Category Archives: Japan

International Festival, Friday

Just a short posting of the food I ate at the International Festival this evening (Friday). Come on out this weekend and try some for yourself!!

Yakisoba noodles from the Japanese food booth, garnished with pickled ginger and fish flakes (optional).

Sour Cherry Juice from the Turkish booth, reminds me of the sour cherry trees in my dad’s orchard when we were growing up.

Coconut Custard (left) and Cheese Roll stuffed with cream cheese (right), from the Brazilian food booth. Double-yum!

Huachinango a la Veracruzana or Red Snapper, Veracruz-style (made at the Cooking Demo booth by a chef from Mexico City, arranged by the Mexican consulate). This was delicious! Definitely making this one at home.

Tori Zosui

With nearly 90 degree weather the past 2 days in Raleigh, it’s hard to believe that just a couple of days ago it was rainy and dreary – a day worthy of the Japanese bowl of comfort food, Tori zosui.  This rice and chicken “porridge” dish was recommended by my friend Sandra, who ate the dish regularly at Waraji Restaurant when she lived in Raleigh.

The recipe was not in any of my Japanese cookbooks, so I looked at a number of online recipes and settled on one that looked very simple. There are a variety of ways of making this dish, and Waraji’s is described as including egg, so I’m pretty sure it’s different than my final product this time around – have to get over there and try the real deal sometime. The recipe I used is from La Fuji Mama, an eclectic food blog that I’ll be back to browse again!

I followed a suggestion of the blog text and cooked my chicken thigh meat in dashi stock rather than using chicken broth. Because of that, the broth wasn’t as flavorful, so I did end up adding a bit more chicken bouillion, a dash of soy sauce, and a dash of lemon juice. My mom got me in the habit of adding lemon juice to chicken soup many years ago, it’s a nice way to brighten up the flavor, especially recommended with canned chicken noodle soups.

The leftover porridge was much thicker the next day after the rice soaked up even more of the liquid. I think it really is supposed to be more the consistency of an oatmeal or polenta rather than a soup.  This recipe is a great way to use leftover cooked rice and chicken, and I bet it would be really good with rotisserie chicken meat as well.  Oh – and watch out if you’re eating it right away after cooking, it WILL burn your tongue if you’re not careful!

Carrot-Ginger Dressing

During January (Japanese month) I tried a couple of recipes and came close to replicating my favorite carrot-ginger dressing, but it wasn’t quite right. The best recipe actually came not from a Japanese cookbook, but from my co-worker Lana who brought me a recipe from the magazine Real Simple. The main issue I had with this recipe was that it seemed to have too much miso and too little ginger for my tastebuds.  So here’s the revised version that works for me, I hope you like it too!

Carrot-Ginger Dressing
2 large carrots, sliced
1 small shallot, sliced
2 generous Tbsp. fresh ginger, minced
3 Tbsp. white miso paste
2 1/2 Tbsp. rice vinegar
3/4 tsp. sesame oil
1/3 c. canola oil

The original recipe calls for pureeing everything except the canola oil first, then adding the canola oil and blending again for 30 seconds. But I found that I didn’t have enough liquid without the oil, so I just mixed it all together and then blended – it worked fine.

As with any other salad dressing, you’ll want to taste and adjust ingredients at the end, to your own taste.  If it’s not salty enough, add more miso, or some recipes call for a bit of soy sauce. It makes a very thick dressing, so you might also want to thin it out with a couple tablespoons of water at the end.

Mr. Bento

The month is over today, but I still wanted to show you my favorite lunchbox, Mr. Bento. And if you think I’m crazy for naming my lunchbox, I should tell you that he already had a name when I got him :)

Bento is a form of packing a variety of lunch items into small compartments of a lunchbox, ideally for a lunch that is nutritionally and colorfully-balanced. If you order a bento box at a Japanese restaurant, you’ll get something like this;

This was a sushi bento box that I ordered at Momoyama’s Restaurant for lunch earlier this month.  On the left side is a variety of nigiri sushi, rice covered with thinly-sliced raw fish. Though I find that I still don’t enjoy the texture of raw salmon and the other firmer fish, the tuna was quite tasty. White tuna (the middle one on the bottom with the red dot of hot sauce) was a revelation to me, the fish is so tender and buttery that it just kind of melts in your mouth, it’s a new favorite!  In the middle top container are gyoza dumplings, top right is a lettuce salad with carrot-ginger dressing, and the bottom right is tempura vegetables with a dipping sauce.

There are many portable Bento box options for taking a homemade bento lunch to school or the office. The more traditional types are boxes or bowls with lids that stack and are held together with a band or tied with a scarf.  Many don’t have the built-in segmentation, but leave that up to the creativity of the cook – as this blog photo from the blog Just Bento illustrates nicely. Other boxes that have recently become popular for kids lunches are brightly colored and segmented, with totebags, like the laptop lunch concept. There are a lot of cool ideas for kids’ lunches, using Japanese methods of coloring rice and cutting fruits and vegetables into fancy shapes – what a great way to get kids to enjoy a healthy, colorful and balanced meal!

I considered a number of options for a bento lunchbox of my own, but arrived at Mr. Bento because there are 4 separate compartments that can all be sealed. Each of the 4 containers fits into a type of thermos that can actually keep the meal hot or cold until lunch, without needing a refrigerator or microwave. And of course, the stylish and ever-useful spork (with it’s own cover) is also a plus!  It all zips up into a drawstring pouch with a shoulder strap for easy toting.

Here’s a lunch bento that I packed for myself, not as exciting as some of the options I’ve seen out there, but easily do-able on a weeknight to use up some of the Japanese ingredients left in my pantry. There is spinach with the same sesame dressing that was used in the eggplant dish from earlier this month, it can be used with green beans as well. I also made a few more cubes of fried tofu (also in the eggplant post), as well as fried kabocha squash in honey with black sesame seeds, as demonstrated in the bento video from the Cooking with Dog series.

There is a green salad with carrot-ginger dressing – which still isn’t quite like the restaurant recipe, but I’m getting closer. Finally, I had purchased a frozen burdock root and carrot mixed vegetable bag at the Asian market which I stir-fried with mirin, soy sauce, sugar and sesame seeds (recipe below). Burdock root is a popular Japanese ingredient that I hadn’t yet tried, and I can’t say it was top on my list of things to try this month. You can see in the picture that it’s a grey-brown color, it had kind of a peppery flavor which I wasn’t expecting.

Burdock & Carrot Stir-Fry
1 c. burdock and carrot, julienned
1/2 Tbsp. mirin
1/2 Tbsp. soy sauce
1/2 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. toasted sesame seeds

Stir fry the vegetables for about 5 minutes until tender. Add the remaining ingredients and stir for another minute to combine flavors. Garnish with additional sesame seeds to serve.

Sukiyaki

One of my books is titled “Japanese Food and Cooking”, written in 1956 by Stuart Griffin. Griffin introduces the cookbook with a funny story about the American husband in Japan conspiring with the Japanese maid to introduce his recently-arrived wife to Japanese cuisine;

“This he handles carefully. Wife, gastronomically, is entrenched behind the Maginot Line of canned soup, liver and bacon, Waldorf salad, pie a la mode, and demitasse.  She mustn’t suspect…..

Rice is tasty. The conspiracy begins to pay off. American Husband and Japanese Maid exchange glances. Wife likes rice – Ah so!….

The day of the great test dawns clear and cold — soon, it’s evening. Husband has masterminded his plans all day. What they eat, or don’t, will make him or break him. The Chinese say that the journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step. What is that step?  There is only one answer: Sukiyaki.

And Wife is wild about it.”

Sukiyaki is a one-dish meal, really a type of quick stir fry. The key ingredients are thinly-sliced beef and yam noodles, or shirataki, made out of konnyaku. Konnyaku is a gelatinous substance made from the corm (underground stem) of an Asian plant, not really a yam at all.  Other ingredients may include tofu, mushrooms and a variety of vegetables.

I bought softened shirataki noodles in the refrigerated section of the Asian grocery store. I have used a similar dried yam noodle in a Korean dish called japchae. I actually like the texture of those dried noodles better, they were softer and a bit thinner.

The traditional manner of eating sukiyaki is for each diner to have a beaten egg in a small bowl.  Pieces of meat and vegetable are dipped in the raw egg before eating. The idea is that if the dish is hot enough, the egg “cooks” upon contact with the food, but my healthy fear of salmonella prevented me from replicating this step. Still it was very tasty, and easy to make with whatever vegetables are on hand.

Sukiyaki (2 servings)
1/2 lb. sirloin or round steak
1/2 onion, sliced
1/2 bell pepper, sliced
2 oz. enoki or shiitake mushrooms
4 large outer leaves of chinese cabbage, chopped
1/2 block tofu, drained and cubed
6 oz. shirataki noodles (if dried, boil them first)

Cooking liquid:
1/4 c. soy sauce
1/4 c. broth (dashi or beef)
1 Tbsp. sugar

Freeze the beef for about an hour, then slice it very thinly with a sharp knife. Mix together the cooking sauce ingredients to dissolve sugar, and prepare all other ingredients.

Heat a wok or deep skillet to high heat. Add a bit of oil, then saute onion, pepper and beef together for about 1 minute, stirring constantly. Move those ingredients to one side of the pan and add cooking sauce, tofu, noodles and other vegetables. Cover and cook just until beef is done and vegetables are tender.

Abura-age

Yikes – I’m in the final week of Japanese cooking, but not ready to move on yet! Japanese was already one of my favorite cuisines and is only becoming more so as the month continues. It combines values of artistry, simplicity and healthiness – what more could you ask for (except maybe some better dessert options)?

I wanted to introduce an ingredient that you may not be familiar with, I certainly wasn’t until I started cooking through some Japanese recipes a few years ago.  Abura-age, sometimes squeezed into one word aburage, is a form of tofu that has been sliced thinly and then deep-fried. The result is a kind of tofu “pouch” that can be used in a number of different ways.  One common method is to simmer the abura-age in a seasoned broth and then stuff it with rice to make a form of sushi called Inarizushi. I’ve demonstrated three additional ways to use the ingredient below.

You’ll probably find this ingredient in the frozen section of Japanese/Korean or larger Asian markets. A key preparation step for all of the recipes involving abura-age is to immerse it for at least 30 seconds in boiling water, then drain and pat dry. This thaws the abura-age (it is usually purchased frozen), but also removes any excess oil that may be leftover from the frying process.

The first recipe that introduced me to abura-age was from the book “Japanese Women Don’t Get Old OR Fat” – it’s a great book to introduce the Japanese relationship with food. One of the author’s recipes is called Japanese Country Power Breakfast. As a breakfast dish, it is a good balance of protein and carbs, and it uses ingredients that have likely been leftover or are otherwise readily available. Place a serving of hot rice in a bowl, top with any variety of vegetables (corn, squash, carrots, peas, cherry tomatoes, etc.), add a quartered hard-boiled egg, some slices of abura-age, and pour a miso-dashi broth (miso broth is what makes it distinctively Japanese, but you could use any available broth) over the top.

A popular recipe mentioned in a couple of the cookbooks I’m using this month is “Foxy Noodles”, or kitsune udon.  This is a basic udon noodle soup topped with triangles of abura-age that have been simmered for a few minutes in a sugary broth, resulting in a flavorful balance of saltiness from the soup broth and sweetness from the fried tofu. According to the sources, this dish gets its name from a strange old legend that foxes very much enjoy eating abura-age!

A third use of abura-age involves filling the tofu pouch with a raw egg and tying the bundle shut with some type of edible garnish (I used a piece of green onion).  Then the pouch is simmered in a seasoned broth at a very low temperature for about 20 minutes, hard-boiling the egg inside. The result was tasty and another fun way to play with my food.

Katsu-kare, a Japanese curry dish

This is a dish that I’ve heard about my whole life, but never tried to make it for myself. My dad was enamored of this dish when he tasted it in Japan and has been trying to re-create that hot Japanese curry flavor ever since.  He always says that it is hot enough if it makes your eyelids sweat.

I followed a katsu curry recipe from a YouTube cooking series called “Cooking with Dog”.  This is a great series of 50+ Japanese cooking videos, I love that it is narrated by a French poodle! I followed the recipe as given in the video, except for a couple of substitutions based on what I had in my pantry – potato instead of eggplant and chicken instead of pork.

Here’s what the curry cubes look like – there are varying levels of heat – mild, medium hot, and hot. The medium hot was a nice level, but definitely didn’t make my eyelids sweat, so I guess I’ll have to try the hot next time!

You may wonder how such a dish came to be popular in Japan. Curry was introduced to Japan in a round-about way via the British, who picked it up while occupying India. Katsu-kare also involves a fried breaded pork cutlet, called tonkatsu, which was probably picked up through European influence and is similar to the German schnitzel. However it came to be, it’s a popular dish now in Japan, and rightly so — delicious!