Hokkaido: A Treasure Chamber of Healthy Fermented Food



 Japanese have the longest life span of all the people in the world. This is no wonder because the Japanese have made a healthy way of living part of their culture. For example, taking long soaks in onsen hot spring baths is not just about washing your body but to restore and improving one’s health and the onsen culture is said to be the secret to good health and longevity. Another factor in longevity is Japanese food. Japanese cuisine is not just tasty but also healthy (well, if you don’t count all the deep-fried food at least). Especially fermented foods are particularly good for your health and in Japan, there are many: miso paste, soy sauce, koji rice malt, pickled vegetables and fish, and so on.

 In Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, you can enjoy many of these foods many from local ingredients. Hokkaido-grown soybeans are used to make local miso and soy sauce, milk is used to make cheese and other dairy products (Hokkaido has more than 50% of the nation’s share of raw milk), and rice—an essential ingredient of koji rice malt and sake—is also widely produced.

 In this blog post, you can learn about fermentation as a food processing method and especially the fermented food culture in Hokkaido: What are the benefits of fermentation, what fermented foods you can find in Japan and Hokkaido, and what kind of fermented foods the indigenous Ainu people have been making.

 If you are curious to know more about the Japanese onsen hot spring culture, take a look at our earlier blog posts Noboribetsu: The City of Onsen Hot Springs https://hokkaido-treasure.com/column/057/ and The Lake Shikotsu Area: Clearblue Lakes, Scenic Mountains, and Rushing Rivers https://hokkaido-treasure.com/column/058/.

What is fermented food and why it’s good for you?

 Fermented food has been prepared since the dawn of humankind as a means of preserving food without losing too many nutrients, and it’s an excellent technique that can be used in all kinds of foods: vegetables, fish, meat, dairy products etc. Some common Western fermented foods and drinks are bread and different milk-based fermented foods, such as cheese and yogurt, and drinks beer and wine. Famous Asian fermented foods are for example soy sauce, fish sauce, tempeh, and pickled mustard greens and Japan is of course especially known for soy sauce, miso paste, natto, and sake. Surprisingly enough, even chocolates utilize fermentation as part of their preparation process. Fermentation isn’t just restricted to edibles; it is also extensively used for preparing drinks such as tea and kombucha or non-edible substances like indigo dye from the indigo plant.

 The fermentation procedure involves breaking down carbohydrates by microorganisms such as bacteria and yeast—this results in unique flavors and aromas while adding nutritional benefits to our diet. One more useful aspect of fermentation is its ability to preserve food without any artificial preservatives making it an environmentally sustainable method for preparing meals! The difference between fermentation and spoilage is that fermentation is a controlled process that requires specific conditions, such as temperature and acidity levels, while spoilage occurs when food is exposed to uncontrolled environmental factors or exposure to air. Fermented foods can go bad if they are not stored properly; however, their shelf life can be extended with proper handling techniques.

 Why are fermented foods good for us? Well, first of all, they are good for our immune system. Fermented foods are packed with beneficial bacteria that can improve gut health, which in turn strengthens the immune system. Moreover, they are easier to digest, which allows our bodies to absorb more nutrients from the food we consume. Additionally, fermented foods can help to reduce inflammation in the body due to the presence of probiotics that promote a healthy gut microbiome. Fermented food is not only healthy but also very tasty: the fermentation process increases umami, or savory taste, in the food, which can enhance its overall flavor profile. However, some fermented foods include a lot of salt, so it is important to consume them in moderation and also consider the sodium intake in our diet. One more benefit of fermentation is its ability to increase the shelf life of food, reducing wastage and making it a cost-effective method for preservation.

Japanese healthy fermentation culture from miso paste to koji rice malt

 Japan has the longest average healthy life expectancy in the world for both men and women. Longevity is often attributed to the healthy traditional diet of the Japanese people. Many of the foods especially associated with healthiness are different fermented foods. In a fact, the fermentation process plays a central role in the production of many iconic Japanese foods, including miso paste, soy sauce, natto, koji rice malt, pickles, and sake. These foods are made mainly from two ingredients: soybeans and rice (pickles can of course be virtually made of any foodstuff). 

 The fermentation process involves the use of beneficial bacteria and yeasts to create a wide range of textures, flavors, and aromas that are unique to Japanese cuisine. For instance, miso paste is made from a combination of soybeans, koji rice malt and salt, and aged to develop a rich flavor that adds depth to various dishes, such as soups, marinades, and dressings.

 The interest in fermentation has been growing worldwide over the past decade, largely due to the increasing awareness of its potential health benefits. In Japan, the fermented food boom started already 10 years ago but it has gained new momentum especially during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Two of the main reasons for this are that fermented food boosts the immune system but people also had more time to cook at home during the lockdown. Fermented foods improve digestion and gut health due to the presence of probiotics, while also contributing beneficial nutrients. Gut health is connected to overall health, as it is linked to a variety of conditions and illnesses such as inflammatory bowel disease and obesity. The activity that aims to improve gut health has even a word of its own in Japan; chokatsu (腸活).

 During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Japanese healthy fermentation culture has become more popular than ever before, not just because fermented foods support the immune system but also because people have more time to experiment with home cooking and learn more about traditional food preparation methods such as fermentation. Fermentation can be said to be slow food at its best. It takes patience and attention to detail, as the process can take several days or even weeks to complete but the result is worth it, as it produces unique and complex flavors that cannot be obtained through other cooking methods. Many people share online their growing knowledge about methods of fermentation (which is by the way hakko/発酵 in Japanese) and you can find some bloggers writing in English, too. See for example Fermented food recipes from Japan https://fermentedfoodrecipe.com/ (an outbound link) by Mai, a Japanese blogger living in Canada. There are even food markets and restaurants that specialize only in fermented food and beverages, for example, Hakko department food store (発酵デパートメント) https://hakko-department.com/ (an outbound link, in Japanese only) and Hakko izakaya 5 (発酵居酒屋5) https://www.cafecompany.co.jp/brands/hakko/ (an outbound link, in Japanese only) in Tokyo.

Hokkaido: A paradise for fermented food fans

 Hokkaido is known as the bread basket of Japan. It holds the first position in Japan as a producer of many basic foodstuffs, such as grains, vegetables, and raw milk. Many of these crops and foods the farms in Hokkaido produce can be also used to make a variety of fermented foods. Hokkaido boasts a rich tradition of fermented foods such as shio koji (salted rice malt) and natto. In fact, Hokkaido is famous for its unique fermented food culture, which draws in many tourists throughout the year.

 Some popular examples of Hokkaido’s unique fermented food culture include butterbur tsukemono (pickled Japanese butterbur stem) and kelp soy sauce pickles. Hokkaido is also well-known for its production of dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt, which are often made using traditional fermentation methods. Moreover, Hokkaido is home to several innovative fermentation projects, such as the production of sake using locally grown rice and yeasts. These innovative projects have contributed to the continuous growth and development of Hokkaido’s fermented food culture, making it a must-visit destination for fermented food enthusiasts.

 Fermented dairy products of Hokkaido are especially famous. Cheese, yogurt, and as special a lactic acid bacteria beverage called katsugen (you can read more about this drink below). A lion’s share of the milk produced in Japan is produced in Hokkaido, and a large portion of that milk is further processed into fermented dairy products. Some of the popular fermented dairy products include butter, cream cheese, camembert cheese, and gouda cheese. The reason for processing the raw milk further is that Hokkaido has relatively long and cold winters and feeding the milk cows during the winter can be challenging and expensive, so processing the milk into fermented dairy products allows farmers to make a better profit and keep their cows fed. This has also contributed to the popularity and availability of fermented dairy products in Hokkaido.

Local fermented food in Sapporo

 Sapporo city is the capital of Hokkaido and many famous local companies have their headquarters in Sapporo. Some companies deal with fermented food and drink products. Let’s see what we have here!

 Sapporo and Tokyo-based Megmilk Snow Brand https://www.meg-snow.com/english/ (Yukijirushi Megumiruku/雪印メグミルク) (an outbound link) is one of the largest dairy companies in Japan. Megmilk Snow Brand produces all sorts of dairy products from butter to skim milk and cheese to yogurt and desserts. These are however products you find in any dairy company’s product lineup but Megmilk Snow Brand has one product you can’t find in any other company’s assortment: Soft Katsugen.

 Being sold since 1956 Soft Katsugen is a lactic acid bacteria beverage that has gained huge popularity among  Hokkaidoans. When I moved to Sapporo in 2015, I’d heard about this drink and was curious to taste it. Some people online said that they love and some that they don’t like it. I’m somewhere in between; I like the taste but I just don’t buy it very often. Now that I started to write about it, I feel like drinking it! Anyway, I recommend that you buy a small carton of Soft Katsugen and decide yourself whether you like it or not (the smallest carton available is 180 ml and the largest 1000 ml/1 liter, so maybe it’s best to start with the small one).

 Fukuyama Jozo (福山醸造) https://www.tomoechan.jp/en/ (an outbound link) is a long-established business that has been around since the Meiji era (1868–1912). Jozo (醸造) in the company name means ’brewing’ but the company has nothing to do with beer. Known for its Tomoe brand, Fukuyama Jozo produces miso and soy sauce, and its soy sauce production division is called Hokkaido Soy Sauce (北海道醤油株式会社). If you want to try some soy sauce and miso produced from local Hokkaido ingredients, Fukuyama Jozo’s products are your choice. They make nice souvenirs, too. The company also offers a tour of its factory. Fukuyama Jozo is established in 1891, so you can see some really old soy sauce brewing and miso-making tools, too.

 Nippon seishu https://nipponseishu.co.jp/ (日本清酒) (an outbound link, in Japanese only) is local Sapporo sake (rice wine) producer. Sake is made of rice, koji rice malt, and water and the solid ingredients need to be fermented by sake yeast in the process. The brand name of the company’s sake is Chitose tsuru (千歳鶴) and there are many different kinds to choose from. Most of the Chitose tsuru brand sakes are junmai (純米) sakes, that is, sakes made without added sugar or alcohol (they contain only the alcohol generated during the fermentation process). Nippon seishu also owns the Yoichi only wine (余市ワイン) brand.

 Another alcoholic beverage Sapporo is famous for is of course beer. Sapporo beer (サッポロビール) (an outbound link) https://www.sapporobeer.jp/english/ is an international brand now with its roots firmly in Sapporo. Beer is made of malt, hops, water, and yeast because just like sake, beer needs to be fermented. Sapporo beer uses as many local Hokkaido ingredients as possible, for example, my favorite Sapporo Classic uses only malts from Hokkaido-grown barley and Sorachi 1984—another favorite of mine—gets its taste from Sorachi ace hops cultivated by Sapporo beer.

 You can read more about beers, wines, and whiskeys produced in Hokkaido in our earlier blog post Enjoy Hokkaido and its wines, beers, spirits and other drinks https://hokkaido-treasure.com/column/059/.

The fermented food culture of the indigenous Ainu

 Hokkaido is the homeland of the indigenous Ainu. As fermentation is an excellent way to process foodstuff, of course, Ainu have also used fermentation as a method of preparing and preserving food. Salmon is the staple of the Ainu diet and they couldn’t have survived without it. The salmon are plentiful in the fall when they run up the rivers to their breeding ground, but this brings in the problem of preserving the fish. There was too much to be eaten at once, so most of the salmon was preserved; usually smoked and dried. There is, however, a special method of preserving salmon that uses fermentation: yamazuke (山漬け). This fermentation method combines the Ainu knowledge of food preservation and Japanese salt-making techniques.

 First, the entrails of the salmon are removed (the entrails are also prepared as food) and the fish are washed thoroughly. Then the fish are rubbed with salt several times and stacked, more salt is added, and then the fish are weighed down to remove the fluids. The fish is left to ferment for about a week and the process is repeated three times or so. As a result, the fishy smell of the salmon disappears and a unique flavor is developed instead. This food has, however, extremely high salt content, so it’s better not to eat it too much!

 Ainu also preserve vegetables by fermentation. The bulbs of oubayuri lily (Cardiocrinum cordatum var. glehnii) with high starch contents were an important source of carbohydrates for Ainu during the long winter months. Ainu themselves call the bulbs turep. The season to gather turep is from the end of June to mid-July. The bulbs are dug out of the ground, and each scale of the bulb is separated and washed. Then they are mashed in a mortar.

 The mash is then washed in a sieve adding a small amount of water so that the starch is washed off. The starch water is also processed further but since we are here interested in fermentation, we don’t go into that in detail. The mashed lily bulbs that was left in the sieve is covered with giant butterbur leaves and let ferment for a week, then formed into discs with a hole in the middle (like a doughnut) and dried outside in the sun. These are called onturep, fermented lily bulbs, that are eaten during the winter. The onturep discs are put in a string and hung above the fireplace. They are usually used to make a gruel by breaking the dried discs and boiling them in water.

 Another fermented Ainu dish has not so long history as onturep but it is still well-loved among the Ainu. This one is made of potatoes that were first introduced to Hokkaido in the late 18th century. The Ainu name of the dish has a regional variation: in Tokachi it’s called muninimo(sito) ’rotten potato (dumplings)’, in Biratori peneimo ’pulped potatoes’, in Shizunai and Samani imosito ‘potato dumplings’, in Shiraoi penekosoymo ’pulped potatoes’, and in Kushiro potceimo ’potatoes soggily crushed’, but today, many people just use the name they like the most regardless the region they live in. I’m the most familiar with peneimo, so I will call the dish peneimo here. The preparation method of peneimo is simple: the potatoes are buried under snow in the early winter. In the spring, when the temperature rises and goes down below freezing again, the potatoes thaw and freeze repeatedly, which makes them ferment. Then they are peeled, washed, and mashed. The mash then can be used to make dumplings (see the lower right hand side in the picture above) or it can be dried and stored for later use. The smell of the fermented potatoes as they are is quite wild but the peneimo dumplings are delicious! You can try them in some Ainu restaurants in Hokkaido, for example in a restaurant called Marukibune (丸木舟) in Ainu kotan in Akanko onsen (ask for potche).

Come and experience the fermented food culture of Hokkaido

 Hokkaido has a rich history of fermented food culture, which is closely tied to the Ainu people and their traditional way of living as well as Japanese traditional culinary practices. As such, visiting Hokkaido can be a great opportunity to experience this unique culinary tradition by trying out various fermented dishes like yamazuke and peneimo. Not only do these dishes offer a delicious and unique taste, but they also provide insight into the history and culture of Hokkaido. Furthermore, exploring the fermented food culture of Hokkaido can be an excellent way to connect with the locals and gain a better understanding of their ways of life and traditions. For those with an interest in exploring the deeper dimensions of fermented food culture in Hokkaido, there are numerous opportunities to learn about the traditional methods of preparing and preserving fermented dishes.

 Some visitors might initially feel hesitant about trying dishes that involve fermenting food, but stepping out of one’s comfort zone is an important part of any cultural exploration. Moreover, fermented food has been found to have various health benefits such as improving digestion and boosting the immune system. Therefore, trying out fermented dishes during one’s visit to Hokkaido can not only be a cultural experience but also a healthy choice.

 So, what are you waiting for? Make a reservation now for your next trip to Hokkaido and explore the unique fermented food culture that this northern Japanese island has to offer. Contact us to start planning your trip to Hokkaido and discover the region’s rich culinary culture for yourself by pressing the ‘Contact us’ button below.