Ingredients, dishes and drinks from Japan by Ad Blankestijn

Thursday, September 26, 2013


Spinach. ホウレンソウ、ほうれん草, 菠薐草 (Spinacia oleracea).

Spinach is an edible flowering plant, with a high nutritional value and rich in iron. Spinach originated in central and southwestern Asia, perhaps ancient Persia, and was brought to East Asia via the Silk Road. It reached China already in the 7th century, where it was called "Persian vegetable," but Japan had to wait for spinach until the 17th c. It is said that the famous warlike daimyo Date Masamune loved spinach.

Spinach today is a favorite vegetable in Japan (Japan is the top third spinach producing country in the world, after China and the U.S.), although the way it is used differs greatly from Western cuisine. It is most popular in a cooked salad (aemono) called horenso no goma-ae, that is: cooked spinach dressed with sesame seed. It is also excellent in o-hitashi, parboiled and soused in dashi with soy sauce and mirin, and served chilled. Besides that, spinach is used in soups.

Horenso no goma-ae (Spinach with sesame dressing)
[Horenso no goma-ae, Cooked spinach salad dressed with sesame]

Thursday, September 5, 2013


Red-Bean Jelly. 水羊羹、みずようかん。

Sweet jelly made of ground red beans. Mizu-Yokan is a firm yet delicate confection that is usually eaten in summer and should be served chilled. It is a variety of Yokan, a traditional tea sweet or wagashi that belongs to the category of namagashi, uncooked sugar confections. Yokan is made with an (sweet red bean (azuki) paste), sugar and kanten (agar-agar). To Mizu-Yokan more water is added than to ordinary Yokan (hence the name) so that it becomes lighter. Various flavorings, such as green tea powder, but also persimmons or chestnuts, can be added.

The Chinese characters used for Yokan are interesting 羊羹: yanggeng means "soup with sheep (meat)," i.e. probably gelatine made from sheep. Presumably that was the ingredient for a Chinese confection that was brought to Japan by Zen monks in the late 12th c. In Japan, the animal gelatin was substituted by azuki beans and wheat flour. The Yokan were initially steamed, but that changed after agar-agar started being used around 1800.

As a refined form of wagashi, Yokan and Mizu-Yokan are popular gift items in Japan. Mizu-Yokan are often sold in aluminium or plastic cups, but one also finds the traditional packaging of inserting it in a piece of hollow bamboo, as in the photo below.

The author Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) wrote about Yokan in his novel Kusamakura ("A Pillow of Grass"): "I saw that the sweets-plate contained some beautiful Yokan. Of all wagashi, Yokan are my favorite. It is not that I especially enjoy eating them, but I consider that their smooth fine texture, and the way in which they become semi-transparent when the light falls on them, makes them indisputably a piece of art."

Mizu Yokan

Thursday, August 29, 2013


Gomoku-zushi wrapped in a thin layer of omelette. 茶巾寿司、茶巾ずし。

The thin omelette has the form of a pouch, and in this respect chakin-zushi is similar to inari-zushi (although the pouch is made of a different substance, being fried tofu in the case of inari-zushi).

Japan is the country of the furoshiki, the wrapping cloth, and these yellow pouches look as if they have been wrapped in a piece of cloth, not anything as large as a furoshiki, but rather a "chakin," which is a linen cloth used for wiping and purifying tea bowls during the tea ceremony.

Interestingly, there is another name for these sushi which refers to another (but also very cultured) piece of cloth: fukusa-zushi ふくさずし. "Fukusa" is a square of silk used by courtiers in the elegant Heian-period and later to wrap up presents or precious articles. The sushi pouch indeed reminds one of delicately gold-colored silk.

The omelette that functions as "chakin" or "fukusa" is square in shape and has to be very thin. It is usually tied with an (edible) dried gourd strip (kanpyo) at the top. Sometimes a small shrimp it put on top as decoration.

The rice used is not ordinary sushi rice, but sushi rice mixed with vegetables and other ingredients, such as black sesame seed, called "gomoku" ("gomoku" literally means "five kinds," but the "five" is meant symbolically as "many").

Chakin-zushi, Gomoku-zushi wrapped in a thin layer of omelette.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Salt-sweet preserves used as a topping for rice. つくだに、佃煮

Seafood, seaweed and vegetables are simmered in a thick sauce made from soy, salt and mirin until all moisture is reduced. These preserves keep very well. The flavor is quite intense.

The name originates in Tsukuda-jima, a small island in the River Sumida in central Tokyo, where the product was first made in the Edo-period. (Tsukuda-ni means literally "simmered (preserve) from Tsukuda").

Ikanago no Kugini
[Ikago no Kugi-ni, a form of tsukudani from Hyogo Prefecture]

Friday, August 16, 2013


Deep-fried tofu. あげだしどうふ。

The tofu from which the moisture has been pressed, is cut in blocks and coated with flour. Then they are deep-fried, sprinkled with bonito shavings (katsuobushi) and chopped spring onions and served in a soy-based sauce. As extra condiments ginger and grated daikon (daikon-oroshi) may serve.

This dish can be bought ready-made in supermarkets.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Dried topping for rice. ふりかけ、振り掛け

Condiment sprinkled on hot rice. Usually contains toasted and shredded seaweed, ground dry fish, sesame seed and salt. Other flavorful ingredients which can be added to the mix are: shiso, egg, freeze-dried salmon particles, powdered miso, katsuobushi. The particular furikake usualy is named after the main ingredient, i.e. "katsuo" (bonito), "sake" (salmon), "wasabi" etc. Furikake is sold in small packets which are each exactly enough for one person.

Furikake can also be used for rice balls (onigiri).

Furikake originated in the 1910s in Kumamoto Prefecture where a pharmacist, Mr Yoshimaru Suekichi, developed the product to supply the calcium (in the form of the bones of small fish) which he thought was lacking in the diet of the Japanese of that time - remember that Japan was not a dairy country. Since 1934 this original ("ganso") type of furikake is produced by Futaba as "Gohan no Tomo," "Friend of Rice."

The packaging of furikake is often childish, as children also today need lots of calcium, but some manufacturers have happily bucked the trend by making "Otona no Furikake" or "furikake for grown-ups," as in the picture below.

Furikake, dried topping for rice

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Tori no Kara-age

Deep-fried chicken bits. 鳥のから揚げ。

Chunks of chicken are dusted with flour and then deep-fried. Standard dish popular among people from all ages, both at home, as take-away, or in izakaya. The chicken bits have to be crispy on the outside and nicely juicy on the inside. As condiment, soy sauce is often used.

Kara-age is written as 唐揚げ or "Chinese frying" and as 空揚 or "empty frying." The last one is closer to the meaning of the process: empty frying is frying without batter (without the batter used for tempura), in other words "dry frying." (As a compromise, kara-age is now usually written as から揚げ).

Tori no Kara-age is different from the also popular Tori no Tatsuta-age: in the latter case, the chicken bits are first marinated in a sauce based on soy sauce, giving them a reddish color, before deep-frying. It is a variant of the kara-age technique.

Both the normal kara-age technique and the tatsuta-age technique are of course also used with other ingredients, as karei (flounder), ika (bits of squid), gobo (burdock root) and - to remain in chicken territory - nankotsu (gristle, cartilage of chicken).

Tori no kara-age is in restaurants and diners also served as teishoku (a set meal with rice and soup) and you can also buy it as a take-out bento (lunch box).

[Tori no Kara-age, deep-fried chicken]

Friday, August 9, 2013


Whitebait of sardines. シラス。

In principle, shirasu could be the immature fry of any fish, but in practice this is always from sardines. Very tender, the entire fish is eaten.

Shirasu that have been cooked with salt and then dried, are called chirimenjako 縮緬雑魚。Chirimenjako is drier and somewhat harder than shirasu.

Shirasu is eaten in two ways:
  • Shirasu-gohan, shirasu "as is" over white rice;
  • Shirasu to daikon no aemono, a dressed dish (aemono) of shirasu and grated daikon (daikon oroshi), flavored with soy sauce.
Aemono of shirasu (whitebait of sardines) and grated daikon
[Aemono of Shirasu and Grated Daikon, flavored with soy sauce (and decorated with small slices of cucumber)]

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


Grilled foods, pan-fried foods. 焼き物。

The verb "yaku" points at two fundamental traditional Japanese cooking techniques: "grilling" and "pan-frying." The same verb nowadays is also used for a wide range of Western cooking techniques which are not part of the Japanese cuisine: to "bake" (in an oven), to "broil" (where the heat source comes from above and a broiler pan is used), to "roast" or to "toast."

Cooking over an open flame - grilling - is the oldest method of cooking known to mankind and is one of the fundamental ways of cooking in Japan. Ideally, grilling is done over charcoal (as it still is in exclusive restaurants), but nowadays mostly a gas flame is used. For easier handling, the ingredients - fish or chicken - are usually skewered. The other technique used in Japan is pan-frying, used exclusively when making Japanese omelet.

Yakimono is one of the fundamental categories of Japanese cooking, like aemono, agemono, nimono, suimono, sashimi etc.

Unadon (Unagi donburi)
[Kabayaki, grilled eel - here as Unadon, grilled eel over rice]

Some of the fine points of yakimono in Japan are:
  • This is the fundamental way for cooking fish, but it is also used for meat and some vegetables (mushrooms, aubergines).
  • To stop cooking when the heat has barely reached the center but the outside is crisp - the center should be moist.
  • In Japan the customers are not asked whether they want their dish "medium rare" etc., the cook decides. In fact, in one grilled piece of meat all degrees should be present.
  • In a formal meal, yakimono are eaten towards the end, so the volume is never large. 
  • The Japanese never strive for an aromatic, smoky flavor as in Western barbecue.

There are various implements for grilling and pan-frying in Japan:
  • Hand-held on skewers (kushi) above an open fire
  • On a griddle (yakiami) - this is the most common way. Even Japanese gas stoves in private homes can be fitted out with small griddles. 
  • On a stake at the central hearth, the irori. The traditional way in farm houses, still used for ayu (sweetfish) in shops in tourist areas.
  • On a portable cooking stove (konro) or clay table brazier (shichirin) - both fitted out with a small griddle. You often find these in restaurants and ryokan (inns), as people assume it is fun to grill your own food.
  • On an iron hot plate (teppan) - became popular after WWII, but many Japanese still consider teppanyaki as half-Western. Also used for okonomiyaki.
  • On a glazed pottery tile or plate (toban) or on a hot stone (ishiyaki) - the traditional variant of the teppan, now very rare (only in specialist restaurants).
  • For pan-frying, a technique only used to make Japanese omelet, the typical square (Kanto area) or rectangular (Kansai area) omelet pan (tamagoyaki nabe) is used.

[Yakitori on skewers]

Ingredients used are:
  • In the first place white-fleshed saltwater fish - flounder (karei), sea bream (tai), sea bass (suzuki), mackerel (saba), red tilefish (amadai). But also eel, conger eel, lobster, squid, and shellfish, plus small freshwater fish as ayu (sweetfish). The most popular technique for grilling fish is Shioyaki, "salt-grilling," where the fish is salted and then grilled. 
  • Popular types of meat are beef (Japanese beefsteak from wagyu), pork, and chicken (for yakitori). 
  • Only a limited number of vegetables is grilled: mushrooms, eggplant, small green peppers, asparagus.
  • Grilled foods can be basted with sauces based on sweetened soy sauce: teriyaki, kabayaki (for eel) and yakitori sauces. This is only done when the foods are already half-grilled. 
  • Another way of grilling is Dengaku, where the ingredients are dressed with a sweetened miso topping and then grilled on skewers. Most commonly used for eggplant (nasu) and dofu.

Often skewers (kushi) are used:
  • Fish are carefully skewered on iron skewers; there are various ways of skewering fish, such as "wave-skewering," "fan skewering," "stitch skewering," "side skewering," etc.
  • Chicken bits are skewered on bamboo skewers (yakitori)
  • Bamboo skewers are also used for kushiyaki.

Tamagoyaki, Japanese rolled omelet
[Dashimaki tamago]

Some popular grilled and pan-fried dishes are:
  • Saba no Shioyaki, Salt-grilled mackerel
  • Suzuki Shioyaki, Salt-grilled sea bass
  • Sake no Yuanyaki, Salmon in Yuan-style
  • Tori no Yuanyaki, Grilled chicken in Yuan-style
  • Hotategai no Ogonyaki, Golden fried scallops
  • Dashimaki tamago (Atsuyaki tamago), Thick, rolled omelet
  • Buri no Teriyaki, Yellowtail teriyaki
  • Tori no Teriyaki, Chicken teriyaki
  • Unagi no kabayaki, Grilled eel basted with a thick sweet sauce
  • Yakitori, Japanese BBQ chicken
  • Buta no Shogayaki, Ginger pork saute
  • Gyuniku no Yawatamaki, Beef and burdock rolls
  • Teppanyaki, slices of meat and vegetables grilled on an iron plate
  • Wafu Steki, Japanese-style beefsteak
  • Okonomiyaki, Japanese pancake
  • Piman no Nikuzume, Stuffed green peppers
  • Wafu Hanbagu, Japanese-style hamburger steak
  • Tofu Dengaku, Bean curd dengaku
  • Nasu Dengaku, Eggplant dengaku

Saturday, August 3, 2013


Deep-fried dishes. 揚げ物。

This method of cooking seems to have been known in Japan already in the Nara period (8th c.), but was not very popular. It only became important in the Edo period (17th-19th c.), after contact with similar techniques from the Portuguese and the Chinese, and thanks to the availability of vegetable oils. As usual, the Japanese have elevated this imported technique to the very apogee of refinement. Tempura was the most typical food cooked in this way in the Edo-period.

Agemono (ageru) is one of the fundamental categories of Japanese cooking, like aemono, yakimono, nimono, suimono, sashimi etc.

[Katsudon, deep fried pork cutlet over rice]

Some of the fine points of the deep-frying technique in Japan are:
  • Ideally, the foods should be eaten seconds after cooking.
  • Deep-fried foods in Japan are light, thanks to controlling the temperature of the oil (if it is too low, the ingredients will take up more fat) and exercising restraint in blending the batter. Different types of frying and different ingredients ask for different temperature settings.
  • Only pure vegetable oil is used. See my post on abura.

There are four techniques for deep-frying in Japan:
  • Su-age 素揚げ, deep-frying without dredging the ingredients in flour or dipping them in batter. Lit. "naked frying." Not suitable for soft ingredients. This technique is the least common of the four. Used with green beans, small eggplants, sliced lotus root and sweet potatoes.
  • Kara-age 唐揚げ Lit. "Chinese frying," but originally "empty" or "dry" frying." The ingredients are dredged or dusted in flour, kuzu starch or cornstarch. This thin outer coating seals the surface, so that the flavor of the food is not markedly changed by the deep-frying. Popular ingredients are: chicken, tofu and flatfish (karei).
  • Koromo-age 衣揚げ "Batter frying." The batter should be loosely mixed and lumpy. The most typical dish is Tempura.
  • Kawari-age 変わり揚げ  "Different deep-frying." So called because a different or novel technique is used, viz, that of breading (which came from the West). The most typical dishes are Tonkatsu, deep-fried, breaded pork cutlet, or Ebi Furai, deep-fried, breaded prawns (the English name "furai" also points at the foreignness of this technique).

[Tori no Kara-age, deep-fried chicken]

Some popular fried dishes are:
  • Agedashi-dofu (kara-age) - deep-fried tofu sprinkled with katsuobushi and served with grated ginger and daikon in a soy based sauce. Quickly heated, so that the tofu is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. 
  • Tori no Kara-age (kara-age) - chunks of chicken dusted in flour and deep-fried; one of the most popular izakaya foods and a favorite with beer. Dry on the outside and juicy inside.
  • Tori no Tatsuta-age (kara-age) - chunks of chicken marinated in soy sauce and then dusted in flour and deep-fried. The soy sauce gives the ingredients a reddish color, which has led to the name "Tatsuta-age:" Tatsuta is an area in Nara traditionally famous for the red color of its autumn leaves. 
  • Karei no Kara-age (kara-age) - flounder (flatfish) dusted in flour and deep-fried. The whole fish, including the bones, is eaten. A crispy dish, again popular in izakaya.
  • Tempura (koromo-age) - ingredients as seafood and vegetables deep-fried in light batter. See my post about Tempura.
  • Kaki-age (koromo-age) - finely chopped seafood and vegetables fried in tempura batter. See my post about Kaki-age.
  • Ebi-furai (kawari-age) - large prawns dipped in egg, coated in panko (breadcrumbs) and deep-fried. Eaten with tartare sauce. 
  • Kaki-furai (kawari-age) - same as the above, in which oysters are used. A dish popular in winter.
  • Tonkatsu (kawari-age) - deep-fried, breaded pork cutlet. See my post about Tonkatsu.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Aemono & Sunomono

Dressed dishes, 和え物, and dishes dressed with vinegar 酢の物。

Lit. "harmonized things," i.e. cooked and cooled vegetables (sometimes with small pieces of poultry or fish), blended ("harmonized") with a dressing.

Also called "dressed salad," but the point is that the vegetables are not raw, as in Western salads, but cooked. Also note that the ingredients must be cold.

Sunomono are dishes dressed in particular with vinegar (su).

"Aemono" and "Sunomono" form one of the main categories of the Japanese cuisine (like agemono, deep-fried dishes or yakimono, grilled dishes). 

[Shira-ae, vegetables dressed with tofu]

The most popular dressings in these traditional dishes are:

  • sesame - called goma-ae, ごま和え; 
  • tofu - called shira-ae, 白和え; 
  • mustard - called karashi-ae, からし和え
  • miso - called miso-ae, 味噌和え; 
  • vinegar and miso - called sumiso-ae or nuta, 酢味噌和え、ぬた
  • ground green sprouts (in miso paste) - kinome-ae, 木の芽和え
and sunomono:
  • vinegar - called sunomono, 酢の物

[Horenso no goma-ae (Spinach with sesame dressing)]

Examples of typical dishes:
  • Horenso no goma-ae, ほうれんそうのごま和え: spinach dressed with sesame, one of the most simple but also most delicious dishes.
  • Ingen no goma-ae, いんげんのごま和え: green beans wit sesame dressing
  • Tako to kyuri no sunomono, たこときゅうりの酢の物: octopus and cucumber with vinegar dressing.
  • Kyuri to wakame no sunomono, きゅうりとわかめの酢の物: cucumber and wakame with vinegar dressing.
  • Gomoku shira-ae, 五目白和え: mixed vegetable salad with tofu dressing.
  • Nanohana no karashi-ae, 菜の花のからし和え: nanohana (rape blossoms) dressed with mustard sauce.
  • Aoyagi to wakegi no nuta,  青柳とわけぎのぬた: clams and leeks with vinegared miso dressing
  • Takenoko to ika no kinome-ae, たけのこといかの木の芽和え: bamboo shoots and squid dressed with kinome sprouts

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


Oil. 油。

In the Japanese kitchen, this points at cooking oil (used for frying and deep-frying) or edible oil (used for dressing salads).

The following types are popular in Japan (in all cases the seeds of the plants are used):

Aburana, 油菜, made from rapeseed. The oil is called natane-abura (菜種油); in English it is called canola oil. This is the most common cooking oil in Japan. Strong against oxidation and heat.

[Natane-abura or canola oil]

Daizu, 大豆, soybeans. The cheapest type of cooking oil, usually mixed with other oils as it has a particular smell.

Tomorokoshi, トウモロコシ, corn / maize. Strong against oxidation and heat and often used in stir-frying (itamemono). Has a particular fragrance.

Himawari, ひまわり, sunflower. Has a very light taste and is often used in dressings.

Goma, ごま, sesame. In the case of cooking oil, the seeds are normally roasted before pressing. In the Kanto area popular in tempura restaurants. When used as salad oil, the seeds are not roasted, but as a result the typical sesame fragrance is missing. As sesame oil is thick and heavy, it is often blended with rapeseed oil or soybean oil before actual use.

[Goma-abura or sesame oil]

Safurawa (benibana), サフラワー / 紅花, safflower. Contains much linoleic acid and oleic acid.

Watazoku, 綿属, cotton plant. A high-class oil with a round taste.

Kome (nuka), 米 (糠), rice (rice bran). Rice bran oil has a high cooking point and is suitable for stir-frying and deep-frying. It is also rich in vitamins. This is an expensive oil.

Rakkasei, 落花生, peanuts. Used in especially the Chinese (Cantonese) kitchen, together with oyster sauce.

Oribu, オリーブ, olives. Olive oil is also produced in japan, since the early 20th c., and is used in Italian dishes and in salad dressings.

Saturday, July 27, 2013


Snowpea. (Pisum sativum var. saccharatum). サヤエンドウ。

A variety of pea eaten whole in its pod while still unripe. The pod is soft because it lacks inedible fiber. In France called "mangetout" (eat all).

In Japan, used whole as an ingredient in stir-fried dishes or as ingredient in for example miso soup. Sauteed, the green shoots of the snowpea are popular in Chinese cooking as well.

Sayaendo (snow peas)

Monday, March 25, 2013


Japanese beef. 和牛。

Refers specifically to juicy red meat with a soft marbled texture and rich flavor. Wagyu is known for its exquisite flavor, with a creamy, tender texture that dissolves in the mouth.

Where does wagyu cattle come from, considering that until the start of the modernizing Meiji-period in 1868, Japan had no meat or dairy industry and Japanese normally did not eat meat? Cattle did of course exist in Japan but the animals were used as pack animals, or to pull carts or plows. Those beasts of burden were not automatically the best sources of juicy meat - in the late 1880s, British and European continental breeds as Brown Swiss, Shorthorn, Devon, Simmental, Ayrshire, Holstein and Angus were imported and crossbred with the Japanese indigenous cattle, a situation which lasted until 1910 when the price of crossbreeds collapsed. During these two decades, selective breeding methods were used to achieve specific traits that were favored by Japanese consumers, leading to the present-day wagyu.

[Wagyu for use in Shabu-shabu. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Depending on regional differences and crossbreeding, there are four breeds:
  • Japanese Black. From work cattle in the Kinki and Chugoku regions. 90% of all wagyu is of this breed. Known for its marbling, the fine strips of fat which have an exquisite flavor. The finest-grade and most typical wagyu on the market. Dominant strains are Tajima (Kobe beef), Tottori, Shimane and Okayama. Tajima cattle was originally bred for its heavy forequarters because the primary use was to pull carts. They tend to be smaller and less heavily muscled than the Tottori breed, used as pack animals, and selected for their size.
  • Japanese Brown (also called "Red," Akaushi). In Kumamoto and Kochi, from breeding work cattle with Simmental. Low fat content, pleasantly firm, lean meat. Mild taste. 
  • Japanese Shorthorn. Tohoku region. By crossbreeding indigenous Nanbu cattle with the Shorthorn. Lean meat with low fat content, savory flavor.
  • Japanese Polled. By crossbreeding the Japanese Black with Aberdeen Angus imported from Scotland around 1920. Very lean meat, with a chewy, meaty flavor. 
Nowadays, each piece of wagyu cattle in Japan must be registered to ensure its lineage. 

Several "strong" stories exist about wagyu, such as beer feeding and massaging. It seems both are true: beer is indeed sometimes fed to fattening cattle when appetite sags in the greatest heat of summer, and the animals are massaged with oil for 20 minutes from May to October to keep the meat soft - this also makes sense as Japanese pens are small and the animals have little exercise (there are no big herds grazing in wide nature in Japan!). And it is made possible by the fact that Japanese cattle farmers usually only fatten a few head of cattle at a time, so they can give them full attention. And the diet is of course very important - feed costs can be as much as 500,000 yen for three years of fattening per cow. But when the process goes well, the animals will fetch several millions of yen (sometimes tens of millions) at the auction.

Wagyu is used in many typically Japanese meat dishes, as Shabu-shabu, Sukiyaki, Miso-zuke, and of course... the "ordinary" steak!