Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Fried Tofu 油揚げ 豆腐

aburaage tofu

With that golden, withered skin aburaage tofu looks like it should be as crispy as fish & chips, but instead it's moist and floppy with a texture that reminds me somewhat of chewy french toast. It's a horrible scam, but I've come to love these thin slices of twice fried tofu anyway.

Allegedy a favorite food of the fox spirits kitsune, aburaage tofu is the key ingredient in kitsune udon and a frequent addition to other soups and nabe dishes. Specially cut aburage pouches are filled with rice to make inarizushi, or stuffed with other ingredients such as natto, vegetables or meats and re-fried.

If you want to give it a try, just cut off a few thin strips and add them to a bowl of miso soup. Most people suggest rinsing or simmering the tofu to remove excess oil, but I must confess that occaisionally I'm lazy and skip this step. Packets of aburaage live alongside the fresh tofu at every Japanese supermarket, often accompanied by their more block-shaped fried tofu cousin atsuage, and cost around 80yen per sheet.

Quick Vocabulary Lesson - abura (油) means oil and age (揚げ) means fried, thus aburaage tofu = tofu fried in oil. Learning the kanji for frying can help you identify all sorts of delicious treats at the izakaya, such as chicken kariage.

Further reading and recipes - Make a side dish with hijiki seaweed (scroll down), kitsune udon, a salad, or read about the history of aburaage on Wikipedia, if you're adventurous, you could even try making your own from fresh tofu or enjoy the slightly different agedashi tofu, fresh tofu that is battered, fried and served immediatly in a dashi broth.

Monday, 26 February 2007

winter kinoko goodness: mushrooms and tofu in the ricecooker

warm kinoko goodness

This steaming bowl of brown rice, maitake and shimeji mushrooms and agburaage tofu was inspired by one of those god awful 'Surviving In Japan' booklets everyone was trying to give us when we first arrived. It strikes me as somewhat unusual (and dare I say inauthentic?), since the recipe involves cooking everything jumbled up together in the rice cooker with some soy sauce and sake**. The Japanese cooks I've met so far have largely been rice cooker purists, strictly reserving the appliance For Rice Only. However, it was the easiest thing in the world to throw together, and filled the apartment with the delicious earthy smell of mushrooms steaming, and for that I am grateful.

Recipe: Mushroom and Aburaage Tofu Takikomi-Gohan
Serves four as a side.

2 cups rice, rinsed
2 cups water
A few handfuls of mushrooms, rinsed
1 sheet aburaage tofu
1 TBSP soy sauce
1 TBSP sake

  • Add rice and water to rice cooker bowl, then top with chopped mushrooms and finely shredded tofu.

  • Drizzle with soy sauce and sake, giving a gentle stir to evenly distribute, close the lid and press start.

You're done! The cooking time will vary depending on amount of mushrooms and variety of rice used, etc, but allow around 40 minutes.

** Amy points out in the comments that this cooking method is known as takikomi-gohan (boiled with rice), and Google suggests it's actually quite popular. Heh. I guess some of the people I know are way too in love with their rice cookers.

Sunday, 25 February 2007

Chiharu's Teriyaki Chicken - 千春の照り焼き鳥

chiharu's teriyaki chicken

More than anything else, I bond with my co-workers over food. When I first arrived in Japan it was the endless stream of 'can you' questions: can you use chopsticks? can you drink green tea? can you eat raw fish? can you eat eel? Later, after I'd gotten settled into my own kitchen, it was me asking the 'can you' questions: can you buy baking soda in Japan? can you roast meat in a toaster oven? can I use any kind of miso in a recipe? Worried that I might starve on this strange new cuisine they took me into their homes and showed me how to make basic Japanese dishes like simmered fish, okonomiyaki and yakisoba.

Lately one of my favorite senseis, Chiharu, has been bringing photocopies of her recipes for me to practise my Japanese with. Her teriyaki chicken has always been a favorite at our drinking parties and the recipe is more of a cooking suggestion, something quick and simple you can throw together on a Sunday night with some rice and a side salad, which is what I did tonight.

Recipe: Chiharu's Teriyaki Chicken - 千春の照り焼き鳥
Serves 2

2 boneless chicken thighs, skin removed.
2 tablespoons men tsuyu (soba/udon sauce)**
1 tablespoon sake
1 teaspoon fine sugar
Vegetable oil.

  • In a frypan on medium heat brown the chicken in the vegetable oil for 3 minutes or so on each side.

  • Mix the tsuyu, sake and sugar together and add to the pan.

  • Simmer until the liquid is gone, and served sliced over lettuce.

Make sure you wait until the sauce is thick and sticky to get the full sweet salty tang of the teriyaki and use thighs if you've got them. I subbed chicken breast above because I had some on hand, but the thickness was uneven and the meat ended up a little dry.

**Tsuyu is a thin liquid used as a dipping sauce or broth for soba and udon noodles, typically made from soy sauce, mirin and dashi stock. If you haven't got it to hand, other recipes use a mixture of soy sauce and mirin or you can have a go at making your own.

Monday, 19 February 2007

vegetable okonomiyaki

sacrilege! okonomiyaki with a knife and fork

I'm feeding my cold with stodgy comfort food full of healthy vegetables. Loosely based on these measurements I made okonomiyaki with cabbage, carrot, nameko mushrooms, spring onion and sakura ebi (tiny dried shrimp). It held together beautifully in the non-stick pan, and was promptly slathered in okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise and katsuobushi (bonito flakes) and gobbled up on the couch with some grilled asparagus.

okonomiyaki in the pan

japanese citrus season - dekopon

After the crisp sweet pears and nashis of autumn, the Japanese winter drags on in a fruit monotony of imported bananas and gradually mealier apples. By late January the strawberries have started to appear but they're still expensive and not yet at their prime.

It's around this time of year you start to discover a wealth of citrus fruits unseen in Western supermarkets; the Hassaku, Iyokan, Dekopon, Ponkan, Amanatsu, Sudachi, Kabosu and Yuzu to name but the most common.

From far away you mistake them for slightly misshapen mandarins, oranges and lemons, the rejects sorted into the discount bin, bigger, smaller, more wrinkly and with little protrusions.

Once you realise the bounty of choice in front of you, it's overwhelming. Which are the sweet fruits perfect for peeling and eating as is? Which ones are used for seasoning, and what dishes do they complement?

Basically: iyokan, dekopon, ponkan, hassaku and amanatsu are sweet and can be eaten like an oranage or mandarin. Sudachi, kabosu and yuzu are more commonly used for seasoning other dishes, in the way we use lemons and limes.

A quick google search about Japanese citrus fruits is dissapointing, unless you are in the market for some yuzu scented handcreme, but Tokyo foodblogger Amy has written about her love for dekopon with such enthusiam that B and I went out and bought one that very night.

The dekopon is easy to spot, thanks to a protruding 'nipple' around the stem. Ours was a little smaller than a regular orange, but this one is a giant. I guess that's what we get for only paying 170yen. The wikipedia article says they usually cost upwards of 650yen per fruit, but I haven't seen any that expensive. Perhaps they're talking about gift fruit.


And the taste? It has a juicy sweetness that's very mild, similar to a mandarin, with none of the acidic twang of an orange. What I loved the most about our little dekopon was it's texture. It's seedless, with almost no pith, and the flesh of the segments reminded me of jelly. There's no juice dribbling down your chin, but the segments are plump and bouncy, unlike a lot of the dried out mandarins (mikans) I ate this year. I'm looking forward to eating many more 'pons before the season ends in late April, and trying the rest of their citrus friends too.

Sunday, 18 February 2007

black sugar pocky

We picked these up at a little store specialising in Okinawan products at Decks/Joypolis in Odaiba, after cheering on our friend in the Tokyo Marathon. (Somehow we managed to pass on the many varieties of spam including Garlic, Low Fat and Hot & Spicy.)

<black sugar pocky packet

Japanese black sugar (kuro sato 黒糖) is essentially the same as brown sugar/mollasses, made from sugar cane harvested in Okinawa and parts of Kagoshima prefecture. It's less refined than white sugar, and considered to have some health benefits as Mari explains. It's usually used in baking, eaten by the lump or in coughdrops and other hard sweets.

black sugar pocky

Having some kuro sato in the kitchen cabinet I took it upon myself to do a taste comparison (oh the hardship!) and the flavors were a perfect match, with the slightly smokey smell and spicy sweet aftertaste that inspired me to sneak teaspoons of brown sugar from the pantry when I was a kid. Yum!

Wednesday, 14 February 2007

sesame miso soup with tofu, wakame and mushrooms - 白ごまみそ

sesame miso!

A few months ago a man at the natural foods store next to the supermarket handed me a sample cup of hot soup. It looked a little like regular miso shiru, though lighter and more opague, with crumbles of silken tofu. But the smell! It was amazing, as strong and nutty as sesame seeds being ground right under your nose. The flavours of the liquid were rich and salty but perfectly offset by the mild tofu, with the end soup so smooth it was almost creamy. I wanted more.

As I wandered around the supermarket I rehearsed in my head how I would ask for the recipe. tsukurikata o oshiete kudasai? tsukurikata o oshiete kuremasen ka? Tragically, by the time I came out the soup man was gone and my Japanese practise had been for naught.

However, all was not lost. Flicking through the cookbook my sister gave me for Christmas I found a recipe for sesame miso, and so tonight I had a shot at recreating that incredible soup.

The recipe called for sesame seeds but suggested substituting with store bought paste. Since I'd been lusting after a Japanese-style mortar and pestle for quite some time I decided to go and buy one rather than take the easy route. Isn't it pretty?

grind grind grind

Unlike their western cousins, these pottery bowls have unglazed insides with a grooved pattern carved in to aid the grinding, and a wooden handle.

I also added some wakame seaweed and white maitake mushrooms*, along with the silken tofu. The end result was delicious, offering all the sesame punch of the original sample. However, what is tantalizing in an itty bitty paper cup can quickly be too much in a bigger bowl. This is definitely something to have on the side.

It's not as pretty and creamy looking as the original, as I obviously need some practise with my sesame grinding technique. What the recipe describes as a sticky paste never got beyond a dry flour-like texture for me, and there are still a few partially ground seeds floating at the top.

Recipe: Sesame Miso Soup with Tofu - 白ごまみそ
(Adapted from Harumi's Japanese Cooking by Harumi Kurihara)
Serves 4

1/2 cup white sesame seeds or 4-5 tablespoons sesame paste
3 1/2 cups dashi or fish stock.
350 grams silken tofu
4 TBSP miso paste
Dried wakame seaweed
Maitake mushrooms.

  • If using whole sesame, roast the seeds in a pan over medium heat. Remove the pan as soon as your hear the seeds start to 'pop'.

  • Using a mortar and pestle, grind the seeds into a fine dust/paste.

  • Soak the wakame in a bowl of water.

  • Put the stock and mushrooms into a pot and bring to the boil. After a few minutes, add the miso and stir until disolved.

  • Gradually add the sesame paste, stirring gently, and break the tofu into bite size bite sized peices over the pot.

  • Lastly, add wakame, give a final stir and serve in chawan (small rice bowls).

(Slightly off topic, but this page has a great run down on the different mushrooms used in Japanese cooking. Who knew eringi were just funny looking oyster mushrooms?)