This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of CONNECT.
Nomfundo A. Zondi (Hokkaido)
As the colour of the leaves changes, so do the flavours of Hokkaido. During this time of the year, the smell of sweet potatoes cooked over coals dances in the air, bringing a warmth into the chilling air. In this region of Japan, one will note many things that are unique in the food eaten by dosanko (the people of the north). Dishes such as soup curry, chanchan yaki, and sweet potato offer a reassurance as we inch toward the long winter months.
Curry, a world renown dish originally created in India, has a reputation for being delicious, fragrant, and absolutely timeless. Having made its way to the shores of Japan, it continues to uphold this reputation; however, with a twist. If you ever make your way to Sapporo, the capital city of Hokkaido, make sure to go to your nearest soup curry restaurant. You will not be disappointed. Soup curry is exactly what it sounds like; if soup and curry had a baby, it would be soup curry. It has the delicious, spicy elements that make a mouthwatering curry and the luxurious, abundant nature of a soup. This dish is highly versatile, with a variety of seasonal vegetables being added to it, as well as different protein options such as shrimp, pork, lamb, and beef. As delicious as this dish is, these foods also have their different benefits moving into the fall season. As it gets colder, we are less inclined to consume water as regularly as we did in the warmer months, so hydration becomes even more important to work on. Soup curry’s soup-like nature allows for one to contribute positively to their hydration. Along with the added benefit of incorporating a range of seasonal vegetables, which aids in supplying much needed nutrients to boost one’s immune system and provide us with fibre. In the colder months, fibre consumption becomes even more important, as we tend to be less active. A sedentary lifestyle negatively impacts gut motility, which may increase the likelihood of us struggling with constipation during these months. In such cases, fibre becomes a pertinent part of one’s dietary needs.
If you find yourself around a fire at this time of year, you will most certainly be enticed by the comforting smell of sweet potato wrapped in a paper towel and tin foil being cooked over hot coals. Perhaps you do this in your home country, but many expats agree that sweet potato, prepared this way in the fall season, is a uniquely Japanese tradition. Seeing families and friends share this delicacy instills a sense of community, as they break it in half almost as if to break bread. Sweet potato is well known for being delicious and a great way to satisfy one’s sweet tooth in a healthier, “guilt-free” way. However, another amazing benefit of sweet potato is its beta-carotene (pro-vitamin A) content which our body converts to vitamin A. A 100 g serving of sweet potato may contain all the vitamin A recommended daily for an adult human. (1) So one large sweet potato can be enjoyed twice or even three times to provide you with the vitamin A you need. What is so important about vitamin A, you may ask? Consuming vitamin A may offer us a plethora of benefits which include: a strengthened immune system, improved eye health, good skin health, and supports tissue function in our bodies. (1)
If you are a fan of the fresh sea food Japan has on offer, then this dish is for you. Chanchan yaki or steam fried miso salmon is a dish typically eaten during this time of year as salmon is in season. Characterised by its rich salmon and miso flavours, as well as the ease with which it can be prepared, hence the chanchan meaning promptly, chanchan yaki can make a great midweek meal at home or can be created over a fire should you go camping. The base ingredients include salmon, cabbage, onion, a miso paste sauce, a small amount of butter, and seasoning. To up the ante on this already wholesome dish, add potatoes, peppers, and mushrooms, which also increase the nutrient quality of the dish, aiding in boosting immunity as we enter flu season. Salmon is well known to abound in omega-3 fatty acids which are essential in our diet as our bodies do not produce them naturally. (2) Omega-3 fatty acids are linked to reducing inflammation, lowering blood pressure, reducing the risk of cancer, as well as improving the function of our arteries. (2) The American Heart Association and the National Health Service (NHS) in The U.K. recommend that for an adult to acquire enough omega-3 fatty acids in their diet, they should include two servings of oily fish in their diet per week. (2) In this case, a serving would be about 100 g of fish per serving and other oily fish along with salmon could be trout, mackerel, or sardines. (2)
Food is a powerful tool in heralding the changes in season here in Japan. And beyond seasonality, one can find that each dish has its benefits to suit the season. Should you make your way to the northern island of Japan this fall, perhaps you will find yourself indulging in these quintessential Hokkaido dishes. Until then, perhaps you can have a try at creating chanchan yaki in your own home with this recipe.
Chanchan Yaki Recipe
4 fillets (400 g) salmon
300 g cabbage
1/2 an onion
150 g mushrooms
3 tablespoons miso
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons water
20 g butter
Small amounts of salt, pepper, and oil
1. Flavor the salmon fillets with salt and pepper. Prepare the potato by peeling the
skin, cutting in half lengthwise, and steaming for 15 minutes.
2. Cut the cabbage into three centimetre squares. Chop the onion across the grain into one centimetre thick slices. Cut the steamed potato into one centimetre slices as well. Next, make the mushrooms bite-size. For varieties like shiitake with large caps, remove the stem ends and cut the caps in half. For mushrooms in clusters like shimeji, trim the root ends and separate into smaller clusters.
3. Make a miso paste by putting the miso in a small bowl and mix it well with the sugar.
4. Add half the water and mix until miso clumps disappear, then repeat with the
5. In a large frying pan, heat up some oil and place the salmon fillets skin side facing
- Cook over medium heat. When the fish is lightly browned on one side, flip the fillets over and stop the heat.
6. Add small pieces of butter around the fillets, followed by the onions, potatoes, mushrooms, and cabbage. Pour miso paste over the top.
7. Place a layer of aluminum foil. Press the foil around the pan’s inner rim to make sure there’s a seal.
8. Turn the heat back on. Switch to low when the frying pan has warmed up and steam fry for 10 minutes. Place the frying pan on the table just as is and serve directly.
Nomfundo is a second-year JET ALT from South Africa based in Hokkaido. She enjoys writing poetry, going to art galleries, going to live concerts and being in nature. Connecting with people is her passion and learning more about the world and what brings us together as a human race.