You Say Potato
Niseko celebrates potatoes for one simple reason—our local farmers grow some of the world’s best.
Maybe you've heard of it described as ‘humble’ before? The humble potato.
Well, that seems a bit unfair to us here in Niseko. We celebrate the potato. We really do. The annual Kutchan Jaga-Matsuri (Potato Festival) is one of the biggest celebrations on Niseko’s summer event calendar and draws thousands of visitors from near and far. And you may have seen Kutchan’s town mascot, Jaga-kun, the cutest little skiing potato the world has ever seen!
We celebrate potatoes for one simple reason—our local farmers grow some of the world’s best.
As anyone who has ‘hiked the peak’ on a clear day will attest, the greater Niseko area is largely open and flat. This, combined with the drastic temperature difference between the height of summer and the depth of winter, makes for super-fertile farmland and the perfect conditions for growing potatoes.
Specifically, the ‘Kutchan 540 potato’ is growing ever-more famous, aged for one-year-and-a-half in Niseko’s neighbouring town of Kutchan and common on the menus of the area’s best local restaurants.
Hiromi Honma is the man behind this invention. A vegetable wholesaler, he heads up a family business that has been in operation for 99 years. He buys potatoes from local farmers and then, using a specialised ‘snow-room storage unit’ powered by snow and electricity, he stores them at low temperatures (though above freezing point) for 540 days before selling to a carefully selected list of restaurants.
It’s a unique aging process which has an incredible effect.
“With time, the potatoes become sweeter,” Honma says. “Photosynthesis creates starch in the potatoes, which begins saccharifying (changing into sugar) in lower temperatures. Over time, the starch will turn to sugar, so aging the potato makes it taste sweet.”
It’s a technique which has been employed for generations, more through necessity than in any deliberate attempt to improve the product.
“Before we had refrigerators, vegetables would freeze when kept outside and there would be nothing to eat in winter,” Honma explains. “Potatoes are not good when frozen, so people would bury them in the ground in ‘nature’s fridge’, until spring time before digging them up again as a food source.”
The first person to see the opportunity that these aged potatoes could bring to the local food scene was Koji Murai, the owner and president of the locally renowned Robata Niseko Naniwatei.
“Mr Murai tried them, really liked them and was surprised by the sweetness. He said they were so delicious. At that time, I had about 400 kgs of 540-day-aged potatoes,” Honma explains. “He bought them all!”
According to Murai, customers at his Sapporo and Niseko restaurants immediately enjoyed them and this is when it took off. “Everyone gave us their seal of approval,” Murai says. “As a chef who has been in the industry a long time, I know that this is a special potato because it’s something you cannot have anywhere else.”
But why exactly 540 days, you may ask?
“The sweetness increases proportionally with time and temperature. So, the longer the potatoes are stored at low temperatures, the sweeter they will become,” Honma explains. “But we sell them at 540 days because if we wait for 2 years, the timing will coincide with the new potato season.”
Kutchan 540 potatoes pair well with sake or wine and the best way to have them is to keep it simple. “Steam them, salt them and then grill,” recommends Murai. “We also make a herring fish dish mixed with butter and served on top of the 540 potato. This is a great way to taste the real flavour of the 540 potato."
Another restaurant showcasing the Kutchan 540 potatoes is J’ai la patate, in Niseko’s Country Resort area. But rather than simply serve the potatoes, this restaurants dedication to them is almost obsessive.
For starters, the restaurant name means ‘I have a potato’ in French.
Head chef Hiroyuki Seino explains that, in France, saying ‘j’ai la patate’ doesn’t necessarily mean you actually have a potato. “It’s a quirky French idiom which means ‘I’m feeling great’, or for Japanese people, ‘I am genki’” he says. “People say it when asked how they are. I want people to feel good when they eat our food so this saying is perfect for our restaurant name.”
The potato fascination doesn’t stop at the name though. Their logo is a potato. Potato shaped mobiles dangle elegantly from the ceiling. Side plates are carved to shape like potatoes. Artwork on the walls feature real potato skins.
Seino himself even jokes that he looks a bit like a potato!
Don’t let these gimmicks fool you though. This is a seriously good Japanese-French restaurant which serves incredible, regularly rotating set menus.
Seino is Kutchan born and bred so, for him, using 540 potatoes was an absolute must. “Not only are they super sweet and delicious, they represent who I am and where I am from,” he says.
Seino agrees with Murai and suggests serving the Kutchan 540 potatoes with seafood, be that Red Sea Bream, Steamed Flounder or Pan-Fried Hokkaido Scallops. He too recommends pairing with white wine.
Aside from Robata Niseko Naniwatei and J’ai la patate, famous restaurants such as Ebisutei and Kamimura serve 540 potatoes in Hirafu.
So, this winter, while Niseko’s adventurous skiers and snowboarders are attempting 180’s and 360’s, up the stakes with a 540 of your own. A famous Kutchan 540 potato.
This article originally appeared in the Experience Niseko Winter Magazine.