The Flavors of Hokkaido are not to be missed! The freshest seafood, mouth-watering mutton chops, crisp veggies, and the richest creams and cheeses in Japan – all are found in Hokkaido. The island is a popular tourist destination during winter for its snow sports and ice festivals, but Hokkaido food is an amazing reason to visit year-round.
In my previous blog post, I talked about the way Hokkaido turned into the breadbasket of Japan. Today, I have a hard task – to pick out the best of the best.
Hokkaido is by far the place with the most delicious food in Japan – I’ll do my best to cover every must-try. Let’s get down to brass tacks – the most delicious Hokkaido dishes and local specialties!
Hokkaido Cuisine: Famous Dishes from Japan’s North
Amazing food is everywhere in Hokkaido.
Often, the secret lies in it being the home of Japan’s agriculture. Sometimes, the cold waters surrounding the island do the trick. And other times, the ingenuity of the locals births something sensational. No matter where you visit in Hokkaido, you’re sure to come across some fantastic dishes we didn’t cover over here – so don’t be afraid to experiment and taste-test everything the north of Japan has to offer!
Here are some of the many dishes Hokkaido is known for:
Crab (Kani – かニ)
Japanese people love crab, especially in the winter. Whether in sushi or hot pot, crab is loved and appreciated across the country – and the best crab comes from Hokkaido.
If you visit Sapporo’s Nijo market, you’ll come across several premium kinds of crab within a few feet. There are probably cheaper places to stock up on seafood, but the variety of crabs offered at Nijo is astounding. Some favorite tasty picks include horsehair crab (kegani -毛蟹), king crab (tarabagani – タラバガニ), and the insanely expensive snow crab (zuwaigani – ズワイガニ).
Kaisen-don (海鮮丼) – Seafood Rice Bowl
There’s nothing as filling, basic, and heartwarming as a bowl of rice topped with a bunch of seafood. It hits the spot between the flavor punch of sushi and the carefree concept of sashimi.
Kaisen stands for fresh seafood and donburi (丼 – where the don in kaisen-don comes from) is a bowl and way of serving food over rice. It’s that simple – seafood on top of rice – and it’s wonderfully filling, delicious, and good for you.
This dish is popular across the country but is presumed to come from Hokkaido, where it’s typical breakfast food. Some of the most common toppings include salmon, crab legs, scallops, roe, and sea urchins (especially local uni– a Hokkaido delicacy).
In case you’re wondering – Kaisen-don is reaaaally similar to chirashi sushi. The main difference is that kaisen-donuses regular rice instead of vinegared rice.
Zangi (ザンギ) – Fried Chicken
Do you like KFC or the Japanese karaage? Wait until you try Zangi!
Stemming from the eastern city of Kushiro, zangi is Hokkaido’s soul food.
At first glance, it looks just like any average fried chicken, but when you bite into it, a burst of umami fills your mouth and soul.
What’s the secret behind that explosion of flavor? Marinating.
Simple as that – instead of coating and frying bland chicken, restaurants and izakayas that serve zangi season their meat in soy sauce and ginger before it’s covered in wheat flour and potato starch batter and fried.
No need for sauce or condiments – it’s already bursting with flavor. This makes zangi an ideal snack and guilty pleasure food – it’s even sold in convenience stores packed alongside fried noodles.
Ikameshi (烏賊飯) – Rice-filled Squid
The name of this dish literally translates to “squid rice”, and that’s pretty much what it is.
A squid, gutted and cleaned, and stuffed with rice (typically a mix of glutinous and non-glutinous rice). The whole thing is cooked in dashi, and there you have it – ikameshi.
Sometimes, other minced ingredients like squid tentacles, carrots, or bamboo shoots are added to the rice. It may not look the part, but this dish is a tasty treat that melts in your mouth!
This squid dish originates in Hokkaido’s Oshima area. The best thing about it? It’s available year-round
Feeling Cold? Try These Warming Hokkaido Dishes
Ishikari Nabe (石狩鍋) – Salmon and miso hot pot
A hot pot (or nabe – 鍋 – as the Japanese call it) feels so cozy after a long day skiing in Hokkaido’s crisp cold mountain air. It feels even more heart-warming when it’s a local dish with a long history.
Ishikari nabe was named after the Ishikari river, prefecture, and city. A restaurant called Kindaitei (金大亭) created the legendary hot pot dish back in the Meiji era, as local fishermen brought fresh salmon for them to cook in white miso soup. Traditionally, restaurants cook it in a donabe (土鍋), a big earthenware pot.
This rich, creamy soup is an amazing wintertime meal that can be made in less than 30 minutes – making it a popular lunch option. In addition to salmon cooked in white miso, kombu, and a bit of butter, regional veggies like corn, potatoes, daikon radish, cabbage, onions, and shiitake mushrooms are common Ishikari nabe ingredients.
Genghis Khan (ジンギスカン) – Grilled Mutton
Genghis Khan (pronounced jingisu-kan in Japan) is likely the most famous dish from Hokkaido – which might be thanks to its weird name, or more likely, thanks to the best mutton chops in the whole country.
The name doesn’t refer to the meat itself, but instead to the little dome- or helmet-shaped grill situated at every guest’s table. Many believe the name comes from Mongolian warriors using their helmets as grills to make food on when traveling.
The idea of Genghis khan (the mutton, not the man) is simple and very juicy: sheep meat is grilled on top of the dome, letting its juices flow down and pool around sliced veggies at the bottom of the grill, infusing it with incredible flavor. Most common veggie choices include kabocha pumpkin, bean sprouts, and cabbage.
Soup Curry (スープカレー)
Soup curry is a regional dish from Sapporo. The flavor palette is quite similar, but unlike typical Japanese curry, soup curry has a light taste, a liquid consistency, and large slices of veggies.
There are two big differences between a regular curry dish and soup curry:
- Soup curry contains no flour, making it a bit lighter on the stomach and easier to eat with a spoon
- In addition to turmeric, ginger, garlic, and onions, Hokkaido soup curry often contains basil.
Just like curry, soup curry has that layered, earthy and slightly sweet flavor. Chicken thigh is the most common meat choice.
Root vegetables, peppers, and melon slices are often deep-fried and added to the soup for a rich dish with a variety of flavors and textures. The Sapporo dish is usually served with rice, and it’s distinct from regular Japanese curry and curry ramen.
If you’re on a pilgrimage for more amazing curry dishes, you don’t have to travel far: the town of Muroran is known for a dish called curry ramen – thick and wavy ramen noodles in a broth of pork bone and curry.
Salt Ramen (塩ラーメン)
Famous in Hakodate, and unrightfully ignored in other parts of Japan – salt ramen (shio ramen) is wonderfully light, simple, and tasty. It has a thin salty broth with chicken and sometimes pork, and thin noodles that complement the light taste.
Miso Ramen (味噌ラーメン)
Miso ramen is unlike other ramen – it comes with a thick miso soup and an unbelievably rich flavor.
Supposedly, the story (or my freeform interpretation of it) goes like this:
It’s 1953, and it’s freezing cold in snowy Sapporo. A drunken man stumbles into a small ramen shop named Aji no Sanpei (味の三平). He sits on one of the few chairs in the restaurant and makes an order. Slurping on his miso soup, he stops and thinks – “You know what this soup needs? Noodles.” Ignoring the disapproving looks around him, he drops an order of ramen noodles into his bowl of miso soup, creating what would become one of the national favorites. Or so the legend says. The truth is probably less fun, and it involves the ingenuity of Aji no Sanpei owner Morito Omiya (大宮 守人) and a newspaper article suggesting Japanese people should eat more miso.
In Hokkaido, miso ramen is usually served with thick noodles, topped with ingredients like butter, corn, eggs, and scallops.
Creamy, Sugary, Fruity: Hokkaido Sweets
Mutton is not the only animal product that’s way more common in Hokkaido than in other parts of Japan. Dairy products are the northern island’s specialty. The colder climate, vast expanses, and terrain variety likely all play a role in making Hokkaido Japan’s favorite source of all things dairy.
Probably thanks to local milk’s heightened quality and freshness, Hokkaido offers some of the best ice creams in the country. Their incredibly rich and smooth soft serves come in all the traditional flavors, but also in some exotic combos like squid ink or uni flavor.
Yubari Melons (夕張メロン)
You really shouldn’t miss out on Hokkaido ice cream – and a perfect delicacy to try it with is called “Santa’s beard“. The name probably comes from the way this dessert looks: a swirl of soft serve on top of a half or quarter of a locally grown yubari melon. These local melons are orange on the inside, and they’re incredibly sweet and juicy, but honestly, quite expensive too.
The Northern Island Eats Well
Hokkaido became a part of Japan a long time ago – but the cold island kept its own flair.
With an incredible array of top-grade food sources and the unique mindset of its inhabitants, it’s no wonder that Hokkaido is the breadbasket of Japan. But, it’s also the place that created some of the most famous soul foods on the island – and don’t you dare fight me on that before you try authentic zangi!