We may be cooped up at home, but our mind can still travel. To explore the nation of foodies that is Japan, what better way than to embark on a gastronomical journey, traversing geography via the palette of local dishes. Virtual chopsticks at the ready?
HOKKAIDO: Healthy Soup Curry
In the north of Japan, on some April nights it’s still cold enough for water to freeze. So, when the stomach starts to rumble, you’ll want something hearty.
Japan’s northernmost isle is often praised for its fresh seafood, slurp-ready ramen, and wholesome farm produce. It’s also the birthplace of the domestic beer industry. The now ubiquitous Hokkaido Soup Curry, however, is a recent addition.
The dish was created around the 1970s by a Sapporo city eatery that used to specialize in Chinese-style medicinal chicken soup and rich, roux-thickened curries. One day, the chef decided to mix the two dishes and the rest is history.
The evolution gave rise to a lightly-flavored curry soup, refreshing yet potent. Its base was chicken-bone stock, prepared in the Cantonese fashion. The roux thickened the liquid and additional spices, like curry powder, garam masala and others, added a sensory context to tickle the tongue.
As the novel soup quickly gained traction among local chefs, who filled the dish with a kaleidoscope of Hokkaido-grown vegetables. In came chunks of potatoes, carrots, bell peppers, and eggplants. Some dressed it with okra or pumpkin squash. All the vegetables were prepared with a quick, non-batter, deep-fry technique known as su-age to accentuate the taste.
The crunch of vegetables combined with a hot, slightly spicy soup – and perhaps, a side car of rice – became a new favorite at Sapporo’s diners on a chilly evening.
TOKYO: Michelin-starred Restaurants to Unpretentious Skewers
Any delicatessen the mind (and stomach) can imagine can almost certainly be found in the world’s largest metropolis. You most likely heard about Tsukiji, once site of the world’s top wholesale fish market. The market itself moved to a more remote location in 2019, but it left behind an area known as Tsukiji Outer Market – a grid of narrow alleys and ramshackle shops that still house more than 300 diners and restaurants. This remains a perfect place to let a fresh cut of fatty tuna laid out of a sliver of rice glide down your throat.
There is more to Tokyo than sushi, however, and our journey would not be complete without a few more pit stops.
First up is a dash through Tokyo Ramen Street, a set of alleys right beneath Tokyo Station, which hosts more than 100 different gourmet spots. You may need to line up for quite a while as some eateries seat only a dozen at a time. Before you consider escaping to mind the gap elsewhere, the pungent waft of ramen soup, odd at first but frustratingly addictive, will have your feet bolted to the floor.
For more smaller, simpler bites, head over to one of Tokyo’s downtown business districts and pick a yakitori diner. These places specialize in chicken skewers, yet they offer oh so much more. Sizzling bacon wrapped around a tomato. Cheese melting through light batter. Crunchy lotus root with baked-in minced meat. Tender wings. All charcoal grilled. All seasoned with sweet-and-salty soy sauce, or just salt. And all begging for the accompaniment of a cold lemon sour.
Some say yakitori is the quintessential Japanese soul food. But, try telling that to a person from Osaka.
OSAKA: Quirky Fast Food
If you had to choose that special ingredient to drop into a dollop of seasoned batter, which is grilled in the form of a ping pong ball, you might not immediately pick octopus. Yet this is the “tako” (Japanese for octopus) in the dumpling dish that swept to massive popularity in Osaka and the surrounding Kansai region during the first half of the 20th century.
The puff is made up of diced octopus, scraps of tempura, a smidgen of pickled ginger and the liberal use of chopped green onion. It’s usually sold in lots of 6 or more, varnished with a brown sauce similar to UK’s Worcestershire sauce, and sprinkled with dried bonito flakes. As the dish is often sold by street venders and at local festivals, it’s considered a fast food – especially if you flood it with mayonnaise.
“Octopus balls,” as many now call it, can now be made at home with a special grill mold, or bought at supermarkets throughout the nation. Osakans, though, will tell you that no one makes their food like quite they do. The old merchant capital of Japan likes its food fast, quirky, cheap and piping hot. Just like the local character, some might say.
KUMAMOTO: Finely Balanced Ramen
Before we exhaust your saliva, spare a few minutes to virtually devour a local specialty from southern Japan. Ramen noodles are a popular staple all over the country, yet each area tries to re-invent the duplicitously simple dish as their own. Kumamoto prefecture is no different.
Famous for both an impregnable medieval castle and one of the cuddliest mascots in all of Japan (Hi Kumamon!), you could say that Kumamoto’s personality combines a gruff and resolute exterior with a soft, genuine heart. So, it comes as no surprise that its ramen style embodies the dichotomy. Thicker, stronger noodles sit in a soup that uses a blend of boiled pork bone (tonkotsu) and chicken stock to create a milder broth.
Along with the traditional braised pork belly, Kumamoto ramen favors brown seaweed and rubbery, almost-chewy wood ear mushrooms. Add garlic chips and garlic-infused oil, mixed in without any of that herb’s sharp taste, and you’re set for total taste-bud saturation.
Don’t tell anyone, but it’s also great as a hangover cure. In case you’re having one of those gruff, resolute Kumamoto mornings.
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About the author
Yzman is the pen name of a British writer, who has lived in Japan for long enough to know better, but too long to remember what this refers to. He bows when talking on the phone, makes peace signs in photos, and talks about himself in the third person.