Hokkaido is the largest of the four main islands that make up Japan. Because of its size, it is divided into various regions with different culinary characteristics. In this article, we explore the diverse regions of Hokkaido and the cuisine that each region proudly calls its own.
Natural Features and Industry of Hokkaido
Hokkaido, home of the indigenous Ainu people and is the northernmost island of Japan, surrounded by the Sea of Japan, the Pacific Ocean, and the Sea of Okhotsk. It occupies more than 20% of Japan's total land area.
Hokkaido is divided into four major regions: Northern Hokkaido, Eastern Hokkaido, Central Hokkaido, and Southern Hokkaido. Hokkaido is blessed with a natural environment in which about 70% of the land is forested and half is mountainous.
Because it is located in the north of Japan, the temperature is cool all year round, but there is a large temperature variance, sometimes as much as 20 degrees in one day. In addition, due to the size of the land mass, there are temperature differences even within provinces. Hokkaido has no rainy season, the area is not easily affected by typhoons, and there is a long period of snowfall, lasting about six months.
Another major feature is that there are many animals that can only be found in Hokkaido, such as the red fox and the Ezo deer. There are also many animals that are designated as special natural monuments or endangered species.
Hokkaido is also home to the largest number of hot springs in Japan. The oldest hot spring is the Chonai Hot Spring, which was discovered in 1247.
In terms of industry, agriculture, such as potatoes and wheat and dairy farming flourish. Surrounded by the sea, the fishing industry is also very active, making Hokkaido famous for its seafood.
Fusion of Ainu and Immigrant Food Cultures
Hokkaido's food is characterized by a true fusion of food cultures between the indigenous Ainu people and immigrants who later settled in the area. Because of this, many of the foods of Hokkaido have their roots in the food culture of the Ainu people.
The Ainu people had strong ties with their food, and this can be seen in the many dishes that have remnants of the Ainu language in their names. For example, there is "ohau," meaning "hot soup," and "latashikepu," meaning "to mix". Even for the Japanese, unless they are familiar with the Ainu language, it is often difficult to imagine what kind of food these Ainu inspired dishes are.
Specialty Products of Hokkaido
There are many specialty products that Hokkaido lays claim to. First of these are the fruits of the sea including crab, sea urchin, salmon, scallops and konbu, all of which are particularly of high quality. These foods are excellent when eaten raw as sashimi, but there are many other ways to enjoy them. Kombu is plentiful in umami, and is a taste enhancer in many Japanese foods, often appearing as a broth or "dashi" in a variety of dishes. Seafood shabu-shabu, where raw crabs and fish are dipped in a hot broth, is also recommended.
Next, we must not forget about vegetables. It has always been difficult to develop farm crops in the cool climate of Hokkaido. Learning from agricultural expertise of Europe and the United States, Hokkaido succeeded in preparing the land for farming. Incidentally, Hokkaido is now known as Japan's "vegetable powerhouse," growing an abundance of vegetables. Potatoes are particularly plentiful, but carrots, onions and corn are also harvested. These vegetables appear in all kinds of dishes, but are also delicious eaten raw on their own. Because they are grown in nutrient-rich soil, they are packed with a natural sweetness that has come to be expected of Hokkaido produced vegetables.
In addition to seafood and vegetables, many grains are also harvested. Hokkaido has one of the highest harvests of rice, a staple food in Japan's food culture, as well as red beans and wheat.
Because of the size of Hokkaido, there are several regions within the prefecture and each region has its own unique cuisine. We now turn to Hokkaido's local cuisine by region.
Famous Dishes of Central Hokkaido
The central region of Hokkaido includes Sapporo, the largest city in Hokkaido. In addition to Sapporo, Ishikari, Otaru, and Hidaka are also cities in the central region. Here are a few popular dishes that are loved in this area.
Sweet Red Rice
The first dish is sweet sekihan (red rice), unique to the central Hokkaido region where rice cultivation thrives. In Japan, "sekihan" is a dish that is eaten at celebratory occasions. Since ancient times, people in Japan have believed that the color red is a color that purges evil. Although unsweetened sekihan made by steaming glutinous rice and azuki beans is common, sekihan in the central Hokkaido region is sweet. Where does this sweetness come from? The secret is "sweet natto" or amatto, which is a Japanese sweet made from candied beans. Instead of steaming glutinous rice and red beans, sweet red beans are mixed with red colored rice, accomplished with food coloring, to make sweet red rice.
Ishikari-nabe is a dish of salmon or trout simmered in a pot with lots of vegetables and seasoned with miso. Sometimes salmon roe is added on top. Originally, fishermen in the central Hokkaido area cut up the salmon they caught and put them in miso soup. It is now known not only in the central Hokkaido region, but also as one of the most popular dishes in Hokkaido.
Genghis Khan is a dish of grilled mutton and vegetables. There are two types of meat: lamb and mutton. Lamb is said to be less peculiar and easier to eat. In Japan, sheep have been raised since the Meiji era for wool production. Hokkaido, in particular, has been raising a large number of sheep since the early Showa period. Because of this, lamb has become a common food in Hokkaido. The flavor of the sauce varies from store to store, so it is fun to taste and compare.
Famous Dishes of the Northern Hokkaido
The northern part of Hokkaido, facing the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk, is a region with many fishing towns. Asahikawa, Furano, Wakkanai and Rumoi cities are located in this region.
Teppo-jiru is a popular dish in the northern part of Hokkaido, especially in Edasuki-cho, which is known as the town with the best hairy crab in Japan. Teppo-jiru is a miso soup with crab. It is called "Teppo-jiru", roughly translated as "gun soup", is because of the resemblance between the way the meat in the crab legs are removed with chopsticks and the way a gun is loaded. It is known as a fisherman's dish that warms the body and soul.
Famous Dishes of the Southern Hokkaido
The southern region of Hokkaido receives relatively little snowfall. As a result, it is possible to start growing crops earlier than in other regions. There is a wide variety of crops grown in the area, which include the cities of Hakodate, Matsumae and Okushiri.
Matsumae-zuke is a dish made by marinating squid, kelp, and baby sardines in soy sauce. It has been made as a preserved food since ancient times. It is sometimes made with octopus or shellfish and is a dish that goes well with both white rice and sake.
Ika-meshi is a dish of squid stuffed with glutinous rice before cooking and seasoned with soy sauce. The glutinous rice absorbs the broth well and produces a rich flavor. The chewy squid goes well with the sticky texture of the glutinous rice. Ika-meshi also finds its way in bento boxes sold at train stations, endearingly called ekiben. There is a theory that this meal was created to satisfy people's hunger during a time when rice was scarce.
Sanpei-jiru is a soup made from salmon or herring marinated in salt or bran. Many vegetables are also added. The soup is based on kombu dashi (kelp soup stock) and the fish bones are boiled together to add umami.
Famous Dishes of the Eastern Hokkaido
The East Hokkaido region is home to Shiretoko, which is registered as a World Natural Heritage site. It is a region rich in nature and beautiful lakes, represented by Lake Mashu. Field crops and dairy farming flourish in this region, which is home to the cities of Kushiro, Obihiro and Kitami.
East Hokkaido boasts several of Hokkaido's signature dishes.
Pork rice bowl
Pork rice bowl is a dish of grilled pork with sauce and topped with rice. In the early Showa period (1926-1989), a restaurant started selling this dish in order to provide people with a menu unique to this region. The reason why pork bowls became "typical of this region" can be found in the pioneering days of the Doto region. When the activities to develop the East Hokkaido region started, they also started raising pigs. At first, there were only four pigs, but gradually pig farming spread and became a representative industry of the region. As a result, the pork bowl has become a symbolic dish of Doto.
Zangi is a dish made by seasoning chicken with soy sauce and other ingredients, dusting it with flour and deep-frying. The name "zangi" is said to be derived from the Chinese word for "fried chicken", "zhazi". The chicken is well seasoned and makes a great side dish for rice. It is the soul food of Hokkaido.
Treasure Trove of Gourmet Foods
Hokkaido has a diverse food culture that colors each of its four regions. There are many delicious ingredients such as seafood, pork and vegetables, and each dish introduced here draws out the textures and tastes of these dishes to their full potential. When you visit Hokkaido, be sure to try as many of these foods as you can!