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Culinary capers in Japan

Goma-miso Dressed Cabbage & Fried Tofu

Kyabetsu to abura-age no goma miso ae (キャベツと油揚げのごま味噌和え)
December 29th, 2010

Winter means cabbage in Japan. In particular, large tussled heads of Chinese cabbage (hakusai, aka. bok choy) become available for so cheap that it’s difficult to resist searching out uses for it. But regular round heads of cabbage also begin showing up by the truckload once the weather turns cold, and they’re similarly cheap and delicious. Steaming is a great way to bring out the good cabbage flavor without any stink or unnecessary oils. Steamed and shredded chicken breast is a good potential substitute for the abura-age in case you don’t feel like a trip to the nearest Japanese grocery. But I think tofu is a lot more fun to use and the size and texture are better complements to the cabbage.
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Simmered Beef & Root Vegetables

Gyu-niku to konsai no nimono (牛肉と根菜の煮物)
December 20th, 2010

Here’s a simple, home-style Japanese dish with a dizzyingly short ingredient list. Look for gobo (burdock) and renkon (lotus root) in Asian supermarkets from late September to early November (although both are pretty available well into winter). If you can’t get your hands on lotus root, just double the portion of gobo, or add carrot (though carrot will alter the flavor somewhat). In either case, you’ll be equipped with about enough fiber to last the year. Also, it may seem like a lot of trouble to cook the meat, remove it from the pan, and then put it back in at the end. But it’s worth the trouble. This way your simmering liquid receives extra depth of flavor from the meat, this flavor can be transferred to the vegetables, and the meat doesn’t get overcooked.
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Sweet & Sour Steamed Tofu

Toufu no mushimono bainiku-fuu (豆腐の蒸し物梅肉風)
December 13th, 2010

This is a dish I adapted from a Chinese bainiku (pickled plum sauce) marinated spare rib recipe. Besides being devastatingly leaner than ribs, tofu has the added bonus of being a fraction of the price as well (in Japan, anyway). And when you’ve got to spring for a jar of umeboshi, it doesn’t hurt to save a little dough in other places. Umeboshi are pretty common in Asian (particularly Japanese) grocery stores, but can be a little expensive ($5 – $8 per jar, depending on the type and amount). Be sure to get the dark red, sour kind. There are lighter, sweet ones that would probably be okay in this recipe, but would lack the kick of the sour variety. When preparing the sauce, remove the plum’s pit, scrape the pulp from it, and then mince the pulp and skin together. A tablespoon and a half usually requires 2 – 3 moderately sized plums. Alternatively, you may be able to find Bainiku sauce in jars or squeeze bottles.
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Beef and Watercress Sauté

Gyu-niku to kureson no itame (牛肉とクレソンの炒め)
December 5th, 2010

In the West you can stroll into a supermarket and carry out pounds of beef with little budgetary injury. But in Japan beef is a luxury item and gets sliced down to near translucency and folded into great marbled ribbons, giving you about as short a pour as any nefarious bartender would dare, while still looking like a real heap of meat in the package. The result is that most Japanese beef dishes are designed to infuse a delicate piece of meat with as much flavor as possible. It’s not bad, though. This dish is about as simple as they come while still being full-flavored and relatively hearty. It’s also a great way to enjoy watercress if you’re tired of sandwiches and salads.
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Sichuan-style Tofu Chili

Shisen-fuu mabo-doufu (四川風麻婆豆腐)
December 2nd, 2010

This recipe was my formal introduction to Sichuan pepper. It took some searching, even in Japan, before I found a store selling whole seedpods rather than powdered pepper. The pods themselves are just little inconspicuous mahogany-colored bits of chaff – the sort of thing you might find in the deep recesses of an old jacket pocket. Their flavor properties, however, are unsettling. When incorporated amply enough into a recipe, Sichuan pepper “produces a strange tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electrical current (touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue). Sanshools [a species of molecule] appear to act on several different kinds of nerve endings at once to induce sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive. So theoretically may cause a kind of general neurological confusion.” Or so says the Wikipedia quote from Harold McGee, who wrote it originally in On Food and Cooking. At first glance that may seem kind of terrible, but apparently the culinary purpose is numb the palate enough so that one can enjoy the full flavor of hotter spices that might be otherwise overwhelming.

To be honest, this particular dish isn’t nearly hot enough to really need Sichuan pepper for that purpose. But besides being an interesting sensory adventure, the pepper also has its own unique although subtle aroma and flavor. So if you can get your hands on some it’s well worth trying out, especially in this rather basic mabo-doufu recipe where the pepper rises as the centerpiece flavor.
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Coffee & Okara Steamed Bread

Coffee to okara no mushipan (コーヒーとおからの蒸しパン)
November 22nd, 2010

I’ve been intrigued by steamed breads ever since I wandered into a restaurant in Chicago advertising “Hot Asian Buns.” I don’t think they served any steamed bread besides Chinese bao (also known as “pao,” paozu,” “bauzu”), but I’ve since learned that there are plenty of other varieties to be explored. This is a recipe for a Chinese dessert bread that I’ve modified and “Americanized” to both involve coffee and be somewhat healthy. Okara is a very good source of protein and fiber, and also has surprisingly great beany flavor cooperation with the coffee. The one downside is that okara goes bad pretty quickly, so the bread needs to be consumed within a day or two. But steamed bread is a pretty delicate creature anyway, and even without the okara it’s best eaten just minutes after coming out of the steamer.
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Tofu Meatloaf

Toufu meatloaf (豆腐ミートローフ)
November 14th, 2010

This recipe is Japanese only in the sense that some of the ingredients are Japanese. But in the end it does come out tasting like a fairly legitimate article. To my taste buds, anyway. In terms of canonized ground or mince meat Japanese concoctions, chicken is the creature of choice almost without exception. Most dishes incorporating ground beef or pork have been imported relatively recently from China. And I suppose in this sense, the dish is a kind of Chinese-Japanese-American Frankenstein, as mabo-doufu is one of the flagship Chinese dishes in which meat and tofu conspire. Then to incorporate these ingredients into a loaf with miso establishes a Western form to a Sino-Japanese collaboration. That’s all pretty arcane, though. In practical terms, substituting tofu for a third of the meat creates a meatloaf that is cheaper and leaner than usual while still juicy and flavorful.
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Hot Sour Lotus Root

Renkon no subasu (蓮根の酢ばす)
November 6th, 2010

Lotus root is an autumn vegetable, though it seems to be available in Japanese supermarkets year round (but at exorbitant prices in spring and summer). For a recipe like this with relatively few seasoning ingredients, you’re doing yourself a big favor by waiting for the root to be in season and getting a good, firm, crisp one. Otherwise the insides may be spotty or soft or home to strange molds.

The success of the dish depends mainly on whether or not you take the time to soak the root properly, and then afterward how quickly you can get it dried and into the pan. If it’s not soaked, lotus root will turn all kinds of bruised colors and have a very bitter, raw taste. There’s also a nice payoff in texture if the cooking time is kept short. The goal is not so much to braise the life out of the vegetable as to briefly infuse some supplemental flavor. The final spicy, sour crunch reminds me of a dill pickle in some ways, though that could owe a lot to the fact that I haven’t had a dill pickle for nearly two years. Anyway, check your local Asian groceries for fresh lotus root and try to avoid using the canned kind of it all possible.
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Fox Noodles (Soba w/ fried tofu)

Kitsune soba (狐そば)
October 31st, 2010

Even before I was interested in tofu, Kitsune soba was my go to Japanese noodle dish. The thin fried tofu (abura-age), after being simmered in dashi, sugar, and soy sauce, is a pleasure to eat on its own, but also has a great interaction with the noodles and broth. Cooks and cookbooks often say that the tofu is very “meaty” in this dish, a property of abura-age that I suppose is the reason it’s rumored to be the favorite food of foxes (“kitsune” in Japanese). Although I’ve never seen a real fox savoring a bite of fried tofu, it’s possible that the mystical, millennia-old guardian foxes of the deity Inari (thanks Wikipedia), in their old age, became a touch peptic and had to give up real meats. In any case, at many shrines around Japan you’ll find a pair of fox statues playing sentry, and supposedly protocol calls for an offering of thin fried tofu.

On another extraneous lore-related note, a common sushi menu item is inari-zushi, sushi rice packed into abura-age pouches that have been simmered and sweetened much like they are in this recipe. “Inari” is the name of the god of harvests, though the name is sometimes used to refer to his guardian/messenger foxes, too. Apparently, in the year 2010, the number of people who have the whole story straight about who is who and to which being what should be offered is approximately zero. The only reliable message, I suppose, is that deep fried foods are popular on any plane of existence.
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Okara Bagels

Okara bagel (おからベーグル)
October 24th, 2010

I’m not a believer in superfoods. Eating too much of any one thing, no matter how many health benefits it touts, seems to me a bit like reading nothing but The Great Gatsby over and over again and claiming to be on track to a literature degree. But having said that, okara is definitely a Gatsby of foods. High in protein, calcium, and fiber, as well as a host of other goodies in lesser amounts, it’s only somewhat beanier tasting than tofu. Eaten alone, okara might seem like a close relative to sawdust. Baked into breads and pastries, however, it fluffs and softens the texture in a really pleasant way. In the case of bagels, okara lightens and nutritionally fortifies the dough without sacrificing much of the bagel’s signature chewiness.
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