The ability to tolerate (and enjoy) spicy food inevitably brings with it a fair bit of arrogance. We all know that if we’re able to scoff an entire chilli without wincing, whilst our friend sweats buckets and cries, we’re bound to feel just a tad smug. Let us welcome Gough Street’s new curry joint, SAMA, which makes it easy to quantify spice tolerance and therefore make the competition a whole lot more real.
SAMA is not just any old curry restaurant; the concept started in 2004 in the city of Sapporo in Japan’s Hokkaido prefecture and specialises in Sapporo-style soup curry. What began as a boutique soup curry restaurant, opened by founder and chef Shuici Takahashi, now has eight branches throughout Japan, and has finally opened to a hungry and waiting crowd here in Hong Kong. Up until now, all curry bases have been made in one central kitchen in Sapporo, under the guidance of Takahashi himself, since it is his secret recipe that is used.
With its chic minimalist design of light wooden interiors set against modern colourful accents, the space gives off a welcoming neighbourhood feel from the moment you step in. You’ll have noticed the giant black bear mural on the outside door, and this theme continues throughout the restaurant and onto the menu.
Said menu offers a selection of customisable soup curries. First you choose the level of spice you think you can handle on a scale of 0-30, where 0-5 is considered “Baby Bear,” 6-15 is “Adult Bear” and 16-30 is “Crazy Bear”. You then select whether you’d like a tomato, coconut or prawn soup base, and lastly you select your choice of protein – chicken, pork, hamburger patty, seafood or vegetarian. Each curry comes with a selection of delicious vegetables and is served with white rice, which can be upgraded to udon or ramen noodles for an extra $10.
Unsure whether to go “crazy” this time round, I stayed within the “adult” limits and tried a level 10 coconut-based “marathon chicken.” The curry base had a beautifully rich and aromatic flavour and a pleasant not-too-watery consistency. The chicken legs were served on the bone, yet fell effortlessly off them as soon as encouraged. Spice-wise, level 10 was comfortable yet still satisfyingly hot.
I was taught to eat spicy food by my father, who always insists on asking for his curries “extra hot,” no matter how hot they may already be to begin with. I therefore wanted to bring him along as a guinea pig, to see how hot he could go. Again, he played it safe, however, and went for a level 13 prawn-base with pork belly. This base definitely had more of a soup than a curry consistency, and again was deliciously fragrant. The flavour was very similar to a laksa…but with rice…and pork belly. Even level 13 wasn’t uncomfortably hot, especially not for the man who taught me to eat curry! (Just for the record, he claims he could go up to level 20…)
Those who are willing to show off, or blow their head off, can take part in the “30 Challenge.” If anyone manages to finish an entire bowl of level 30 soup curry, they’ll receive a $20 voucher and get their picture put up on the wall. Apparently only around 20 brave diners have successfully completed the 30 Challenge here in Hong Kong.
To help you wash that heat down, SAMA offers a selection of Japanese beers, sakes and whiskies, but for me, the best accompaniment is without a doubt a mango lassi.
Although the curries alone would have sufficed, we couldn’t resist trying a couple of the Hokkaido small plates, namely the spiced chicken karaage and the traditional pan-fried gyoza. Whilst the chicken karaage had a beautiful flavour, I thought it could have been just a little bit crispier.
The gyoza, on the other hand, were pretty faultless, with perfectly thin skin and lean, delicious pork filling.
A curry at SAMA will cost you between $78 and $128 (half portions are also available for dinner only), whilst sides are around $68, so a filling meal for two with drinks won’t cost much more than $200 a head.
I am a big fan of SAMA. It’s a very simple concept, yet one that is executed very well. It has already proven hugely successful in Japan and I can only see it being equally popular here in HK too. SAMA makes it very hard to ignore my competitive streak; I’m going to have to go back and see just how much heat I can handle – who’s game?!
51A Gough Street
Tel: +852 2191 8850