We spent two weeks in Hokkaido and Tokyo, and it was an amazing and much needed break from the ups and downs of the past year. I’m quite in love with Japan as a whole – for one, thanks to the infamous toilet seats, my ass has never been as clean as it was during those two weeks...
Anyway, on to the food in Japan. Wow, where to start? We (perhaps unfairly) expected to be blown away with every meal, but while that didn’t happen, we certainly did have some very memorable meals, and came away with some interesting observations about our own gastronomic preferences.
Hokkaido is supposed to be famous for their donburi – raw seafood on rice, particularly at the Hakodate morning market. Maybe we went to the wrong stall, but we were quite underwhelmed with the dons that we had. Trust me when I say that they look better than they tasted. The rice was pretty mushy, and the uni on mine was nothing like the uni I subsequently had at other sushi joints. We’ve generally concluded that we much preferred the sushi that we had compared to the donburi.
Surprisingly, although we tried Fujizushi and Sushi Zen, which had been recommended to us, the best sushi we had in Hokkaido was actually in a random, no-brand one man show that, ironically, we popped into thinking it was another recommended place (Masazushi). We ordered by pointing at sketches of sushi sets on the menu, but what ensued was some of the freshest and most delicious sushi we had on the entire trip. Just goes to show that sometimes, the best meals are the most unplanned ones.
We saved our ramen feasting for Sapporo, where they have both a Ramen Alley and a Ramen Republic, located at the 10th floor of The Stellar shopping centre. Ramen Alley is in a slightly seedier part of town, and we were advised that the standard at Ramen Republic is so good that for sheer convenience, we needn’t venture to Ramen Alley.
We ate at Ramen Republic twice (in 2 days, which made us quite ramen-ed out for a few days after). The first stall was, in my opinion, the better of the two, and it was only after we sat down and ordered did we realise that ironically, they have a branch in Singapore! It’s Baikohken, at North Canal Road. Looks like a visit to the Singapore outlet is on the cards.
I ordered the miso ramen with corn and butter, since both corn and butter are speciality products of Hokkaido. Wow. This got jelak pretty quickly, but that first mouthful, with the richness of the butter dissolved into the miso soup, was sheer heaven. A had something with roasted sesame but it was nowhere as delicious (and artery-clogging) as mine.
Squid is apparently another speciality of Hokkaido, and man did we take that to heart. We ordered grilled squid at almost every meal there, and none of them disappointed. From the teriyaki glazed one at Hakodate Beer Hall, to the salt-grilled simplicity of the one at Raku Izakaya at Hirafu (the ski resort town), the squid was consistently one of the best parts of every meal – huge, fat and succulent, and cooked to perfection so it was still tender, without a hint of chewiness.
Our yakitori meal at Hirafu qualifies as one of the best meals of the trip. There are 2 sister yakitori restaurants – Izakaya Bang Bang, and the newly opened Bang2. Both menus looked similar but because Bang2 seemed to have a wider selection of skewers, we went with Bang2.
There was maybe one miss – the octopus skewer that was a tad tough. Everything else was fabulous. Worth mentioning are the 3 items that we ordered off the Specials board – the venison skewer (full of flavour and not at all gamey), the grilled fatty smoked salmon rib/belly (which had chargrilled flavour coupled with the smokey flavour of smoked salmon), and the grilled Caciocavallo, an Italian cheese, which was served with honey.
Another specialty of Hokkaido (by way of Mongolia, I suppose) is Genghis Khan, so named because the hot plate on which it’s served resembles Genghis Khan’s helmet. Our first meal of this was in a random little food court stall in Otaru, into which we had ducked to take refuge from the cold, but we had a far superior one at Daruma in Sapporo.
It was quite a challenge trying to find it, since most restaurants and buildings don’t have English signs, and I’d forgotten to take down the Japanese characters for the name. After asking multiple people, who gave us general directions amounting to “it’s down that road” in Japanese, we met a nice old man who asked us to follow him, and led us right to Daruma.
The drama didn’t end there; it was a Saturday night, and evidently Daruma is popular with the locals too, cos we had to wait outside for about 15 to 20 minutes before we could go in. Indoors is a no-frills U-shaped counter that seats no more than 15, surrounding the 3 very capable lady bosses who run a very efficient show.
First, the dome-shaped charcoal-fired hot plate is greased with a hunk of lamb fat. They’re certainly not shy with the fat here – they changed our fat a total of three times over the course of the meal, long before each chunk had time to render down. Next, vegetables ranging from onions and leeks to bean sprouts are piled into the base of the plate. A plate of various cuts of lamb is placed in front of you together with a bowl of dipping sauce, and away you go. Rice is optional but in my opinion, it serves as a great complement to the oily meat.
What distinguished Daruma from the other random generic Genghis Khan we had was the freshness and tenderness of their lamb, but more importantly, their dipping sauce. I have no idea what went into it but it added a perfect balance of tart sweetness to the savoury grilled meat. Our clothes reeked of grilled lamb for days after, but I think it was worth it.
The Japanese seem to have an obsession with all things French, and the best evidence of this is in their pastries and desserts. They’ve somehow succeeded in taking classic sweets like cream puffs, éclairs, fruit tarts and cheesecakes, and adding a typically Japanese delicate touch. The result, at the risk of being lynched by the French, is much lighter, easier-to-eat pastries that don’t weigh a ton in the stomach.
The one thing that Hakodate had going for it was pastry shop Snaffles, which is famous for their light cheese cakes that almost seem to be a cross between cheese cake and souffle. We tried both the cheese cake and the cream puff – both were absolutely divine.
Otaru is another good place if you have a sweet tooth. It’s home to LeTao, a local chocolate and dessert institution, as well as other pastry shops like Kitakaro and Rokkatei, each specialising in different types of pastries. One day definitely wasn’t enough time for us to sample everything.
Department store food halls, usually located in the basement shouldn’t be ignored either, as they’re home to fabulous stalls, each specialising in a different type of dessert. A had one of the best éclairs he’s had in years – chocolate coated choux pastry filled with fresh Chantilly cream – from a stall called Umeya in the Esta department store food hall.
For Japanese snack junkies like me, almost every convenience store or souvenir shop in Hokkaido was like being a kid in a candy store. Imagine Meidi-Ya or Isetan, many times over. The Japanese are very proud of their local ingredients, so in each region, there are abundant versions of snacks showcasing that region’s speciality produce. From corn and melon Kitkats, to Camembert cheese Collon, to uni-flavoured crackers, I really didn’t know where to start.
The corn Kitkat came in white chocolate, and the melon in milk chocolate. Both were good but I prefer the corn. It’s much more distinctive, and tastes a little like the sweetcorn ice cream from old school ice cream carts.
Another Hokkaido staple is the Shiri Koiboito chocolates – wafer-thin langue de chat (cat’s tongue) cookies, with either white or milk chocolate sandwiched in between. Made with Hokkaido fresh milk that’s so rich and sweet, the chocolate is sweet but not cloying. No one leaves Hokkaido without boxes of these as souvenirs.
One of my favourite snacks from the trip is Jaga Pokkuru, from the brand Potato Farm. Made with Hokkaido premium potatoes, which again are a local speciality of which they’re immensely proud, these are like a cross between potato chips and French fries. Perfectly seasoned with roasted salt from the Okhotsk region, these rely on nothing but the flavour of the potatoes and that’s what makes it so utterly addictive. They’re so popular that there was a shortage in Hakodate, and at the New Chitose airport in Sapporo, travellers are limited to 3 boxes per person.
Soft-serve ice cream (made with, of course, Hokkaido fresh milk) is everywhere, and not all of them are fantastic. More often than not, though, they’re pretty good and the best one we had was at the 2nd floor cafe of Rokkatei pastry shop in Otaru. The ice cream was creamy, really fine, and was served with 2 delicious dark chocolate cookies.
What can I say? It seems like we’ve only just scratched the surface with food in Hokkaido. The eastern part of the island, like Furano and Asahikawa, are apparently gourmet towns during the spring/summer. I think it just means we have to make another trip here in future.
Hakodate – Dons at the morning market were very disappointing. The must-try in this city is the chain of Snaffles cafes for fantastic desserts.
Niseko/Hirafu – Bang2 provided the best meal of the trip, highlighted by an amazing deep fried cheese. Skip the semi-swanky sushi restaurant at the base of the hill (Fujizushi). All I tasted was wasabi.
Otaru – Amazing place for sushi and desserts. Visit the sushi street if you can find it, and the dessert joints in the touristy colonial stretch (a few blocks west of the canals).
Sapporo – Best éclair I’ve ever had in my life was from the basement department store in Esta. In fact, Esta had one of the best department store basements of our entire trip.