Before we leave, all we know about soup curry is what the internet says: it's a special of Sapporo, and it involves soup and curry. Our commission is a small article describing soup curry, with a list of the five best places. Two hundred words and a photo or two. Should be easy...
We expected soup curry to be a bowl of runny Japanese curry, a novelty dish worth trying once for the fun of it. How wrong we were. We were hooked after the first bowl.
Internet lore suggests soup curry was created back in the 1970's by a cafe owner adding Indian curry to Chinese soup, and has since exploded in popularity. Variations range from the old hearty classic as pictured above, to delicately balanced nuanced artisan creations, and everything in between. Soup curry broths are in flavours from good old regular to tomato, coconut and soy milk. Toppings range from hunks of simple western style vegetables to fancy pork, fatty hamburgers, melted cheese and fermented soy bean balls.
What we love about soup curry is that is usually served with big hunks of fresh vegetables, which is rare in Japan where veggies are often pickled, sliced, diced and small. It's a hearty meal yet the veggies keep in fairly healthy, until you start going into the styles topped with hamburger mince and cheesy goo.
We were on holidays and suddenly having to do paid work seemed like a chore. So we get stuck into it on the first day, sometimes it's easier to do things than think about doing them. Alison's first pick is Dominica. This first one turns out to be Shawn's favourite. It's a few doors down from the wonderful Tokyu Hands department store. The signage is in Japanese but the wooden elephant outside marks the spot.
Dominica is in this ultra-bland office building, look for the door with hephalumps on it.
Dominica is tiny and hella groovy, like a bamboo-lined bunker with curved ceiling and room for twenty folks at the most. There's no way we would have found this place by accident, we feel like we have found a little piece of secret Japan.
Menu - with English - yay!
We soon learn there's a system to ordering soup curry:
- Choose your soup broth
- Choose your main ingredients (meat, veggies etc)
- Choose your spice level (we stuck to 3 most of the time, mildly warm)
- Add any extra toppings if desired
- Choose what size rice you would like on the side
Once you get the system you can stumble through ordering at joints with Japanese-only menus, which usually have pictures to help you along.
The light was crap in here so there was no way were were going to get a a magazine quality shot in here. We could have taken the food outside but without speaking Japanese this would have been difficult to say the least.
Rice is served on the side and is often flavoured a little. This fancy-pants soup curry came with some mouth-melty simmered pork on rice.
So the photos turned out crap but man these soup curries were good. The soup is thinner than we expected and tastes of curry flavours you would find in an Aussie Indian restaurant, like rogan josh or something.
The veggies. Oh lordy those the veggies. They were like western roast vegetables, perfectly cooked, just a smidgeon undercooked so they have a little bite to them, think al dente pasta. We guess the veggies are par-cooked during prep, then given a final whack in the oven or grill when ordered. We didn't expect this kind of fancy pants, cheffy, perfectionist cooking in a humble soup curry joint. Man we love Japan.
As we leave we see this ad for a soup curry joint that offers the extra added goodness of Cheez Whiz.
We learn that Sapporo's original soup curry joint is still operating. It's out in the suburbs somewhere so we make a day of it. Rather than take a bus or a cab like normal people, we head out on foot on the beautiful arterial roads of Sapporo.
After getting scarily lost in China we've embraced GPS and it's transformed our travelling, particularly with our love of walking randomly through cities. Google has more detailed maps but MapsWithMe has fully downloadable maps for Japan, and this simple but wonderful 'go in that vague direction' arrow. We can still meander and and get slightly lost, but we'll get there in the end.
Ah the 'burbs of Sapporo, we love'em. Somebody has to.
Ajanta is the home of soup curry, according to the internet anway. There's actually two branches of this joint and we're not sure which is the original, but this one will do.
Inside it's like a suburban family restaurant. Which it is.
There's no English menu but we have pictures and we have smiles, and we know the basic soup curry ordering ritual. No wukkas.
This is a homely rustic style of soup curry. We imagine folks stopping in after a hard day on the ski slopes for this wonderful, hearty comfort food. The vegetables are cooked home style, nice and soft, rather than the cheffy style of Dominica. We are big fans of vegetables and we love the big hunks of potato, carrot, broccoli, cauliflower and eggplant. A vegetable soup curry was 1000 yen, chicken 1200 yen. The chicken was a generous serve, about four pieces were tucked away inside the bowl.
Taking photos for possible publication for the first time is nerve wracking. For our blog it doesn't matter if the photos turn out bad, but for a magazine we need a decent shot. Under pressure things that are normally second nature suddenly need second guessing. Trying to find the best composition and exposure settings while not really understanding what the magazine editor wants in the first place is a struggle. On top of that we have a new camera that we're not so familiar with. We wonder how much the magazine people can fix with Photoshop and how to make it easier for them.
The light is good for photos but they just don't come off. We try using menus as reflectors and even move tables for better light and background but nothing works. Whatever we do that piece of chicken still looks like it has been put through the dishwasher. We consider getting all 'Donna Hay' and painting the chicken, or even recreating a soup curry back home. Just thoughts.
Dig the ye olde KFC next door.
The next day we trek out on another suburban soup curry adventure. How beautifully, stunningly boring are these 'burbs?
Hidden amongst the concrete suburbs are random pockets of sheer beauty such as this temple.
The thing Shawn we misses most about Japan is the vending machines. Vendos are a novelty at first, but for a coffee addict and walking fiend, getting a hot or cold caffeine fix precisely when required is pure luxury. Boss Black coffee turned out to be the favourite: simply black coffee with no sugar, no calories and a decent caffeine kick. Black coffee in a can tastes like coffee. White coffee in a can tastes like preservatives.
Who doesn't Love Wanco?
Anyhoo, back to the food. In Sapporo suburbia is another allegedly famous soup curry joint, Picante Horizon.
Once again we have that suburban chain store vibe.
No English menu, but just smile and follow the numbered steps.
Vegetable frenzy soup curry.
Special offer of a grilled onion as an extra topping. Most toppings add on an extra 200 or 300 yen, which can get the price up a little high.
This was possibly our only chance to nab a decent photo so the pressure was on. We took well over a hundred photos hoping we'd get one goodie.
We nabbed a seat by the window and ordered. Fingers crossed our food would arrive before we lost the lovely soft, filtered late afternoon light that makes for great food photos. Soup curry takes a while to make so it was a race against time. Thrilling isn't it?
This photo is fine for the blog, but for a magazine shot, meh.
As a rule we never rearrange our food for photos, but this time it was a necessity. The chicken was submerged so Alison did some undersea construction to prop the chicken up with broccoli scaffolding. We raised the chicken Titanic it's not a pretty colour. It looks like a random lump of brown rather than a piece of chicken.
We send in Thunderbird 4 to further prop up the chicken with some underwater carrot pylons but the light is fading, the aperture is too wide, and that chicken still looks a bit grey lump of scurvy. We also tried photos on a white background using the underside of a laminated menu but it wasn't quite big enough. We wonder if proper food journos carry around bits of white paper or cloth for such emergencies.
The veggie soup curry looked great on the camera screen but what Shawn thought was a big mushroom was in fact and inverted dip in the bottom of the bowl which kinda blows the shot. Hmmm...
But man the soup curry was good.
The other reason we chose Picante Horizon is that it's in walking distance (maybe 1km) from the shuttle bus stop that takes you to the cable car that takes you to Mount Moiwa, one of Sapporo's main attractions. Actually the shuttle bus doesn't go that far, you can walk all the way if you feel like it.
The view at the top of Mount Moiwa is purdy. There's a ski run to the right - we're amazed that you can ski this close to a major city.
There's a posh restaurant at the top of the mountain with panoramic views of clouds, or Sapporo on a good day. We order an overpriced beer at 600 yen which comes out in a small glass. Even in Japan we're not safe from the evil schmiddie. We're dreggy from walking all day and the staff are keen to boot us out before the Saturday night Sapporo royalty arrived.
The next day we decide to try two curry joints for lunch. After much strategising we decide Lavi must be tried. It gets good feedback and it's also located where tourists might be found. This branch is in the Esta department store building at Sapporo Central Station (there's also a handy branch at the airport). We're lucky to get in as there's a queue by the time we leave.
Lavi grand interior.
Lavi has a Thai\South East Asian theme and a hint of coconut in the soup. It's quite subtle and it works.
Rice served on the side on pretty pottery.
Another soup curry joint we spotted was on the dining floor above Parco. This looked worth checking out because it is near Odori Park where tourists are likely to find themselves year round.
La Maison de Curry Coeur is a bit fancy for us but we thought some folks will love it.
It's a little upmarket and and popular with ladies who lunch.
It's a nice comfortable spot for the solo traveller as well.
The menus are in English, a bonus for us.
The soup curry was good. The lighting was tough.
Twenty kinds of vegetables. Better than Seven Layers.
Their picture is a lot prettier than ours...
Next to La Maison de Curry Coeur is "Shall We Sweets!", an all you can eat dessert buffet...
Lovely poster in an underground walkway.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch.
We wanted to try one of the more groovy kind of soup curry joints. It was a tough pick but Garaku sounded like us.
We arrive at opening time and there's a queue already. We wait amongst kitsch collectibles.
We're still not sure if we have a decent soup curry photo yet, this is our last chance. We're given a table in a dark corner. We stare in envy at the tables by the window, look at that precious light coming in.
More bad light and crappy photos. We wonder how the freck those Gourmet Traveller photographers do it.
We thought by this stage we'd be sick of soup curry but we're crazy in love with the stuff. We saw a soup curry joint in Tokyo but it looked like a pale imitation of what we found in Sapporo. We guess that it's the abundance of fresh produce in Hokkaido that makes Sapporo soup curry so special.
Lavi is at the airport if you don't get a chance to try it in town.
Soup curry is also available in cook-at-home packs. Popular restaurants and chains have their own branded packs. You can find these in supermarkets and souvenir shops around town, and also the airport. Be careful if you want to bring them home, some of them have pieces of meat in them that might not pass customs.
Our favourite soup curry pack was Tiger Curry. That's some kinky curry.
That Tiger Curry packet reminds us of the hellbento Wii game, Muscle March.
We love Japan.