Even Japanese who have never been to Okinawa have probably eaten Okinawan food at one time or another due to the spread and popularity of Okinawan restaurants across the country.
The same unfortunately cannot be said for the food of Japan’s northern indigenous people, the Ainu. Even in cosmopolitan Tokyo, there is only one restaurant serving Ainu cuisine. Thankfully, though, the chefs at this restaurants are true masters of the art. Let us introduce HaruKor.
HaruKor is actually not the first Ainu restaurant in Tokyo. That honor went to a place called Rera Chise, a restaurant which was started using donations collected from around the country to mark the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People in 1993. For many years, it was the center of Ainu culture in Tokyo. When that shop closed, the co-manager and his daughter inherited the recipes and opened HaruKor to carry on that tradition.
The menu is posted on the wall, but you may have a little trouble navigating it, since much of it is in Ainu. What is rataskep? Ohaw? And what in the world is mefun? Looking at the menu, I couldn’t even imagine what kind of food it described. Luckily, the staff was kind enough to walk me through it. Rataskep is a stewed dish that comes with different sauces. Ohaw is a kind of soup with dozens of ingredients. And mefun, is turns out, is salted fish entrails.
Foods associated with Hokkaido tend to be seafoods like urchin and cod roe, or maybe even red meat like goat or deer, and Ainu cuisine does use those typical foods as ingredients, but after trying out several dishes, what really struck me was the number of wild plants and grasses used to flavor them. With one bite, you can almost feel those healthy ingredients working on your body. They lend a bitter or astringent taste that gradually comes to the fore.
The dish that I liked the best was kampoca rataskep, made with sweet Japanese squash. It’s like having all the sweetness of nature melt on your tongue! But the flavor is balanced with roasted pine nuts and some medicinal plants in the rue family. Ciporimo, a dish of boiled potatoes with salted cod roe, also brought the sweetness of the potatoes to a peak. I was quite surprised at the depth of these traditional Ainu recipes.
If you’ve never had Ainu cuisine, you should definitely go and check it out at least once. Of course the meat and fish dishes are delicious, but it’s the dishes with wild vegetables that will really knock your socks off. A definite must-try for anyone living in or visiting Japan.
Shop info: HaruKor Address: Tokyo, Shinjuku-ku, Hyakunincho 1-15-3 Hours: Mon-Fri 5 p.m.-midnight, Sat-Sun 4 p.m.-midnight
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