Sapporo's northern delights – Part 1
September 21, 2017
Japan’s northernmost island Hokkaido is famed for its luscious nature, but it is also home to one of Japan’s liveliest cities – Sapporo. Comprising a population of 1.96 million, it first grabbed international attention when it hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics. It’s now renowned for its spectacular snow festival, held in early February, when the streets are lined with numerous ice and snow statues that are particularly mesmerising when lit up at night.
Despite its icy winters, the city knows how to make the most of the warmer seasons. There are numerous festivals, picnic spaces, and beer gardens - a nod to the long history of brewing in the city.
Sapporo offers plenty of gastronomic delights to accompany your nice cold drink. The entire of Hokkaido is known for its abundant produce, supplying the city with fresh fish, vegetables and dairy. This foodie hub is reachable by a 1.5 hour flight from Tokyo, making it a perfect weekend getaway.
Let's begin our tour with two of Sapporo's most famous dishes – but be sure to salivate further over Part 2.
Genghis Khan / Jingisukan
Don’t be confused. The founder of the Mongol Empire is not alive and well and wandering around northern Japan, as oddly entertaining as that might be. But his name lives on in the form of barbecue lamb.
Genghis Khan – or jingisukan in Japanese – is strips of lamb cooked in beef fat with vegetables on an open dome-shaped iron pot or nabe, and then dipped in a soy-based sauce before eaten. It is the quintessential comfort food of Hokkaido, evoking childhood memories, as Mika Mizutani, sales manager of local cuisine restaurant group explains. Now, she says, the dish is rarely cooked at home, partly due to its smokiness, but it’s often enjoyed outdoors at hanami (cherry blossom) parties or during camping trips.
Lamb is a rarity on Japanese menus so how did it gain such popularity up in the north? To find out, I spoke with Sadami Endo, who has worked as a chef most of his life and founded his own jingisukan restaurant in Sapporo in 1993. The story has its roots in the early 20th century, he told me, when the Japanese government increased the number of sheep in Hokkaido to meet the demand for wool for military clothes and supplies. After the Second World War, there was suddenly a lot of unneeded sheep and a lot of hungry people. The government, keen to feed people, encouraged the consumption of mutton through promoting jingisukan. To mitigate the strong smell and taste of mutton, the meat would be marinated prior to cooking.
From the late 1950s onwards, sheep stocks in Hokkaido drastically declined. But, according to Endo, imports of lamb increased around 30 years ago, reflecting the growing influence of French and Western cuisines. It was around this time that lamb began to replace mutton in jingisukan, as people preferred its taste and milder smell. This led to the modern way of eating – the meat is added plain or lightly salted to the nabe and dipped in sauce post-cooking, although the pre-cooking marinade method can still be found in some places, such as Takikawa in central Hokkaido.
Now, there are more than 200 jingisukan stores across Sapporo. Although the basic cooking method is the same, each offers a different twist on the dish – especially the sauce. Widely soy-based, with apple, garlic and onions, some sauces are sweeter, and others sharper and saltier. I sampled an unusual version in which the soy had been replaced with a salt and herb white wine base, containing basil, chilli and sesame. It really enhanced the natural flavor of the lamb, which was so unexpectedly tender that it melted in the mouth. This particularly creative store also offered lamb sausages and terrine, and, to my surprise and subsequent delight upon tasting, some excellent lamb sashimi. For further culinary adventures, some places offer mutton or even Hokkaido deer. But be warned – wherever you choose, you’re going to want to wash your clothes afterwards, unless you’re partial to barbecue-scented perfume.
When you first hear the term “soup curry”, it might not conjure up the most delicious image. But the name does little to convey the explosion of flavors packed into this dish. One mouthful and you can feel nutrition rushing into your body - and you’re probably going to want to go back for more.
Soup curry is usually a chicken stock-based curry-like soup layered with spices and almost overflowing with vegetables. Hokkaido is a major agricultural region within Japan, and it produces the greatest amount of potatoes, carrots, and onions – all key ingredients in Japanese curry.
Its self-proclaimed pioneer is Taizan Shimomura, who founded the first store in Sapporo using the term “soup curry” in 1993. Shimomura’s father was a doctor who worked overseas in southeast Asia, and so Shimomura was exposed to exotic flavors from a young age – flavors that he instantly fell in love with. Originally intending to follow in his father’s footsteps, he began studying medicine but switched to cooking school. Of all the dishes he had tried, he was particularly inspired by soto ayam – a yellow chicken soup from Indonesia. Using this as a base, he added various spices to the curry and piled in vegetables, motivated by his original goal to heal people. His idea caught on fast – according to Shimomura, there were only 16 curry stores in Sapporo at the time he founded his store, which grew to 120 by 1995.
In most soup curry restaurants, the standard dish comes with a chicken leg, but there are several other toppings, including pork belly, shrimp, and even duck. Soup curry often contains so many vegetables that you consume your five-a-day in just one sitting. After deciding on the toppings, you must choose the spiciness level of the soup and the portion size of the rice, which is served on the side but easily tipped into the soup as you wish. Many stores use Hokkaido rice, which Shimomura says has a harder texture than rice used for sushi, making it well-suited to a thinner broth.
At Shimomura’s restaurant, I devoured a beautifully soft chicken leg and had a lot of fun adding lemon and lime vinegar to the soup, which brought out the individual flavors clearly and sharply. I then sprinkled a 30-spice garam masala that added richer notes and echoed flavors in Indian cuisine. It was voyage around Asia with each mouthful.
Every store creates its own unique soup and every Sapporo resident will have their favorite. If you have a few days in town, be sure to explore until you find your kind of spice.
But don't neglect Sapporo's other culinary wonders. Check out Part 2 to ogle more food.
Text and photos: Phoebe Amoroso
16-1-11, Odorini-shi, Chuo-ku, Sapporo-shi, Hokkaido
8-6-2 Hongodori (Minami), Shiroishi-ku, Sapporo-shi, Hokkaido