When Australians think of dining in Japan, we tend to drift towards the labyrinthian lanes of hole-in-the-wall eateries around Shinjuku, quick tempura in the backstreets of Ginza and, well, sushi in Tsukiji. But beyond the bustle, Japan’s regional towns and cities have much in the way of specific delicacies to offer. We talked to Hokkaido-born chef Kenji Maenaka, head chef at Izakaya Fujiyama in Sydney, about some of his favourite regional dishes from across the country.
Legend has it that ramen, the umami-rich noodle soup now ubiquitous in Australian cities, arrived in Japan from China in the 19th-century. Since then, regional variations have evolved around the country.
“In Hokkaido, there are different types of speciality flavours,” says Maenaka. Sapporo, Hokkaido’s largest city, is particularly famous for its miso ramen, a hearty broth perfect for its icy northern winters. Miso ramen is said to have originated in Ganso Sapporo Ramen Yokocho, Sapporo’s “ramen alley”. Today, more than a dozen ramen restaurants line the laneway, a short walk from Susukino Station.
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Asahikawa, a city in central Hokkaido, is famous for shoyu (soy sauce) ramen, while Hakodate, a southern port city that looks across Tsugaru Strait to the main Japanese island of Honshu, is best known for shio (salt) ramen, a light, clear soup with straight noodles. Maenaka’s favourite? Shodai Yashiro, a family-friendly restaurant in Hakuto. “The ramen there is the best in Hokkaido,” he says.
A relatively sparsely populated island by Japanese standards, Hokkaido is also famous for its seafood. Sea urchin and crab are among the most common catches, while premium tuna is caught in the waters between Hokkaido and Honshu. “The price can be as high at thirty or forty grand (AUD) for one fish,” says Maenaka.
Fish markets filled with high-quality, freshly caught seafood are dotted throughout Hokkaido’s cities. Hakodate Asaichi, or morning market, is famous for its live squid, which is popular when served as sashimi. Otaru, a small city close to Sapporo considered Hokkaido’s seafood capital, boasts no fewer than nine seafood markets, including the harbourside Rinyu Asaichi. Sapporo’s Nijo Market is known for its delicious kaisen-don, a rice bowl topped with ikura (salmon roe), ika (squid), uni (sea urchin), and hotate (scallops).
Maenaka says one the best places for Japanese street food is Osaka and the surrounding Kansai region. One of the most celebrated street food dishes there is takoyaki, balls of batter filled with pieces of octopus, pickled ginger and green onion, which are grilled in a special pan and served with takoyaki sauce, mayonnaise and a sprinkling of bonito flakes. Another favourite is okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake typically made with shredded cabbage and a variety of other ingredients. Visitors to Osaka will find hundreds of stalls serving takoyaki, okonomiyaki and more at Dotonbori, a bustling street near Namba Station.
Meat – and a warning on double-dipping
Another Osaka suburb famous for its food is Shinsekai, located in the city’s south. Local specialities include doteyaki (beef tendons stewed in miso and mirin) and kushikatsu (deep-fried skewers of breaded meat, seafood or vegetables). A word of warning about kushikatsu etiquette: double-dipping in the communal sauce provided at each table is a definite no-no.
Maenaka says the cold winters, mild summers and verdant landscape of Hokkaido make for an environment quite similar to New Zealand’s. And like New Zealand, the region is famous for its lamb.
Sheep were brought to Hokkaido in the 1850s as part of the government’s effort to help open up trade with the West. “Today only people in Hokkaido and Okinawa, in the south, eat lamb,” says Maenaka.
The island’s premier lamb dish is jingisukan, or ‘Genghis Khan’. Named in honour of Mongolian soldiers’ supposed love of lamb, it was first served in a Sapporo restaurant in 1936. The dish, consisting of barbecued strips of marinated lamb served with vegetables, has since become the comfort food of choice for Hokkaido locals.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Japan National Tourism Organization.