Traveling to a country and not experiencing its culinary habits it is almost like not having set your foot there. Food reveals a lot about culture, habits and etiquette of a people. Even if you do not like a cuisine you should try it, at least to have an idea what is this about.
I must admit that Japanese food is not really for me. It is not that I do not find things to like or I will starve to death while in Japan, but I would not choose to eat Japanese while not in Japan.
I am one of those persons, though, willing to try almost anything, and while in Hokkaido I tried most of the local delicacies.
There are some myths about food of Hokkaido. When you read an article or a travel guide about the area, they tell you that the island is the paradise of fresh and desirous food. They tell you about the plethora of fresh food and vegetables and the unmatched quality of its dairy products. Ok, I do not know if you live in Antarctica or the Sahara desert, but I live in the Mediterranean where fresh vegetables and fruit are abundant all year round, I live in Greece where yogurt is considered the best in the world and I live in Europe where you can a try a different type of cheese every day of your life and still there will be many left which you haven’t try.
So, yes fruit in Hokkaido is good, but it is ridiculous to pay tens of euros for a small melon or 100gr of a soft creamy cheese. If you really like cheese, you will not find anything interesting at all in Japan…proceed to the next country! What really makes sense though, is the quality of cheesecake you find in Hokkaido; as I will describe later in this article, I think I never had any tastier desert in my life than the double cream cheesecake!
This article is not supposed to cover Japanese cuisine, not even a small portion of it. I will not write about sushi and teriyaki, for example. I will just refer some of the food I had in Hokkaido, which I believe it is worth mentioning and analyze further.
Part A: Savory food
Ramen, which translates as "pulled noodles", is a dish that consists of Chinese wheat noodles served in a meat or (occasionally) fish-based broth, flavored with soy sauce or miso, and topped with a variety of ingredients. There are two Japanese cities synonymous with ramen, Fukuoka and Sapporo, the former is famed for its tonkotsu pork broth ramen and Sapporo for its miso-based ramen.
In general, besides the big variety of ramen, there are three basic ramen dishes one can slurp in almost every part of Japan: miso ramen middle), soy sauce ramen (right) and salt-flavored ramen (left).
The first ramen to become popular in the city of Sapporo was served at a Chinese restaurant, called Takeka Shokudo in 1922. It was a Chinese dish adapted to Japanese tastes. Inspired by its success coffee shops and canteens across the city also began serving ramen.
By the time the Sino-Japanese war ended in 1937 a ramen culture had already developed, based on a chicken broth with seafood. Takeka florished, but the food shortages of World War II saw it go bankrupt, never to reopen.
The modern incarnation of Sapporo ramen began in the aftermath of WW II at a street vendor's stall towards the end of 1947. Business was brisk and soon many ramen stalls started serving ramen. The standard soup at the time was broth made from pork bones and flavored with shoyu (soy sauce). Among those ramen vendors was the popular “Darumaken stall” run by Nishiyama Senji, an accomplished noodle maker who trained in Chinese cuisine before the war. As Darumaken began supplying other shops with noodles, work increased and Nishiyama Takayuki, a dependable assistant, was brought in to help.
Thanks to Takayuki's hard work, Darumaken's noodle making section expanded and in 1953 that side of business was passed on to him by Senji prompting the establishment of Nishiyama Seimenjo (currently Nishiyama Seimen).
Soy sauce ramen.
Miso ramen, a Sapporo speciality.
Meanwhile at the Ajino Sanpei ramen shop, Omiya Morita was the first to introduce miso ramen to the menu, around 1954. The new miso-flavored ramen topped with plenty of vegetables soon became extremely popular. The noodles for this miso ramen, which even now continue to be the type used for Sapporo ramen, were developed by Takayuki. These noodles contained raw eggs and were yellow in color. The high water-content maturing technique produced a firm chewy texture. These medium-thick noodles went perfectly with the soup. The standard Sapporo ramen made around this time was a tonkotsu and vegetable-based soup, slowly stewed to produce a rich broth.
The image of "Sapporo the ramen town" became established as a result of an article by Hanamori Yasuji published in the magazine Kurashi-no-Techo (the lifestyle handbook) over which he presided. Hanamori lauded the miso ramen he ate at Ajino, prompting the shop to be subsequently inundated with tourists. When the other shops saw the success of Ajino Sanpei, they decided to put miso ramen on their menus, and approached Takayuki, asking him to sell them the noodles or teach them how to make the soup. As a result, the popularity of miso ramen was quickly spread throughout Sapporo.
The "ramen alley" in Sapporo downtown today.
The forerunner to Ramen Alley was the “Koraku Ramen Shop Street”, which existed from 1951 to'69. The street then comprised of 7 shops and did a roaring trade. The high row of shops was demolished and replaced by the “Original Ramen Alley” in 1971, and a separate “New Ramen Alley” was established in 1976. Both places continue to be popular spots for tourists visiting Sapporo.
From around 1970, Sapporo miso ramen became a popular souvenir for tourists, sold as a package including all the ingredients into separate tight sealed plastic containers. Around 1983 it also became available as one of the Post Office's gift packs, and as the ramen was sent as midsummer and New Year gifts, Nishiyama Seimen noodles were soon known throughout the whole of Japan.
Enter the 1990s, and Japan's local specialty ramen boom had reached Sapporo, prompting the varieties of ramen to suddenly increase. Further developments saw shop owners selling their own original flavors in the era of personalized ramen, and the range of types and varieties of noodles supplied to shops by Nishiyama Seimen became wider.
Now, ramen has become as popular as sushi as a Japanese dish overseas. Nishiyama Seimen currently exports noodles to over a dozen countries, helping to spread the Sapporo ramen food culture around the world.
Today, most people in Japan and abroad associate Sapporo with its rich miso ramen, which uses seabura back fat and lard, ideal ingredients for Hokkaido's harsh, snowy winters. Sapporo miso ramen is typically topped with sweetcorn, butter, bean sprouts, finely chopped pork, and garlic, and sometimes local seafood such as scallop, squid, and crab. Hakodate, another city of Hokkaido, is famous for its salt flavored ramen, while Asahikawa in the north of the island offers a soy sauce-flavored variation. In Muroran, many ramen restaurants offer “Muroran curry ramen”.
Well, all these are very nice to read, but what is my verdict?
No, thank you! This dish is not for me.
More ramen flavors.
Tonkatsu is another Japanese dish that consists of a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet.
It involves cutting the pig's meat into 2-3 centimeter thick slices, coating with bread crumbs, frying them in oil, and then serving with a thick brown sauce called tonkatsu sauce or simply sōsu (sauce), rice, shredded cabbage and perhaps karashi (mustard) and a slice of lemon. Miso soup usually accompanies the tonkatsu.
The word tonkatsu is a combination of the ton (pig) and katsu, which is a shortened form of katsuretsu, the transliteration of the English word cutlet (French côtelette).
Tonkatsu originated in Japan in the 19th century. Early katsuretsu was usually beef; the pork version was invented in Japan in 1899 at a restaurant called Rengatei in Tokyo. It was originally called katsuretsu or simply katsu. The name 'Tonkatsu' was only used after 1959.
In addition to being served as a single dish, it is used as a sandwich filling (katsu sando) or served on Japanese curry (katsu karē). Tonkatsu is sometimes served with egg on a big bowl of rice as katsudon.
Japanese curry (katsu karē)
Several variations of tonkatsu use alternatives to pork: Tori katsu, which uses chicken instead of pork; Hamu katsu, made from ham; Gyū katsu (beef katsu), also known as bīfu katsu.
A similar dish with ingredients other than pork, beef, or chicken is called furai (the transliteration of the English word cutlet "fry"), not katsu (cutlet), such as aji-furai (fried horse mackerel) and ebi-furai (fried prawn).
And the final verdict?
Most probably the best food one can have in Japan.
I had it several times during my stay in Hokkaido.
Ebi-furai (fried prawn)
If you’ve only slurped ramen, udon (a type of thick wheat flour noodle) or soba (thin noodles made from buckwheat flour), you’re missing a whole world of umami-rich, Italian-inspired, wafu (Japanese-style) pasta perfection. “Wafu” refers to something that’s done in the “Japanese style,” and can apply to almost anything from food to everyday appliances.
Wafu spaghetti with shrimps and avocado.
But what does exactly means wafu spaghetti? It’s a whole category of various spaghetti dishes that are nudged with umami-laden soy sauce or butter emulsions, replace Parmesan with seaweed, or swap out basil for strips of verdant shiso. Wafu spaghetti is mostly seen as a pseudo-junk food, a comfort snack beloved by ravenous teenagers. A wafu spaghetti shop tends to look more like a diner than a trattoria, with solo eaters lined up at a counter, hunched over steaming piles of noodles served with chopsticks for easier slurping.
Italian pasta was introduced to Japan during the Edo period, but spaghetti found its way into the mainstream Japanese diet via the US. Besides, this is true for all Italian dishes: they conquered the world via the States not Italy. During the American occupation of Japan, spaghetti featured heavily in military food rations. By the 1960s, the noodles were officially trending, first through menus at local kissaten, and eventually as part of the 1980s “Itameshi Boom” (Itameshi is a combination of the words Italian and meshi, slang for “meal”), which marked Japan’s new obsession with Italian cuisine. Today, it’s easy to find spaghetti in both Italian and Japanese preparations almost anywhere in metropolitan Japan. You should definitely seek it out: as I described in Part I of my Hokkaido adventure, in Sappori I had some of the best Italian spaghetti ever!
Here, a short list of the major styles of wafu spaghetti:
Tarako Spaghetti is the most archetypal style of wafu spaghetti. Hot strands of al dente pasta are tossed with briny pops of tarako (salted pollack roe), butter, and a splash of soy sauce, then garnished with shreds of crackling nori. Tarako spaghetti was born in the Shibuya neighborhood in Tokyo at Kabe no Ana (literally “Hole in the Wall”). It was founded in 1953 by Takayasu Narimatsu, who was introduced to spaghetti by then CIA Far East Secretary Paul Bloom, who hired Narimatsu as a server at diplomatic gatherings where foods from around the world were on display. His was one of the first spaghetti restaurants in Tokyo, and quickly became popular among members of the U.S. military, American expats, and curious locals.
Ankake Spaghetti is onsidered a regional delicacy of Nagoya. It is an adaptation of spaghetti Bolognese, and a direct product of the 1980s swell in popularity of Italian food. The “an” refers to a lush gravy used in Japanese-influenced Chinese cooking, made by thickening a broth with potato or cornstarch. In ankake spaghetti, this gravy is made with a tangy tomato base liberally spiced with white pepper and comes with a variety of toppings including deep-fried panko-breaded prawns, mixed vegetables, and meats like sausage and bacon. The spaghetti itself is usually boiled slightly past the point of al dente, its softer, slightly swollen texture meant to mimic Asian noodles like yakisoba.
Napolitan spaghetti is said to have been invented at the Hotel New Grand in Yokohama where General Douglas MacArthur stayed during the US occupation. With limited supplies due to wartime shortages, hotel chef Shigetada Irie concocted the first napolitan spaghetti using what he had (canned tomato paste, spaghetti, garlic, bacon, and canned mushrooms) to impress his guests. The European-trained chef’s original recipe opted for a more traditional tomato puree, but as a ration staple, ketchup was more accessible and has since become one of the dish’s signature ingredients. The classic version sports mushrooms, green peppers, onions, and Japanese-style wieners, and ham or bacon, which are sautéed in butter or olive oil, and tossed with spaghetti and ketchup. This vibrant red nest of pasta is often served with a green canister of grated Parmesan cheese and Tabasco.
These are the most common wafu dishes, but of course, the list of the wafu spaghetti is limited only by the imagination of the chef:
Uni Pasta (sea urchin pasta) is also delightfully simple, but the fresh ingredients really take over here. It's made with butter, cream and fresh sea urchin roe and often topped with nori seaweed. Shirasu pasta is lightly flavored Japanese dish, made with cabbage, shiso leaf, seaweed and baby sardines (tons of tiny fish). Ume (marinated Japanese plum) leaf pasta is generally made with shimeji mushrooms and garnished with small pieces of seaweed. Natto Pasta, in general, is made with natto, onions, some butter, and garnished with shiso leaves and seaweed. Natto is fermented soybeans and is all kinds of healthy. A lot of people might be repelled by the slimy texture and strong smell, but just like blue cheese, it can be an acquired taste.
And the final verdict?
Go for it!!!
More wafu pasta.
Originated in Sapporo, Soup Curry is a light curry flavored soup served with fall-off-the-bone chicken and colorful vegetables that are flash fried to give the vibrant colors. It’s relatively a new addition to the popular Japanese curry scene.
The original soup curry was firstly created by a cafe in Sapporo in the early 70’s. Inspired by a Chinese/Korean medicinal soup and curry from Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India, it was a clever adaptation of all these different influences with local elements in mind. By 2000’s, more specialty shops started popping up everywhere in Sapporo and soup curry became Sapporo’s new signature dish.
The typical soup curry consists of the following: at the heart of the dish is a French-style brown stock, made by boiling beef and pork bones with chicken, onion, ginger, and herbs for more than ten hours (the resulting broth is soupier than traditional Japanese curry, which is typically thickened with flour).
Soup Curry at "Picante Soup Curry" (Japan, 〒001-0013 Hokkaido, Sapporo, Kita Ward, Kita 13 Jonishi, 3 Chome−2, アクロビュー北大前1F).
To this base, chefs add as many as 25 spices, including coriander, cumin, turmeric, curry powder, and black pepper. The fierier the soup, the more healing its properties—or so say its adherents. Then you add a braised chicken leg, which is the star of the bowl and non-battered deep-fried vegetables such as: broccoli, asparagus, eggplants, potatoes, carrots, bell peppers, okra, chilies, lotus, tomato, mushroom, and pumpkin. When you order the soup, you have to select your desired spice level; most restaurants use a 1-to-5 or 1-to-10 scale. Unlike the typical Japanese curry, steamed rice is always served separately. You scoop up the rice and then dip into the soup curry to enjoy together. When you’re almost done with the rice, you transfer the remaining rice into the soup curry and enjoy the last bits together.
With so much vibrancy and comfort that comes with the curry, it is no wonder the locals go wild about it. There’s no better way to keep you through the long winter nights with this restorative dish.
And the verdict? Tasty and hot, but not to die for!
Scenes from Soup Curry restaurants in Toyako (left) and Sapporo (right).
Jingisukan (the Japanese pronunciation of "Genghis Khan") is a Japanese grilled mutton dish prepared on a convex metal skillet or other grill. The dish is particularly popular in Hokkaido.
Time for jingisukan
The dish is rumored to be so named because, in prewar Japan, lamb was widely thought to be the meat of choice among Mongolian soldiers, and the dome-shaped skillet is meant to represent the soldiers' helmets that they purportedly used to cook their food.
In 1918, according to the plan by the Japanese government to increase the flock to one million sheep, five sheep farms were established in Japan. However, all of them were demolished except in Hokkaido. Because of this, Hokkaido's residents began eating the meat from sheep that they sheared for their wool.
There is a dispute over from where the dish originated; candidates include Tokyo, Zaō Onsen, and Tōno. The first jingisukan dedicated restaurant was a Jingisu-sō that opened in Tokyo in 1936.
Usually when you order Jingisukan they offer more than one parts of lamp meat (shoulder, ster loin, and leg loin). Apart from the lamb, the order comes with mixed vegetables which include onion, carrot, paprika, asparagus, pumpkin, and Japanese spring onion. To start off, you have to spread lamb fat all over the pan, and once the pan is hot enough, you start grilling the lamb meat on the curve surface of the pan. Vegetables will be put around the outer ring of the pan and once the oil from the meat melts down, those vegetables will be nicely fried. There are usually two types of seasoning for the Jingisukan, salt and pepper, and soy sauce. Both go along nicely with the taste of lamb, depends on each person preference.
And the verdict?
Messy. Much ado about nothing.
Eating Jingisukan ...what a mess!
While rice and noodles are the longtime staples, Japanese sandwiches are making their limelight in the arena of the culinary scene. From the convenient store’s egg sandwich to the epic Wanpaku sandwich to the nori-wrapped rice sandwich, these sandwiches are no doubt one of the best foods out there!
Sandwiches have a hundred-plus-year history in Japan. In 1899 (Meiji 32), Japanese food company Ofuna-ken began selling a sandwich bento box at Odawara Station in Kanagawa. The establishment’s founder had apparently heard about sandwiches via politician Kuroda Kiyotaka who had traveled to the US and Europe. The result was Ofuna-ken Sandwich, Japan’s first “eki-ben sandoicchi” or “sandwich box lunch that’s sold at train stations”. This wasn’t the first sando made in Japan. Since the Americans forced open the country in the 1850s, Western-style restaurants, bars and hotels started sprouting up in Yokohama, Tokyo, Osaka, and Kobe. These establishments, however, were aimed at foreigners.
Soba noodles and Hamu katsu sandwich (left) Teriyaki chicken and egg sandwich (right).
Any sandwich expert would agree that the Japanese sandwiches are more than just a grab-and-go food, but an art form itself. I think it owes a lot to the Japanese sensibility and creativity for food. Some of the prescribed strategies? The magical juxtaposition of ingredients, visual aesthetic and precise cutting of the sandwich.
Japanese sandwiches are made almost exclusively with white soft bread.
While in Hokkaido, it was very often I had a sandwich for dinner or just a midday snack. Even though I had sandwiches in cafés and other eateries, it was my neighborhood’s Lawson convenience store that supplied me with the best soba noodles, egg and tonkatsu (katsu sando) sandwiches ever!
The art of sandwich.
Here are some of the best Japanese sandwiches you can taste or make yourself at home:
👍Japanese Egg Sandwich (or Tamago Sando), made with just mashed boiled eggs and mayo tucked in between soft pillowy white bread.
👍Japanese Fruit Sandwich (Fruit Sando), made with juicy seasonal fresh fruits embedded in chilled whipped cream between two slices of pillowy Japanese milk bread.
👍Katsu Sando, made with crispy juicy pork cutlets sandwiched between milk bread. Tokyo restaurant Isen Honten claims credit for creating it in 1935. This is my favorite sando by far!
👍Yakisoba or Soba Sando, made with noodles sandwiched between milk bread.
👍Teriyaki Sando, made with salty-sweet chicken that has been seasoned with teriyaki sauce (soy sauce, sugar and Japanese sake as the base) sandwiched between milk bread.
This cheese-melt does not qualify as a sandwich, but it is equally yummy.
Hokkaido is an island, so fish and seafood is freshly available everywhere. As sea food is one of the Japanese staple foods and sushi is the most known representative of the Japanese cuisine, I will not tire the reader going any further on this issue, but I recommend you to try seafood on the go at fish markets or seaside vendors... perfectly cooked on the spot.
Seafood on the go.
Seafood on the go.
Grilled eel is a popular dish, but what you certainly must try is sea urchin, especially when travelling across the coastal Route 229, at the south-west of Hokkaido. Sea urchins are found in every ocean of the world, across many climate zones, from polar to tropical. So, if you've walked on a beach virtually anywhere on the planet, chances are you've once come across the spiky echinoderm.
Grilled eel. A much-valued Japanese delicacy.
For many people, sea urchins are above all synonymous to one of the tastiest delicacies found at sea. Sea urchins have been viewed as such for centuries by people of the Mediterranean, native Alaskans, and East Asians just to name a few. Quite possibly more than anywhere else, Japan reveres the sea urchin as one of the most sublime delicacies there is. This shouldn't come as such a surprise when we think of how much Japanese cuisine relies on items that are found at sea. The Japanese call the sea urchin (or more specifically the sea urchin's gonads) "uni”.
Each sea urchin gives five of these small pieces, or uni. Taste-wise, the uni has an unmistakable deep savory umami and a fresh salty taste form the sea. The texture is extremely soft; the little red clouds literally melt in your mouth the moment you bite into them. The sea taste and the creamy texture of uni are quite like that of salmon roe. Perhaps for that reason, they are often served together in Japan. You can have them together simply on a bed of rice. This is called an ikura-uni kaisendon. Another popular way it is served is as a topping for a nigiri sushi. This is a staple that you can find in nearly all sushi restaurants in Japan. Although uni is considered a delicacy and is relatively expensive compared to other types of sushi neta (toppings), it is widely available because people love it so much.
Tuna and fish roe on rice (left). Raw shrimps on rice (right).
Part B: Desserts
Japan has a unique taste in dessert, it's not overly sweet, and it can sometimes be a bit bitter. Japanese people don't really like powerful flavors, and their food tends to be a bit more on the subtle side. Many traditional desserts focus on the natural flavors of the ingredients themselves, and aren't full of added sugar like western sweets, this makes for an interesting experience for foreigners. But, believe me it is just an experience not a joy! These desserts are based mainly in rice and red beans, so do not expect to be delighted!
Japanese pay much attention to shapes and looks of their desserts rather than taste, at least this is what I believe. So, you buy little, well wrapped and expensive confections, which to the western palate feel like hard jelly that tastes noting much more than rice. So, is Japan a disaster destination for those who really have a sweet tooth? Thank God no. In the contrary Japan is the place for the quality, super-tasty western style desserts. Affordable sugar arrived in Japan in 1860’s and of course people went a bit sugar crazy and created many desserts based on western traditions. These invariably took on interesting Japanese dimensions with time.
Both traditional and western-style desserts served at a traditional Sapporo cafe.
The most common ingredients for the traditional confections, which are known as wagashi, are: red bean paste, also called adzuki bean paste, mochi and agar.
👍 Adzuki bean paste, or “anko”, is a paste made of red beans, also called "adzuki beans". The paste is prepared by boiling the beans, then mashing or grinding them. At this stage, the paste can be sweetened or left as it is. The color of the paste is usually dark red, which comes from the husk of the beans. Anko is used as a topping or filling to give deserts a hint of sweetness. You can put anko on top of a cake or ice-cream, eat it with fruit, or even eat it on its own.
A sample of traditional Japanese confections.
👍 Mochi are chewy rice cakes traditionally made by pounding a very sticky variety of rice called mochigome, until it resembles a dough. Mochi is very versatile: it can be toasted, dipped into sauce, or sweetened with a topping called kinako. The most common mochi is called daifuku and it is nothing else than a mochi stuffed with sweet red bean paste. Another combination of the two basic ingredients of Japanese traditional confectionary is Oshiruko, a sweet dessert soup.
👍 In Japanese traditional confectionary the obsession with jelly is alive and well, with gelatinous innovations like the water cake. The love for Japanese jelly desserts goes deep in time because agar, the primary vegetarian substitute for gelatin, is a Japanese invention. The word “agar” comes from agar-agar, the Malay/Indonesian name for red algae, but it is called kanten in Japanese (*). Agar was discovered in Japan in the mid-1650s by an innkeeper named Mino Tarōzaemon, and it has since become an essential ingredient in Japanese baking, dating to the Edo Period. This plant-based thickening substance, derived from seaweed (algae), helps liquids coagulate into jellies, often to jaw-dropping visual effect. The most basic form of agar dessert is mitsumame, cubes of sweetened agar jelly, dissolved in water or juice, that are served with fresh fruit and azuki, or red, beans. There are variations on this basic bowl, like anmitsu, which I describe later.
(*) Although the word “kanten” is used as a Japanese translation of “agar”, Japanese consider agar and kanten a separate ingredient because they come from different algae. Agar is from Carrageenan, which is extracted from red edible seaweed. Kanten is made of Gelidiales, red edible seaweed. Agar is clear and has more soft smooth texture, while kanten is semi-translucent and firmer with less jiggle.
A matcha dessert soup containing ice cream, anko and agar.
Here’s a small dictionary of Japanese desserts, at least you know what they are if you see them in the show windows:
Taiyaki (literally "baked sea bream") are fish shaped pancakes filled with red bean paste, which in Japan are served cold. In Korea they served hot from street vendors.
Anmitsu is a very common desert. It's a combination of anko and cubes of agar. Other ingredients can include mochi, fruit, nuts, and macha flavored or vanilla ice-cream. A cup of black syrup is also served on the side.
Monaka is prepared with azuki bean jam filling sandwiched between two thin crisp wafers made from mochi.
Dorayaki is like Monaka but instead of mochi, two hand-sized American-style pancakes are sandwiched together and then filled with anko.
Uirō is a steamed cake made of rice flour, sugar and different tastes like matcha or fruits.
Kuri Youkan Chestnut Jelly Cake is a delectable, autumn chestnut jelly cake. It combines syrup preserved chestnuts and azuki paste to produce a jelly cake.
Mizu Manju are traditionally eaten during the summer. They are sweet, translucent jelly cakes made with kuzu, or arrowroot, a gelatin-free thickening agent similar to cornstarch or tapioca. Mizu manju can be translated as water manju, from the clear appearance they have.
Traditional dessert with ice cream, agar, motchi and anko.
I cannot write about Japanese cuisine without make an extend reference to matcha.
Matcha is finely ground powder of specially grown and processed green tea leaves. It is special in both farming and processing: the green tea plants for matcha are shade-grown for about three weeks before harvest and the stems and veins are removed in processing. During shaded growth, the plant “Camellia sinensis” acquires the famous dark green color and produces more theanine and caffeine. This combination of chemicals is considered to account for the calm energy people might feel from drinking matcha.
Love for Matcha.Otaru.
"Matcha in matcha" little cakes in Starbucks.
The powdered form of matcha traditionally is consumed dissolved in hot water. Matcha is the ingredient used in Japan for centuries for the complex and meticulous tea ceremony.
Matcha is more associated with Japan, but people in all Far East countries love it. In China they call it “mo-cha” and in Korea “malcha” or “garucha”.
In Japan, macha is used in castella cake, manjū, and monaka; as a topping for shaved ice (kakigori); mixed with milk and sugar as a drink; and mixed with salt to flavor tempura in a mixture known as matcha-jio.
It is also used as flavoring in many Western-style confections and desserts, such as cakes and pastries (including Swiss rolls and cheesecake), cookies, pudding, mousse, and green tea ice cream. The Japanese snack Pocky has a matcha-flavoured version as well as KitKat.
During the last decade, the use of matcha in modern and fashionable drinks has spread to all Asian, American and European cafés, such as Starbucks, which introduced "Green Tea Lattes" and other matcha-flavoured drinks after matcha became successful in their Japanese store locations. It has also been incorporated into alcoholic beverages such as liqueurs and even matcha green tea beers.
Enjoying some fresh matcha pudding under the Hokkaido sun.
Matcha products: by Royce' (top left), by Haagen Dazs (top right), Starbucks (bottom left). A piece of juicy matcha cake (bottom middle). "The book of Matcha" is a good book to be introduced into the green & delicious world of matcha (bottom right).
Japanese has perfected the western-styled cakes by using the best ingredients. This is maybe more obvious in Hokkaido, where dairy products and fresh ingredients are easily available.
Cakes and coffee: the perfect combination!
Swiss Roll (or Roll Cake) is a fluffy sponge cake rolled up with whipped cream, buttercream, custard cream, and sometimes includes fruits like strawberries. These are very popular in Japan, but what makes the difference is the Matcha Swiss Roll: a Swiss Roll rolled up with fresh matcha cream in the middle. If you have a soft spot for anything matcha (green tea), I am pretty sure you will be obsessed with this cake as I am. If you like the matcha swiss roll, also go for the Matcha Tiramisu: creamy, rich, and bursting with bold matcha flavors, the irresistible matcha tiramisu consists of matcha-soaked ladyfingers layered with a light and airy mascarpone custard filling. It's' a classic tiramisu dessert with a Japanese twist! I will complete this "Triade" of matcha cakes with the Matcha Mille Crepe Cake, which is made of thin layers of green tea crepes stacked together with fresh whipped cream in-between.
Matcha swiss roll "improved" recipe includes, besides matcha cream, also strawberry cream and sweet beans.
Japanese love swiss rolls. All-white Shiroi swiss roll (left) and Caramel-marron swiss roll cake (right).
Castella Cake or Kasutera is made with only 4 ingredients (sugar, flour, eggs, and starch syrup or honey), and is a super moist cake very popular in Japan. A specialty of Nagasaki, the cake was brought to Japan by Portuguese merchants in the 16th century. The name is derived from Portuguese Pão de Castela, meaning "bread from Castile". Castella cake is usually sold in long boxes, with the cake inside being approximately 27 cm long. Castella cake is evolving, and several new flavors appear every year. Matcha, chestnut, chocolate, pumpkin, levanter, citrus etc are some of these flavors.
Matcha flavored cheesecake.
Matcha flavored Castella.
My favorite of all the cakes: Japanese (Cotton-soft) Cheesecake. If you show up at someone’s door with this melt-in-mouth Japanese Cheesecake, you can almost expect the biggest smile and some bonus warm hugs! The combination of creamy cheesecake and cotton-soft soufflé is what makes this cheesecake insanely good. The special fluffy texture is obtained by incorporating the egg whites into the cake mixture and baked in a bain-marie (water bath). Of course, in Japan one can find the classical “baked cheesecake” or the “rare cheesecake” (“no-bake cheesecake”).
Japanese cheesecake. The perfect cake to have with your coffee.
In Hokkaido, double cream cheesecake (or Double Fromage) is the king of desserts. This is a three-layer cheesecake consisting of a fatless sponge base, a baked cream-cheese layer, and a mascarpone-like mousse layer covered with a dusting of sponge cake crumbs. This cheesecake is unbelievably light; after you taste it, you cannot take it out of your mind!
Besides the year round cakes, Japanese love to use seasonal products in their cakes. Two of the most prominent such ingredients/flavors for the most colorful season of the year, automn, is the chestnut (marron) and pumpkin (squash) or kabocha in Japanese.
In Hokkaido, locals and tourists have gone mad for Yubari melons (Yubari King or Yūbari Meron). Yubari melon is a cantaloupe (sweet melon) cultivar farmed in greenhouses in Yūbari, a small city close to Sapporo, and is a hybrid of two other cantaloupe cultivars. A top-grade yubari melon is to be perfectly round and have an exceptionally smooth rind. A portion of the stem, which is snipped with scissors, is left on top for aesthetic appeal. Japanese people present Yubari King melons as gifts during Chūgen.
A juicy slice of Yubari melon.
Chestnut and pumpkin sweet creations.
This cantaloupe is supposed to be the King of the melons and very tasty. Yubari is a lovely and tasty melon, but I do not understand all this craziness that evolved around it, and indeed I do not understand the price these melons are sold at. I have tried equally tasty melons in Greece for a small fraction of the yubari price. Another catch is that most of the melons you see around Hokkaido have nothing to do with the Yubari variety. So, you may have paid lots of money and haven't tasted the real thing. Does it matter? Not really.
Yubari melons for sale.
At a Japanese auction in 2008, two Yubari King melons sold together for ¥2.5 million. In 2016, Konishi Seika, a fruit and vegetable market in Amagasaki, bought a pair of Yubari King melons at auction with a winning bid of ¥3 million. In 2019 Tokyo-based Pokka Sapporo Food & Beverage Ltd bought a pair of Yubari melons at auction for the highest recorded price of ¥5 million.
Hokkaido melon products are sold everwhere.
Let’s be serious, and it is just marketing and nothing more. If you want to taste it, try a slice for some yen or, even better, try a refreshing yubari smoothie, but do not be carried away with marketing exaggerations.
The taste/aroma of the yubari melon can be found in many products, like cakes, mochi, biscuits, or jellies. Pocky sells its famous sticks with a yubari melon coating, and Kit Kat could not miss the opportunity to present its yubari-flavored famous wafers to Japanese consumers, who are always willing to try new Kit Kat tastes.
We all know and love the Kit Kat chocolate-covered wafer bar, which created by Rowntree's of York, United Kingdom, and is now produced globally by Nestlé.
Do you like the original milk chocolate taste, the dark chocolate, the white chocolate, the matcha or the recently added ruby chocolate? Wow! What a variety of tastes!
You believe this is a good variety? Then you should go to Japan, where Kit Kat is almost a staple confection, which in the last 20 years or so has introduced more than 300 limited-edition, seasonal and regional flavors of Kit Kat chocolate bars.
Hokkaido Azuki & Strawberry Kit Kat.
Kit Kat was introduced to Japan in 1973. Over the years the very successful advertisement campaigns of the company has made the brand the top selling chocolate in Japan. It is believed that the brand has benefited from the coincidental false cognate with "Kitto Katsu", a phrase meaning "You will surely win" in Japanese.
Kit Kat variety in a shop in Sapporo.
The company has introduced a good variety of standard flavors, but what makes the difference is the introduction of seasonal and regional flavors and high-end Kit Kat products such as raspberry-infused dark chocolate, orange-chocolate rum, and sakura green tea. The top-selling flavor of the candy bar in 2010 was soy sauce. Nestlé attributes the success of the flavor varieties to the tradition of omiyage, in which regional specialties are brought back for family and co-workers from trips away. The company believes the limited-edition seasonal models create a "scarcity and rarity of value" for customers.
Here are some of the flavors the brand has introduced so far: plum, passion fruit and chilli, ginger and kinako soybean powder, sake, adzuki (red bean), beni imo (purple sweet potato), brown sugar syrup, matcha (green tea), Hokkaido melon with mascarpone cheese, Hokkaido roasted corn, sakura, crème brulee, cherry, chestnut, café au lait, banana, cappuccino, chocobanana, citrus golden blend, European chease, ginger ale, muscat of Alexandria, maple, vegetable juice, yubari melon and rock salt, to name just a small number of them.
My favorite flavor: matcha green tea.
A speciality Kit Kat shop in Sapporo.
The only other snack food that can rival Kit Kat in popularity and variety of favors is Pocky produced by Glico. These chocolate-coated biscuit sticks introduced to Japan in 1966 and are as Japanese a snack can get! The original was followed by an almond coating in 1971, and a strawberry coating in 1977.
Today, the product line includes not only standard flavors, but also seasonal and regional variations. Here are some of the flavors: as milk, mousse, green tea, honey, banana, cookies and cream, coconut flavored coatings, kiwifruit mango, grape, yūbari melon, giant mikan (tangerine), powdered tea azuki bean, Kobe wine, five-fusion berry, lychee, coffee, caramel, marble royal milk tea, cream cheese, berry, sweet potato, crush (crunchy cracker pieces in chocolate), corn on the cob, pineapple, pumpkin, kurogoma (black sesame), kinako (soybean flour), marron, Brazilian pudding, cherry, tomato, orange, blueberry, apple yogurt, hazelnut, mixed berry and green tea, to name just some of the flavors.
Me with Pocky in both hands and a Yubari melon Pocky on my chest...
The Pocky self at a supermarket in Sapporo.
This aqua-colored packaging of Shiroi Koibito is a trademark known by every Japanese person.
Sales began in December 1976. The name originated one day in December while the founder was returning home after enjoying some skiing and casually remarked "It has started snowing white lovers." This is mentioned on the back of the box. The fact the products white color is reminiscent of Hokkaido's snowy scenery and that sales are limited only to Hokkaido brought success and it gained popularity as a souvenir on business trips and holidays.
There is one product of Hokkaido which surpasses all other bought as a souvenir and not only as such: Shiroi Koibito.
Shiroi Koibito (literally "white lover") is a European-style cookie manufactured and sold by Japanese confectionery maker Ishiya in Sapporo. It consists of chocolate sandwiched between two "langue de chat" biscuits.
There are two main types: Shiroi Koibito White with white chocolate in the center and Shiroi Koibito Black with milk chocolate in the center. The package design has a white and light blue base with a picture of Rishiri Island's Mount Rishiri arranged in the center. This aqua-colored packaging is a trademark known by every Japanese person.
People buy shiroi koibito at Shiroi Koibito Park.
One can see boxes of Shiroi Koibito in every souvenir, confectionary shop, department stores and train stations. It is even sold at all tourist attractions in Hokkaido, while big billboard advertisements in the streets and by rural roads remind you constantly that you must buy some and bring back home as souvenir to family and friends.
Of course, the best place to buy them is at their “home”, the Shiroi Koibito Park, which is the Ishiya factory in central Sapporo, a Disneyland-like place for children of all ages. In addition, baumkuchen with Shiroi Koibito's white chocolate kneaded into the dough, called "Shiroi Baum Tsumugi" is very popular in Hokkaido.
Shiroi Koibito special tin packaging featuring cats, a symbol of the Shiroi Koibito Park.
One may think what has to do a German traditional cake listed in a page for Japanese cakes. Oh well... baumkuchen is one of the most popular pastries in Japan, where it is called "bāmukūhen". It is a popular return present in Japan for wedding guests because of its typical ring shape, and it comes in many different flavors like vanilla, butter, matcha, chocolate, yubari melon, straubery, etc.
It was first introduced to Japan by the German Karl Joseph Wilhelm Juchheim. Juchheim was in the Chinese city of Tsingtao during World War I when Britain and Japan laid siege to Tsingtao. He and his wife were then interned at Okinawa. Juchheim started making and selling the traditional confection at a German exhibition in Hiroshima in 1919. After the war, he chose to remain in Japan. Continued success allowed him to move to Yokohama and open a bakery, but its destruction in the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake caused him to move his operations to Kobe, where he stayed until his death just before the end of World War II.
Some years later, his wife returned to help a Japanese company open a chain of bakeries under the Juchheim name that further helped spread baumkuchen's popularity in Japan.
Classic Japanese Baumkuchen.
Japanese Baumkuchen. "Baum Tsumugi" (top left), "Shiroi Baum Tsumugi" (top right) and Hokkaido melon Baumkuchen (bottom left).
The Japanese variety of Baumkuchen is much better than its European counterpart: it has a much softer texture because of the quality and quantity of butter. It also has a much more noble appearance: the many layers of the cake are very thin and meticulously put one on top of the other, forming geometrically perfect rings. As much as I love to eat big chunks of this cake, I usually like to gentle pull its layers apart before eating it.
The Hokkaido based confectionery maker Ishiya, calls its Baumkuchen “Baum Tsumugi”, where Tsumugi means “soft thin woven cloth”.
Soft-serve ice cream
One thing you can’t miss when visiting Hokkaido is the various dairy products. The most notable Hokkaido “dairy sweet” is the “soft cream” (soft-serve ice cream) made from fresh milk. The standard flavor is rich milk vanilla, however it’s always worth trying unique regional flavors. Every shop and farm in Hokkaido make its own soft cream with fresh local products. Either on the go or sitting at a nice café or an ice-cream parlor, try the local flavors like lavender, yubari melon, watermelon, chocolate, matcha, sake or just the humble plain white cream.
In general, Japanese love ice cream, and they put a scoop into traditional confections, like anmitsu, or next to western-style desserts like cheesecake. Because they love fancy dessert ice-cream "creations," they put layers of different ingredients in tall glasses only imagination can limit: different flavors of ice cream, coffee, agar cubes, anko paste, whole red beans, fruit, biscuits, pieces of cheesecake or cream.
Matcha flavor soft cream.
Enjoying two soft cream cones of vanilla and chocolate at a farm outside Otaru (left). Levander soft cream at Farm Tomita, outside Furano.
A phantasmagoric "ice cream creation".
Chocolate Potato Chips
Royce' potato chip chocolate.
Royce is one of the two big chocolate and confections maker of Hokkaido (the other one is Ishiya, which I mentioned earlier). Royce produces fine chocolates, but it is best known to tourists by its “Chocolate Potato Chips”, a very popular souvenir to bring back home and impress your friends. It is a chocolate-coated potato chips snack with the perfect balance of sweetness and saltiness.
I could not finish this short "culinary" journey in Hokkaido without mentioning its most famous drink: Sapporo beer, one of Hokkaido's icons! Sapporo is the oldest brand of beer in Japan, founded in 1876.
The legend of the beer began with the adventurous spirit of Seibei Nakagawa, Japan's first German-trained brewmaster. Fueled by an adventurous spirit, Seibei Nakagawa, at the age of seventeen years, at a time when leaving Japan was strictly forbidden for its citizens, secretly snuck aboard a ship bound for a new life in Europe.
After spending some time in England, he eventually made his way to Germany and into a job at the Berlin Beer Brewing Company, where he studied for two years to become a certified brewmaster.
Around the time Nakagawa returned to Japan, plans were underway to build a brewery in the newly inaugurated capital city of Tokyo. Given his recently acquired expertise, Nakagawa was hired as the brewery’s chief engineer. Knowing that brewing beer requires a great deal of ice, he successfully convinced the brewery manager to relocate construction to the far northern city of Sapporo.
The beer bearing its city’s namesake was born shortly after its completion.
Trapped in a glass of Sapporo beer.
The famous Sapporo beer star.
Old Sapporo beer posters at Sapporo beer museum.
"Sapporo Classic" beer is only sold in Hokkaido.
Sapporo’s flagship product is their Premium Beer, a light, crisp lager that seems to pair well with anything you throw at it.
Not to rest on their laurels; however, Sapporo has created several other beers for their lineup, including black lager, chocolate beer, and in one instance, a minimal run of a beer called Space Barley, brewed with the offspring of barley that spent five months in space aboard an orbiting craft!
The brewery has also been known to create regional-specific beers, such as its Sapporo Classic, which can only be found in Hokkaido.
While the beer is no longer brewed in Sapporo city, the original brewery building still stands; a monument to its legendary roots. Today, this massive brick warehouse serves as Japan’s only beer museum. Here, visitors can take a free, self-guided tour to learn about the brewing process, Sapporo’s history, and its journey to becoming the beer behemoth it is now. Also here is the best place to experience the Jingisukan dish, in one of the many restaurants which resemble the German biergarten.
Me with two cans of Sapporo beer in a supermarket.