From the mountains to the sea: The delicacies of Hokkaido

Sushidokoro Keiran’s special donburi topped with uni (sea urchin) and toro maguro (tuna belly). — Pictures by CK Lim
Sushidokoro Keiran’s special donburi topped with uni (sea urchin) and toro maguro (tuna belly). — Pictures by CK Lim

SAPPORO, March 11 — Hokkaido is a land of plenty. From the mountains to the sea, food is bountiful, fresh and utterly delectable. So what better way to explore this northernmost Japanese island than to go on a foodie tour?

We begin at its biggest city, Sapporo, and head to the Nijo Ichiba fish market where fresh and dried seafood are abundant. With so many shops and restaurants, it’s easy to get lost in here. One tip a Japanese friend offered us was to look for a restaurant that is also a seafood supplier.

Fresh and dried seafood at the Nijo Ichiba fish market in Sapporo (left). Chef preparing a donburi (“rice bowl”) at Sushidokoro Keiran (right).
Fresh and dried seafood at the Nijo Ichiba fish market in Sapporo (left). Chef preparing a donburi (“rice bowl”) at Sushidokoro Keiran (right).

Sushidokoro Keiran fits the bill perfectly as everything from the restaurant’s menu — from the sushi to the donburi (“rice bowls”) — is made with fresh seafood directly from Kondo Noboru Shoten, the connected marine products shop. Founded almost 80 years ago and family-run, the small restaurant is cosy with a friendly atmosphere.

Tarabagani don or rice bowl with red king crab (left). Slicing sashimi (right).
Tarabagani don or rice bowl with red king crab (left). Slicing sashimi (right).

Besides sushi and sashimi, the highlights here are the donburi — from the tarabagani don (rice bowl with red king crab) to the special bowl topped with decadent amounts of uni (sea urchin) and toro maguro (tuna belly). Any fresher than this and we’d have to catch the fish ourselves!

We then head east towards Asahikawa, a city famed for onsen (hot spring baths) and skiing in the mountains nearby. The third thing Asahikawa is well-known for is its ramen — so much so there is an entire ramen village here that brings together eight different ramen shops; a boon for noodle-crazy tourists.

Tenkin is famous for their shoyu-based Asahikawa ramen.
Tenkin is famous for their shoyu-based Asahikawa ramen.

Hardcore ramen fans, however, avoid these crowds in favour of standalone shops. Not only does one get a more authentic ambience, the best cooks tend to stay at the original shops. A stellar example is Tenkin, an establishment that has been around since 1952, that the locals all rave about.

Asahikawa ramen is seasoned with shoyu (soy sauce) and Tenkin extracts their flavourful shoyu from making chashu (marinated pork belly). Their soup base is the result of two days of boiling pork bones (tonkotsu) and chicken bones (niwatori-gara), creating a soup that’s all umami.

Asahikawa ramen with generous amounts of thick-cut chashu and green onions (left). Corn butter ramen seasoned with shio (salt) (right).
Asahikawa ramen with generous amounts of thick-cut chashu and green onions (left). Corn butter ramen seasoned with shio (salt) (right).
Behind the scenes at Tenkin.
Behind the scenes at Tenkin.

We order their signature shoyu bowl, topped with chashu, menma (fermented bamboo shoots) and green onions, as well as their corn butter ramen seasoned with shio (salt). The traditionally thin and curly noodles produced by celebrated noodle maker Fujiwara are designed to hold more of the broth, which stays piping hot thanks to a layer of lard oil. Good till the last drop!

Next we head south-east to Kushiro, one of the country’s top three fishing ports. As befitting its status, Kushiro is renowned for its haul of the oceans and no catch is more prized than sanma (Pacific saury; also known as mackerel pike).

Given how plentiful sanma is here, Kushiro has come up with a local delicacy called sanmanma: a whole mackerel pike is deboned, layered with fragrant shisho leaf and wrapped around steamed rice before being grilled over charcoal.

Owner of Uomasa, a sanma (mackerel pike) specialty restaurant in Kushiro (left). Sanmanma: charcoal-grilled mackerel pike, shisho leaf and steamed rice (right).
Owner of Uomasa, a sanma (mackerel pike) specialty restaurant in Kushiro (left). Sanmanma: charcoal-grilled mackerel pike, shisho leaf and steamed rice (right).

To enjoy sanmanma, we head over to Uomasa, a sanma specialty restaurant, at the Fisherman’s Wharf MOO (“Marine-Our-Oasis”). Here, sanmanma is prepared fresh and grilled to order. The smoky aroma, the delicate flavours — little wonder sanma is always the catch of the day in Kushiro. Another way to enjoy the sanma is as sashimi, with grated ginger for a slight kick.

Sanma sashimi, with grated ginger (left). Crispy and juicy Hanshinage chicken (right).
Sanma sashimi, with grated ginger (left). Crispy and juicy Hanshinage chicken (right).

Heading back west, to the port town of Otaru, another Hokkaido delicacy beckons us — albeit one that doesn’t seem extraordinary initially. Hanshinage chicken is Otaru-style deep-fried spring chicken, specifically a flattened half bird.

Drop by Naruto Ya in Otaru for takeaway Hanshinage chicken.
Drop by Naruto Ya in Otaru for takeaway Hanshinage chicken.

The best spot to try this is at Naruto Ya, a takeaway kiosk opened by the third generation of Wakadori Jidai Naruto Honten, the original shop that first started serving Hanshinage chicken almost half a century ago. While Hokkaido as a whole is famous for zangi (deep-fried chicken), Naruto Ya’s version is crispy beyond measure on the outside while retaining all the juiciness of the domestically-raised bird.

Seasoned only with a hint of salt and pepper (no secret spices and herbs apparently), this perfectly golden-brown chicken is possibly the tastiest fried chicken we’ve ever had. We lick every last bit of savoury chicken fat from our fingers, if you need further proof.

Otaru is also famous for its high quality milk so dairy products are another must-try. Yamanaka Dairy Farm (a five-minute walk from Naruto Ya) makes their ice cream with rich local milk. Very little sugar is used so the milky flavour of the ice cream shines through. We enjoy one in its original flavour as well as one with swirls of caramel and a crunchy wafer. Delicious.

Milky Yamanaka soft-serve ice cream with swirls of caramel and a crunchy wafer (left). Sapporo is also famous for supu kare (soup curry), a broth-like version of Japanese curry with chunky vegetables and meat (right).
Milky Yamanaka soft-serve ice cream with swirls of caramel and a crunchy wafer (left). Sapporo is also famous for supu kare (soup curry), a broth-like version of Japanese curry with chunky vegetables and meat (right).

We come full circle as we return to Sapporo where supu kare or soup curry reigns supreme. While Japanese curry — a twist on Indian curry first introduced to Japan by the British during the Meiji Era — is popular worldwide, Sapporo’s version is more broth than curry.

A typical bowl of supu kare is chockful of vegetables as well as seafood or even a whole chicken leg. Another feature is the option of adjusting its spiciness level (kara seva); hotheads inevitably go for the highest level and pay the price by downing glass after glass of ice water.

Legend has it soup curry was first served in the 1970s, at a restaurant called Ajanta in Sapporo, then touted as a medicinal curry with Sri Lankan spices. If you ask us, it’s just a lovely way to enjoy a wide variety of Hokkaido’s bounty in the form of meat, seafood and vegetables.

Indeed, all of Hokkaido’s best foods make use of its incredible harvest — from both land and sea — of its different regions. The best way to complete our Hokkaido food tour? Why, start planning for our next Hokkaido food tour, of course!

Sushidokoro Keiran
2-9 Minami 3-jo Higashi, Chuo-ku, Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan
Open daily 8am-4:30pm
Tel: +81-11-241-3377

Tenkin Ramen
9 Chome-1704-31 4 Jodori, Asahikawa, Hokkaido, Japan
Open Wed-Mon 11am-8pm; Tue closed
Tel: +81-166-27-9525

Uomasa
1F, Fisherman’s Wharf MOO, 2-4-3, Nishikicho, Kushiro, Hokkaido, Japan
Open daily 10am-7pm
Tel: +81-154-24-5114

Naruto Ya
Denuki Koji, 1-Chome 1 Ironai, Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan
Open daily 11am-8pm
Tel: +81-134-24-6334

Yamanaka Dairy Farm
1-Chome 6-18 Ironai, Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan
Open Tue-Sun 11am-6pm; Wed closed
Tel: +81-134-27-5123

Soup Curry Tenma
6F, Stellar Place, JR Tower, Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan
Open daily 10am-11pm
Tel: +81-11-209-5100

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