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Friday, Aug. 31, 2012

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Currying favor: As the temperature begins to drop in Hokkaido, residents turn to the hot and hearty charms of soup curry, from acclaimed eateries such as (above) Okusyo, Soup Curry King (below) and Garaku (bottom). The dish comprises a bowl of thin curry topped with meat or vegetables, with rice to dip. KRIS KOSAKA


Soup curry — a spicy slurp of Hokkaido

Special to The Japan Times

Ask a group of Sapporo locals to name their favorite soup curry and stand back as the conversation flames. With literally hundreds of popular shops — from out-of-the-way nooks that close when the pot empties to Sapporo-only giants such as Samurai or Lavi Lavi — this spicy Hokkaido specialty ignites loyalties across the prefecture. While summer draws to a close here as the rest of Japan withers in the lingering heat, kindle your own appetite with some bitingly refreshing Sapporo cuisine.

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Soup curry first appeared on Sapporo menus in the early 1970s, but it wasn't until Magic Spice opened the first soup curry restaurant in 1993 that the boom officially started. Most shops follow the same basic recipe: a thin Indian- or Asian-style spicy soup heaped with fresh Hokkaido vegetables, served alongside rice. Patrons choose their level of spiciness, the size of their rice portion and their preferred curry base, ranging from lamb (Hokkaido's specialty) to chicken, seafood or vegetable. Traditional Indian lassi (yogurt drink) usually completes the fusion.

Soup Curry King (www.soupcurry-king.com) near Minami-Hiragishi Station reigns as one Sapporo ace. The simply accessorized dark/white interior delights with understated chic, but the real appeal simmers in the elegant soup. The King refines its spice with an infusion of yuzu and black vinegar into the soup base, a piquant addition that refreshes the palate. The spice range climbs 15 levels, and the last — appropriately named Joker — includes a dose of super-hot chili sauce.

Saffron rice deliciously soothes the heat, but sovereignty reigns with the meat. Choose between equally succulent chicken leg, beef tendon or lamb, each seasoned and meltingly tender. Locals favor the lamb, although King's vegetable curry is also a favorite. The soup never overwhelms the vegetables, prebroiled to perfection; the blackened broccoli explodes with flavor. Save room for a yuzu sherbert to calm your fiery tongue.

Garaku (www.s-garaku.com) near Susukino Station fetes funk with its eclectic, hip interior and innovative flavor combinations. Favorites include Cheese and Bacon, Seven Mushroom, Peppered Lamb or Lobster Head, but its specialty is Lavender Pork Curry. Garaku procures its pork from Furano in Hokkaido's Kamikawa Subprefecture, celebrated across Japan for its summer lavender fields but famous in Hokkaido year round for its high-quality pork.

Garaku takes thin-sliced pork infused with lavender and other spices, and layers them across a soup based on pork bone and tomato, heaped with vegetables. A true taste of Hokkaido, and one of many reasons Garaku remains crowded, even on a weekday evening. An astonishing 40 levels of spiciness round out the unusual, with the last tier of spice boasting habanero chili peppers, and the rice is subtly flavored with five grains.

Another funky taste, Garaku's own original ice cream — Spaice, or spice plus ice — is available to take home if you've indulged too much in-house. Creamy and soothing at first, it bites back a second after it hits your taste buds, and the overall sensation is surprisingly delicious.

Okusyo (www.okusyo.com), with branches in Hachioji and Asahikawa alongside its main store near Nishisen 9 Jo streetcar stop, found its niche with a richly tangy tomato- and shrimp-based soup served with countryside hospitality. While most soup curry shops cater to a younger crowd, Okusyo, housed in a renovated Japanese home, welcomes everyone: Families with small children and older patrons sit in its comfortable tatami rooms, while university students gather in its large, main dining hall refurbished in contemporary Japanese style.

As you make your way through the traditional entryway, photos of local farmers crowd the wall, and Okusyo credits its use of local produce for its continued success. Seasonal Hokkaido vegetables fill the soup, and one special topping is maitake, a mushroom especially savored in Hokkaido. Choose between 12 levels of spiciness, powered with picante. White rice with a squeeze of lemon cools the palate and completes the rustic appeal.

How mainlanders can get soup curry too

Magic Spice (www.magicspice.net), the original soup curry restaurant, has branches in Shimokitazawa in Tokyo, as well as Osaka and Nagoya, and sells a wide range of soup curry products from its website.

Popular Sapporo-only chain Lavi Lavi (www.011bros.com/lavi) offers its original soup curry in retort packages to eat at home. Visit the website to order.

Sama (www.hb-sama.com), another favorite with branches all over Sapporo, also offers a retort pack: Call the main branch on (011) 644-7422 (Japanese only).

For home chefs, Bell Foods has a popular soup curry paste for your base on Amazon.co.jp, product number: B005O56WNU; or try a basic retort from House Foods: B0063A46HY.

Or if it's a taste of the real thing you're after, hop on a flight for the Sapporo Autumn Fest (Sept. 14-30; www.sapporo-autumnfest.jp) and crisp, cooler temperatures. The annual event along the city's central Odori Park celebrates Hokkaido food culture with the chance to sample many local specialities — including, of course, soup curry.

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