Ingredients, dishes and drinks from Japan by Ad Blankestijn

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


Sliced and pickled ginger. べにしょうが。

Ginger (shoga) is cut into thin strips and then pickled in first salt and later vinegar. The color naturally turns red, which may be made more vivid by using plum vinegar with red shiso leaves. Unfortunately, also products with chemical colorings are on the market.

Served with beef bowl (gyudon), okonomiyaki and yakisoba.

[Photo Wikipedia]

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


"Mixed tempura." かき揚げ。

Tempura made with different ingredients that are mixed together in tempura batter and formed into a sort of "tempura ball" before deep-frying. This results in delicious, hearty fritters.

Various vegetables, mushrooms, and seafood can be used. The vegetables, such as onion, carrot and burdock, are cut into small strips. As seafood, small shrimps and clams are popular.

Kakiage is used in both soba and udon, and is also eaten over a bowl rice as "kakiage-don."


Thursday, November 15, 2012


Chinese cabbage. Brassica rapa Pekinensis. ハクサイ、白菜。

Also called "nappa cabbage" or "celery cabbage." "Hakusai" literally means "white vegetable," while "nappa" means "leaf vegetable."

Large cylindrical head vegetable available from autumn to spring. Green at the top and white at the stem. Has crinkled leaves and thick stalks. Mild and almost sweet taste.

Only since the twentieth century used in Japan, when soldiers after the Japan-China War in 1895 brought back suitable seeds. In China the vegetable was known for thousands of years - hakusai goes back to the North China variant. Now very popular and as regards the quantity produced, the third vegetable after daikon and cabbage.

Used in one pot dishes (nabemono), simmered dishes (nimono) and soups; also used for pickling (tsukemono).

[Photo Wikipedia]


Rice cracker. せんべい。

A form of grilled confectionery, coming in various shapes, sizes and flavors. Usually eaten as a casual snack with green tea; may also be offered to visitors.

There are two types of senbei depending on the ingredients used:
  • Wheat flour with egg and sugar. This type is popular in the Kansai and goes back to sweets made in China under the Tang-dynasty (7th-9th c. - in Japan the name "senbei" occurs for the first time in the year 737). Examples are kawara-senbei (in the shape of a mini roof tile) and the famous yatsuhashi from Kyoto. These are more like biscuits and have a sweet rather than savory taste.
  • Rice flour. The traditional type in Eastern Japan, where there are many shops (beika senbeiya) grilling and selling these rice crackers in front of the customer. After grilling, dusted with soy sauce and mirin to give them a savory taste. Another popular flavoring is with salt. Senbei may also be wrapped in nori. Made with ordinary rice (uruchimai). In the Kansai, glutinous rice is used and there another, general name for this type of confectionery is "okaki." Due to the different type of rice used, senbei from Eastern Japan are more crunchy while those from Western Japan are more delicate in texture.
Rice crackers wrapped in nori
[Rice crackers wrapped in nori. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Deep-fried, thinly sliced tofu. あぶらあげ、油揚げ

A block of tofu is cut unto slices and these are deep-fried. Other names are "usu-age," "inari-age" and "sushi-age." To be distinguished from atsu-age, where the slice is very thick with on the inside still the fresh tofu.

The heat may make the slices puff up so that inside, a hollow space comes into existence. Such pouches of abura-age are used for making inarizushi.

Fine strips of abura-age can be used in miso soup, udon, soba and all kinds of other dishes. The vegetable oil remaining in the fried tofu gives an interesting heartiness to this product; the taste can best be described as "salty sweetness."

Udon with abura-age is called Kitsune-udon or "Fox udon" because foxes are supposed to be fond of deep-fried tofu. There is also "Kitsune-soba." Kitsune-udon is a dish developed in Osaka. When used for kitsune-udon or kitsune-soba, the abura-age is not cut into strips, but a large slice is used as on the picture below.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012


"Squid rice," simmered squid stuffed with rice. いかめし、イカ飯。

Mini-squid filled with rice and simmered in a soy-based stock. The squid is gutted and cleaned, head and tentacles are removed. The rice is usually glutinous rice, or a mix of glutinous and non-glutinous. The rice may be mixed with aburaage, sliced bamboo shoots, minced carrots etc. Thanks to long simmering, the squid becomes tender and is perfumed with the flavor of the stock.

A local dish from the Oshima area in Hokkaido, devised in 1941 by a bento vendor of Mori Station on the Hakodate Main Line. The company still exists and is now called Ikameshi Abe Shoten. When in the mid-1960s the Keio Department Store in Shinjuku started "ekiben competitions" - bringing the popular ones to Tokyo - "ikameshi" immediately entered the top of most popular ekiben and has since remained there.

[Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Monday, November 12, 2012


Chinese-style wheat noodles. ラーメン.

Also called Chuka-soba (中華そば). Ramen is a form of the Japanese-Chinese (Chuka) cuisine, as this dish does not originally exist in China. A type of ramen was first sold in Japan from around the 1900s, both in restaurants and food stalls. After WWII, the popularity of ramen soared as cheap wheat became available from the U.S. In 1958, instant ramen was invented by Ando Momofuku. It became a popular food among students, salarymen living away from their families on tanshin funin basis, as well as harried housewives. In the 1980s a veritable ramen boom started, making this noodle the king of the B-Gourmet scene. There are countless magazines and books devoted to ramen and ramen restaurants, as well as manga and films.

Ramen noodles contain four ingredients: wheat flour, salt, water, and kansui (an alkaline mixture) or eggs, lending the noodles a yellowish hue and a firm texture. Ramen noodles are kneaded, left to sit, then stretched with both hands - this is also the probable origin of the name, as "ramen" literally means "stretched" or "pulled" noodles.

Ramen noodles are served in a hot soup based on stock from chicken or pork, plus a choice of other ingredients as kelp (konbu), bonito flakes (katsuobushi), dried baby sardines (niboshi), shiitake mushrooms, salt, miso and soy sauce.

Based on the soup, four basic types of ramen are distinguished:
  • Shio-ramen. Light and clear soup. Made with salt and any combination of chicken, vegetables and seaweed. From Hokkaido.
  • Shoyu-ramen. Clear brown soup. Based on a chicken and vegetable stock with plenty of soy sauce added. Savory, yet light. Originally from Tokyo. 
  • Tonkotsu-ramen. Cloudy, white colored soup. Made with pork bones (tonkotsu). Hearty  flavor and creamy consistency. A specialty of Kyushu, particularly Hakata in Fukuoka.
  • Miso-ramen. Thick soup based on miso with chicken or fish broth. Robust and hearty soup. developed in Sapporo (Hokkaido) and nationally popular from around the mid-1960s.
The quality of the soup determines the quality of the whole ramen dish.

Popular toppings include sliced pork (chashu), bean sprouts, spring onion, nori, kamaboko (often in the form of Naruto-maki, thinly sliced fish-cake with a pink inset resembling a whirlpool - named after the whirlpools of Naruto in Tokushima) and brownish shinachiku (lactic fermented pickles of bamboo shoots). Other possibilities, especially for tonkotsu-ramen, are boiled egg, cloud-ear fungus (kikurage) and red pickled ginger (benishoga). A popular seasoning is black pepper.

There are many regional styles (Sapporo, Kitakata, Tokyo, Yokohama, Kyoto, Wakayama, Hakata/Kyushu, etc.) as is already clear from the above.

Related types of noodles are: Nagasaki champon, tsukementantan-men, wantan-men and reimen.

Ramen noodles are central to Itami Juzo's great film Tampopo, which has been called a "ramen Western."

And talking about national dishes... in Japan ramen is more popular than sushi...

[Miso-ramen. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Saturday, November 10, 2012


Herring roe. 数の子.

Herring eggs are very small, but they stick together: the roe forms a single, cohesive mass (10 by 2 cm), with a firm, rubbery texture. The color is usually yellow. The roe is dried and then pickled in salt. It is rather expensive, but a fixed item in the New Year kitchen (osechi-ryori).

Herring also leave there eggs on kelp (konbu); this is called komochi konbu ("konbu with children") and is used as a very exclusive topping for sushi.

Kazunoko is first mentioned in documents of the 16th century, when it was offered as a present to the then shogun Ashikaga Yoshiteru.

Because "kazunoko" means "numerous offspring," it became a typical New Year food with a lucky name.

Auspicious food for New Year
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Wednesday, November 7, 2012


A variety of stir-fried vegetables. 野菜炒め。

Staple dish in Japanese Chuka (Chinese) restaurants. The vegetables usually consist of cabbage, carrots, mushrooms (kikurage, a rubbery, ear-shaped mushroom), green peppers and bean sprouts.

"Yasai" means "vegetables." "Itameru" is the word for Chinese-style stir-frying. In Japan usually flat-bottomed frying pans are used, with very little oil.

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"Sour pork." 酢豚。

Fried pieces of pork mixed with onions, carrots, bell peppers, and sometimes bamboo shoots and pine apple, seasoned with a thick sauce based on rice vinegar and soy sauce. The sauce is amber colored.

Staple dish of the Japanese Chinese (Chuka) kitchen. Although it looks like "sweet and sour pork," the sauce and therefore the taste is different in Japan.

[Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Saturday, November 3, 2012


Deep-fried pork cutlet. とんかつ, 豚カツ, トンカツ。

A breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet one to two centimeters thick and sliced into bite-sized pieces, generally served with finely shredded raw cabbage, rice in a bowl, miso soup and tsukemono. Either a pork fillet (ヒレ, hire) or pork loin (ロース, rosu) cut may be used; the meat is coated with panko (bread crumbs) before being deep fried (furai).

"Ton" means "pork" and "katsu" is short for "katsuretsu," "cutlet."

Tonkatsu is eaten with a thick dark sauce (called sosu), which is a Japanese version of Worcester sauce. In other words, it is not pungent but sweet and contains pureed apples as its main ingredient. Usually, a dab of Japanese mustard is also served on the side. Each restaurant (chain) has its own "secret sauce."

Although formally Yoshoku, tonkatsu has traveled back to the Japanese cuisine, as is shown by the fact that the rice is not served on a plate, as was originally the case, but in a rice bowl with pickles and miso soup. Neither is it eaten with knife and fork (or a spoon, like that other perennial Yoshoku, curry rice), but with chopsticks.

Tonkatsu restaurants are popular in Japan - especially among students because "katsu" also means "wining" (for example, in the examinations). Moreover, most restaurants offer free extra helpings of rice, shredded cabbage and miso soup. Besides the basic "hire" and "rosu" mentioned above, the menu of such restaurants offers various kinds of tonkatsu, for example: with cheese, with a shiso leaf, with ume paste, with minced meat, with daikon-oroshi (in which case it is eaten with ponzu sauce), or with other types of furai as large shrimps and oysters, etc. Sometimes especially expensive pork is on the menu as an extra option, that of black pigs (kurobuta) from Kagoshima.

Besides being served as a meal set (teishoku), tonkatsu meat is also used as a topping for curry rice (katsu-kare), and a sandwich filling (katsu-sando).

Tonkatsu bento
[Tonkatsu Bento. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Thursday, November 1, 2012


Yuzu. Citros junos. ユズ、柚子。

Japanese type of citron with a distinctive aroma and tarty flavor. Yuzu has been cultivated in Japan at least since the 7th century. It is believed to be a hybrid of the sour mandarin and Ichang papeda, and probably originated in China. Yuzu grows on small trees which contain many thorns. Yuzu trees are planted at high elevations on mountain sides, as the cold at night makes the fruit sweeter. Harvest is from late October through November. The largest yuzu cultivation takes place in Kochi Prefecture; but yuzu also come from Kyoto, Yamanashi and Tochigi.

Yuzu tree
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The fruit resembles a small grapefruit with an uneven skin, usually between 5.5 and 7.5 cm in diameter. It can be either green or yellow, depending on ripeness. Although there are subtle differences in size and flavor, yuzu resembles the sudachi, another Japanese citrus fruit.

Besides the yuzu used in the Japanese cuisine (called hon-yuzu, or "true yuzu"), there are two other types of yuzu: shishi-yuzu, with a knobby skin, and hana-yuzu. This last variety is purely ornamental and only grown for its flowers.

[Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Uses in the Japanese kitchen (yuzu is seldom eaten as such):
  • Aromatic yuzu peel (the outer rind) is used to garnish soups (suimono) and other dishes such as chawan-mushi.
  • Yuzu and yuzu peel are added to miso to create yuzu-miso.
  • Yuzu juice is used as a seasoning (like lemon in other cuisines). One way of using it is in ponzu sauce, a combination of yuzu juice with dashi, vinegar and mirin. Another product is yuzu vinegar, rice vinegar flavored with yuzu juice.
  • Yuzu is combined with honey to make yuzu-hachimitsu. Yuzu-hachimitsu is used to make yuzu tea, or cocktails as "yuzu sour." There is also yuzu wine.
  • Yuzu is also used to make jam or marmelade.
  • Yuzu can be used as a flavoring for sweets, as yuzu cake.
  • Yuzu pepper (yuzu kosho) is a combination of green and yellow yuzu rinds with cili peppers and salt.
  • Yuzu juice is now a popular drink (often with honey mixed in).
In winter, yuzu is also sometimes added to the bath water (yuzuburo), especially on winter solstice day. This is said to guard against colds, rough skin and warm and relax the body. It is a custom that goes back to the 18th c. The yuzu can be floated whole in the bath (sometimes in a cloth bag), or cut in half.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Curry rice with deep-fried pork. カツカレー

This combination of two Yoshoku dishes, curry rice and tonkatsu, was first served in 1918 by the restaurant Kawakin in Asakusa (this restaurant has closed but in Iriya and Senzoku there are still several restaurants carrying this name). It was called "Kawakin-don."

The present type was born in 1948 in the restaurant Grill Swiss on the Ginza.

This is now one of the most popular forms of curry rice in the whole country. Delicious as it is, it is also a dish rather high in calories.

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Inside-out rolls, a type of makizushi. 裏巻き。

The nori is on the inside of the sushi. The filling is in the center surrounded by nori, around which a layer of rice has been applied. The outside is coated with toasted white or black sesame seeds. It can be made with a variety of fillings (besides the avocado mentioned below, also salmon, lettuce, cucumber, crab or crab stick, tuna and other types of fish, etc.).

Also called California Roll, as this type of sushi was invented in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles in the late 1960s. The restaurant was Tokyo Kaikan and the chef was named Mashita Ichiro. At first, it was not invented for Americans, as most of the clientele consisted of Japanese. But the restaurant had problems obtaining good fatty tuna belly (toro) and therefore started to use avocado instead. Avocado melts in the mouth like fatty tuna and is easily available in California. The idea to turn the roll inside out came afterwards, when American customers increased. They disliked the texture of the dry seaweed, which was therefore hidden on the inside. In Japan, uramaki are very rare, as Japanese prefer the texture of the seaweed; moreover, uramaki fall easily apart and cannot be eaten with the fingers as normal makizushi, but one has to use chopsticks.

Uramaki are, however, legitimate international sushi, just as legitimate as the Japanese variations on Western dishes, such as Tarako Spaghetti (spaghetti flavored with Alaskan pollock roe), toasted baguettes with mentaiko (marinated pollock roe) or buns filled with yakisoba (fried noodles)!

Uramaki (salmon)
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"Tenshin donburi." Chinese-style donburi with omelet and a thick sauce. 天津丼

Rice covered by an egg omelet made with crab, onions and green peas (kanitama). A thick starchy sauce covers the top. Sometimes also finely-chopped spring onions and shiitake mushrooms are added.

The sauce is different for each individual shop: in the Kanto a sauce based on tomato ketchup with vinegar is popular, while in the Kansai sauces based on soy sauce are common.

This dish is also called Tenshin-han (天津飯).

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Monday, October 29, 2012


Cooked salad dressed with tofu. 白和え。

One of the basic categories of the Japanese cuisine (aemono). Cooked green vegetables are flavored with dashi, soy sauce and mirin, and then dressed with tofu. Besides green vegetables (among which spinach is popular) also konnyaku and hijiki can be used, as well as small mushrooms and carrot.

[Photo Ad Blankestijn]


Soused greens. おひたし。

Parboiled green vegetables, soused in dashi with soy sauce and mirin, and served chilled.

The vegetables can be spinach (horenso), Chinese cabbage (hakusai), mustard spinach (komatsuna), garland chrysanthemum (shungiku) and even bean sprouts (moyashi). Sometimes other ingredients are added as well.

Nibitashi of Komatsuna, Jako and Abura-age
[Ohitashi of Komatsuna, Jako (small fish) and Abura-age, photo Ad Blankestijn]


Donburi with egg and thinly sliced kamaboko. 木の葉丼.

Donburi (or "Don") is a large bowl of white rice with various ingredients - here egg with thinly sliced kamaboko, as well as shiitake mushroom and spring onion. It is a dish typical of the Kansai region. The egg is spread raw over the dish and (barely) cooked by the heat of the rice. As the ingredients are simple and inexpensive, this is a popular family dish.

In Osaka and Kobe, some abura-age (fried tofu) may be added. As a topping, some thinly sliced nori may also be used.

The name originates in the comparison of slices of kamaboko with tree leaves (konoha).

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Threeleaf Arrowhead. Sagittaria trifolia var. edulis. クワイ(慈姑).

Arrowhead is a plant growing in shallow water. The bulbs, 3-5 cm long, are peeled, boiled and seasoned. Often used in nimono, simmered dishes, such as Chikuzen-ni. Als part of Osechi-ryori, the festive cuisine for the New Year.

Kuwai is rich in proteins. The bulbs are quite soft but have little taste of themselves.

Kuwai are cultivated in Fukuyama (Hiroshima Pref.), Kyoto, Koshigaya (Saitama Pref.) and Hakui (Ishikawa Pref.).

[Kuwai. Photo Wikipedia]

Sunday, October 7, 2012


Cooking techniques. 調理法。

There are five techniques of applying heat to Japanese dishes. These techniques are considered so important that traditionally cooking books are based on these techniques, rather than on ingredients.

The basic techniques are:

  • Niru: Simmering.
  • Yuderu: Cooking.
  • Yaku: Grilling.
  • Itameru: Sauteing.
  • Ageru: Deep-frying.
  • Musu: Steaming.
  • Aeru: Dressing a Japanese-style salad.
Three other techniques are: the preparation of sashimi (raw fish); the preparation of suimono (clear soups); and the preparation of appetizers (zensai).  


Cutting. 切る。

Cutting is the most important technique in Japanese cooking, even more important than the various techniques of applying heat.

Cutting is done with a hocho, Japanese kitchen knife, of which the basic forms are:

Deba-bocho: Kitchen cleaver for fish (for filleting fish). Deba knife
Usuba-bocho: Vegetable knife. Usuba knife
Sashimi-bocho (Yanagi-bocho): Fish slicer (for cutting sashimi slices), Sashimi knife.

The most commonly used knife at home is called Banno-bocho ("knife suitable for everything, almighty knife") as it combines the above functions without becoming specialist.

Here are a few cutting techniques that occur often:

Sengiri: Julienne
Ichogiri: quarter rounds (in the form of Gingko leaves)
Hyojikigiri: square rectangles (in the form of wooden clappers)
Rangiri: rolling wedges (chopping)
Mijingiri: fine chopping

Friday, October 5, 2012


Japanese horseradish, wasabi (Wasabia japonica). わさび, 山葵 

Wasabi is a plant that grows naturally in the marshy edges of clear mountain streams and when cultivated also needs clear, running water. Such cultivation usually takes place on mountain terraces. Due to the difficulty of growing wasabi, it is an expensive product.

Although conveniently called "horseradish" in English, it is in fact very different from Western horseradish: wasabi is more fragrant and less sharp. The pale green flesh of the root is made into a paste by rubbing the root on a fine metal grater (oroshigane). After grating, wasabi has to be used immediately as it soon loses its flavor.

Authentic wasabi has a fresh and cleansing taste - even a certain sweetness. The burning sensation works on the nasal passage rather than the tongue and can be easily washed away with liquid. Wasabi helps to prevent food poisoning and that is the reason why wasabi is eaten with raw fish (sashimi) as well as sushi containing raw fish as a topping. In exclusive sushi bars the chef grates the wasabi roots with a sharkskin grater (samegawa-oroshi). With sushi, wasabi is added by the customer to the soy-based dipping sauce, but also used by the chef, who always puts some wasabi between the rice and the slice of raw fish.

Wasabi has been long known in Japan - the oldest record dates from the 7th century, but it was mostly used for its medical properties. Wasabi is not used as a general condiment in traditional Japanese cooking, which does not know any sharp flavors. As stated above, its main function is for its anti-microbial properties with sashimi and sushi, and besides that in dipping sauces for cold soba, in chazuke and sometimes on steak. Wasabi can also be used for pickling vegetables (wasabizuke).

The best wasabi roots come from the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka or from Nagano Prefecture.

[Wasabi with metal grater - photo Wikipedia]

Real wasabi is a luxury product even in Japan, and at home mostly wasabi paste (neri-wasabi) or wasabi powder (kona-wasabi) is used. This in itself would not be so bad, were it not that most of these products contain little or no authentic wasabi but instead Western horseradish (called Seiyo wasabi) mixed with mustard, starch and green coloring. The paste is sold in tubes in supermarkets, the less common powder is sold in cans.

Thursday, October 4, 2012


Kamaboko slices. 板わさ。

"Ita" refers to the wooden cedar boards on which kamaboko loaves used to be molded and steamed and grilled; "wasa" is short for wasabi.

This is an appetizer consisting of slices of high-grade kamaboko with wasabi horseradish and soy sauce.  Goes also well with sake. Use the soy sauce and wasabi as a dip for the kamaboko slices. Eat chilled or at room temperature.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


"Eucommia tea," "tochu-cha." とちゅうちゃ、杜仲茶。

Tochu-cha is tea made from the leaves of the Eucommia tree, in China called Duzhong. The Duzhong has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine. The bark of the 15 meter high tree is, for example, believed to alleviate lower back pain and aching knees.

The deciduous leaves contain some rubber (it comes out when you fold them), but are also used to brew tea. Tochu tea is supposed to help lowering high blood pressure, slim down and cleanse the body. It also has an interesting taste.

The tea was first made popular in Japan by Hitachi Zosen, a shipbuilding company on the path of diversification. Hitachi Zosen caused a small boom with tochu-cha in the nineties. Afterwards, the company sold the product rights of this health food to Kobayashi Pharmaceutical, who is now the main manufacturer of this type of tea in Japan.

Duzhong trees have to be cultivated, they do not grow in the wild anymore, but they have been succesfully imported to Japan and planted in the Ina area of Nagano Prefecture.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Ebi (Prawn, shrimp)

Prawn, shrimp (Penaeidae). Refers in general to all ten-legged edible crustaceans. えび、海老、蝦.

One of the most popular ingredients in the Japanese kitchen. The major types of ebi used in the Japanese kitchen and their ways of preparing are:

Ama-ebi: "Northern shrimp" or "Pink shrimp" (Pandalus borealis). Length about 12 cm. Nov-Feb. Sweet-tasting and used for sushi and sashimi. Has transparent meat.
Botan-ebi, "Botan shrimp" (Pandalus nipponensis). Used raw on sushi as this type is soft enough and need not be boiled. Also in tempura and deep-fried.
Hokkai-ebi, "Hokkaido prawn" (Pandalus latirostris). Found along the northern shores of Hokkaido, grows to 13 cm. Often used in tsukudani (salt-sweet preserve of fish, shellfish and vegetables).
Ise-ebi, "crawfish, Japanese spiny lobster" (Panulirus japonicus). Can reach 35 cm. As sashimi, or split in half and grilled.
Kuruma-ebi, "tiger prawn" (Marsupeaeus japonicus). Up to 20 cm. May to Sept. Large prawn used for sushi, sashimi, and also popular as a deep-fried food (ebi-furai, breaded and deep-fried). One of the most popular types of shrimp and cultivated on a large scale in "shrimp farms." An extra large type, growing to 27 cm., is called "Taisho-ebi."
Sakura-ebi "Cherry blossom shrimp," (Sergia lucens). Small shrimp of 5 cm. Light red in color. Used in various dishes to provide a colorful touch.
Shiba-ebi, "Grey prawn"(Metapenaeus joyneri). 10-15 cm. Very tasty. Extensively used in tempura, but also on sushi, in sunomono (vinegared salad) and in kakiage (a clump of shrimp, small fish and vegetables fried together as tempura).

[Ise-ebi. Photo Wikipedia]

For use on sushi or as ingredient in other dishes, ebi are usually briefly boiled in salted water (except the botan-ebi, which is already very soft). A few minutes is enough to bring out the "umami." When meant for use on nigiri-zushi, the larger ones as kuruma-ebi are first skewered to keep them straight (the heat otherwise makes them curl up). Next the scales are removed and the blue stripe which runs the length of the shrimp and which is the digestive tract, is taken out. Finally they are washed, cut open, and put in butterfly form on the sushi. Thanks to the boiling the transparent meat has turned white with orange fringes. Ebi only became a popular sushi topping after WWII. Smaller shrimp may be attached to the rice with a band of nori.

Shrimp are usually kept alive until the moment of use.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


Cold noodles Chinese-style. 冷麺。Also called Hiyashi Chuka, 冷やし中華。

Reimen is one of my favorite summer dishes – how hot it may be, or how low my appetite, this delicacy always works its wonder! It always helps to revive me thanks to the sourness of the vinegar in the sauce and the lightness of the thin noodles and the vegetables.

Reimen are boiled, cold noodles served in a sauce of soy sauce and vinegar, and lavishly topped with thinly sliced strips of omelet, ham, cucumber, tomatoes, ginger and sometimes also chicken and pork. The toppings are arranged in a colorful pattern on top of the noodles, the customer has to mix the dish, bringing it up to taste with some mustard - nowadays, sometimes even mayonnaise is added.

In fact, the name I use, Reimen, is typical for Western Japan (where I live) – in other parts of Japan this summer dish is called Hiyashi Chuka (“Cold Chinese”), and in Hokkaido the designation Hiyashi Ramen (“Cold Ramen”) is used. Note that this Japanese summer dish is different from the Korean Naengmyeon, which is also pronounced “reimen” in Japanese.

This cold summer dish of Chinese noodles did not come from China, but was invented by a Chinese restaurant in Japan. That was the Chinese restaurant Ryutei in Sendai, and the year was 1937. As other Chinese restaurants, Ryutei always saw its sales dip in the hot Japanese summer, when the Japanese prefer cooler dishes than piping hot ramen noodles. That was all the more regrettable as the annual Tanabata festival brought many tourists to Sendai. So taking a hint from the Ur-Japanese zarusoba dish (cold soba noodles with a soy sauce based dipping), the owner of Ryutei devised a new style of cold Chinese noodles. Interestingly, the cold sauce containing vinegar was not orthodox from a Chinese point of view, as in Chinese cuisine cold dishes with a sour taste are not popular. It was also new for Japan. But reimen soon conquered Japan!

The restaurant in Sendai used different vegetables from today, and therefore other restaurants also lay claim to the crown of being the first, such as Yoshikosaikan, a Chinese restaurant in Jinbocho, Tokyo, where just after the war the vegetables were heaped on the noodles in the form of a small Mt Fuji as still happens today, or Chuka no Sakai in Kyoto which started serving cold noodles with goma (sesame)-sauce in 1939.

Now reimen is so popular that it is served by all Chinese restaurants in Japan, from late spring to early autumn – they always announce the start of the reimen season with banners, flags and posters. Reimen also is a bestseller among supermarket lunches.
Incorporating information from the Hiyashi Chuka article in the Japanese Wikipedia.

Saturday, June 30, 2012


Daggertooth pike conger (Muraenesox cinereus). ハモ、鱧。

A white-meat fish from the eel family. As its English name reveals, it has a deep ripped mouth with sharp teeth at the upper and lower parts of the jaw. The name hamo comes from hamu, an old term for eating, because the fish uses its sharp teeth to eat almost anything from shrimps and crabs to small fish. A popular summer dish in the Kansai, especially in Kyoto.

[Picture from Fishbase]

Hamo is caught in the warm waters of the Japanese Inland Sea, where it lives at the soft bottom or in estuaries. It can grow to two meters, but in practice, only fish up to one meter are used in restaurants. It is caught between May and October and is at its best in July. Large quantities of the fish are consumed around this time. Like eel, hamo contains much fat and is believed to have invigorating qualities. It indeed helps you get back some appetite under the hot and humid summer sky that in July hangs like a lead blanket over Kyoto. It is so popular in summer in Kyoto, that the Gion Festival is even called "Hamo Matsuri."

[Photo Wikipedia]

Besides its restorative qualities, which can after all also be enjoyed by eating ordinary eel, there is a special reason why hamo is so popular in Kyoto. That is because the hardy pike conger is able to survive for longer periods compared to other fish after it has been caught. Kyoto is a land-locked city and in the past fresh sea fish could not be brought there. But hamo formed an exception and therefore was warmly welcomed in Kyoto, despite the difficulty of preparing it. And perhaps that challenge was a not a disadvantage at all, as it gave Kyoto's proud chefs a chance to show off their skills! To remove the tiny bones (3,500 in all!), hamo has to be sliced very thinly with a special hamokiri-bocho knife, without cutting the flesh in half. Better to eat it in a restaurant then try this terrible job at home!

[Tempura of hamo with shiso or perilla leaves. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Hamo also has a mild and light flavor - in fact, it tastes quite refined. Despite that, except in Kyoto (and Osaka, where it is eaten around the time of the Tenjin Festival, also in July), hamo is not a popular fish in the rest of Japan, because of the difficulty of preparing it

Hamo is enjoyed in the following forms:
  • As hama-otoshi, boiled pike conger: the eel is cut into bite-sized pieces and served on top of ice in glass dishes or wooden tubs
  • As kabayaki, grilled on top of charcoal and then glazed with a sweet soy sauce
  • Hamozushi, as topping on sushi. In this case either fresh hamo or kabayaki is used
  • As tempura, sometimes wrapped in a shiso leaf
  • In vinegared dishes (sunomono)
  • In clear soup (osumashi, suimono)
In summer, hamo is served in upscale ryotei in Kyoto. But you can also taste it in a more economical way: around this time department stores and supermarkets will sell delicious hamozushi, and in the sozai section, you can find hamo tempura!

Saturday, June 16, 2012


Garnished sushi. ちらし寿司。

We could also call it "Sushi rice topped with assorted ingredients." A bowl or plate of sushi rice (sushimeshi) covered with slices of many different kinds of raw or marinated fish, vegetables. mushroom, shredded omelet. etc. as a topping. The name literally means "scattered sushi."

There is a difference between chirashizushi from Tokyo and Osaka: the Tokyo version emphatically include fresh raw fish, while in Osaka raw fish is not used, but only a selection of vegetables, shredded omelet, unagi, shrimp, smoked salmon and salmon roe. . Moreover, the slices of raw fish are quite large - the same size as the toppings use on finger sushi. And in Western Japan the ingredients are cut finely and then mixed with the sushi rice. The Osaka version is also called barazushi (also meaning "scattered sushi"), or gomokuzushi, "five item sushi," pointing at the large number of ingredients (although not necessarily five!). 

The color combination is important here and the scattering over the rice of the ingredients should be quite artistic. Shredded omelet is used for yellow, cucumber for green, kani sticks for orange, etc. Nori and pickled ginger may also be used.

Barazushi of Yaki-Anago and Ikura
[Barazushi with grilled conger eel (anago) and ikura (salmon eggs). Photo Ad Blankestijn]

The selection of the ingredients is very wide-ranging. The dish is usually named after one or two of the main ingredients, as in the above picture.

Traditionally, chirashizushi is served at the Doll's festival on March 3, but they are of course eaten the year round.

Chirashizushi is eaten with chopsticks. Chirashizushi are a favorite for box lunches; you can buy them in supermarkets; and you can unleash your fantasy when cooking this dish at home - it is the easiest sushi to prepare as you do not need any chef's skills in rolling or squeezing.

Monday, June 11, 2012


Sushi rolls. 巻きずし、

Sushi rolls made with the help of a makisu, a thin bamboo mat. Also called norimaki when nori (seaweed) is used for the wrapper, as is most common except in uramaki and some cases where very thin omelet is used.

There are four types:
  • Hosomaki or thin rolls - only one ingredient.
  • Chumaki or medium rolls - a few ingredients
  • Futomaki or thick rolls - several ingredients
  • Uramaki or inside-out rolls - the nori is on the inside and the outside is coated with white or black sesame seed. 

The most popular hosomaki are:
  • Kappamaki - rolls with cucumber, named after a water sprite that likes cucumber. Also called Kyurimaki (kyuri is the normal word for cucumber).
  • Tekkamaki - rolls with shavings of tuna meat. In the past popular in gambling dens (tekkaba), as one could eat with one hand and continue playing with the other, This may be the rigin of sushi rolls.
  • Negitoromaki - rolls with shavings of tuna meat mixed with finely chopped spring onions (negi)
  • Kanpyomaki - rolls with marinated dried gourd strips (kanpyo)
  • Shinkomaki or Takuan Hosomaki - rolls with takuan, pickled daikon.
  • Nattomaki, rolls with a filling of natto (fermented beans).
Futomaki are about 5 cm thick and usually four or five different ingredients are used, such as shiitake, koyadofu, kanpyo, strips of Japanese omelette. etc. In the case of chumaki or futomaki, also more "exotic" ingredients are popular, such as lettuce, crab stick and omelet in saradamaki (salad rolls). Interesting are also Ehomaki eaten at the Setsubun Festival.

Makizushi are popular for eating at home - they can be bought in supermarkets and convenience stores, as well as specialized take-out sushi chain shops. In real sushi bars you will only find some of the more traditional hosomaki, for here nigirizushi reign supreme. Outside Japan, it is different; as sushi rolls are relatively easy to make and do not require difficult-to-get ingredients, even in sushi restaurants you find more rolls than sushi fingers.

How to make makizushi:
Place a sheet of nori on the special makisu bamboo mat and spread sushi-rice (sushimeshi) over it to the edges, but keep one-fourth at the top of the of the sheet empty. Put the filling ingredients together across the rice at a point one-third of the length of the nori sheet. Bring the edge of the nori closest to the ingredients up and then roll firmly with the mat, pressing it together. Finally, cut the roll into pieces of the required thickness (1.5 cm for a thck roll, 2 cm for a thin one).

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


Freeze-dried tofu. こうやどうふう、高野豆腐。

"Tofu from Mt. Koya." Freeze-dried tofu originating with the monks of Mt Koya, the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism. They reputedly discovered the process accidentally by leaving tofu outside on a winter night in the cold mountain air.

Grayish with a spongy texture. Soak in water to reconstitute it before eating. Conveniently solves the problem that tofu can’t be kept for long.

Already in the Edo-period, Koyadofu became a popular present to take home for visitors to Mt Koya.

[Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Sweet red-bean soup. しるこ、汁粉。

Toasted mochi are served in a sweet soup of an, made from azuki beans. The soup is made with the thin and pureed koshi-an, not with the thicker and chunkier tsubu-an. When tsubu-an is used, one speaks of zenzai instead of shiruko.

Like zenzai, delicious on cold winter days, but also an elegant dessert. Served in Japanese-style tearooms (kanmi-dokoro). Can also be bought ready-made in supermarkets.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Sweet red-bean soup. ぜんざい、善哉。

Toasted mochi are served in a sweet soup of an, a chunky paste made from azuki beans. In the case of zenzai, the rough tsubu-an is used, with still whole beans left in it. When using the thinner pureed version of the bean paste called koshi-an, the resulting dish is not called zenzai, but shiruko.

Delicious on cold winter days, but also an elegant dessert. Served in Japanese-style tearooms (kanmi-dokoro). Zenzai can also be bought ready-made in supermarkets.

[Photo from Japanese Wikipedia]

Monday, May 28, 2012


Nigiri Sushi. にぎり寿司。

Squeezed "fingers" of sushi rice with a topping ("nigiru" is "to squeeze"). When raw fish is used, between rice and topping a smear of wasabi is usually added. The old name is Edomaezushi, referring to the fact that initially all toppings were fished out of the Bay of Edo.

The right "squeeze" takes years and years to learn. After moistening the hands with "hand-vinegar" (part of the vinegar dressing for the sushi rice that is kept apart for the purpose), the rice is placed across the first joint of the fingers of the right hand and formed roughly by clenching that hand. With the index and middle fingers of the right hand the rice is pressed firmly but gently into a more defined shape, turning it around to bring equal pressure to bear on all sides. A slice of raw fish is picked up in the left hand and a dab of wasabi is smeared in the middle with the right hand (which still carries the sushi, now concealed) - note that no wasabi is used for sushi made with marinated fish, grilled fish, fish eggs or omelette. Finally the rice "finger" is placed on the fish slice and the two are pressed firmly together with index and middle fingers of the right hand. This whole process should be one flowing movement.

A variant of nigirizushi are gunkan-maki, literally "warship-rolls" (more friendly also called "boat sushi" in English), where nori is wrapped around the sides of the sushi to prevent loose ingredients as ikura (salmon eggs) from falling off.

The following types of toppings (neta) are used for nigirizushi:
  • fish with red meat (akami)
  • fish with white meat (shiromi)
  • silver-skinned fish (hikarumono) 
  • shellfish (kai)
  • roe (gyoran)
  • others (this includes anything from sea eel to squid, and prawn to octopus, plus omelet)
In all cases except perhaps the last one, freshness is of the utmost importance. The sushi chef must finish the ingredients he has bought early in the morning during the same day - if he keeps them for a night in the refrigerator, they are not fresh anymore.

Sweet pickled ginger (shoga amazu-zuke or gari) is served with nigirizushi to eat in between different types of toppings and so refresh the mouth. There is also a dip sauce of either soy sauce or thicker tamari sauce, and a dab of wasabi. Sushi shops often make their own special dip by reducing these over heat with sake, mirin, bonito flakes, etc. Use the wasabi sparingly, as in fact the sushi chef has already added wasabi to the sushi where necessary. The same goes for the dip, which should only be applied to the fish and not to the rice.

Nigirizushi are normally served in restaurants in pairs. They can be enjoyed in exclusive sushi bars where the bill is made up creatively in round figures and always comes to a couple of hundred dollars per person; or in kaitenzushi restaurants ("conveyor belt sushi"), where you only pay a dollar per plate - and everything in-between. There are also economical "take-out" sushi shops as Kyotaru and Chagetsu, and nigirizushi are always sold in department stores and supermarkets, made freshly on the premises.

When you eat in a sushi bar, you can either sit at the counter and order every sushi separately, or sit at a table and order a menu. These have fanciful names as Matsu (Pine tree), Take (Bamboo) and Ume (Apricot), which indicate certain grades, volumes and prices. At the counter you can also take an "omakase," leaving everything to the sushi chef. In that case you can be sure you get the best ingredients he has to offer that day, but the final price come as a shock. It is therefore wise to agree on a price in advance fro omakase, if that is possible.

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Red rice, eaten on festive occasions. 赤飯。

Obtained by steaming azuki beans with glutinous rice (mochigome). Often toasted black sesame seeds or gomashio (toasted sesame seeds with salt) are sprinkled lightly on top. Popular type of rice for weddings, birthdays and festivals as Shichigosan. Red is a symbol of happiness (as it is in China).

Sekihan is usually served in lunch boxes and eaten at room temperature. It is also used as an offer to the gods, by placing it in small bowls on the family shrine for the ancestors.

Technically, the rice is colored red by using the reddish water in which the azuki beans have been cooked. The beans are not cooked until they are soft, but just for 10 min. as they will later be steamed. So normally a lot of the cooking water is left for soaking the rice. The rice is soaked overnight or even longer, up to 24 hours. Finally, the rice which now has a pinkish color and the beans are mixed and steamed at high heat for about 40 min in metal or bamboo steamer.

The taste is quite sweet and that is why it is a good idea to add the salt gomashio.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Sushi. 寿司。

Sushi are so popular outside Japan that the word "sushi" has become English! Some people even think that "sushi equals Japanese food," but as this website shows, there is a lot more to the cuisine of the Rising Sun.

Interestingly, sushi started as a way to preserve cleaned fish by wrapping it in rice and keeping it for a year or longer in a hermetically closed pot. The rice would ferment and produce lactic acid and alcohol and this would keep the fish fresh - although it would become rather smelly. The all too sour rice would be thrown away when eating the fish. This method is called "narezushi," and it is still applied to making funazushi at Lake Biwa.

Gradually the fermentation period was shortened to a few months and then even a few days, so that the rice would stay fresh enough to be eaten as well (this process is called "namanare"). The custom of eating the combination of fish and sour rice was born!

The next great step was the invention of su, rice vinegar, somewhere around 1600. It was more delicious to add vinegar to the rice to get a pleasant sour taste (sushimeshi). But the vinegar would prevent fermentation, so instead of preserving fish, this became a new dish of fish and rice. It was called "hayazushi," "fast sushi." The rice was put in a wooden box, the fish on top and the whole would be pressed together with a weight, resulting in a sort of "fish on rice" cake that would be cut in one-bite parts. This way of making sushi is still popular (especially in Western Japan) and is called hakozushi ("box sushi") or oshizushi ("pressed sushi").

The final big invention was made in 1818 in Edo, at that time the largest city in the world where life ran along at a fast pace. Making box sushi was much too laborious for the impatient inhabitants of Edo, and a certain sushi maker started squeezing individual sushi with his hands... and so modern nigirizushi was born. This method of making sushi quickly became popular and sushi were sold from booths set up along Edo's roads. They were called Edomaezushi, as the ingredients came from the bay "in front of Edo" (Edomae).

There are today the following five main types of sushi:
  1. Nigirizushi or "finger sushi" (nigiri literally means "to squeeze"). Squeezed "fingers" of sushi rice topped with a slice of raw fish, etc. The basic type, often called just "sushi." The old name is Edomaezushi as we saw in the above. A variant of this type are gunkan-maki, literally "warship-rolls" (more friendly also called "boat sushi" in English), where nori is wrapped around the sides of a nigirizushi. This is done to prevent loose ingredients as ikura (salmon eggs) from falling off. 
  2. Makizushi or "sushi rolls." With the help of a thin bamboo mat (makisu) sushi rice is rolled together with various ingredients and then cut. Depending on the thickness there are various types such as hosomaki or "thin rolls," which include only one ingredient, or futomaki or "thick rolls," which feature a whole variety. And we also have uramaki or "inside-out rolls," where the nori is on the inside - these include "California rolls."
  3. Oshizushi or "pressed sushi." Sushi rice with a topping of fish is pressed into a cake form by using a wooden box with lid. We already met these in the above as the type that is older than nigirizushi. Served throughout Japan, although most popular in the Kansai.
  4. Chirashizushi or "tossed sushi." Fresh raw seafoods (cut in slices as for nigirizushi) are put as a topping over a bed of sushi rice. A variant in Western Japan is Gomokuzushi or "Five Item Sushi" (also called barazushi, "scattered sushi," or mazezushi, "mixed sushi"). The main differences between Chirashizushi and Gomokuzushi are that for the last type no raw seafood is used and that the ingredients are not put on top of the rice, but mixed through it. Moreover, they are finely cut or shredded. Temakizushi also belong in this category, as these are simple "hand rolled sushi," where the nori is folded into a cone and loosely filled with sushi rice and ingredients as one likes - a sort of "party sushi" that is easy to make by the guests themselves by picking their favorite ingredients.
  5. Sushi pockets. The vinegared rice is used as a stuffing and is usually mixed with some very finely cut vegetables or other ingredients. The main types are inarizushi, where the sushi rice is stuffed into pouches of abura-age (fried tofu) boiled in a sweet sauce; and fukusazushi (also called chakinzushi), where the pouch is made of paper-thin omelette. This is more a snack than a meal. 
There are also many regional types of sushi: sabazushi (Kyoto), battera (Osaka), kakinohazushi (Nara), meharizushi (Wakayama), etc. Often these are pressed sushi, sometimes also older types as narezushi.

All the above sushi are made with sushimeshi (vinegared sushi rice) - which is the determining factor whether to call a dish "sushi" or not.

All types of sushi are popular for lunches and picnics and are often sold in take-away restaurants and supermarkets to eat at home. The larger supermarkets and department stores make sushi fresh in their own kitchen.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


Sushi rice. すしめし。

All types of sushi are made with vinegared sushi rice - this forms in fact the criterion whether something can be called "sushi" or not.

In Japan, apprentice chefs spend a few years only learning how to make good sushi rice. Here are the rules of thumb. The rice should be firm, so not soaked after rinsing, and cooked with somewhat less water than normally - if the rice is too wet, it will not absorb the vinegar dressing after cooking. To add flavor, when cooking sushi rice chefs often add a strip of kelp (konbu) and a splash of sake. The dressing is made with rice vinegar (su), sugar and salt. The ratio of these three ingredients is a well-guarded secret of each sushi chef, and there are also regional differences: in Kyoto quite a lot of sugar is used, while some chefs in Tokyo almost use no sugar at all.

When cooking at home, a good ratio to start with (which later can be adjusted according to taste) would be: 6 table spoons of rice vinegar to 2 table spoons of sugar to 2.5 teaspoons of salt - this for an amount of rice of about 4 rice cooker cups. Dissolving the sugar and salt takes some time - if in a hurry do this faster over low heat, but afterwards cool down the mixture to room temperature. After cooking the rice, it is put into a wooden hangiri tub (or a wooden or even glass salad bowl, but never metal) and tossed with a rice paddle or wooden spoon. At the same time, sprinkle the dressing over the rice. Use it liberally, but not so much that the rice gets musty. Cool the rice with a hand fan while you keep tossing it. It should be at room temperature when you start making sushi. Sushi rice can never be kept longer than a day - to keep it for a few hours, cover the tub with a wet cloth. Never refrigerate.

Friday, May 18, 2012


Glutinous rice. もちごめ、もち米。Oryza satyva Japonica, glutinosa group.

Although all Japanese rice is "sticky," the regular food rice is not glutinous rice (as is often wrongly stated), but non-glutinous, regular rice (uruchimai). For those for whom ordinary stickiness is not enough, there exists, however, a glutinous variant of the regular rice called mochigome (also called mochimai)Mochigome has a slightly sweet flavour and a high starch content, which makes it stickier than normal rice. Traditionally, this type of rice was considered as more desirable - perhaps because it seems to contain in concentrated form the "power of rice." In fact, yields of mochigome are low and a lot of it is needed to make mochi, so this was truly a luxury food only eaten on festival days as the New Year.

Mochigome is not cooked in a pot, but steamed in a steamer (seiro). The common steamers in Japan today are made of metal and consist of a square pot over which fit one or more tiers with perforated bottoms; a cover keeps the steam inside. A traditional bamboo steamer can of course also be used and is in fact better, as the wooden hoop and domed lid are good insulators. You can also improvise a steamer by putting a sieve with mesh cloth in it on top of a pan (the sieve should not touch the water) and then cover that with a large enough lid.

Steaming is done at high heat for about 20 minutes. Then sprinkle the rice a few times with a small amount of uchimizu (a mix of sake and water) or salt water to puff it up. Continue steaming at high heat for another 15-20 minutes. Be sure that the water quantity in the pot is sufficient.

Steamed mochigome is used for the following dishes and products:
  • Sekihan, red rice, where azuki beans are used to color the mochigome. Sekihan is the fixed type of rice for weddings and other celebrations as red is the color of good luck.
  • Okowa or kowameshi, steamed glutinous rice mixed with other ingredients as salmon or chestnuts, often sold in depachika. Please note that sekihan can also be called okowa.
  • Mochi, rice cakes, obtained by pounding glutinous rice. Mochi also have a celebratory significance.
  • Certain types of okashi, traditional Japanese sweets, for example ohagi or sakura-mochi.
  • Certain types of senbei or rice crackers, for example arare.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


Rice. 米。

Kome is the word for harvested but uncooked rice - the ingredient "rice" you buy in the supermarket and store in your kitchen cabinet. The rice plants in the fields are called ine and cooked rice is gohan.

There are many varieties of rice in the world - it is the grain with the highest production for human consumption (if we include non-human consumption such as cattle feed, it would take second place after maize). The rice traditionally eaten in Japan (and the only one suitable for traditional Japanese meals) is called Oryza sativa Japonica. "Oryza sativa" is the rice grown in Asia (different from Oryza glaberrima, the rice grown in Africa). But even among Asian rice there are many varieties - the Indians for example, prefer rice that is dry and doesn't stick too much together ("like two brothers - close but not sticking too much together"), while the Japanese prefer a short-grained subspecies of which the grains stick together like they themselves in their full country.

The traditional method for cultivating rice is to flood the fields after planting the young seedlings, as this reduces the growth of weeds and deters vermin. This requires a high level of organization and cooperation among farmers - in early historical periods, this gave rise to Japanese social organization. In Japan, planting and harvesting is highly mechanized nowadays.

After harvesting, the grains are first treated with a rice huller to remove the chaff (the outer husks of the grain). The result is called "brown rice," genmai. Brown rice lacks the fragrance of hakumai and is mainly sold in organic restaurants and shops. Usually also the bran (the rest of the husk and the germ) is removed to obtain "white rice," hakumai.

A product in between brown rice and white rice is "sprouted brown rice," hatsuga genmai, which has a softer texture than brown rice, yet retains its health benefits. But this, too, is only sold in small quantities as white rice rules the day.

In Japan, the white rice meant for food is milled (also called "polished") which means that the outer layer of the grain is milled away, to obtain a finer taste. Food rice is milled down to an average of 92% of the grain. Rice as ingredient for other purposes, such as sake making, is milled much further, to 70%, 60%, 50% and even 35% of the original size - this to remove off-flavors in the sake and obtain a purer taste.

White rice is sold milled in supermarkets in plastic bags of 1, 2, 5 or 10 kilograms. In the countryside, one can find coin-operated rice polishing machines, where farmers can polish their own rice.

White rice keeps very long (it was not for nothing used as money and to pay taxes in traditional Japan), but lacks certain important nutrients. It must therefore be supplemented with other dishes such as pickles (tsukemono).

Rice bran, called nuka, is used for many purposes such as the white powder that coats Japanese sweets (wagashi) or for making one type of pickles (nukazuke).

There are two types of Japonica rice: non-glutinous (called uruchimai) and glutinous Japonica (called mochigome). The first one is used for normal cooking, the second one for special purposes such as making rice cakes (mochi), red rice (sekihan), steamed glutinous rice (okowa) and Japanese sweets.

In the last sixty years, many types of "rice brands" have been developed in Japan, just as there are different tasting brands of potatoes or grapes. Popular brands are Koshihikari, Akitakomachi, Sasanishiki, Hitomebore, etc. Most Japanese prefectures have developed their own brands. For the production of high-quality sake, there exist several brands of special "sake rice" which have larger grains and more starch - and these also are "branded," i.e. Yamada Nishiki or Gohyakumangoku, etc.

Friday, May 11, 2012


Pickled eggplant. なす漬。

Eggplant pickled whole in soy sauce (shoyuzuke). Togarashi (chili pepper) has been added for spiciness.  This type of pickle goes excellently with sake!


Thursday, May 10, 2012


Bamboo shoot. たけのこ、筍、竹の子。Usually from the variety Mosochiku (Phyllostachys heterocycla var pubescens) and sometimes Madake (Phyllostachys bambusoides).

Bamboo shoots or bamboo sprouts are the edible shoots of many bamboo species and in Japan are used as a vegetable. The season is spring - they are available from early April.

Although tender, bamboo shoots break with enormous energy through the soil - they can grow one foot high in one night -  and after that continue growing very fast. The fresh, young shoots are dug out of the soil when still between 15 and 25 centimeters and are sold whole, with the husk still attached. They must be cooked very quickly to prevent them becoming hard and bitter. So nowadays in supermarkets one finds more often than not parboiled shoots in plastic or even shoots that have been brought to taste by cooking them in a dashi-based sauce. These are sold with some of the liquid still attached and are a good "middle way" between the more difficult to handle fresh takenoko on the one hand and canned stuff on the other.

In taste, bamboo shoots  are sweet and juicy. There is indeed some "bambooish" flavor.

Fresh shoots from which the tips have just appeared from the soil can be eaten as they are, with soy sauce and a dash of wasabi. But you can find these fresh shoots only in pricey restaurants in bamboo growing areas, such as the Western Hills of Kyoto, as they should ideally be eaten within one hour after having been plucked from the soil.

Normally, the shoots sold in supermarkets are larger and one or two days old so that they are already tougher and have to be parboiled first for several hours.

A common way to serve takenoko is as a simmered side dish (nimono). The normal way to do this is in a sauce of dashi with katsuobushi (called Tosani). They can also be cooked with wakame (called wakatakeni).

Another way to use bamboo shoots is to cook them with rice as takenoko-gohan. Other ingredients, such as crab meat, may also be added.

Another popular dish is takenoko no kinome-ae. "Ae" are cooked vegetables which are served cold with a dressing. Here the dressing consists of "kinome," the leaves of the pepper tree (sansho), which produce a green, aromatic sauce. Like bamboo shoots, kinome are a sign of spring.

Finally, bamboo shoots are also used in Japanese style Chinese dishes (Chuka), such as Happosai. They are also made into menma, a lactate-fermented pickle which is used as a topping for ramen.

Preservation: fresh shoots should be used within a day. Bamboo shoots soon grow stiff and astringent. The astringency can be removed by boiling them in their husks for three hours in water to which rice bran and a few dried red chilli peppers (togarashi) have been added.

[Takenoko cooked with dashi and katsuobushi (Tosani)]

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


"Mozuku," dark brown seaweed. もずく. Nemacystis  decipiens.

This type of seaweed is found in Okinawa.

Eaten as a vinegared side dish (sunomono) at home. Preserved in salt, it can also be eaten as a snack (tsumamimono). Finally, mozuku is powdered and used in health supplements.

As sunomono, the sour taste can be rather overpowering. Various healthy properties are ascribed to this type of seaweed, so it is quite popular. Mozuku is sold "ready to eat" in supermarkets in small plastic containers, with the vinegar dressing already added.

[Mozuku as sunomono]

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


Chilled tofu. ひややっこ、冷奴。

Popular summer dish, both at home and in restaurants as izakaya. Usually kinugoshi tofu is used.

The cubes of chilled tofu are served with soy sauce and a topping of chopped green onions and katsuobushi.  Additional toppings may include grated ginger, etc.


Friday, May 4, 2012


Salad oil, cooking oil. サラダ油。Also briefly called "abura, " 油。

Cooking oil in Japan (for sauteing, deep-frying, etc) is always pure, cold-pressed vegetable oil. In the traditional kitchen, animal fats are not used at all. Also when frying meat, eggs etc. always salad oil is used, and not butter or margarine.

Rapeseed oil (aburana) is very popular. Other types one sees in Japanese supermarkets are: soy oil (daizu), safflower oil (benibana), sunflower oil (himawari), corn oil (tomorokoshi), and peanut oil (rakusei). Some oils are sold for specific purposes, such as "tenpura oil." Others are mixed oils carrying the name of the producer, such as "Nisshin salad oil." And of course nowadays there are many salad oils with less or no cholesterol.

The only type of vegetable oil never used in Japanese cooking is olive oil because the flavor is too dominating and it is too heavy.

Oil used for seasoning is mainly sesame seed oil (goma-abura). Sesame seed oil may also be added to tenpura oil to add fragrance (up to half of volume).

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


Konbu: Kelp. こんぶ、昆布。Laminaria japonica.

Konbu (also spelled as "kombu") is a tall leafy plant growing from the sea floor in cold, shallow waters off the coast of northern Japan, especially Hokkaido. The deep olive brown leaves become one to two meters long and vary in width from 5 to 30 centimeters. Konbu is partly cultivated and partly harvested from natural sources, from June to October. Konbu is washed with seawater and then cut into 1 m long sheets and dried in the sun. After drying it becomes stiff and dark green.

Konbu has been used as a food source since the beginning of Japanese civilization. It contains important minerals, including iodine, vitamins, protein and dietary fiber.

In fact, the Japanese cuisine could not exist without konbu, as it is the main ingredient for dashi, the stock that forms the pillar of the Japanese kitchen.

In 1908, the Japanese chemist Prof. Ikeda Kikunae studied stock made with kelp to determine the key chemical that provides a delicious flavor while also enhancing the flavors of other ingredients (umami). His research revealed the presence in kelp of natural glutamic acid as the major umami component.

Prominent types of konbu and their uses are:
  • Ma konbu (Saccharina japonica). From the Straits of Tsugaru and the Southwestern part of Hokkaido. The most popular, high-quality konbu. Has a refined sweetness. Used for making high-quality dashi, but also for shio konbu, oboro konbu and tororo konbu
  • Rausu konbu (Saccharina diabolica). From Rausu in Northeastern Hokkaido. Fragrant and soft. Used for making high-quality refined dashi. Also processed into kobu-cha (konbu tea) and su-konbu (pickled kelp).
  • Rishiri konbu (Saccharina ochotensis). From Rishiri, Rebun and the Wakkanai coast in Northwestern Hokkaido. A savory type used for making a clear dashi with a rich taste and tororo konbu
  • Hosome konbu (Saccharina religiosa). From the Oshima Peninsula (southernmost part of Hokkaido). Is thin and has a slippery texture so that it is best suited to make tororo konbu rather than dashi. Also used to make shio konbu or konbu for tsukudani.
  • Naga konbu (Saccharina longissima). From the Kushiro area in Northeastern Hokkaido. Can get 15 meters long. Soft and therefore used for konbu maki (fish etc. rolled in konbu), as well as for tsukudani, oden and as ni-konbu (boiled kelp).
  • Mitsuishi or Hidaka konbu (Saccharina angustata). From the Hidaka coast in Southeastern Hokkaido. Is very soft and therefore used many prepared dishes, for konbu rolls, or eaten as such. Also used for more common type of dashi. 
When using konbu, be careful not to wash it as you would end up washing off the umami components which stick to the surface of the leaves. If a white, salty powder sticks to the konbu, you can carefully wipe it with a dry cloth.

Uses of konbu:
  • As basic ingredient for dashi.
  • Tororo konbu, konbu that has been soaked in vinegar, dried and shaved. It can be used as a wrapping for sushi rolls (makizushi), or used in clear soups (suimono).
  • Oboro konbu, very similar to tororo konbu above. Used in wan-mono and in sunomono.
  • Konbu maki, fish as herring (nisshin) wrapped in konbu.
  • Kobu jime, a cooking technique whereby the ingredients (usually fish) are wedged between sheets of kelp and kept for a night in the refrigerator. 
  • Kobu cha, tea made from konbu
  • Shio konbu, salt konbu, a popular snack and in the past an alternative to chewing gum
  • Su konbu, pickled kelp, also a snack.

[Dried konbu sheets from Wikipedia]

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Sweet potato. さつまいも、薩摩芋。Ipomoea batatas. Other names are "kansho," "Kara-imo" and "Ryukyu-imo."

Sweet potatoes originated in Central and South America. The Spanish brought the starchy root tuber to the Philippines, from whence it reached China (Fujian) - and from there is was in 1605 brought to the Ryukyu Islands (now Okinawa). In the seventeenth century (from 1611) it spread throughout southern Kyushu - the tuber fitted very well in the volcanic soil where other plants had difficulty growing. As that was the domain of the Satsuma clan, the potato became known as Satsumo-imo, "Satsuma potato."

According to another theory, by the way, Satsuma-imo were brought directly to Nagasaki and Hirado, without following the route via Okinawa (there is a record that the British brought sweet potatoes to Hirado in 1615 - multiple routes are indeed likely).

Although the sweet potato reached Japan a little later than the ordinary potato (jagaimo), it became more popular thanks to its sweetness. After the 1730s, Satsuma-imo reached the Kansai and after that also the Kanto area. They are easy to cultivate and as they provide a lot of carbon hydrates, they were very welcome in times when the rice harvest failed. They were promoted by agricultural scientist Aoki Konyo (1698 - 1769) and instrumental in warding off large-scale starvation.

Over the centuries, the Satsuma-imo potato has been improved in Japan to become very sweet and soft. The skin is a bright, reddish purple. The inside is white when raw, creamy yellow when cooked.


Sweet potatoes can be simmered (as in the picture above, where they have been simmered in a sweet sauce containing dashi, soy sauce and mirin or sugar - this is the most common way to use them in the home), baked and fried. In that last case, they are sliced thin, and used as a popular ingredient in  tempura. Baked sweet potatoes are a popular snack in winter (yaki-imo). Daigaku-imo is a snack made from baked and candied sweet potato. Puree from sweet potatoes is used in imo-kinton and in other wagashi, Japanese sweets.

Satsuma-imo also form one of the ingredients from which shochu, Japanese distilled, can be made (imo-jochu).

Preservation: store in a cool dark place outside the refrigerator. Keeps for about five days. Look for firm potatoes without brown spots.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Taro, dasheen. さといも、里芋。Colocasia esculenta.

Sato-imo (lit. "village potato," so named in contrast to another type that was found in the mountains) is the corm of a perennial plant found all-over tropical Asia in many varieties. It is believed to be one of the earliest cultivated plants in the world. It probably originated in the eastern Indian peninsula and then spread both eastwards and westwards. According to the Tabemono no Kigen Jiten, it came to Japan from China in the Nara-period (8th c.) - it is mentioned in the Manyoshu poetry collection -, but there are also people who conjecture that taro was already a staple food of the Japanese in the Jomon-period (10,000 BCE - 300 BCE).

Taro is characterized by a soft, waxy, almost glutinous texture. At the same time, there is no distinctive flavor. Taro has a high liquidity content (84%). relatively little sugar (13%) and is a good source of starch and potassium. In Japan it is considered a propitious food as the corms (oya-imo) have "children" (ko-imo) and even "grandchildren" (mago-imo).

In traditional preparations, taro is simmered for a long time in flavored broth (for example, dashi and soy sauce with optional extra katsuo flakes; this preparation is called nimono). In this form it can be eaten as a side dish called sato-imo-ni, but the sato-imo is also often individually used in kaiseki, the Japanese haute-cuisine. Sato-imo can also be stewed together with meat or fowl, or added to soups. In these cases it is a useful ingredient as it absorbs the flavor of the broth.

[Sato-imo-ni, taro's simmered in a broth of dashi, soy sauce and katsuo flakes]

When using taro, they are first washed to remove soil residue, wiped dry, peeled with a knife (they have a hard skin) and parboiled. The cut surface shows a snowy-white flesh. When this flesh comes in contact with water, it will develop a slightly slimy texture. 

Preservation: never put fresh taro in the refrigerator, as they are weak for cold. Just store in a dry and dark place, wrapped in a newspaper. When buying, look for hard ones with the soil still attached; don't buy washed ones as contact with water impairs the taste.

Friday, April 13, 2012


Bamboo leaf-shaped kamaboko笹かまぼこ。

Cake made of fish paste and shaped as a bamboo leaf. A local product of Sendai. Developed in 1935 by the Abe Kamaboko shop in Sendai, based on the emblem of the Date clan that had ruled Sendai from 1600 to 1871. This emblem consisted of bamboo leaves with sparrows, and the bamboo leaf shape was used to form the kamaboko.


The fish paste is shaped before grilling with the use of a wooden or iron form.

Kamaboko is an important industry in Miyagi Prefecture thanks to the presence of three major fishing ports: Kesennuma, Ishinomaki and Shiogama (all hit hard by the 2011 tsunami).

Sasakamoboko is eaten as a snack, for example with sake or beer.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Sake (fish)

Salmon. サケ、鮭。Oncorhyncus keta. Also known as "chum salmon."

Pacific salmon is silvery in color, the length is usually 60-70 cm, and weight about 3 kg. The fish can be found in the seas around Japan, and travels upstream of rivers for spawning in Tohoku and Hokkaido. This occurs between September and January. For food, however, the salmon from the high seas is preferred, and these are best in May and June.


Despite the Japanese predilection for sashimi, fresh salmon is not part of the traditional Japanese diet - sushi with salmon are a recent innovation. Most salmon is salted after it has been caught (shiozake) and then grilled. In this form it is a perennial breakfast  favorite. It is also used in nabemono (one pot dishes eaten in winter as Ishikari-nabe), and can be steamed with sake (rice wine) as sakamushi.

The salted roe of the salmon is considered a delicacy and is marketed under the name ikura.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Grilled meat, Japanese BBQ. 焼肉、やきにく。

Barbecuing meat - grilling on a griddle over a direct fire - is a way of cooking based on Korean cuisine (bulgogi and galbi). After WWII, Koreans living in Japan (first in Osaka, than gradually via Nagoya also in Tokyo) set up restaurants called "Horumon-yaki" based on this way of cooking. "Horumon" means "horu mono" or "things thrown away." In other words, meat was used that was normally thrown away - offal. These restaurants became popular from the mid-fifties, especially among salarymen.  Although today horumon-yaki restaurants can still occasionally be found, generally they have morphed into the more upscale yakiniku restaurants, where mostly "normal" meat is used instead of offal.

The fire can be a charcoal fire, but gas and electric grills are also common. The ingredients are cooked by the diners and dipped in various sauces based on soy sauce or miso. Kimchi is often served on the side.

Yakiniku teishoku

[Yakiniku teishoku. The meat is beef and has been cooked with bean sprouts (moyashi). The tare-sauce has been poured over the meat]

Monday, April 9, 2012



"Oak leaf rice cake." 柏餅、かしわもち。

Round-shaped mochi filled with sweet bean paste (an) and wrapped in an oak leaf (from the Kashiwa or Daimyo Oak, Quercus Dentata,  which is native to Japan). As an, both tsubuan (rough type with parts of beans left), koshian (fine type) and misoan (flavored with miso) can be used. The mochi can be plain or flavored, for example with yomogi (mugwort) as on the picture.

Popular sweet on Boys Day (Tango no Sekku, May 5) because of the symbolism that the old oak leaves do not fall off until the new shoots have grown. Is nowadays available the whole year.


The origin of kashiwa-mochi goes back to mid 18th c. Edo. They were popularized over the whole country by the system of alternate attendance of daimyo in Edo. In the Kansai and Western japan, where the oak does not occur naturally, originally on Boys Day chimaki (mochi made of glutinous rice and wrapped in a bamboo leaf) were eaten. Instead of oak leaves, here also sometimes leaves of greenbrier-type trees are used (Sarutoriibara, Smilacaceae).

In contrast to sakura-mochi, where the cherry leaf has been pickled, the oak leaf is not meant to be eaten.