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Food & Beverage

Sapporo gains worldwide fame as home of delicious 'soup curry'

Long a favorite with residents, local specialty now attracts tourists

At Spice Bar Tara, diners can enjoy their soup curry with a drink at the bar counter. (Photo by Yuri Mitsui)

SAPPORO, Japan -- Hokkaido attracts scores of visitors from around the world with its beautiful scenery and excellent ski resorts. Sapporo, Hokkaido's largest city, is famous among tourists for its snow festival. It is also the home of "soup curry," a dish that has become so popular it is gaining fans among visitors from around the world. 

The rich curry-flavored soup with vegetables and meat has won legions of local fans. Travel websites have introduced the dish, and it is becoming increasingly popular with tourists. 

In Hokkaido, more than 200 restaurants serve soup curry. Prices vary, from around 1,000 yen at inexpensive places to 1,500-2,000 yen at chain outlets. At restaurants that specialize in soup curry, customers can choose the level of spiciness and the amount of rice, and for an extra 100-300 yen, they can add toppings such as quail eggs, okra and bacon. 

Soup curry was invented in Sapporo in about 1970. Initially it was served as a staff meal at a coffeehouse, which is now the soup curry restaurant Ajanta. Spicy soup with stewed bone-in chicken was eventually added to the menu.

This is the widely accepted origin story, although there are other contenders. Taizan Shimomura, the owner of the Magic Spice soup curry restaurant chain founded in 1993 in Sapporo, created a dish inspired by the Indonesian chicken soup Soto Ayam, calling it "soup curry," and the name stuck.

Magic Spice is known as the godfather of soup curry in Sapporo. (Photo by Yuri Mitsui)

In the early days, many curry shops could be found in the basements of buildings with traditional Indian music played in the background. But since around 2000, more inviting cafe-style curry shops have been popping up and gradually winning over Sapporo residents, who are always keen to try something new.

Typically, soup curry contains chunky vegetables and meat, which stems from its origins at Ajanta. At first glance, it looks easy to cook, without the need to cut ingredients in small pieces. But unlike traditional home-cooked curry in Japan, in which all ingredients are slow-simmered together with curry roux, ingredients for soup curry are usually cooked separately, some boiled and others fried, making it seem more time-consuming than it is.

"Sapporo has long been known for its tasty ramen noodles," said Katsuya Hiraki, who runs Soup Curry Cocoro, one of the curry shops listed in the "Michelin Hokkaido 2017" special edition. "Because soup dishes are deeply rooted in its culture, the know-how and ingredients needed for creating soup curry were already there to begin with."

Soup curry served at Cocoro is made from both Japanese and Western ingredients. (Photo by Yuri Mitsui)

The most popular menu item at Ajanta is Torikarii, or chicken curry, containing two large pieces of bone-in chicken, carrots and green pepper, priced at 1,000 yen. At Soup Curry Cocoro, 17-vegetable soup curry (1,000 yen at lunch and 1,100 yen at dinner) quenches the appetite with a rich flavorful soup made from chicken, beef and pork bone broth, kelp and bonito. Magic Spice, the godfather of soup curry located in Shiroishi Ward, a short distance from downtown Sapporo, offers the popular Hokkedo chicken curry served with Hokkaido vegetables (1,140 yen).

Well-known curry shops in Sapporo that are popular with tourists are mostly concentrated in busy shopping areas such as Odori and Susukino. For those who want to enjoy their soup curry with an alcoholic beverage,, Spice Bar Tara is a good place to go. Chicken Vegetable curry (1,430 yen at dinner time including cover charge) is the bar's specialty, and extra spicy Kashmir curry is also on the menu. 

In fiscal 2018, about 3.11 million foreigners visited Hokkaido, up about 350% over the past decade. Of these, 86%, or about 2.68 million people, came from Asia. In addition to China, South Korea and Taiwan, visitors from Thailand and Malaysia are rapidly increasing. Foreigners dining at soup curry shops are becoming a common sight. On a recent day, Soup Curry Cocoro, near Hokkaido University, was crowded with a group tour of Chinese tourists. Another diner, a Thai man living in Sapporo, said, "I love soup curry and eat it often with my friends."

Tourists from Asian countries visit Hokkaido to experience the beauty of nature and its snow, which is a rarity in Southeast Asia. But given Asians' love of spicy food, soup curry may soon become a strong motivator for them to visit Hokkaido to taste the new flavor.

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