Over the course of an average winter, the mountains of Hokkaido will be blanketed with an astounding fifteen metres of snowfall. Every year, a three-storey building worth of snow! The storms that deliver this load gather above the freezing flatlands of Siberia, and rumble dryly eastwards, building in intensity across the tundra, until they arrive at the Sea of Japan. Here, the clouds pick up water, become slow and heavy, then, suddenly, POP! Pierced by Hokkaido’s high westerly peaks, they burst like overstuffed down pillows, sending their contents whirling downwards in a shower of fluffy white.
One after another, the storms arrive, travelling in procession from the beginning of December until the end of March. A skier’s paradise, in theory, every day fresh powder, fresh tracks! Until you concede that you may be more of a ‘fairweather’ type, and the hopeful waiting starts… Peering out the window, a tiny glimpse of sky, the optimistic belief that the blizzard might be thinning, running to get your gear on, planning on heading out – but by the time you reach the door, whirling whiteness again, and nothing for it but to concede defeat and retreat back, nice and cosy, behind the glass…
Watching through the window however, is a tourist’s prerogative. The locals have no such luck, and life goes seamlessly on through the high drifts of snow, beneath the obscured sky. Take the highways for example – impossible to keep these clear when there is no break in the storms, so they’re not cleared. Snow piles up, and is driven over again and again until the road is made entirely of snow, not a scrap of tarmac in sight. And everyone just drives happily on – big buses, broken down old taxis, even trucks. I’m not quite sure how exactly, perhaps some really serious winter tyres, perhaps the benefit of experience, perhaps just not having any other choice…
The latter being, incidentally, what finally drove me from my window-peering and out onto the mountain… (Well, that and the promise of a pretty special lunch!). Two valleys over from Grand Hirafu, where we’re staying, is Annupuri, home, so we’d heard, to a soba noodle maker of some renown.
Only, we’ve finally made it to the base of Annupuri, by now virtual Yetis – a thick crust of snow gripping on to every seam, and of course, no restaurant! Hmm… a map consult involving the painful un-gloving of a hand confirms that sadly, it’s skis off, and walking from here…
Through the small town at the base of the slopes, and past it, out onto a large road, and along its curve. Trudge, trudge, in heavy boots. Probably not that far, a kilometre, one and half at the most? It feels further! Then, there it is – Rakuichi. A faint sign positioned on posts over a small wooden bridge announces we’ve arrived, and behind it, a half-buried log cabin of hot soba promises and cold beer dreams.
Immediately inside, a curtained entrance room where wet outer-layers happily come off, cosy slippers gratefully slide on, then eagerly through the curtains to the…
WAITING AREA! A snaking set of benches, airport security style, packed full of suspiciously dry looking prospective luncheoners. Were we the only ones foolish enough not to have driven? Do you deserve to eat hot soba while already bone-dry and warm?!
Sadly, it’s a democracy, and the answer is ‘yes’. So we join the very back of the queue and wait for a place at the twelve-seat soba altar in the adjoining room. The anteroom of Soba-Master Rai San’s noodle church is a reverent and austere place. No drinks are served with the exception of a bitter soba tea. Waiting is done mostly in silence. There is almost the air of a royal court, everyone doing their best to curry favour with the soba master’s wife, hoping to be granted a seating with the king next door…
An hour passes, more, the longer we wait, the more we’ve invested, the hungrier we are!! Then finally, admission to the hallowed hall …
And, it’s worth it. Each serve of soba is completely hand made. The heavy grey-green dough mixed in front of you, and masterfully rolled out into thin sheets, layered, and then finely cut with an enormous soba cleaver. Dunked briefly into a cauldron of boiling water, it is then scooped into bowls and covered with a steaming rich duck broth. Slices of meat, and/or mountain vegetables go on top. A feather-light and perfectly crisp vegetable tempura follows. And that’s it. Two choices – soba, hot or cold, with or without duck.
Then you’re out. No lingering! No dessert! A paper sign on the door closed behind us reads ‘No more soba today.’ But then, can you blame the chef for making his own rules when it’s down to him to craft every single noodle eaten there by hand?
Making your own rules is a bit of a Hokkaido thing it seems, and Hokkaido people are renowned throughout Japan for doing things a little differently. A kind of snowy Wild West, cut off from the rest of the country by the sea and the snow, locals have learnt to make do with what they’ve got – and that’s often meant making the most of the home-grown produce, as well as different, sometimes quite surprising, spins on classic Japanese dishes.
Take ramen noodles for instance – normally made from a stock of pork bones, and topped with the classic stuff, sliced pork, spring onions, bamboo, chilli, and so forth. On Hokkaido, the stock is more likely to be flavoured with white miso than pork, and the soup topped instead with local crab, butter, and sweet corn, (where the corn came into things being anyone’s guess)! But, it’s delicious (much better if you ask me), and makes incredible use of the plentiful local seafood and famous Hokkaido dairy products. In fact, butter makes a bold and welcome entry into a number of Hokkaido dishes, and alongside the famous ‘Hokkaido pumpkins,’ is one of the foods for which the island is best known for exporting…
So, with this culinary backdrop and flavour for experimentation in mind, the following dishes are my take on some Hokkaido favourites. In order that shopping for these recipes doesn’t actually require a trip to Hokkaido, I’ve made a few Western-friendly adaptions. Hokkaido food, without the Hokkaido cold. And now I’ve earned my Rakuichi stripes, take my advice – if you plan to go in a winter blizzard, get there really early, and better still, go by car!
For Rakuichi contact details, see here.
A bowl of seasoned sushi rice topped with seafood – uni (sea urchin), ikura (cured salmon roe), slices of salmon, or crab meat – is a common sight on Hokkaido. So common, you can even get take-away versions at the airport, all wrapped up and ready to take on-board!
My dream rice bowl is half uni, half ikura, with perhaps a tiny dab of fresh wasabi. Where fresh uni are unavailable though, my second favourite bowl is as per the recipe below – piled with jewel-like ikura, and topped with a raw egg yolk and furikake* flakes. It’s very simple to make, but feels like an incredible indulgence to eat…
First though, an aside on uni, (and its enormous cross-cultural bonding powers!). I don’t speak any Japanese, except for some of the more important food words, and even then, only a select few. So when, while waiting in a queue in Hirafu, I overheard the group of Japanese students behind me discussing uni, I probably should not have butted in boldly with a heart-felt – ‘I love uni!’ (But I couldn’t help myself, such is its strange power). And in response, an equally heart-felt ‘we love uni!!’ was returned! Lots of companionable smiling and nodding ensued. So there you go – sea urchins, connecting people across great linguistic and cultural divides!
(Makes 2 small bowls)
- 1 cup sushi rice
- 1¼ cups water
- Small piece of konbu (dried kelp used for making dashi stock), – approx. 6x3cm
- 2 tablespoons seasoned sushi vinegar
- 125g ikura (Japanese cured salmon roe)
- 1 teaspoon of light soy sauce
- 2 very fresh egg yolks (optional)
- Sprinkle of furikake seasoning, or shredded nori (kizami nori), (to garnish)
*Furikake is a sprinkle made from a bunch of things, like nori, sesame seeds, ground shiso leaf, powdered soy, miso, dried egg, bonito flakes, salmon flakes etc. Vegetarian versions are also available.
Perfect sushi rice depends on how you wash and prepare the grains… First, wash the rice in several changes of cool water, agitating it with your hands, and draining through a colander until all the starch has been rinsed off and the washing water runs clear. Then, leave the rice in the colander to drain thoroughly for half an hour. Allowing the rice to fully dry before cooking is thought to improve the texture.
Once drained, place the rice, water, and konbu (you can make small incisions using a pair of scissors along the edge of the konbu if you’d like to release more flavour) in a small pot and bring to the boil. Once boiling, turn the heat down to medium-low and cook for 15-20 minutes, lid on, until all the water has been absorbed.
Next, remove the cooked rice to a wide ceramic bowl, spreading it out with a wooden spatula. Sprinkle the sushi vinegar over the top to season, and then stir using a slicing motion with the spatula until the rice has cooled to room temperature.
If your ikura are quite stuck-together, rinse them very gently in a little water to separate, and then drain. Season with the light soy sauce, using a wooden spoon to mix (metal utensils can affect the taste of the ikura).
When ready to serve, scoop the seasoned rice into two small bowls, and spoon the ikura over the top. Gently lower an egg yolk into the centre of each, nestling it amongst the roe, and then top with either furikake or shredded nori.
Cold Soba Noodles with Mentsuyu Dipping Sauce
After a very satisfying and well-earned meal of hot Rakuichi soba, imagine my disappointment to learn that real soba connoisseurs consider Rai-san’s cold soba to be better than his hot! Sadly though, I was not prepared to brave the blizzard a second time to put this to the test.
Intrigued nonetheless by cold soba possibilities, I had to content myself experimenting at home with store-bought noodles instead…
(Serves 2 as a light meal or snack)
100g of 100% buckwheat soba noodles
Mentsuyu Dipping Sauce (Makes one cup of mentsuyu sauce concentrate)
- ¼ cup sake
- ½ cup mirin
- ½ cup soy sauce
- 1 piece of konbu 2 x 4cm
- ½ cup dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi)
- Lightly toasted sesame seeds
- Shredded nori
- 1 finely sliced spring onion
It is traditional to serve cold soba on bamboo mats or in bamboo baskets
Begin making the sauce by bringing the sake to boil in a small saucepan. Allow the alcohol to evaporate off briefly before adding the mirin, soy sauce, konbu, and bonito flakes.
Bring to a boil once again, then once boiling, turn the heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes. After this time, remove from the heat, and allow the ingredients to steep until the sauce has cooled to room temperature.
Then, drain through a fine sieve, discarding the used konbu and bonito flakes.
You now have a concentrated mentsuyu sauce that can stored in the fridge (up to a month) until ready to use.
To cook the soba noodles, bring plenty of water to a boil in a large pot. Add the noodles to the boiling water, and give them a stir so that they separate. No need to add salt to the cooking water as with pasta – the salty mentusuyu serves as the seasoning for cold soba.
Cooking time varies for different brands of soba, so consult the packet for a precise time. Some varieties need as little as 4 minutes, while others take up to 8.
After the indicated time period, immediately drain and rinse the noodles under a stream of cool running water. Continue rinsing for a few minutes, separating the noodles with your fingers as you do so. This step is key with cold soba, as it ensures the correct texture, and removes any ‘sliminess.’
Arrange your bamboo mats on the serving plates by folding them to size. Then, pick up bite sized bunches of noodles using a pair of chopsticks, and lay these onto the mat neatly by creating a small loop. This makes the noodles easy to pick up and eat, (and looks very pretty as well!).
Dilute the mentsuyu sauce to taste – a ratio of one part mentusuyu, to two parts water should be about right. The noodles are unseasoned remember, so it’s ok if the sauce is on the salty side.
Sprinkle toasted sesame seeds, sliced spring onions, and shredded nori on top to serve.
A Kind-of Shabu Shabu
‘Shabu-shabu,’ is Japanese for ‘swish-swish,’ the sound of a piece of meat moving through boiling broth on the tip of pointy chopsticks. Hot-pot dishes are popular all over Japan, but for me, the Hokkaido-style is special due to the delicious addition of butter! This dish is also a great vehicle for roast Hokkaido pumpkin…
It’s only ‘a kind-of’ because I’ve deducted the hot-pot element here in favour of a more straightforward soup presentation. (To avoid the faff of having to set up a hot plate at the table). If you wish to reintroduce this, feel free, but for the lazier, getting the soup onto the table hot-hot and then adding the beef to the bowl means that you still get to ‘shabu-shabu,’ but saves the need for table-top fire!
- 1 piece of konbu, 6 x 8cm
- 1.5 litres of water
- 3 cups dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi)
- 200g firm pumpkin – cut in 3cm dice
- A few tablespoons of sunflower oil or canola oil
- 1 banana shallot – thinly sliced
- A handful of curly kale leaves – stems removed, leaves roughly torn
- 200g beef fillet
- 150ml sake
- 3 tablespoons of soy sauce
- A few shiitake mushrooms – finely sliced
- Some enoki mushrooms – stems cut in half, lower halves discarded.
- 8cm piece of daikon (Japanese radish) – cut into long matchsticks
- 1 long red chilli – deseeded and cut into long matchsticks (to garnish)
- Sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
- 2 generous knobs of butter (to serve)
This dish can be made in various stages, ahead of time, and assembled very quickly at the end.
Start by making the dashi or base broth:
Using a pair of scissors, cut a couple of small incisions in your piece of konbu. Then, fill a medium saucepan with water and add the piece of konbu. If you have time to leave this soak for a few hours, do so, as this will make for a more intense stock, otherwise, place it directly over medium heat.
Carefully watch the water as it nears boiling point, and just before it does so, as small bubbles are beginning to form around the rim of the water, remove the konbu from the water, and take the saucepan off the heat. (If you allow the water to boil with the konbu in it, the resulting stock will become bitter in taste, and have a slightly slimy texture).
Discard the konbu, or, if you wish, keep it to boil a second time to create another, lighter type of stock called nisban dashi. Both types of dashi store up to a week in the fridge, and up to a month in the freezer.
Next, add the bonito flakes to the saucepan, and place back over a medium heat. This time, let the broth boil, but once boiling, continue to cook for only 30 seconds. After 30 seconds, remove the pan from the heat, and allow the bonitio flakes to settle to the bottom. (Approximately 10 minutes).
Strain the stock using a sieve. The bonito flakes can be kept for niban dashi, or discarded.
Now, pour the strained dashi broth into a sealable container, and keep in the fridge until ready to use.
To prepare the shabu shabu ingredients:
Begin by heating the oven to 200°C.
Remove the skin of the pumpkin using a sharp knife, then cut into large dice. Sprinkle these with a little sunflower oil, salt, and pepper, and roast in the oven for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes on one side, turn the pumpkin pieces over and continue to roast on the other side of a further 15 minutes, or until tender.
Meanwhile, heat one tablespoon of the oil in a high-sided, heavy-based pan or casserole and fry the shallots over medium heat until soft but not coloured.
Next, add the torn kale to the shallots and cook for a further minute.
Take the dashi broth from the fridge and add a splash of this – 50-60ml – to the pan containing the kale and shallots, then cover and cook for a further 3 minutes.
Once cooked, remove the shallots and kale to a bowl and put aside. Then, wipe any remaining liquid from the pan, and then return to a high heat.
While the pan is heating up, quickly prepare the beef fillet by rubbing with a little oil, along with some salt and pepper.
Sear the fillet very quickly on all sides, turning it using a set of metal tongs. A few seconds on each side is enough as the aim isn’t to cook the meat, only to give it an all-over browning.
Remove the fillet to a chopping board when done, but return the pan to the heat in order to deglaze.
The idea here is to mop up all the flavour left in the pan by the beef, so allow the pan to heat up for a few seconds longer, then pour in the sake, and scrape the base of the pan vigorously with a wooden spoon. Allow to bubble and cook down for around a minute or two, allowing the alcohol to evaporate from the sake, then pour into a small jug and put aside until ready to use.
Return to the beef fillet – if you are preparing the dish ahead of time, allow it to cool to room temperature, then wrap very tightly in cling film, and store in the fridge along with the sake deglaze, roast pumpkin, and shallot and kale.
When ready to assemble and serve:
Begin by slicing the fillet steak as finely as possible, then position slices between a folded layer of cling film and, using a meat hammer, flatten until paper-thin. Arrange on a serving plate and keep at room temperature until ready to serve.
Next, heat the dashi in a large saucepan. To this also add the sake de-glaze and 3 tablespoons of soy sauce.
Once boiled, turn the heat to a simmer and add both types of mushrooms, the roast pumpkin, as well as the shallots and kale.
Organise your serving bowls now, ready to go, and check that your garnishes – the daikon and chilli, as well the butter, are also prepared and on the table.
Then, turn the heat under the pot back up, bringing the soup once again to a boil.
Quickly divide the boiling soup into the waiting bowls. Place these on the table, alongside the sliced beef, and garnishes, allowing everyone to add their own beef, and swish this through the broth with chopsticks, ‘shabu-shabu,’ to cook.
Hanazono Crab Ramen
If you travel to Niesko and start asking about where on the slopes it’s best to eat, it’s very likely that one of the first things you’ll hear about is the crab ramen in Hanazono. And, for a change, the restaurant that serves it does not require a mission to find! Only when you do arrive, you might ask yourself if you’re in the right place…
At the bottom on the main slope of the Hanazono ski area, on the left-hand side, there is a large visitor centre, and inside, a pretty conventional looking ski-cafeteria serving all the stuff you usually find on-slope – hot dogs, burgers, spag-bol, big plates of fries. But continue to the far left counter – you’ll see, the one with the queue! (Lots of waiting for the best things in Niesko, but once again, worth it!). Fresh legs of cracked King crab over a steaming bowl of ramen noodles, a white miso broth, sweet corn, bamboo shoots, spring onions, and chilli floating on top. The only problem now being getting your hands clean enough afterwards to put back into ski gloves!
(Makes 2 big bowls of ramen)
- 1 piece of konbu, 4 x 6cm
- 750ml of water
- 1½ cups dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi)
- 110g white miso paste (shiro miso)
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 50ml soy sauce
- 1 mid-sized, approx. 500g, crab (either cooked or live) – Snow, Hairy, Atlantic, or even Swimmer crabs all work well. If you can buy fresh-cooked King Crab legs, even better.
- 55g fresh ramen noodles
- Handful of fresh bean sprouts
- 100g (drained weight) canned bamboo shoots
- 50g (drained weight) canned corn
- 1 spring onion – finely sliced
- 1 mild red chilli – finely sliced (optional)
- 30g butter – cut into two slices
If you’d like even more toppings, you could also add:
- Soy eggs (recipe here)
- Shredded nori
First, prepare the dashi broth as per the instructions in the previous recipe, then refrigerate until ready to use.
If you are cooking your crab from live, place it in the freezer first for 40 minutes to render it unconscious before cooking. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of heavily salted water (30g salt per litre) to the boil. Drop the crab into steadily boiling water direct from the freezer and cook – 8 minutes for a 500g crab, adjust accordingly for anything smaller or larger.
Drain and allow to cool to room temperature, then remove the claws, and legs. Crack these gently with a nutcracker for easy eating, then pick the body of the crab for white meat and put this aside also.
The ramen is very quick to assemble from here, so turn your attention next to all the topping ingredients and make sure these are all measured out, and positioned close by, ready to use.
Then, place a medium pot of water on to boil ready to cook the ramen noodles.
Alongside, position a second, larger pot, and in the base of this, heat the sesame oil. When the oil is hot, add the miso paste and fry for around 2 minutes until it darkens. Then, add the soy sauce to the miso, and fry for a few seconds longer.
Next, add the dashi stock to the miso, scraping the bottom of the pan and stirring as you do so until the miso is evenly blended through.
When the pot of water is boiling, add the ramen noodles and cook to your desired texture – around 3 minutes should be enough for fresh noodles.
Drain, then immediately divide the noodle between two serving bowls. Place the bean shoots, bamboo, sliced spring onions, chilli, and corn in separate piles atop the noodles, then ladle the piping hot miso broth directly over the top.
Finish with the white crab meat and cracked claws.