Ingredients, dishes and drinks from Japan by Ad Blankestijn

Saturday, April 19, 2014


Righteye flounder. Pleuronectes. カレイ、鰈。

Flounders are a species of flatfish, with both eyes on the same side of the head, one or the other migrating around the head during development. Righteye flounders are so called because they have both eyes on the right side and lie on the sea bottom on their left side. (There are also lefteye flounders, but these are a different family, Paralichthyides). Flounders are found on the bottoms of oceans around the world and are, together with other flatfish, popular as food fishes. Most flounders are between 40-50 cm in length.

Righteye flounders are caught in large quantities in seas off Chiba, Ibaraki, Tottori, Shimane and Oita Prefectures. There are several varieties: ma-garei (littlemouth flounder; the most common among the 11 species found in Japan, taken on the Hokkaido and Japan Sea coast), mako-garei (marbled flounder; also very common, taken from southern Hokkaido to southern Japan), ishi-garei (stone flounder; found in seas around Japan, can get as long as 70 cm), meita-garei (ridged-eye flounder; found in seas south of Hokkaido, has a ridge between the eyes) and baba-garei (slime flounder; found in seas near central Japan and farther north).

Karei resemble hirame, another type of flatfish - the best way to tell them apart is not so much that hirame have the eyes on the left side (as some flounders also do), but that flounders usually have a very small mouth.

Flounders are available almost around the year - the season for most of them is from autumn to winter, but the mako-garei is in season from May to July. When mako-garei is caught in the Bay of Beppu in Oita, it is called "shiroshita-garei," "the flounder beneath the castle," as it is rumored to feed in the fresh waters beneath Hiji Castle. This is an especially tasty variety that is also eminently suitable as a sushi topping.

Righteye flounder is often prepared as follows:

  • kara-age, dusted in flour and deep-fried (the bones of the fish are also eaten here)
  • nitsuke, simmered in soy sauce
  • shio-yaki, dusted with salt and fried, as in the photo below
  • sashimi and sushi topping if the fish is fresh enough - the mako-garei, which is in season during the summer is best, as it has translucent meat and a delicate sweetness. A prime sushi ingredient is also the engawa, the sinew along the flounder's fin, which has a tough texture but also a fatty portion and which contains much collagen.
  • konbujime, a sort of marination where the fish is wrapped in kelp (konbu), which adds a subtle depth of flavor.
  • à la meunière, as sole meunière, dredged in milk and flour, fried in butter and served with the resulting brown butter sauce and lemon.

Karei ni shioyaki
[Karei no shioyaki]

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


Yellowtail, Japanese amberjack. Seriola Quinqueradiata. ぶり、鰤。

Large fish about 15 kilos in weight and reaching a length of 1.3 meters. It is a migrating, fast swimming, predatory fish, found in the north-western Pacific, and belonging to the family of the Carangidae. It is an important fish in the Japanese cuisine.

Buri is extensively cultivated artificially (about 120,000 tonnes per year) in cages in the sea. In May, small wild fry (mojako), which can be found under floating seaweed, are caught for that purpose.

In Japan, buri is called "shusse-uo," literally a "fish that makes career," which is indicated by the different names by which it is called at different stages of growth. In other words, buri is not always called buri! On top of that, there are many regional differences in naming - I give here those from the Kanto and Kansai which are most common, but note that for example in the Hokuriku area again totally different names are used! The system is basically as follows:

Kanto (Eastern Japan): wakashi (less than 35 cm) → inada (35-60 cm) → warasa (60-80 cm) → buri (more than 80 cm)

Kansai (Western Japan): tsubasu (less than 40 cm) → hamachi (40-60 cm) → mejiro (60-80 cm) → buri (more than 80 cm)

To make things more complicated, "hamachi" is used in the Kanto area to designate cultivated buri.

The largest number of wild buri is caught in Shimane Prefecturre, followed by Tottori, Nagasaki, and Ishikawa. Cultivated buri mainly come from Kagoshima Prefecture, Ehime, Nagasaki and Oita.

Buri no teriyaki
[Buri no teriyaki}

Among the wild buri, the most delicious is the so-called "kan-buri," or "buri from the cold season." This fish has the highest fat content, as it puts on fat in winter before producing eggs in spring. This type of buri, caught in the wild, is a typical delicacy of the Hokuriku area such as Toyama. As also the Sinograph with which buri is written (alluding to "shiwase," the poetical name for the month of December) indicates, buri indeed is a typical winterfish, best from December to February. In Western Japan, the fact that its is a "career fish" gives it an auspicious quality, and therefore it is often used in the meal eaten at the New Year (osechi).

The small fish called inada (hamachi in the Kansai) is in contrast to the full-grown buri a summer fish. The use in the Japanese cuisine is also different:

inada: sashimi, zuke (pickled in soy sauce), marinated.

buri: teriyaki (grilled with a glaze of soy sauce and mirin - see the photo above), shioyaki (grilled with salt), buri-daikon (a form of aradaki, the head and body with the bones still on it simmered in stock flavored with soy sauce, sake and mirin).

Thursday, April 3, 2014


Sesame. Sesamum indicum.  ゴマ、胡麻。

Sesame is an annual, flowering plant which is cultivated for its seeds, which grow in pods. Sesame has been long known to mankind as an oilseed: it was first cultivated about 5,000 years ago in Egypt and the Sahara area. It was already know in Japan in the middle or later Jomon-period (2,500-300 BCE) and there are records of its cultivation for lamp oil in the Nara-period (710-784). In the ensuing Heian-period (794-1185) it was also used for medicinal purposes.

Nowadays, 99.9% of all sesame used in Japan is imported. Only a small amount is produced on Kikaijima, one of the Amami Islands belonging to Kagoshima prefecture. The highest production of sesame comes from Burma, India and China.

Sesame has a nutty flavor and is rich in oil. It comes in three forms: white, black and golden (this last one is said to have the best aroma, but is not readily available). White sesame seeds contain more oil than black ones, but black sesame has a somewhat stronger, nuttier flavor.

Sesame seeds are sold in four forms: (1) untoasted, (2) toasted, (3) toasted and roughly ground as well as (4) toasted and ground into a smooth paste.

One can toast sesame seeds oneself by heating a dry frying pan over low to medium heat, then put in the seeds and toast them in 1-2 minutes. Shake the pan occasionally so that all the seeds get heated through. Be careful not to overroast the sesame.

For grinding, in Japan a suribachi is used, a bowl-shaped ceramic mortar which has small grooves on the inside. For the grinding, a wooden pestle (surikogi) is necessary, so that the bowl is not damaged. Grind the seeds until they are flaky and aromatic. Ground sesame is only good fresh, so use it soon after grinding.

Goma (sesame seed) with mortar (suribachi) and pestle (surikogi)
[Sesame seeds (goma) with mortar (suribachi) and wooden pestle (surikogi)]

Sesame is used in Japan in the following ways:
  • Toasted but not ground (irigoma): black sesame seeds are sprinkled over rice or other dishes to add a color accent (furikake). Sesame seed is also an important ingredient in prepackaged furikake. Both black and white sesame seeds can be used on the outside of uramaki (inside-outside rolls, like the California roll).
  • Toasted and ground sesame is called surigoma in Japanese. Used in many recipes in the Japanese cuisine, starting with adding it to shira-ae (cooked vegetables dressed with tofu). As on the picture above, surigoma can also be used in the sauce for tonkatsu.
  • Sesame dressing (gomadare) is one of the most popular dressings for salads in Japan and can be found in all supermarkets.
  • Sesame paste (nerigoma) is also sold in supermarkets and can be used as a spread on bread, like peanut butter (but much more tasty!). 
  • Sesame oil (goma-abura). The best oil for cooking, thanks to its flavor, often blended as it is rather thick. It is indispensable in the oil mixture used for deep-frying tempura.
Sesame is high in proteins and since olden times, various health benefits have been ascribed to it.

"Goma" has also found its way into general culture. As grinding sesame seeds in a suribachi is hard work, the expression "goma-suri" was born to indicate "flattery," especially flattery of one's superior.