Wednesday, 25 April 2007

"A-I-U-E-Onigiri!" - おにぎり

Salmon Onigirl - 鮭のおにぎり

"A-I-U-E-Onigiri!" - so goes the happy tune the onigiri case at my supermarket plays on loop, and so goes my head now that I've started thinking about onigiri. Over and over and over again.

Onigiri (also known as omusubi) are a packed lunch and conbini staple, easily over-throwing that western champion, the sandwich, as Convenience Food #1. Just like the sandwich they're easy to wrap and carry, no heating or cutlery is required and you can buy them almost anywhere, with a huge variety of fillings, for around $1.50. Plus, they're made of rice. The sandwich never stood a chance.

There are a million and one guides to making onigiri on the web, using moulds, your hands or plastic wrap to pack and shape them. I usually use a plastic mould I bought at a local kitchenware store for around 200yen but the top has gotten lost somewhere in the flurry of hanami packing and unpacking.

This seemed like a good chance to read up on different techniques and go it alone. After a bit of research, I went with Maki's plastic wrap method and my memories of our swift-fingered riceball vendor in Taipei. I also found some step by step photos for using a mould or hand shaping here.

A cup of uncooked rice and a small salmon fillet, grilled and flaked, gave me four nicely sized onigri and a handful of leftover rice. You could probably get 6 onigiri with more fillings, or make some plain ones. I also tried sprinkling one of the onigiri with furikake - packets of flakes for flavoring cooked rice. In the past I'd mixed a little into the rice mixture before forming the balls, which added a nice salty touch, but I kept seeing photos of pretty onigiri coated in sprinkles or patterns. Blehgh. To me it was too salty and totally overpowered the salmon in the middle. Perhaps everyone else is using a milder kind of furikake.

Anyway, over seasoning aside, the instructions were really easy to follow and produced some delicious onigiri. The next day I put the leftovers in the fry pan until the sides were browned and called it yaki-onigiri.

Yaki Onigiri- 焼きおにぎり

Mmmmm, warm and crunchy. Yaki-onigiri are usually basted with a little soy sauce and grilled, and they're a great side to order at a yakitori place when you're drowning in meat.

I'll probably buy another mould, if only so as not to waste plastic wrap, but it's good to know that even my uncoordinated hands can shape an onigiri without one. There are no excuses now.

(For some impossibly cute onigiri presentation ideas, try a search for onigiri on flick: hearts, faces, hello kitty, and blue ones!)

Tuesday, 24 April 2007


Deli & Baking Co - Shimokitazawa

Shimokitazawa is ten minutes from Shinjuku on the Odakyu line. On a sunny Sunday its maze of alleys hiding quirky boutiques and cafes remind me of the best parts of inner Melbourne.

I had come to shop for summer clothes, but was easily distracted by the the display at the Deli & Baking Co.

Deli & Baking Co - Shimokitazawa

Their lunchtime deli plate is great value for 1000yen, with a choice of hot mains (I got pork and onion stir fry and lasagna) served up with dressed greens and your preferred vegetable side dish from options like bean salad, fresh tomato salad, simmered pumpkin or spinach sauteed with bacon. There's also rice with 5 grains or a toasted slice of that hearty, chewy rye bread that is so hard to find in this country.

The house specialty seems to be the 'popover', a pastry puff topped with a cream cheese dollop in a wide variety of sweet flavours or served plain alongside soup and salad. The Apple Cinnamon one was very tempting...
Apple Cinnamon Popovers

... but I opted for a (delicious but slightly too sweet) strawberry muffin and (perfect) soy chai latte for dessert as I frantically tried to finish my book before meeting with my bookclub later in the afternoon.

There are so many quirky little cafes, bakeries and bars in the area (including a tapas bar!) that I need to stop coming back to this place and try something new (I found a blog called Shimokitareviews. I'm starting to think there's a blog for everything) but the tiramisu looks like it needs further investigation. Next time.

Deli & Baking, Co.
1F, 2-29-2 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo 03-5453-1313
(Or take the North exit and wander around until you find it)

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Lazy Yakiniku-style Lamb - 焼肉ラム

Call it yakiniku, Korean barbecue, Mongolian barbecue, jingisukan or whatever, it's fun to grill your own meat at the table.

From the pricey and upmarket to the casual chains, the typical set-up looks something like this... (excuse the blurry cell phone pic)

new year's eve yakinuku

... with a hotplate built into the middle of the table. You order plates of raw meat, seafood and vegetables, then cook and eat them at your own pace.

Sometimes the meat comes in a marinade, and sometimes you grill it plain and dunk it into a dipping sauce (tare) just before you eat it. (Various internet discussions point to the first method as more Korean, and the second as a Japanese invention, but most places in Japan do both.)

I don't have a charcoal grill or hotplate at home, but the cheap lamb I picked up at the supermarket the other day was cut for yakiniku and I didn't have any better ideas, so I put together something similar to this recipe and just browned the meat in a hot frypan.

The garlicky sesame marinade reminds me of good times out at yakinuku, but turning the meat at the stove wasn't quite as fun as drinking beers at the table with your friends. Next time I'm planning on getting together with someone who has a grill and trying out a few different seasonings, including these dipping sauce mixes (scroll down).

Yakiniku-style Lamb

Recipe: Yakiniku-style Marinade
Serves 2 with rice and side dishes.

200grams lamb or beef, sliced thin into mouth-sized pieces
1 tsp sesame seeds
1 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp soy sauce
  • Place ingredients in a bowl or plastic freezer bag and combine thouroughly.
  • Refridgerate for an hour or two. Overnight would be fine.
  • Spread out (cook in batches if necessary) over a hot grill or frypan, turning once.
  • Serve as is or with a splash of chili oil. Eat Immediatly.
Fun Facts - Did you know that August 29th is the official "Yakiniku day" (yakiniku no hi)? I didn't either. See Wikipedia's entry on yakiniku for more.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Ramen - らめん

Ramen, after.

I don't usually make ramen at home. I prefer to leave fast food to the professionals, enjoy my dose of grease and starch while I'm out and prepare healthier foods in the kitchen. But I had that pork simmering liquid lying around, and so I mixed it together with a little chicken stock, shoyu and all my ramen favorites - sliced pork, boiled egg, menma and negi (with a few nameko mushrooms I had to use up).

Ramen, before.

It was good stodgy, warming fair when the weather was being so mean to us last week, but the noodles were just the slightest touch overdone and the flavour wasn't anything to change my opinion that half the fun of ramen is going out to some obscure little whole in the wall to watch someone else make it for you.

My friends and I have our favorite ramen place here in Tokorozawa, in a little alley off Prope, that's known for its tomato ramen. The char siu pork is thick and marbled and the staff remember us even though we only go in every month or two. I get tonkotsu ramen myself, that creamy looking pork stock thick with collagen (and calories), but if it's not available my order of preference is miso, shoyu, then shio (salt). Shio ramen just isn't that great.

I wouldn't mind learning how to make a good miso base though. I found a few recipes here and here, but I somehow doubt I'll find the motivation until I'm back in Australia and I can't just walk down the block for a fresh bowl in five minutes.

Passion and ramen identification - The World Of Ramen
An unusually long and detailed Wikipedia entry.

Monday, 16 April 2007

Sake Steamed Clams - あさり の 酒蒸し

Steamed Clams

These asari no sakamushi were amazing, and all thanks to the recipe and cleaning instructions posted by Amy on Blue Lotus. Since I was only cooking for one, I just added the barest dab of butter. Even so, the leftover cooking liquid was still so rich and delicious I couldn't bear to throw it away, so I poured the leftovers over some rice and sprinkled with more negi. Mmmmm. It's like a Japanese moules mariniere without all the homesickness for the dirt cheap fresh mussels of Australian markets.

Unlike the travesty that is*, I've found some truly excellent recipes and meal ideas on food blogs lately. I find myself preferring them over my cookbooks for everyday cooking, probably because they're also written by real people with other jobs who don't have 3 hours to work on a weeknight dinner for one or two, who sometimes have to make ingredient substitutions and occasionally use packet stock. I like that readers can ask questions and get clarification about parts they didn't understand, or comment about their own attempts and variations they made. It also helps that the writer is free to be honest about the process 'this part was difficult', 'this is a pain in the ass and you could probably leave it out', 'I think I overcooked this, but next time I'd do X instead'. It's a sort of continual, communal process of refinement.

I've also been a little disappointed with the quality of the few Japanese cookbooks I own and their obvious lack of thorough proofreading or testing - ingredients listed and then never used in the cooking instructions, processes omitted, the same cooking time or temperature given differently in 3 places. I think it's time to do some research on better hardcopy references. If you have a recommendation, could you please leave a comment or send me an email? (よろしく おねがいします!). Otherwise, check back in a few weeks for the results.

*Where every second chocolate cake recipe requires 'one box of chocolate cake mix'.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Rice with bamboo shoots - たけのこ ご飯

Rice with Bamboo Shoots (takenoko gohan)

I think I've mentioned before how much I like Yasuko-san's Home Cooking, for the simple home-style recipes and cute step by step illustrations. I often check back to her daily food diary on the front page for inspiration, and this recipe for Takenoko Gohan, rice cooked with bamboo shoots, recently caught my eye.

Bamboo is in season at the moment, and whole shoots fresh from the ground, like these, have starting popping up at the local supermarket.

Unfortunately, they need to be pre boiled with rice bran and all sorts of things before you can use them. Since I was both lazy and unable to find instructions that didn't involve a pressure cooker, I bought my bamboo shoot pre-boiled. It was incredibly soft and squishy and smelt a little like tahini. Look for something like this:

Boiled Bamboo Shoot

or in a plastic bag, labelled たけのこ水煮. If you want this year's spring crop (and trust me, you do!) make sure the kanji 新 is involved somewhere.

Fresh bamboo is nothing like the canned shoots I used to buy in Australia, which seem stringy and hard in comparison, and this simple, fresh and crunchy dish was a pleasant reminder that the days of weary winter produce are over. Now if only the weather would catch up.

Sakura Cream Puff - 桜チュー

Sakura Choux Creme

From Cosy Corner. I like my cream fillings heavy and smooth, but this one was airy like a mousse. It had a very subtle, sweet candy cherry flavor that somehow managed to have a faint trace of that 'cherry cough syrup' taste I hate so much. (Two months of Bronchitis in grade four, Cherry Broncadon three times daily. I still feel like gagging when I eat cherry Lifesavers).

It wasn't quite the taste of spring that I was looking for, but the new bamboo shoots with rice I had for dinner more than made up for it. Photo and recipe tomorrow.

Friday, 13 April 2007

Cake Rescue!

Since I'm not in Japan for the long term, I've been making do with my trusty toaster oven. Which means when I try to bake a Lemon Yogurt Cake, I end up with something like this:

Lemon Cake One

It's so sad standing by while the mouthwatering lemon-sugary scents that have wafted through the apartment are gradually overtaken by the smell of burning. Yet all is not lost. Simply cut off the top of the cake:

Lemon Cake Two

Scoop out the delicious insides of the charred lid (for quality control, of course) and discard the charcoal. Flip and.....

Happy Birthday Bryn

No one will be any the wiser.

Happy Birthday Bryn! Hope the day is as much fun as your party was.

(By the way, the cake was fantastically lemony and moist, and very simple to make. I had concerns about the lemon juice and sugar 'glaze' making the cake soggy, so I only used half of it, but it gave it a real zing and wasn't soggy at all. Highly recommended.)

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Braised Pork Belly - 豚のかくに

Buta no Kakuni (Braised Pork Belly

Well, it seems like it's been a month of red meat here on the blog. For those of you worried about my heart health, rest assured that the other food I'm eating is full of non-animal proteins and leafy greens. I just can't seem to get enough of the pork and shouyu combinations.

About two months ago I picked up a slab of pork belly (豚ばら) on sale, intending to make Buta no Kakuni. It's one of my favorite Japanese indulgences - chunks of pork belly striped with fat, simmered with hard-boiled eggs in a dark salty stock until they're so tender you can pick the meat apart with your chopsticks. When this dish appears on the table at a work party, my co-workers' eyes just light up. For Japanese cuisine, it's incredibly rich and decadent.

The dish requires more than 3 hours of patient simmering, with a stint in the refrigerator to skim the fat in between, so I wisely put the meat in the freezer until I had time to give it my full attention. Months passed. Finally, I remembered my poor porcine friend and dug out the recipes I'd bookmarked. I pretty much worked from these two, taking some pointers from Obachan, who (cleverly) used a slow cooker for hers.

(If you can read Japanese, you could try this rice cooker version that uses only pork belly, daikon, soy sauce, sugar and Coca Cola(?!). You don't see a lot of coke in Japanese cooking, I wonder how it would taste?)

Anyway, my final result was delicious and tender, but there were moments where I worried the meat wouldn't get there. I started off following the more precise cooking times from the first recipe, but ended up simmering for another hour at the end, after storing in the fridge overnight. It was only during the final half hour or so that the meat approached 'cut with your chopsticks' territory. Next time I'll take the advice of the second recipe and test the meat with a skewer before moving on to the next stage, which I've recommended below.

Recipe: Buta no Kakuni - 豚のかくに
Serves 2 or 3 with rice and vegetables.

400 grams pork belly(豚ばら), cut into large cubes*
3 eggs (or one per person) hard-boiled and peeled
4 cups water to start, more as needed
1 peice of ginger (しょうが), peeled and halved
1 negi (Japanese leek) (長ネギ)
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup sake
2 TBSP sugar
  • Brown the pork cubes in your saucepan and discard any excess fat.
  • Cover with water (4 cups or more) and add negi and ginger to the pot.
  • Simmer for the next two hours or so uncovered, then test the meat with a skewer. Does it slide through easily? If not, continue simmering. Add a little more water if the liquid has reduced past half the original amount.
  • Once meat is tender, cool and skim the excess fat from the top.
  • Add sugar, sake and half the soy sauce then cover with a drop lid** or foil and simmer for another half hour.
  • Add eggs and remaining 1/4 cup of soy sauce and simmer for a final half hour or so, turning the eggs every now and then for an even color.
  • Enjoy the soft, fatty goodness, taking comfort in the popular Japanese belief that the collagen in pork fat is good for your skin.

Serve with plenty of the simmering liquid and a dab of Japanese mustard, know as karashi (からし)on the side. If you can't get it, any other hot yellow mustard would work.

Feel free to do what I did and break this up over two days, popping the pot into the fridge in between. If anything, the rest seems to improve on the tenderness of the meat. Also, if you screw it up and end up simmering for another hour or two after you've added the eggs and the seasoning, don't worry. The eggs will not develop mushy brown yolks. they turn out fine.

When I was finished I added some more water to the left over sauce, boiled and strained it again and popped the resulting golden brown broth in the freezer. I have a theory that it will make a great ramen base. (Well, not so much a theory as that this recipe is almost identical to one for ramen stock in one of my cookbooks.) I'll try it out as soon as I've recovered from this week's pork overload.

Pork Stock

* Buy the pork belly in lumps or a slab, not sliced. It looks like uncured streaky bacon (because it is :)).
**Japanese recipes frequently call for a lid smaller than the saucepan, called an otoshibuta or 'drop lid', to be placed directly on top of the ingredients. This is supposed to allow liquid to reduce while keeping the contents moist and tender. You can buy a plastic one at the 100yen store or use the lid from a smaller pot, but a sheet of foil placed on top of the ingredients will work just as well.

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

If you subscribe to my RSS/Atom feed...

I've just switched my feed over to feedburner, so that I can get all sorts of useful statistics and quicker updates.

The old feed will still work fine, but if you have a second I'd love it if you'd re-subscribe to the new feed at or just click the link at the top of the blog sidebar. Thanks so much!

Monday, 9 April 2007

Happy Hanami - 花見!

Hope all of you in Japan got a chance to get out in the sunshine (or the drizzle) and enjoy the cherry blossoms before they rained down upon us this week. The sakura trees around town and along the river have been in full breathtaking bloom for the last fortnight but with all the rain and too much to do, I didn't get a chance for a hanami (blossom viewing) picnic until Saturday.

Our delicious hanami spread.

Check out our spread: inari sushi, simmered pumpkin, edamame, green beans with pork, pesto pasta salad, fried squid, baguette and cheese, pickled daikon, alcohol and juice in all their varieties, fruits and a big chocolate cake. Even after four hours of leisurely grazing we couldn't finish it all.

The park (Inariyamakoen in Saitama-ken) was full of families, co-workers, friends and couples chilling out with a few drinks, playing soccer and badminton, singing, dancing and even practising tai-chi. In the afternoon one of the candidates for the upcoming election and his campaigners did the rounds, screaming their 'yoroshiku onegaishimasu'es.

Hanami at Inariyamakoen

The sakura were holding up well, but as we ate, chatted and played cards we were covered in gentle shower of blossoms. By yesterday, the trees were bare and the ground was covered in a soft pink carpet. Thankfully the bakeries and sweet shops are still celebrating sakura matsuri, so I can hold onto the memories for a few more days with sakuru mochi or cherry blossom flavoured choux cremes. Mmmm.

Ginger Pork - しょうが豚

Last week Kat posted the revelation that you can peel ginger by scraping it with a spoon. I've always wondered just how I was meant to remove the skin without wasting most of the insides, and the joy of this nifty discovery prompted me to go out and made her ginger pork. You can find the recipe here.

Ginger Pork しょうが豚

Yum! It had just the right level of ginger twang for me and was incredibly tender and juicy. I'd never marinated the Japanese super-thin sliced pork or beef before, and oh what a difference it made. This will definitely be going on the quick-and-easy weeknight rotation.

Niku-Jaga 肉じゃが (a bit of a failure)

Nikujaga 肉じゃが

Do other foodbloggers write about their failures? Or do they keep tweaking it until they can present a perfect dish with breezy 'just thought I'd give it a try' nonchalance? After not cooking anything but toast last week while I showed my friends around Tokyo, I felt as if I should get back into the Japanese recipes, if only so I could have something to write about while I wait for classes to start.

Since the boy was staying over this weekend, and he is mad for anything involving potatoes, I thought I'd try my hand at Niku Jaga (literally meat and potatoes, in practise a sort of beef and potato stew). I've heard a lot of Japanese people talking about this dish having 'ofukuro no aji' (the taste of your mother's cooking) but I've never been lucky enough to try a home cooked version. The NJ I have tried, at izakayas and other homey restaurants, has been delicious. Meaty and savory in plenty of thin sauce, with a bowl of white rice on the side.

I wish I could say the same for the 'stew' I made on Saturday. Don't get me wrong, the taste was fine and we made a good meal of it with some left over rice from hanami and sauteed spinach. Yet it was more of a soup, and the flavour was much blander than I expected. I mostly used this recipe, but added the ginger and sesame oil that Maki prescribes here. Initial investigations have led me to three possibly suspects:

  1. I added too much stock. The recipe said to just cover the potatoes, but perhaps my pot is wider than theirs. I could have boiled it down further, but the potatoes would have disintegrated.
  2. I should have used more seasonings, similar to Maki's recipe, even though I had half the amount of ingredients.
  3. Niku Jaga is just meant to taste/look this way and the versions I've tried were 'jazzed up' restaurant food.

Anyone have any ideas?

(Also, check out this incredibly cute cartoon pun - the nikujaguar)