was not Tokyo’s first Ainu restaurant, however. In 1993, to mark the U.N.’s International Year of the World’s Indigenous People, Rera-Cise became a center of Ainu culture in the metropolis. After it closed, co-owner Tamie Usa and her daughter Teruyo opened HaruKor in May 2011.
“We regretted the loss of Rera-Cise so much, and it took a year and half to start over with the new restaurant. Unfortunately my mother passed away just one month after we opened,” says Teruyo Usa, born in Kushiro in Hokkaido. Now her husband, born in Tokyo, has inherited her mother’s traditional Ainu recipes.
HaruKor aims to re-create a cozy cise (traditional Ainu thatched house), decorated with wooden carvings, weaving and embroidery. “People can come here and ask us anything, without worrying whether it is taboo. Although certain customers are drawn here out of curiosity, they usually know very little about Ainu,” laughs Usa.
HaruKor does not only offer dining: It is also a place to gather, and sometimes to hold charanke, a kind of discussion or negotiation, among sympathetic friends. It is a beacon for Tokyoites of Ainu descent, and for those who wish to learn more about Ainu culture.
To mark the restaurant’s third anniversary last month, a Kamuy-nomi ritual to pray to the kamuy (gods or divine spirits) was held there. Kamuy-nomi is practiced by the Ainu on occasions such as weddings, funerals and blessing new homes. The ritual at HaruKor was an opportunity to give thanks for the previous year, and to pray for prosperity and safety in the future. Dressed in robes bearing traditional Ainu designs and brandishing inau (ritual sticks topped with tufted wood shavings), the participants prayed to each of the gods. They then spilled sake using ikupasuy (ceremonial sticks used for making offerings) in honor of the god of fire.
Glancing over the menu on the wall, the number of unfamiliar dishes is almost embarrassing. Ainu cuisine tends to use typical Hokkaido ingredients such as salmon, cod, deer and potato, but it differs remarkably from Japanese cuisine. The Ainu rarely ate raw fish or meat such as sashimi, so dishes are cooked in pots, boiled or grilled. The meals are seasoned sparingly with animal or fish fat, salt and spices, and without soy sauce or soybean paste.
The meals may not be elaborate, but that is no cause for disappointment. Ainu cooking methods bring out the flavor of the ingredients, as if in respect of nature.
If you have never eaten wild plants in Hokkaido, try boiled kitopiro, an Ainu favorite. Despite having a little bite, this plant has recently become popular among health-conscious people for its purported medicinal effects, such as relief from fatigue and suppression of cholesterol. Other options with less of a sharp taste are versions of Japanese nikumaki (meat rolls) and gyōza (dumplings) made with kitopiro.
The Ainu staple ohaw is a kind of hot-pot or soup with meat or fish and plenty of wild plants and vegetables, similar to a Japanese nabe. Cep ohaw is made with salmon, kam ohaw with meat and pukusa ohaw with kitopiro.
But the must-try is kampoca rataskep with Japanese pumpkin. Rataskep means “mixed and braised,” and the dish is made by mashing together boiled vegetables, beans and wild plants. This popular dish — eaten at Ainu ceremonies such as the Iomante bear sacrifice and the Icarpa commemoration of ancestors — combines the delightfully creamy texture of sweet mashed pumpkin with crisp roasted pine nuts and the mildly bitter taste of shikerebe, small black berries of the Amur cork tree. This is one of the 50 fundamental herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat gastroenteritis, abdominal pain and various skin diseases, and the Ainu have also used shikerebe as a folk remedy for asthma and stomach ache.
What else? Imo-sito (baked potato dumplings) seem like they would have wide appeal, while Japanese-style dishes such as deer steak and deer on rice are satisfying stomach-fillers.
“We get deer meat from farms in Shizunai and Bekkai in Hokkaido, because the meat there is excellent, and not too gamey,” explains Usa.
For me, it was a truly amazing experience to discover the depth of Ainu cuisine. Served within HaruKor’s convivial atmosphere, these delicious dishes revived me in a fundamental way, evoking an emotional connection with nature in the heart of Tokyo.
1-10-1 Hyakunincho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; 03-3368-4677; open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5 p.m.-12 a.m. (LO 11 p.m.), irregular holidays (call to ask); nearest station Shin-Okubo.