Sapporo's northern delights – Part 2
September 25, 2017
Sapporo, the largest city on the northern island of Hokkaido, boasts a varied cuisine characterized by an abundance of ingredients. For barbecue lamb and soup curry, you'll want to investigate Sapporo's northern delights – Part 1.
Now, our gastronomic tour continues...
Hokkaido is a seafood paradise. It sits at the confluence of the Sea of Japan, the Pacific Ocean and the Okhotsk Sea, with different currents that bring abundant sea life close to its shores. In its central location on the island, Sapporo is well situated to reap the benefits of these happy geographical circumstances.
Although renowned for a variety of crabs – and indeed you'll see hundreds lining iced market stalls – Sapporo boasts a whole range of delicious seafood, including salmon, salmon roe, sea urchin, squid and scallops.
There are two main seafood markets to peruse: Jogai Ichiba (Sapporo Central Wholesale Market) or Nijo Market in downtown. Both have abundant eateries, so ignore your toast and head down early in the morning for a seafood bowl – kaisendon – for breakfast.
A famous combination is uni-ikuradon, a sea urchin and salmon roe bowl. I absolutely had to sample one, although I couldn't resist adding some slices of fatty tuna. Sea urchin is not to everyone's taste but, whatever your preconceptions, I strongly advise you to try it again in Sapporo. It was unlike any I'd ever tried before. So sweet, it was like creamy gold from the sea sitting atop warm rice. Then there was the salmon roe – which added a refreshing, lightly salty flavor and fun textural experience as they burst.
But save a little room as there's another Hokkaido specialty not to be missed. Hokke – known as okhotsk atka mackerel or arabesque greenling in English – can be spotted throughout both markets. At the cafeteria, I picked my way through the freshest one I've ever sampled, with its tender white flesh enhanced with just the tiniest dash of soy sauce.
It's hard to over-emphasize the importance of Sapporo to ramen history. When it comes to types of ramen, people usually think of animal or fish-broth mixed with one of three main flavors: soy sauce, salt or miso. Miso ramen originated in Sapporo, and even more incredibly, although it's now a nationwide phenomenon, it was only born in the 1950s!
According to Hideo Omiya, the story begins with his father Morito, who founded a ramen store in 1950. Following widespread malnutrition and hunger in the post-war period, Morito was inspired to create a healthy dish that would be leave his customers feeling full. He began experimenting by adding miso to the broth, believing it to be nutritiously beneficial. Sadly, his efforts were not well received; many customers complained about its poor taste. But Morito persisted with his experiments of blending miso into the pork broth. He also added garlic in the belief that its “body warming” properties were good for one's health, and added stir-fried vegetables, such as cabbage, beansprouts and onions.
Morito began searching for the ultimate noodle to match his hearty soup. He collaborated with a local noodle manufacturer to create noodles that would capture the soup. Through this, he developed chijiremen – crimped noodles. These contain a higher level of lye water, which gives them greater elasticity. This enables them to be formed into a thicker noodle and molded into a wavy shape, which in turn enables plenty of soup entrapment with each slurp.
His persistence and passion paid off. By the early 1960s, other ramen stores were adopting this new taste and miso ramen began to spread across the country. In Sapporo, the ramen is often topped with local specialties such as butter and sweetcorn, and you may even spot a crab leg or two.
I sampled a bowl at the pioneer store where I was told that the broth is still being tweaked and refined. Just as promised, it was warming and satisfying. The soup was full-bodied and oily with a surprisingly mild miso flavor accentuated by the generous garlic. The noodles were glorious – thick and springy they scooped up the broth and brought the entire dish into one harmonious eating experience. One tip I received – as the miso settles at the bottom, it's best to lift the noodles from the bottom of the bowl to help mix up the broth.
We all know the classic line “Oh, I'm so full! ...Dessert? Oh, well I might still have space...” In Japan, there's a special word for this – betsubara, which translates as separate stomach. And, as it happens, Sapporo is a place where you're going to need at least one more stomach.
Hokkaido produces the greatest amount of dairy in the country, accounting for over half of Japan's raw milk production and 85% of its butter. All of this glorious milk joins forces with sugar to make some fantastic sweets. One noticeable example in Sapporo is freshly baked custard tarts. Although plain egg flavor is by far the most common, I was tempted by one containing haskap or honeyberry, a berry cultivated almost exclusively in Hokkaido within Japan, and which have an exquisite flavor. I also devoured a chocolate tart and was impressed by its gooey rich depths – quite a contrast from lighter cakes popular in Japan.
Hokkaido milk is renowned for its thick and creamy taste, and that's what makes it universally popular, says Yuko Tanaka, who founded a cheesecake store in Sapporo in 1993. She's seen many new dessert crazes sweep across the city, with a tiramisu trend submitting to a soufflé season, and so on.
Cheesecakes seem to be enduringly popular, as Hokkaido produces the majority of Japan's natural cheese (although quantities remain low and so imports are not uncommon). I avoided the dilemma of “which flavor should I pick” by tucking into a tasting set, replete with coffee to rouse me from any sugar-induced coma. Particularly noteworthy was the store's own creation “sour cheesecake” that had enough tang to perfectly balance the sweet, and a succulent raisin to add an extra flavor kick. Also in my tasting selection was a light, creamy and frankly addictive mascarpone ice-cream. Cheese ice-cream is fairly common across Sapporo, but many stores advertise fresh milk soft cream as a perfect way to appreciate the truly rich flavor of Hokkaido milk.
To end on a sweet note, there's an even crazier trend spreading across the city. Night-time parfait parlors open until 2am or later. As one Sapporo local told me, parfait is the new post-drinking ramen. Yet – when there's so much good miso ramen on offer – I say it's time to invoke that saying of betsubara. Get both.
Text and photos: Phoebe Amoroso
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