Ingredients, dishes and drinks from Japan by Ad Blankestijn

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]