I very much enjoyed all of the food I ate during my first and recent trip to Japan – I went to Kyoto and Tokyo. Like Italian Cuisine, Japanese cuisine has a huge diversity of regional and seasonal dishes and the Japanese people seem just as passionate about their food.
Below is an oden dish, in a special oden restaurant -it is mainly daikon, I could also taste turnip, boiled eggs served in stock made from dried bonito, konbu and soy sauce. Of course there were pickles and rice.
We accompanied the oden dish with bean curd prepared in different ways… and I do like beancurd. Below is a photo of another beancurd dish I had in another restaurant -silken tofu (Agedashi) in a flavorful tentsuyu broth of dashi, mirin and soy. This one had some other ingredients as well as tofu and broth. The red on top was a mild chili paste.
Whether it be in my home town or elsewhere, I always place great effort in selecting the ‘right’ places to eat. I look closely at menus (in Japan, glossy pictures and the plastic replicas of food helped). I suss out the ambience and then take a plunge, and practically all of the time my senses do not fail me.
Japanese food is as much about the preparation and presentation as it is the food itself.
One place in Kyoto particularly stands out – no menus with pictures or models of food here – a tiny place with fabulous décor, a flamboyant, entertaining and creative chef (Mr. Fujita) and his courteous assistant who had a tiny sprinkling of English. We (my partner and I) got by, participated mainly with sign language, much laughter with the other eight guests and we ate extremely well. We pointed to particular ingredients that he had available – duck, fish, eel, eggs, mushrooms (what other guests were eating and via photos in an album) and left it up to him to come up with the food. We watched him slice and prepare top quality and seasonal ingredients and proudly come up with a variety of delicious offerings. Watching the chef prepare the food was as much fun as eating it.
Restaurant: Marufuji (まる藤) Kyoto
This was a strongly flavoured stock with eel, spinach and egg. We were given bowls and spoons.
A form of Yakiniku? – duck cooked on a hot stone. We could have had tongue as well.
I am particularly fond of good tableware and the food was presented with as much care of good quality crockery and lacquerware – with a variety of shapes, textures, colorful patterns, and colors.
And the chef came to see us off.
I will not go on about all the food I tried in Japan – there were far too many of the traditional popular Japanese dishes – the steamed, simmered or grilled dishes, sliced raw, the sushi, tempura, yakitori, ramen etc, but I would like to mention a couple of things I particularly enjoyed or was less familiar with.
I particularly enjoyed the very fresh fish prepared in various ways.
In a different eatery in the backstreets of Kyoto I particularly liked the tomato tempura – small explosions of sweet and acid flavour.
I also had burdock tempura – a distinctive and slightly bitter, crunchy and chewy( fibrous) root vegetable that also reminded me of the texture of meat.
At the same restaurant I also ate pickled sardines. These were lightly floured first and fried and then pickled in a sweet and sour marinade which strangely enough reminded me very much of the varieties of Italian pickled sardines like the Sicilian Soused Fish recipes or the Sarde al Saor popular in Trieste and Venice. One large difference of course, was the grated fresh ginger, not a common ingredient in Italian cuisine.
I am not a great lover of sweets but in Tokyo I watched two people prepare street food – waffles shaped like a fish called Taiyaki. The pancake batter forms the fish shaped outer shell. The filling was sweet red bean paste or sweet potato.
I like persimmons – both the vanilla type and the squashy ones, both fresh and dried. I found quantities of Mochi in the Food halls in basements of famous and grand Department Stores. I particularly like the texture of the outer layers of Mochi that are made with sticky rice: the rice is pounded into a smooth paste and molded around a filling of usually sweet red bean paste .The outer layer is chewy and soft and sometimes flavoured with green tea.
I also liked the pumpkin ice cream, and the one made with spinach.
For the first time I ate Kamameshi – rice is cooked in an iron pot, with different flavourings such as soy sauce, mirin, stock and other ingredients. Ours also had minced chicken, a few vegetables . I liked it – homely.
The burnt rice around the pot of Kamameshi is particularly flavourful.
I tried different types of sake and Japanese beer (I am a wine drinker so both were new experiences for me). I also drank good wine (grapes) made in Japan.!!!
I did come cooking at home too – I like my vegetables and I never get enough when I am away from home and I especially purchased different types of mushrooms – it is autumn after all and they came in many colours, shapes, textures and flavours.
In a Tokyo market I did try some street food – takoyaki (a dough-like wheat flour dumpling, with small pieces of octopus mixed in the batter, smothered with a brown sweet sticky sauce and topped with bonito fish flakes) The batter is poured into a special hotplate with small half-circle molds and when the bottom half is cooked, the half-circle dumplings are turned over and become full spherical dumplings in the end.
I had eaten these in Melbourne and they did not appeal to me then. They did not appeal to me now, but I always like the taste of bonito fish flakes and I like to watch them dance.
I very much liked all the countless varieties of seaweed and pickles. Pickles are called tsukemono. Japanese food would not be the same without pickles that frequently accompany all meals in Japan providing flavours and pro-biotic cultures that promote digestion. They also provide a variety of colors, aromas and textures.
Food markets are full of unpackaged pickles in vats of fish, fruit and vegetables. I particularly like the common umeboshi (pickled plums). Common vegetables that are pickled are: daikon, ginger, Japanese cucumbers, carrots, bamboo, turnips, Chinese cabbage, gobo (burdock root) and Japanese eggplant.
Imagine the smells of these ingredients with their pungent smells of pickling ingredients like rice bran, vinegar, miso, soy sauce, sake. And seasonings like mirin, garlic, seaweeds, herbs and spices, konbu, chilies, honey and sugar.
I also enjoyed the lightly pickled vegetables. I had these only in one of the restaurants in Tokyo and on this occasion I was in the company of a local so we were able to discuss how pickles are easily made at home.
Now home in Melbourne, I did some research and found some recipes for making pickles in an old book I have about Japanese cuisine, Japanese Vegetarian Cookery, Lesley Downer, Jonathan Cape Press, 1986.
I used to use this book to make pickled plums and simple pickled vegetables…a long time ago. Although many types of tsukemono are available commercially many people make pickles at home.
Here is a recipe adapted from this book.
Vegetables are salted and the pressure that is placed upon them causes them to release their liquids – this results in brine that pickles the vegetables. Each type of vegetable is usually pickled separately to keep flavours distinct.
Downer suggests that particularly suitable are:
2 Daikon (peeled, quartered, cut into 2.5 cm lengths),
1 Chinese cabbage halved, quartered 2.5 cm chunks,
4 Small cucumbers, halved, scrape out seeds, cut into 2.5cm lengths
30g sea salt
Rub salt into vegetables, place them in a ceramic bowl (narrow is preferable).
Cover vegetables with a small plate that will fit neatly inside the bowl.
Place a weight on top- perhaps a stone or a jar of water.
Leave the bowl in a cool dark place for 3-4 days– the brine will raise (or it should) above the vegetables.
To serve, remove vegetables, gently squeeze and cut into bite size pieces…… Taste a bit before you cut them and rinse them if necessary to remove excess salt.
My Variations and suggestions:
Once there is sufficient brine covering the vegetables, add a dash of Japanese vinegar (low in acid) and a small glug of Sake for extra flavor. A little Mirin or sugar will also help to sweeten the vegetables.These ingredients also help with the fermentation. It is worth experimenting with flavours.
Making pickles can produce smells, especially if you are using cabbage or daikon. A large wide mouthed ,glass jar or ceramic pot with a tight fitting lid is useful. If you are using a jar or pot make sure that you can apply pressure with a heavy weight on top of the vegetables to produce the brine.
Other vegetables can be used– unpeeled Japanese eggplant…halved, quartered etc , peeled turnips and carrots…halved, sliced etc.