This is both an island and a dog. Yes, Hokkaido refers to either the northernmost prefecture of Japan – a roughly diamond-shaped island that’s the 21st largest in the world (nine times bigger than Cyprus) or a canine.
Right on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Hokkaido is a pretty seismic place with oodles of volcanic activity and more than its fair share of tsunami. The flip side being that it’s a truly beautiful area, with twelve protected natural parks boasting a range of ecologies including wetland, plains, mountains and lakes.
Hokkaido’s capital, Sapporo, is roughly 43 degrees north – about the same as Minneapolis. Factor in the expanse of surrounding ocean, and you’ve got a pretty cold weather most of the year: the cool summers and icy, snowy winters that make this the ski capital of the country and lend themselves to a cuisine quite different from the lighter fare of the nation’s more southerly islands.
Heavy on the sustaining soups and stews, the semi-official dish of Hokkaido is ohaw – sometimes known as rur. A savoury soup of the Ainu people of northern Japan, it is full of pretty solid ingredients (the type of fare that’s perfect in a prefecture with a surfeit of farms; the stuff that’s going to keep you planting those potatoes, tending your cattle, and logging that lumber through a snowstorm) such as meat, wheat, onions and pumpkins.
There are, of course, lots of varieties of this dish. Depending on available ingredients, you might get kam ohaw (meat soup), pukusa ohaw (garlic soup), or even pukusakina ohaw (anemone soup). All are traditionally flavoured with either fish or animal bones, with kelp often used to add flavour to the stock. And the dish is often served with a side of either sayo (a gruel of grain, such as millet or corn) or ratashkep (boiled wild veggies).
What’s missing, you’ll note, are two of the country’s most iconic ingredients: miso and soy sauce. Unlike the more southerly peoples, the Ainu of Hokkaido tend to eschew spices such as soybean paste and soy sauce for a more sustaining menu of animal or fish fat. Sushi does get a look in, and one of the most popular local dishes is kaisen-don: a simple bowl of rice topped with various seafood such as ikura (salmon roe), ika (squid), uni (sea urchin), or hotate (scallops).