Ingredients, dishes and drinks from Japan by Ad Blankestijn

Monday, January 25, 2016



Simmered foods, one of the basic cooking techniques in Japan. 煮物.

Simmered food is part of every meal except breakfast. It is the principal way of serving vegetables and also one of the popular ways for serving fish. The ingredients are simmered in stock over a long period of time, until the liquid has been absorbed by the ingredients or evaporated. The stock used is a general dashi plus soy sauce, and it can be further flavored with sake, mirin, sugar and other condiments.

[Tai no kabutoni - Simmered head of sea bream]

The simmering is done in a pan with straight sides. A wooden drop-lid called otoshibuta is used in order to spread the heat evenly throughout the ingredients during the simmering process.

Before simmering, there is often a preliminary step in the form of parboiling (blanching), which is done in water.

Depending on the seasoning used, the sort of flavored stock, various types of simmering are recognized. Some important ones are:
    • Misoni, also misodaki: fish, but sometimes vegetables, simmered in a mixture of miso and dashi, with soy sauce and freshly chopped ginger. Masks the fishy smell of mackerel and other fish.
    • Nitsuke: A mixture of sake, mirin (or sugar) and soy sauce. Also called "sake simmered." Mainly used for simmering fish. 
    • Shigureni: simmered in dashi heavily seasoned with soy sauce. 
    • Karani: simmered in sake and soy sauce.
    As dashi, top restaurants use ichiban dashi, but at home often niban dashi or even instant dashi is used. Seasonings are added to the stock in the following order: sake, mirin (or sugar), salt, soy sauce, miso.

    Here are some examples from the huge repertory of simmered dishes:
    • Saba no misoni: simmered mackerel in miso.
    • Nishin no nitsuke: sake-simmered herring.
    • Buri daikon: simmered yelowtail and rettich.
    • Furofuki daikon: rettich with white miso sauce.
    • Buta no kakuni: braised pork.
    • Satoimo no nimono: simmered taro.
    • Kabocha no nimono: simmered pumpkin.
    • Nikujaga: braised meat and potatoes.
    • Oden.

      Thursday, January 21, 2016



      Condiment, seasoning. 調味料。

      The Japanese have a wordplay (goro-awase) or mnemonic technique to remember the main seasonings and in which order they should be used during the preparation of the meal: sa-shi-su-se-so, or:  sato (sugar) - shio (salt) - su (vinegar) - shoyu (soy sauce) - miso. The traditional sweetener, by the way, is not sugar (the use of which is relatively restricted in the Japanese kitchen), but mirin. This is a sweet liquid flavoring, made by mixing steamed rice on which a koji-culture has been developed, with shochu (distilled spirits). Of the above list, sugar is modern, salt is used relatively little, and rice vinegar, miso paste and soy sauce are the major condiments of the traditional cuisine.

      [Traditional soy sauce brewing vat in Yuasa, Wakayama Pref.]

      That leaves out the major flavor enhancer in the Japanese kitchen, the basic stock called dashi. Dashi is not seen as a separate seasoning, but is the stock that forms of the basis of countless dishes and soups and that enhances the original flavors. It is typical for the umami concept in the Japanese kitchen.

      One more traditional flavoring that should be mentioned here is sake (nihonshu). Sake is often used to give a "hidden flavor" to a particular dish.

      Then there are some other flavorings which are only used in specific dishes, for example:

      Sunday, January 17, 2016

      Nihonshu (flavoring)


      Sake 酒.

      Besides its use as a delicious beverage, sake (nihonshu) is used as a flavoring in the Japanese kitchen to add some "hidden flavor" to a particular dish, to bring out the aroma or, in the case of fish, the cover up the fishy smell. In simmering fish and poultry it also acts as a tenderizing agent.

      In Japan, also special cooking sake (ryorishu) is sold. This is usually very cheap, because it has been made unfit for consumption as a beverage by adding salt and vinegar. It therefore is not subject to tax on alcoholic beverages. In other cases umami elements and sugar may have been added. This cooking sake invariably has a rather chemical constitution and I advise not to use it.

      It is much nicer to use real sake. I often put the left-overs (the last bit in the bottle) of sake away to use in cooking. For example, Junmai-shu is very suitable for this and gives a wonderful "hidden taste" to your dishes!

      Saturday, January 16, 2016



      Salt. しお、塩。

      All salt produced in Japan comes from sea water, there are no salt deposits in the country. The old method starts by first producing a heavily condensed saline solution (brine) from sea water through the use of so-called salt-terraces on the beach (located around the Inland Sea or on the Noto Peninsula), and then by boiling down this solution to yield a residue of edible sea salt (evaporation is not sufficient as Japan is too humid: the brine has to be boiled). Nowadays, salt is extracted from sea water via electrolysis (ion-exchange system).

      Until 1985 salt was exclusively sold in Japan under a government monopoly. Since 2002 it has been completely liberalized. Most salt produced in Japan is used as table salt. The much greater demand for industrial salt (80% of the total) is filled with imports.

      The Japanese intake of salt is high, but this is mainly via soy sauce, miso paste and tsukemono. You won't find table salt on the table in Japanese-style restaurants! Salt is sometimes used with tempura (instead of the dipping sauce) as well as with yakitoriShioyaki is a way of grilling fish by covering it in thick salt to avoid charring.

      Salt plays a ritual use for purification and protection from evil in Japanese culture (kiyome no shio). Take for example the scattering of salt at the start of a sumo match. Another interesting way of using salt can be seen in the small heaps of salt (morijio) placed at the entrance to bars in entertainment districts. Salt for use in rituals in the Ise Shrine is still produced in the traditional way, with salt terraces.

      Friday, January 15, 2016



      Sugar. さとう、砂糖。

      Japanese sugar is made both from sugar cane (sato-kibi, good for 20%), grown in Kagoshima Pref. and in Okinawa, and from sugar beets, grown in Hokkaido (tensai, good for 80%). Pure white sugar is the norm.

      Sugar consumption was 16.4 kg p.p. in 2010, down more than 5 kilos compared to 1985. Daily consumption per person is also rather low in comparison with other countries: Japan stands at just 45 gram, against 172 g. for Brazil, 167 for Australia, 127 for Germany and 89 for the U.S. (figures from Japanese Wikipedia).

      One reason is that in the traditional Japanese kitchen sugar is only relatively little used - there are after all also other sweeteners, such as mirin. Sugar is mainly used in nimono consisting of vegetables or fish which are simmered in soy sauce and sugar. In contrast, the use of sugar in the Western and Chinese cuisines is much more extensive. In Japan, sugar is of course often found in Western-style prepared foods.

      Saturday, January 9, 2016



      Glutinous rice cake. 餅。

      Made by pounding hot steamed glutinous rice (mochigome) into an elastic paste and then knead portions of this into the form necessary.

      Traditionally, the pounding was done with wooden mallets in barrel-sized wooden mortars (mochitsuki). This ceremony can still be seen at temple and shrine festivals, and also at some marriage ceremonies where bride and groom have to take a go at the pounding with an obvious double meaning.

      Today, most mochi are machine-processed and sold ready-made. Sometimes they are sold fresh, but, more often than not, vacuum packed in supermarkets. Shapes can be round, square or sheet-like.

      Mochi can be eaten "as such" by grilling them on a wire grill (mochi-ami) and then flavor them with a soy sauce dip. These are called yaki-mochi. Mochi double in size when grilled and develop a crispy skin.

      Like the rice used to make them, mochi are culturally significant as being a concentrated version of Japan's staple food, rice - like bread in Christianity, a certain religious (Shintoist) halo is attached to it. We already find mention of mochi as sacred food in the 8th century, and slightly later we find them as food for the New Year celebrations. Mochi were thought to symbolize long life, and also - very practical - to be good for one's teeth.

      Today the following use is still made of mochi at New Year:
      • Kagami-mochi or "mirror mochi." A decorated stack of two rounded mochi cakes put on display during the New year - usually from the 28th until several days after the New Year. The name comes from the round shape which reminded the Japanese of pre-modern, bronze mirrors. Finally, these mochi would be broken into pieces ("kagami-biraki," "the opening of the mirror"), roasted and eaten. (See also my post on Japanese customs in January at Japan Navigator).
      • Zoni. Mochi are a must at festive occasions, such as the New Year. The most common way to eat them at the New year celebration is to add them to a soup called zoni.
      [Shop producing mochi in Fushimi, Kyoto]

      Other ways of eating:
      • Abekawamochi. Wrapped in nori (isobe-mochi), or covered in roasted and sweetened soy flour (kinako). 
      • In zenzai and shiruko. Toasted mochi are also eaten in zenzai, a chunky sweet soup with azuki beans popular in winter as a snack.
      • In Chikara Udon, "power noodles" with mochi added.
      Finally, like the mochigome of which it is made, mochi are often used in confectionery, for example:
      • Sakuramochi, wrapped in salted cherry leaves, a spring specialty of Kyoto.
      • Kusamochi. Another sweet for spring made from mochi and leaves of Japanese mugwort (yomogi). Can also be filled with anko, sweetened red bean paste made from azuki beans.
      • Kashiwamochi. Round-shaped mochi filled with sweet bean paste (an) and wrapped in an oak leaf (from the kashiwa or Daimyo Oak).
      • Daifuku (-mochi), a small round mochi stuffed with sweet filling, most commonly anko.
      • Ohagi. Steamed balls of glutinous rice wrapped in red bean paste - so exactly the reverse of Daifuku.
      • And even "mochi ice cream," mochi with an ice cream filling, which is an internationally available Japanese snack. 
      Health hazard: every year people die in Japan because of choking on sticky mochi. Especially the elderly are at risk. To prevent this, cut the mochi into small pieces before eating it.