When it snows in Hokkaido, it’s time for the smoky taste of ‘robatayaki’ |  Eat / drink

When it snows in Hokkaido, it’s time for the smoky taste of ‘robatayaki’ | Eat / drink

Yellow 'chochin' lanterns entice customers to enter 'izakayas' along a snow-filled alley in Hokkaido.  - Pictures of CK Lim
Yellow ‘chochin’ lanterns entice customers to enter ‘izakayas’ along a snow-filled alley in Hokkaido. – Pictures of CK Lim

HOKKAIDO, Jan 13 – Hokkaido is freezing. Winter on Japan’s northernmost island is serious business, with temperatures dropping to as low as -6 ° C when it’s cold.

Which means it’s about to be the most delusional time of the year, as well as the fact that Hokkaido is a culinary tradition. Why not ward off the icy cold while eating a delicious meal?

There is May not, a traditional Japanese hotpot, as well as chunks of oden dabs away in a tub filled with a candle dashi broth. There are delicate sheets of simmer yudofu, steaming hot nikuman (meat-filled buns) and yakiimo (roasted sweet potatoes).

Even dessert in the winter should be soupy and warm: you can not go wrong with a bowl of shiruko, a sweet soup made from adzuki beans, and full of tough mochi (adhesive rice cake) balls.

There is smoke in your eyes (left).  Grill skewers of fish over charcoal (right).
There is smoke in your eyes (left). Grill skewers of fish over charcoal (right).

But there are exceptions to this soupy, steamy rule.

Walk into a snow-filled alley with shoulder-to-shoulder izakayas (Japanese diners) on both sides, the chochin (paper lanterns) at each entrance beckon customers to enter and you will soon realize what is calling to you the most are not the subtle aromas of oden or May not broth, but the tasty smoke of meat, fish and vegetables being grilled.

Because when it snows in Hokkaido, it’s time for the smoky taste of robatayaki. Legend has it robatayaki was first introduced by fishermen who desperately demanded hot food while on long, cold fishing trips.

They could not exactly start an open fire on their boats, made entirely of wood, so they took stone fireplaces on board. Filled with charcoal, these portable fireplaces were more than a way to grill the day’s catch; they were also a way for fishermen to keep warm in the cold sea off the shores of Hokkaido.

Arranging 'binchotan' or white coal is a skill that has been honed from many years of practice.
Arranging ‘binchotan’ or white coal is a skill that has been honed from many years of practice.

today there is robata restaurants with proper common style irori fireplaces where customers can see the chef, often a master with many years of experience, grilling skewers of fish over charcoal. And not just fish; there could be scallops added to the scent of smoke and slightly charred tiger prawns.

Although less common, even meat and vegetables are now part of one robatayaki menu. Which blurs the line between robatayaki and other barbecue styles such as yakitori (chicken) or yakiniku (predominantly beef and pork). Some robata restaurants may even allow you to grill the food yourself, depending on their setup.

For better robata only restaurants binchotan or white coal is used. First produced in Wakayama Prefecture during the Edo period, binchotan is specially made of ubame Oak tree. Harder than black coal, binchotan can burn longer and does not smoke as much in a room.

From preparation to plating, all aspects of ‘robatayaki’ are carefully performed.
From preparation to plating, all aspects of ‘robatayaki’ are carefully performed.

The last move is especially important when thinking about the traditional robatayaki involves a large room of patrons arranged around the robata chef who cooks over his treasured irori fireplace. Arranging binchotan or white charcoal is a skill that has been honed from many years of practice, and the chef’s full focus is crucial here.

In fact, from preparation to plating, all aspects of robatayaki are performed carefully. However, robatayaki-style dining is not limited to robata restaurants only.

In the port city of Kushiro, it is not uncommon to see outdoor robatayaki stalls being set up on the banks of the Kushiro River when the temperature drops and the snow begins to fall. It’s something of a winter wonder, with the iconic Nusamai Bridge overlooking passers-by as they stop at their favorite stalls.

You can see from the tasty, smoky aroma that each piece has been grilled to perfection by a master.
You can see from the tasty, smoky aroma that each piece has been grilled to perfection by a master.

Some might argue that these yatai stalls do not really offer it robatayaki experience as it is in the open air and that anyone could look past. (historically seen, robata restaurants tend to have a male-dominated clientele, so perhaps some of this annoyance is misplaced chauvinistic nostalgia.)

Fans would face the truth robatayaki experience is what you make of it – a group of strangers who gather to watch a master grill meat and seafood in front of them and wait patiently for their turn to be served.

As with other foodie FOMO situations (“fear of missing out”), a visitor can decide which robatayaki stop protecting based on the length of the queue. But in truth, one just has to trust his senses, especially his sense of smell.

A slightly charred tiger shrimp, 'robatayaki' style.
A slightly charred tiger shrimp, ‘robatayaki’ style.

You can see from the tasty, smoky aroma that each piece has been grilled to perfection by a master. And if your smell betrays a particular case, no matter what; that’s just another reason to try the next one robatayaki stall.

There could be worse problems than trying the grilled delicacies at different stalls until you discover what you rate as the best. In any case, it will keep you warm and your mind away from the snow that is now falling heavier, like a blanket of binchotan ash.

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