EXPLORING THE HAKODATE MORNING FISH MARKET
For Japanese, Hokkaido represents its great northern farmland. Wide and fertile it produces an impressive volume of high quality fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products. The waters surrounding Hokkaido are equally impressive with daily hauls of an extraordinary variety of sea creatures and plants. Many mainland Japanese salarymen look forward to annual holidays so that they may travel north to sample the exceptional sea urchin (uni in Japanese) and king crab (kani). One trip to a central market anywhere in Japan will tell you that Hokkaido sea urchin and crab caught from the Japan Sea (west coast) fetch a considerable premium over any other region in the world. The reason? They simply taste better – sweetness, richness and balance combined with pristine texture. These are the foods that drive connoisseurs wild with appreciation.
If you plan on shopping for fresh seafood you will be able to get ice and styrofoam containers with your purchase so there is no need to bring along special cargo. There are many restaurants within the market that serve food from early morning so bring along a healthy appetite. Crab, Sea Urchin and Salmon Caviar are the three most popular toppings for steamed rice – called “dons”. Depending on the season the uni or crab could be the best choice although both benefit from being served alongside salty salmon caviar. It is difficult to choose which restaurant to eat at and there are many. The difference between them will be in how good the cooking is – they all use the morning’s catch so fish quality is high. Better restaurants offer better rice that is seasoned delicately. Another difference is the wasabi and soy sauce. It all comes down to pride and choosing which one is better based on appearances won’t help in this market. So which restaurant is best?
It turns out that there are 2 locations within the same market (and one in another town). This is a professional operation with cheery servers and passionate cooking that also sells fish online. Don’t expect anything fancy – it’s a fish market after all. Here it is all about the freshness of the fish. The uni-don is a textural masterpiece with cool, creamy uni sitting atop hot, steamy rice. Eaten at the right market restaurant and an uni-don is heavenly – like a cloud of sweet, sour and savoury that enchants and entices with each passing bite. The only condiment necessary is wasabi and here it is freshly grated to order. Other delicacies worth ordering include daily fish that is grilled to order and semi-dried fish that is also grilled. There are a variety of menus that mix and match different styles of cooking. We opted for a straigh-up uni-don with wasabi and a side order of semi-dried sole grilled over charcoal. Both were excellent. Paired with simple tea or draft beer and you will have started your day off like a king (or queen).
Recommended Restaurant: Uni-Murakami
ARRIVING BY FERRY
If you are traveling by car consider taking the island ferry between Honshu (mainland Japan) and Hokkaido. Drive north from Tokyo until you reach the Aomori – a port city famous for its apples. Boarding the ferry here takes one across the Tsugaru Straits, an important body of water where an incredible variety of animal and plant organisms live. This is the point at which the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Japan.
During the day a ferry trip across these straights gives gorgeous panoramic views of the ocean and seasonal coastal scenery. If you time your trip right it is possible to see the sunrise or sunset during the crossing which would be spectacular. Our crossing took place in the middle of the night so that we awoke with the sunrise as we approached the port of Hakodate. If you cross at night consider booking the Blue Dolphin cabin, comparable to a hotel room with satisfactory amenities. If you don’t have a budget for the room their are tatami (bamboo) mat rooms to sleep on and chairs and tables to sit at while you bide your time.
This sea route connecting Aomori and Hakodate lasts 3 hours and 40 minutes. Leaving late at night will enable you to arrive at the Hakodate port just in time for the opening of the morning fish market and a fresh-catch seafood breakfast.
Various species of crab are caught off the coast of Hokkaido but four stand as the most popular to eat. Note that although Crab are called Kani in Japanese, when they are combined with a prefix the K changes to G (Kani –> Ke-Gani , Takaashi-Gani etc. ) Look for the following crabs in the market:
- Kegani – Horsehair Crab
- Tarabagani – Red King Crab
- Zuwaigani or Matsubagani – Snow Crab
- Takaashigani – Spiny King Crab.
In English the species called Snow Crabs has a single name whereas within Japan they are called Zuwaigani, Matsubagani, Echizengani and Yoshigani. Red King Crab or “Tarabagani” is a delicacy prized by Japanese and Russians for its sweet and juicy meat sourced from the icy waters of Kamchatka. The Japanese spider crab has the greatest leg span of any arthropod, reaching 3.8 metres (12 ft) from claw to claw.
Crabs are prepared in a variety of ways including steaming, grilling and boiling. Subsequently the meat is de-shelled and processed along with the prized green kani miso (crab brains). Crabs are prepared differently based on their individual species and require considerable skill to cook correctly. For this reason, take advantage of the local expertise when in Hokkaido or Tokyo as you are unlikely to ever taste crab that good, and prepared that well anywhere else in the world.
According to the Hokkaido Food Library Oysters raised in the waters off Hokkaido are primarily young Pacific oysters sourced from Miyagi Prefecture. Hokkaido oyster waters have a high degree of minerals washed down from the nearby mountains via rivers. Seawater is also filled with plankton that travel in and out of tributary fresh water lakes. This unique combination is the perfect environment for growing oysters. Here the aquaculture tradition utilizes suspended ropes that allows the oyesters to mature over a longer period of time in a completely natural environment.
Gylcogen is one of the elements of oyster’s taste which they are able to absorb more easily in harsh cold environments like Hokkaido. As young oysters mature mineral retention grows which, combined with a springy and supple flesh that results in a culinary treasure rich in taste texture.
Uni is an extraordinary sea delicacy with a very short shelf life within which to experience its peak flavor and freshness. Its best characteristics are so tied to its freshness that it is impossible to have the best uni anywhere other than near the sea port city where it arrived. It helps explains why Ginza Tokyo remains the pinnacle of seafood dining – the merging of incomparable freshness and supreme culinary talent. Fertile konbu kelp waters are what support large stocks of healthy sea urchin. Sea urchins are omnivorous eat konbu kelp. The edible portion of the sea urchin is in fact the reproductive glands – called gonads – which contain the milt or roe depending on whether the urchin is male or female.
There are two types of uni harvested in or near the coastal waters of Hokkaido: ‘Ezo Bafun Uni’ and ‘Kita Murasaki Uni’. Bafun surprisingly translates to ‘horse dung‘, but don’t let its name put you off. Ezo-Bafun-Uni is exceptionally creamy and rich in flavor with a deep orange color that sets it apart from all others. It also fetches a considerably high price than the Murasaki-Uni. Kita Murasaki Uni is so named because it comes from the north (kita) and has shades of purple (murasaki) in its spiny shell. Its spiny shell is 3 to 4 times larger in size than the Bafun Uni and its gonads are bright yellow in color. Its taste is more subtle and less rich although some feel it has a more refined taste. You are encouraged to taste both types of sea urchin to compare their tastes and textures which is usually possible at some fish market vendors and restaurants.
One of Hokkaido’s culinary specialties is Uni Donburi, which is a bowl of hot, steaming rice topped generously with plenty of uni. For a souvenir, salt-cured uni – called Shio Uni – is popular and is sold in tall, narrow bottles at markets and souvenir shops. At home, it can be served with raw cucumber or over steaming rice and goes particularly well with sake. The best types of Shio Uni are soaked overnight in sake after salting and contain no preservatives.
DON’T FORGET THE SUMMER MELON
With so many choices for fish and shellfish available it may be easy to overlook the glorious fruit also available in the Hakkodate Market. Many of Hokkaido’s best fruits make their way to the morning fruit stands and according to season. The same Ferry route that tourists take to move from Honshu to Hokkaido is also a direct route for moving fruit and other produce from Aomori and Iwate Prefectures. On our visit during the summer, melon was in season. As we exited the Uni-don restaurant an elderly couple enticed us with free samples of freshly cut summer melon. It was so juicy and sweet that we bought 4 of the medium-priced melons for about ¥6000 yen total to enjoy with our evening BBQ back in Niseko. The price of melons in Japan is often a shock to foreign tourists but there is a very good reason for it. Japanese premium melons like the ones we purchased are grown one per plant. Early in the growth cycle the melon plant is “green harvested” which means trimmed of all fruit except one. The plants energy is driven into a single fruit which results in greater flavor and concentration. Additionally, melon plants grow with wider spacing between each on these premium fruit farms so as to maximize ripening. They are indeed special fruit and one taste will tell you that immediately.
ARTICLE REPRINTED FROM LUXNISEKO