TRAVELOGUE    Hokkaido

Every Meal is a Gift From Kamui

  • text : Cultureland Tsuguya Fujita
  • photo : Akira Sato
  • edit : Seiji Takeuchi

chapter 2
“Ohau is the Ultimate in Simple Flavour”

Once I was on the Hokkaido Expressway from Sapporo, the Ainu Museum was only a five minute drive from the motorway’s Shiraoi exit. The entrance signboard read: “Shiraoi Poroto Kotan – The Ainu Museum.” Poroto Kotan means ‘A hamlet with a large lake’ in Ainu, and I was surprised to learn just how vast the museum was: 20,265 m2.

The shop serving Ainu food inside the museum is called “Café Rimse”, with the word rimse meaning light meal. It’s a large, vinyl, greenhouse-like structure from where you get to see Lake Poroto up close. In that restaurant, a proud Ainu lady named Miyuki Muraki guided me through the wonderful world of Ainu cuisine.

“Ohau, the stewed soup we serve here, is a typical traditional Ainu home dish. It’s a salt base soup with various stewed vegetables and fish. There has never been such a concept as staple food in Ainu food culture, but this soup is something that has always been at the centre of the Ainu’s dietary life.”

In Ohau, various ingredients including potato, carrot, Japanese radish or salmon caught around Shiraoi are found cut wildly into large pieces. The unique flavours of these chunky ingredients are mixed together to create a perfect harmony. The orchestrated flavours are mildly masked by the saltiness, and in all could be described as the taste ‘of nature itself‘. The natural and gentle deliciousness spread out in the mouth immediately, and for someone who is so used to heavily-seasoned food, the experience of the taste was a refreshing encounter with a flavour our bodies seek.

“The essence of the Ainu’s food is to let the eater experience the taste of great nature itself. What has always been rare and quite valuable for Ainu people was oil. They extracted oil from animals, for instance from bears, or fish. They would use the oil for stir-frying as we often do now, but they also used the oil to give koku (richness) to the soup they cooked. They also made fish-liver oil drops that they would take regularly to supplement their vitamin needs during the winter.” —Miyuki Muraki.


Left)Ms. Miyuki Muraki has been working for The Ainu Museum for 30 years. She says, “Learning that the word Ainu means human made me become more confident about how I was leading my life.”

“The Flavour of Salmon is Enriched by Their Upstream Homeward Journey”

In making hoshisake, salmon are first left to dry in the cold lakeside weather. This dried salmon, prepared in the Ainu’s particular way, is said to be the origin of saketoba, a common dried salmon snack often served as a side dish to alcohol drinks.

A big question that kept coming to my mind when thinking about the Ainu’s food life was, how did they secure enough food during the winter? About half the year, wild animals and vegetables were not available. I learned that they came up with many creative ways to store food for that period.

“Wild mountain vegetables, for example, we dry and store them for winter. When eating them, we put the dried vegetables into soup etc. so they’ll be remoisturised. Ever since salt became available to our ancestors, we started salting food before storing it. Meat and fish were turned into satkam (dried meat) and satcep (dried fish) and they became precious protein sources for the Ainu people.” —Miyuki Muraki.

Hoshisake is prepared by first gutting the salmon, drying the remaining salmon meat outdoor in a cold climate, then smoking it with the fumes of the irori fireplace (open hearth) set at the center of the house. In Ainu chise (homes) the irori fireplace burns throughout the year. Therefore, if you place a salmon above the chise, the fish meat will be smoked without you doing anything.

Young salmon spawned in the river will go down the stream towards the sea, and come back to their home river after four years or so. The mysterious upstream return voyage of the salmon might also be considered the blessed work of Kamui.

“This kotan (Ainu territory) is close to the mouth of the river. People of the kotan in the area of Biratori-cho often made dumplings called sito because they were close to mountains, where they could find its ingredient. There is a shop selling sito even now, if you want to try eating it,” Ms. Miyuki Muraki kindly told me at the end.


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