Articles by Sonoko Sakai
Hearty stews are one of the universally appealing slow-cooked foods that you can find in many parts of the world. When it comes to stews, Japanese cuisine has a large repertoire, one of which is nishime, a stew made with chicken and vegetables cooked in a dashi stock and seasoned with soy sauce, mirin and sake.
Unlike many Western stews, it doesn’t use any flour or butter for seasoning or thickening. You can eat it cold or hot, and like all stews, it improves in flavor as the days pass.
Nishime is eaten throughout the year, but it is a particularly popular Japanese holiday food. At year’s end, the cooks in my family gather around the kitchen table to prepare a large pot of nishime to last several days, so there is something to eat for family and friends who may decide to drop by at the spur of the moment. The dish has regional differences, but for the most part, it features chicken; root vegetables; konnyaku, a non-caloric, jelly-like food made from potato that is enjoyed mainly for its texture; and snow peas or green beans.
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I make nishime for the holidays, but I also make it for my husband when I go out of town so he has something of sustenance to eat. I do give him some credit because he actually tries to do some cooking on his own during my absences; he stocks up on cabbage, green beans, carrots, frozen cooked shrimp and cans of mackerel. How he cooks them is a mystery about which I don’t care to know too much. But I can tell you that most of the produce ends up shriveled in the fridge. Things can get uglier, as they did recently when I found a whole case of instant Cup Noodles ramen stashed away in his studio cabinet. It couldn’t be returned because he had already opened the plastic wrapper and begun to work his way through. Call me a snob to deny my husband Cup Noodles ramen, the world’s favorite convenience food, but I gave him an ultimatum. His solution was nishime.
More than one style of Nishime
You can cook nishime in a variety of ways. The meat and vegetables are cut in uniform, bite-size pieces. I bevel the edges of potatoes and carrots so the shapes remain clean and intact while simmering in the dashi stock, which can be made with bonito flakes, konbu seaweed and dried shiitake mushrooms, or any kind of stock you have on hand.
Japanese home cooks make nishime by cooking all the vegetables and meat in one pot from the start. The more refined way of making it is to cook each vegetable separately in stock and then combine them for only a short time so the individual morsels of food maintain their own flavors. For example, if you combine burdock and taro potatoes together, the earthy burdock will season the potato. Some vegetables, like lotus root and the potato-derived konnyaku, have a bland flavor so they need to be cooked a long time in a seasoned stock or with other vegetables to become flavorful. Some green vegetables, such as snow peas, cook fast and turn unappealing in color if you leave them in the nishime stock for too long. To combat that, precooked greens are added at the last minute to brighten the earthy holiday stew. However, you can try making the all-in-one-pot version to see how you like it.
Nishime (Chicken and Root Vegetable Stew)
Serves 4 to 6
1 piece of konnyaku (optional)
6 taro potatoes, peeled and beveled
1 burdock, peeled
1 medium lotus root
12 snow peas, veins removed
200 grams (about 7 ounces) cooked bamboo shoots
6 fresh or dried shiitake mushrooms, hydrated and with stems removed
½ teaspoon salt to cook the snow peas
1 pound boneless chicken thigh
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 cups water
3 ounces light-colored soy sauce (Usukuchi soy sauce)
3 ounces Koikuchi soy sauce
6 ounces mirin
2 ounces sake
1 tablespoon sugar (optional)
6-inch piece of konbu seaweed
1. Blanch the konnyaku in boiling water for a minute. Drain and discard the water.
2. Peel and slice the potatoes, carrots, burdock, lotus root and konnyaku into bite-size pieces, about 1½ to 2 inches wide.
3. Blanch the snow peas in salted boiling water for a minute. Drain and set aside.
4. Bring a medium-sized saucepan full of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Blanch the potatoes, carrots, burdock, lotus root, bamboo shoots and mushrooms in the boiling water for a couple of minutes. Drain and set aside the vegetables in a bowl. Repeat the process with the chicken pieces.
5. In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add the chicken, konnyaku and the blanched vegetables (except the snow peas) and sauté for 5 minutes.
6. Add water, the soy sauces, mirin, sake, sugar and seaweed and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes. Remove the chicken, potatoes and carrots and set aside. Continue cooking the vegetables remaining in the saucepan for another 15 minutes. You can make the stew up to this point and leave it overnight in the fridge. Reheat before serving.
7. Garnish with snow peas before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Top photo: Nishime, a Japanese stew. Credit: Sonoko Sakai
Root vegetables play an essential part of my family’s Thanksgiving meal, along with turkey, cranberries, pumpkin and corn. Kinpira — a classic Japanese stir-fry root vegetable dish — celebrates my family’s heritage and brings comfort to the table. And like the symbolic foods of American holidays, it’s a metaphor for life. The name kinpira is derived from the folk legend Sakata-no-Kinpira: a brave samurai Japanese people associate with strength. Japanese have used the term kinpira not only for their popular root vegetable dish, but also for bean cakes, candy, dolls and even footwear.
My grandmother taught me that root vegetables are winter healing foods. They warm the body and make you more grounded. I never heard her speak of food in any scientific terms — how these root vegetables carry nutrients like vitamin B, minerals and fiber. She told me root vegetables are themselves the roots of plants. They grow to deliver nutrients to the leaves and flowers above ground, so the roots were nutrient-rich. What mattered to her most was that we ate whole foods in season, and root vegetables were one of them. That was a sensible lesson on food.
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Root vegetables can be broadly divided into two categories: taproot and tuberous. Taproot vegetables have one main root, which is capable of growing very deep and can access deeper soil levels to obtain the necessary water to sustain itself. They include the long burdock; conical and tapered carrots; and lighter, creamier-colored parsnips. Tuberous root vegetables, like sweet potatoes, yams, potatoes and ginger, have an enlarged storage structure to store starch. Depending on the type of root vegetable you use, kinpira will have a savory, spicy or sweet flavor. Farmers are growing a variety of heirloom varieties you can experiment with. Try Nante carrots, daikon radish, Milan turnip or Gobo (Japanese burdock). I make kinpira with whatever root vegetables appeal to me at the farmers market.
You can make kinpira with either peeled or whole root vegetables. You can use just the vegetables peels to make kinpira and then use the rest of the vegetable for another dish. It’s in the skin that the best flavor is hidden. If you are using the whole root vegetables, try gently scrubbing the skin with a brush to remove the dirt and hair fibers.
Burdock is the most common ingredient for making kinpira, but the long and skinny root is still unfamiliar to most American cooks. You may wonder how it’s going to fit in your fridge. Just break it in half.
When using root vegetables like burdock, avoid rinsing them until you’re ready to use them. In markets, burdock is often sold with the dirt still clinging to the roots because it is quick to wilt when washed. Like any root vegetables, look for burdock that is firm and not fibrous at the center. The white flesh immediately discolors once peeled and sliced. To maintain the color, you’ll want to soak it in a mild rice vinegar solution until you’re ready to cook it. Burdock has a nutty taste and is crunchy in texture. It’s delicious sautéed in combination with carrots. Kinpira Burdock and Carrots will make a delicious addition to your holiday menu.
Kinpira Burdock and Carrots
1 large burdock (Gobo) root
2 large carrots
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
2 tablespoons roasted sesame oil
1 Japanese dried chili pepper, seeded and chopped
3 tablespoons soy sauce, or more or less to taste
1 tablespoon mirin
1 tablespoon sugar, or more or less to taste
1 tablespoon sake
Red cracked pepper or shichimi pepper
Roasted ground sesame seeds
1. Scrub and clean the burdock and carrots. You do not have to peel the vegetables unless you prefer to eat them without the skin.
2. Julienne the vegetables and soak in a bowl of water with the rice vinegar added until ready to fry.
3. Drain the rice vinegar-water solution from the vegetables.
4. Over medium-high heat, sauté the burdock and carrots in the sesame oil for 3 minutes. Add the chili pepper, soy sauce, mirin, sugar and sake, and simmer for another 8 minutes, or until the vegetables absorb most of the liquid.
5. Taste to see whether it needs more seasonings and adjust accordingly.
6. Top with garnish if desired. The cracked red pepper will give it a zing. It’s nice, too, with roasted sesame seeds. Serve warm or at room temperature. It will keep in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days.
Top photo: Kinpira. Credit: Sonoko Sakai
I consider breakfast to be the most important meal of the day. Most mornings, I cook a Japanese breakfast because that’s what my family prefers.
It consists of miso soup and a protein dish of fish (sometimes leftover grilled salmon from the night before), eggs or tofu. They are accompanied by a bowl of steamed rice or toast, with a crisp piece of nori seaweed on top, and for sides, I plate small portions of fermented foods — tsukemono (pickled vegetables) and natto (fermented soybeans), which is a strong food that can be an acquired taste for Westerners because it is stringy and stinky like cheese. I also serve fresh fruit with a dollop of yogurt and might also have a shot of apple cider vinegar, sweetened with a little honey.
If you are invited to my house for breakfast, you might actually think it’s dinner; it’s a hearty spread indeed. I also make a Western-style breakfast of buckwheat galettes and whole-wheat pancakes or stone-cut oatmeal with maple syrup, but whenever I go in that direction, I still try to include our Japanese breakfast favorite — miso soup. A bowl of soup with vegetables from the land and the sea and seasoned with miso has a way of ensuring a healthy balance in our diet. Here are ways to integrate the Japanese breakfast concept into your daily cooking.
Eat some type of fermented food every day
In the traditional Japanese breakfast, fermented foods such as miso, soy sauce, vinegar and koji salt made from fermented grains have been used as staple seasonings, and tsukemono (pickled vegetables), umeboshi (pickled plums) and natto (fermented soybeans) have been eaten since ancient times. The practice of fermentation was born out of necessity to extend the life of foods when refrigeration was not readily available.
The benefits of fermentation go beyond preservation. It is convenient to stock your pantry with fermented foods because they are ready-to-eat “cooked” foods, but they also aid in digestion and some are considered medicinal. There is an old Japanese saying that “an umeboshi a day keeps the doctor away.” A similar saying goes for miso. “If you eat miso soup on a daily basis, you don’t need a doctor.” In modern times, fermented foods continue to be a popular breakfast staple. The Japanese have also adopted Western fermented foods such as yogurt into their breakfast regimen. Eaten in moderation, fermented foods keep the intestinal flora healthy.
A Japanese breakfast includes a variety of dishes in small portions
The fundamental difference between an American breakfast and a Japanese one is not only its makeup but also its serving sizes. I remember when my mother took us to Big Boy when we first moved to Los Angeles from Tokyo. Half a cantaloupe with a maraschino cherry was offered as a single serving. I was surprised because a half a melon can serve an entire family in Japan. A typical American breakfast can include two to three eggs scrambled, two to three pieces of bacon or a thick sausage patty or slice of ham, with maybe three stacked pancakes dripping with butter, or French toast or muffins or sugar-glazed doughnuts and so forth.
Such an American breakfast is loaded with sugar and fat. In contrast, the Japanese breakfast is about serving a variety of foods in smaller portions. How you want to feel at the end of the meal is hara hachi bu — 80% full, not stuffed. My grandmother, who lived to 102 years old, made breakfast her biggest meal of the day, but always left room in her tummy so she could start thinking about what to eat for lunch. That was her secret to longevity.
Create contrast in your presentation
Flavor, color and knife skills are important in Japanese cuisine, and that applies to breakfast too. Even if you don’t have time in the morning, each dish should be beautiful. If you are using chopsticks for eating, the foods when served should not require cutting with a knife; they must be uniformly bite-size morsels. Irregularity of size can make them harder to eat and less appealing. In color choice, if you begin with something with white like tofu or daikon radish in your miso soup, something of a bright color like red will enhance it (carrots, red pepper), and a few green herbs will brighten the soup. No meals should be all white or all green or all brown. This also makes sure you are eating more than one vegetable.
Awaken your taste buds in the morning by eating a variety of foods in moderation. Use a combination of sweet (fruit), sour (a salad or citrus fruit or vinegar), salty (pickled foods) and bitter (coffee and green tea). The fifth taste, the umami flavor, is satisfied when you are serving miso soup — made with konbu seaweed, bonito flakes or shiitake mushroom; a meat stock; or serving some kind of umami-rich protein dish, such as grilled fish. Occasionally bacon is OK too.
Choose the freshest ingredients
Because a Japanese breakfast is largely butter-less, spice-less, sugar-less and sauce-less, the ingredients themselves must be flavorful and fresh. Greens must not be bruised or wilted. Fruits should be eaten in season. Visit the farmers market often. Make a fetish of freshness.
Once you have prepared a Japanese breakfast, the creative kitchen work and the deliciousness of the food will probably modify your regular American breakfast. You may cut down on fat- and sugar-loaded cereals and pastries. You’ll discover that whole grains; meat and fish; vegetables, both fresh and fermented; and fruit eaten sensibly can turn your breakfast into a feast. You will be a leaner and happier eater.
Koji Marinated Salmon
This salmon dish can be served any time of the day.
Serves 2 to 4
2 salmon fillets, 6 ounces to 8 ounces each
2 tablespoons shio-koji
1. Spread the shio-koji on the salmon fillets.
2. Marinate for 1 to 2 days in the fridge.
3. Before cooking, rinse off the shio-koji and wipe off any koji residue with a paper towel.
4. Broil the salmon fillets until they are lightly toasted and the meat flakes off easily with a fork. Be careful not to burn the fillets. Serve with lemon wedges.
Top photo: A hearty Japanese breakfast consisting of azuki bean miso soup with Napa cabbage, tofu and scallions; koji salmon; koji mushroom rice; pickled plum, or umeboshi; Napa cabbage, shiso leaves and yuzu pickles; and yogurt with peach compote. Credit: Sonoko Sakai
When it comes to things local, New England has a bounty of good food. On a recent visit, I looked forward to driving down the country roads and picking up some artisan cheeses, maple syrup and apple cider to bring back to Los Angeles. Instead I came home with a carry-on bag full of something totally unexpected: miso, made in the Japanese farmhouse tradition in Conway, Mass.
I met Christian and Gaella Elwell, owners, founders and managers of the South River Miso Co., at the annual Northeastern Rice Conference held in Vermont; they invited me to come visit their farm afterward.
Miso is the staple Japanese high-protein seasoning made of koji — fermented rice; salt; and soybeans, barley, or other grains. I usually buy miso at the Japanese market or when I go back to Japan. On occasion, I make my own, as my mother did, but not as often as I would like to. In the old days, almost every household in Japan made its own miso. I keep a good stock of miso, at least two or three varieties, because we like to have miso soup for breakfast every day, as part of my family’s health regimen, and also use it to make salad dressings and marinades. Miso offers a nutritious balance of natural carbohydrates, essential oils, minerals, vitamins and protein of the highest quality, containing all the essential amino acids. Finding another variety of miso is as exciting as coming upon an unfamiliar cheese.
I realized I had once tried ordering South River Miso Co.’s miso online, but because the company’s miso is unpasteurized and doesn’t travel well in warm weather, they don’t ship to the West Coast during the summer. I learned, though, that even with such down time on the West Coast, they have a loyal following around the country and sell out of the 70 tons of miso they produce each year.
Miso part of macrobiotic lifestyle
The Elwells have been making miso for more than 30 years. The couple met in Boston in 1976, when they were students of the macrobiotic way of life as taught by Michio and Aveline Kushi. The macrobiotic lifestyle promotes a diet of freshly prepared seasonal whole foods, which includes having miso soup for breakfast. Back then, miso was available only from Japan, and the Elwells wondered, “What would it be like to make miso in this country, right here in New England?” Such inquisitiveness led them to the late Naboru Muramoto, a macrobiotic healer in Glen Ellen, Calif., with whom they studied miso making for three months in 1979. A year later, the Elwells went back to New England to start their miso-making operation, and they have been at it ever since.
As the story goes, their first shipment of miso was packed in an unheated barn and hauled across the shallow icy waters of South River on a horse-drawn wagon to meet the UPS truck at the farm’s roadside. This may sound wild, but there are young farmers living across from the Elwells who choose to farm with horses, so things haven’t changed much in this part of the country for good reasons.
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The Elwells’ miso workshop has a view of their vegetable garden and a field of flowering buckwheat. There is a strikingly beautiful rice paddy in the shape of a circle. In ancient Japan, the crops grown on round paddies were offerings to the gods. Some people see the round paddy as the reflection of the moon. The rice grown in the Elwells’ paddy is not used for making miso, but I am certain that having such serene setting does good things to nourish your spirit .
Various shades of light caramel to dark brown glass jugs topped with lids are the first thing you see when you enter the South River Miso Co.’s fermentation room. The malty and sweet smell emanates from the large, handcrafted 3- to 5-ton wooden vats of miso which take up most of the room. “Try some of this miso tamari,” says Christian, gently pouring out the dark liquid from the glass jug into a little cup. “It is the puddle of liquid that settles at the middle of the miso vats,” he explains with a gentle demeanor. I take a sip. Like miso, miso tamari has a malty aroma and sweet taste. It’s like soy sauce but less sharp and delicious.
Miso requires a two-step fermentation process. To start, lightly milled organic brown rice or barley grains are inoculated with koji-kin or aspergillus mold. The inoculated grain is stacked in traditional wooden trays and fermented inside the muro, a temperature-controlled room that heats up to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, the optimum temperatures for making koji. The production workers monitor the temperature, which goes up as the rice ferments; it takes about 36 hours to complete the fermentation process. To the koji, he mixes in sun-dried sea salt and cooked soybeans or other beans such as garbanzo and azuki, which are slowly cooked in a caldron for 20 hours over hand-fed wood fires in a brick oven. Christian and his workers combine the mixture by stamping on the beans with their feet, which gives the miso better texture than if they were done by machine.
The fermented grains, salt and cooked beans are combined and transferred to the wooden vats to ferment for anywhere from three weeks for the Kyoto-style, sweet white miso to three years for the darker, savory brown rice, chickpea and barley miso. South River Miso Co. produces more than 11 varieties of miso, many of which are gluten-free. They also make some specialty misos, like Dandelion Leek, which is made with wild leeks picked from the woods in spring. I wonder what kind of miso the Elwells will concoct next. How about buckwheat miso?
Miso Soup with Tofu, Eggplant, Wakame Seaweed and Scallions
4 cups of Fragrant Dashi (see recipe below)
1 Japanese eggplant, halved and sliced into ¼-inch pieces
2 teaspoons wakame seaweed, hydrated and cut into bite-size pieces
½ a block of soft tofu, cut into ½-inch squares
3½ to 4 tablespoons light, barley, azuki or brown-rice miso, plus extra as needed for flavoring
2 scallions, sliced thinly crosswise
1. Bring the dashi and eggplant to a boil in a medium saucepan, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer for 3 minutes.
2. Add the hydrated wakame seaweed and tofu and simmer for another minute.
3. While the stock is simmering, dissolve the miso paste in a few tablespoons of warm dashi. Add the mixture to the saucepan.
4. Taste and add more miso paste, dashi or water, depending on how strong the soup tastes.
5. Turn off the heat once the miso is added to the dashi. Do not boil the soup.
6. Pour the soup into individual bowls and garnish with scallions. Serve immediately.
This dashi will keep five days in the refrigerator, so you can make it ahead of time and just add miso paste and vegetables for a quick breakfast of miso soup. You can find bonito flakes and kombu seaweed at Japanese markets.
1 piece dried kombu seaweed (6 inches long)
4 cups water
3 cups dried bonito flakes (katsuo-bushi)
1. Using scissors, make several crosswise cuts in the kombu. This helps to extract the flavor during cooking.
2. Place the kombu and water in a medium saucepan and let it stand 15 minutes to overnight at room temperature.
3. Cook the kombu on medium heat. Remove it just before the water boils to avoid a fishy odor. Discard the kombu.
4. Turn heat down to a simmer. Add the bonito flakes and cook for a couple of minutes. Turn off heat and let the bonito flakes steep like tea. When the bonito flakes have settled near the bottom, strain them through a very fine mesh sieve or a sieve lined with cheesecloth or a paper towel. Don’t press the bonito flakes.
5. Use the dashi stock to make miso soup.
Top photo: Miso soup with eggplant, tofu and wakame seaweed. Credit: Sonoko Sakai
The summer of 2013 has been one of the hottest I can remember in Los Angeles, and we will probably have another heat wave in September. When temperatures creep into the intolerable level, the only thing that restores my energy, particularly my appetite, is to cool off.
Jumping into a cold shower or pool, or being near the sea, or under the shade of a big tree helps, but there is something just as good or effective: eat cooling foods. Chilled somen noodles are on the top of my list of cooling foods, along with chilled watermelon and snow cones. That’s a typical answer you will hear from most Japanese. Somen noodles make the perfect restorative cool meal and a nice appetizer before a barbecue.
Like angel-hair pasta, somen noodles are very thin wheat noodles that take only about two to four minutes to cook and about the same to chill. They are served in ice water, with ice cubes added to give the noodles that chilling factor.
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Somen can be made by hand or machine. The hand-stretched noodles are called tenobe somen. They are a delicacy and are slightly more expensive than the standard machine-made noodles. Teruaki Moriwaki from the village of Handa in the Tokushima prefecture of Shikoku Island in Japan is an artisan somen maker who makes them by hand. The Moriwakis used to be farmers, but when they lost their farmland in a landslide, they switched to noodle making, which they have done now for two generations. Even though it is physically demanding work, it seems to be the secret of their youthful looks. Moriwaki’s mother is in her late 70s but appears no more than 60.
To make the noodles, the Moriwakis follow a disciplined schedule, which starts at 4 a.m. The noodles have three main ingredients: wheat flour, water and salt. They source their wheat flour from Australia (most wheat flour used in Japan is imported), mineral-rich salt from Seto Inland Sea, and spring water from the Yoshino River.
While some machinery is used in the noodle-making process, they rely on their feet to stomp the dough and thin sticks to stretch the noodles by hand. When stretching the noodles, the hands move fast and rhythmically, like a concert master. Once the noodles are stretched to their ideal thickness, they are dried, cut and packaged. The Moriwakis’ dried somen noodles are known for being slightly thicker than other somen noodles, and they have a smooth slippery feeling in the throat when swallowed.
Somen noodles a versatile dish
The classic way to eat somen is with a cold soy- and mirin-based dipping sauce and a variety of herbs and condiments Japanese call yakumi – ginger, chopped scallions, chives, myoga (a gingery flower bud) and basil-like shiso leaves. These act not only to brighten the flavor of the noodles but also aid in digestion.
Other condiment choices can include roasted sesame seeds, chopped umeboshi (sour plum pickles) and spices such as shichimi and sansho peppers.
For a more substantial dish, you can slice up a variety of vegetables like kale, avocado, tomatoes and cucumbers. You can also serve chilled somen noodles with grilled eggplant, zucchini and peppers. Grilled meat and seafood also make a nice accompaniment.
To serve, arrange the condiments in small bowls around the chilled somen so guests can garnish the noodles with whatever condiments appeal to them. Pour the cold dipping sauce into the individual serving bowls. Use about one-third to one-half cup for each bowl. Start by adding a dash of shichimi pepper, a dab of ginger and a teaspoon of sliced scallions to the dipping sauce.
Now pick up a bunch of noodles out of the ice water with chopsticks or a fork and drop them into the sauce. At this time, you can put more garnishes on top, such as sliced shiso leaves, a teaspoon of sesame seeds, shredded chicken or cut nori seaweed. Eat it fast; you don’t want the noodles to become overpowered by the sauce. When you have finished the first round, go back and repeat what you just did. It’s not bad manners to slurp, so go ahead and make noise.
Iced Somen Noodles With Ginger, Herbs and Pickled Plum
Makes four 1-cup servings, each with 3½ ounces of noodles
Note: Dried somen noodles and other ingredients can be found at Japanese markets. To order Moriwaki’s Handa Somen Noodles, go to www.yagicho-honten.jp/. The contact is Mamiko Nishiyama.
The noodles take fewer than four minutes to cook, so have the soy-mirin dipping sauce and all the condiments ready to go before you cook the noodles.
For the condiments:
4 to 5 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds, grounded
4 scallions, white parts only, cut crosswise into ⅛-inch slices (discard green and root ends)
6 pickled plums (umeboshi), seeded and chopped to form a paste
¼ cup peeled and grated ginger, from about a 4-inch root (reserve the juice to serve with the grated ginger)
1 nori seaweed sheet, sliced thinly with scissors
For the noodles:
4 to 6 bundles of dried somen noodles (3½ ounces to 5 ounces each)
1. Prepare the condiments and put them on a platter or in individual small bowls to pass around. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve the noodles.
2. Cook the noodles in plenty of boiling water for 2 to 4 minutes, following the manufacturer’s instructions.
3. Rinse under running water and give the noodles a good massage to remove surface film.
4. Transfer to a serving bowl of water with ice cubes.
5. Serve immediately with the soy-mirin dipping sauce. (See recipe below.)
Soy-Mirin Dipping Sauce
Makes 4 servings
2 shitake mushrooms, softened in 3 cups of water overnight in the refrigerator.
5 ounces mirin (sweet sake)
5 ounces light-colored soy sauce (usukuchi-shoyu). If you cannot find light-colored soy sauce, use Koikuchi-shoyu
1½ cups bonito flakes (they should be large flakes)
1. In a medium-sized pan, bring the shitake and its soaking water to a boil.
2. Add the mirin, soy sauce and bonito flakes and reduce the heat. Simmer gently for 3 minutes to infuse the flavors.
3. Remove from heat, strain the sauce and discard the bonito flakes. Reserve the shiitake mushrooms; remove any tough stems and slice them thinly to use as a condiment for the noodles.
4. Let the dipping sauce come to room temperature and then refrigerate, covered until needed. The sauce will keep in the refrigerator for a week.
Top photo: Dried somen noodles. Credit: Sonoko Sakai
The UPS box of bamboo shoots I ordered from Jeff Rieger at Penryn Orchard Specialties arrived at my doorstep within three days of placing the order. When I opened the box, I counted more than a dozen freshly harvested shoots, each weighing between a quarter-pound and a half-pound, covered in their dark bark with moist soil still clinging around them. I was elated by their earthiness and beauty. Like cherry blossoms, these terrestrial shooters signal the arrival of spring, which comes late in the foothill of the Sierra east of Sacramento, Calif., where Rieger’s farm is located.
I never expected I would encounter fresh bamboo shoots in California. The last time I ate good bamboo in Los Angeles was when my husband brought back a big, fat shoot from Japan in his suitcase. He had dug out the shoot from a friend’s bamboo forest. It was then cooked and packaged by his friend’s wife to bring back to me as a souvenir.
Rieger grows Sweetshoot Bamboo, Phyllostachys dulcis, which is the common name of an edible variety prized for its tender texture and sweet, delicate flavor. It is one of the many plants the previous Japanese-American owner of Penryn Farms, George Oki, planted that reminded him and his wife of Japan. They also grew Asian pears, peaches, plums, persimmons and mandarins.
Rieger has had the bamboo forest for more than 10 years, but he is just starting to go into the market with the bamboo shoots in the hope of getting chefs and cooks interested in using them as a culinary ingredient. So far, it has been a challenge because local chefs don’t know how to cook with them, even though it’s easier than one might expect. It didn’t take any effort on his part to sell them to me. I even asked him if I could come to his farm to dig the shoots out of the ground.
Harvesting bamboo shoots
Every morning during harvest time in May, Rieger goes out into the bamboo forest looking for young shoots less than 1 foot tall, at which point they are sweet and tender and good for culinary purposes. The timing of the harvest is important because, depending on the variety, bamboo can grow at a speed of 2 inches per hour — up to 4 feet in one day — and they harden quickly. Unlike some trees that take decades to mature, bamboo can fully mature in as little as three years.
Bamboo: A metaphor for life
In Asia, bamboo is often used as a metaphor for life. Bamboo is flexible, it bends with wind and snow, it doesn’t break easily and it grows straight up into the sky — good qualities you would want to see in a person. That is why the Japanese eat fresh bamboo shoots in the springtime, because it’s time for new growth. Digging bamboo shoots was an annual spring activity I did with my grandmother to celebrate these qualities of life, and it’s amazing that after all these years, I tell myself to be like bamboo when things get me down. I shake off what bothers me and spring right up.
Two popular bamboo shoot dishes
One of the most popular ways to prepare fresh bamboo shoots in Japan is to make rice with them or simmer the bamboo with fresh wakame seaweed in a lightly seasoned konbu-bonito based dashi stock.
Bamboo shoots are prized not only for their flavor and texture but also for their dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals and low fat content. Some bamboos are inedible and contain toxins, but like mushrooms, you have to source the edible varieties and learn how to prepare them so you can get rid of the inherit bitterness in the bamboo shoot.
Tips for cooking bamboo shoots
The Japanese prepare bamboo shoots in two steps. First the outer layer of bamboo, the dark and hard bark, is peeled away until you reach the tender skin, which is pale and tender like heart of palm.
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You can use cooked bamboo in a variety of ways — in a stew, stir-fried, cooked with rice or in a salad. Fresh bamboo shoots are one of the most versatile ingredients you can use in your cooking, and they taste nothing like the smelly and flavorless water-packed bamboo shoots that come in a can.
Fresh Bamboo Rice
This recipe can be made in a rice cooker, donabe rice cooker or saucepan. Follow the rice manufacturer’s cooking instructions for optimum results.
2¼ cups short-grain Japanese rice, rinsed and drained
2½ cups dashi (see recipe below)
2 tablespoons Koikuchi soy sauce
1 tablespoon sake
1 tablespoon mirin
½ pound boiled bamboo shoots, thinly sliced into small pieces, about ⅛-inch thick
2 shiitake mushrooms from dashi stock, sliced thinly
Sansho pepper leaves, sliced shiso leaves, or roasted sesame seeds salt for garnish
1. Put washed rice in a rice cooker and pour dashi soup stock over the rice. Add soy sauce, sake and mirin and stir the rice.
2. Put the sliced bamboo and shiitake mushrooms on top of the rice.
3. Cook the rice as you would regular rice. When rice is done, serve in individual rice bowls.
4. Garnish with sansho leaves, shiso leaves or roasted sesame seeds and salt.
Konbu-Shitake Mushrooms Dashi Stock
Makes approximately 2½ cups
3 cups filtered water
1 piece of konbu, 4 inches long
2 dried shiitake mushrooms
1. Soak the konbu and shiitake mushrooms in water for four hours or overnight.
2. Bring to a boil in a saucepan over high heat. Just before liquid comes to a boil, remove the konbu. Lower the heat and continue simmering for another 5 minutes.
3. Turn off the heat. Save the mushrooms for the bamboo rice.
When Julia Cotts, executive director of the Garden School Foundation, invited me to teach a Japanese cooking class to the garden club at 24th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, I chose two classic Japanese dishes: miso soup and onigiri, or rice balls. Basic miso soup is made with seafood stock called dashi and seasoned with miso paste. Tofu, scallions and seaweed are familiar ingredients in everyday miso soup. Onigiri is a portable rice ball made with short-grain rice; it’s filled with a morsel of meat, fish or pickled vegetable and wrapped in nori seaweed.
What was different from my usual Japanese cooking classes was the choice of ingredients I was given to work with. “We will use the vegetables and fruits grown by the children,” Cotts explained. I was ready to discover new flavors for my miso soup and to teach how to make onigiri by hand.
The first things you notice upon setting foot into the elementary school’s garden are the beautiful pepper trees. They help diffuse the noise of the nearby freeway and filter the dust of the city. In 2003, a group of teachers and parents came up with the idea of turning the school’s old concrete parking lot into a community garden instead of paving it with new asphalt. Ten years later, the garden is thriving. A variety of winter root vegetables and leafy greens as well as herbs grow in the raised beds. One entire section of the garden is devoted to growing fruit trees. The kumquat and Satsuma tangerine trees have clusters of bright orange fruit ready to be picked. Bird feeders made from pine cones smeared with peanut butter hang on tree branches. I am enchanted with this garden. It reminds me of the garden in the novel “The Secret Garden” — one that has magical healing powers. Only this garden is real. It’s an exemplary garden where children can learn to appreciate nature and develop life skills by learning how to grow food.
For the cooking class, more than 50 children and parents, mostly Latinos, came to watch as I made miso soup and onigiris. Some of the parents only spoke Spanish, but the children were eager translators. “Hojas de Marisco,” someone said about the big kombu seaweed I dropped in the soup to make the dashi broth. Most of the children had seen seaweed washed up on the beach but never eaten it. “Seaweed is like a vegetable,” I said as I took the hydrated seaweed out of the broth. “It’s full of good nutrients like vitamins and fiber.”
I cut up the seaweed and passed it around for everyone to try. Some brought it up to their nose to smell. Some thought the seaweed felt rubbery. I loved hearing their reactions and giggles. “Don’t you sauté some onions in oil first?” asked one parent. “No, I don’t use any oil to make miso soup,” I said.
Next, I threw in a bag of dried bonito flakes, which look like wood shavings. The konbu seaweed was strange, but the bonito flakes looked even stranger. I strained the ingredients to finish the dashi broth. Everyone was entranced by the aroma of the amber-colored dashi.
Nontraditional ingredients flavor miso soup
To flavor the soup, the children harvested broccoli, kale, Swiss chard, cauliflower, lettuce and a variety of herbs like parsley, dill, oregano, chives, cilantro, epazote and savory — not exactly what I would consider candidates for making miso soup. But it was up to the children to decide, and let’s begin by saying freshness is the best ingredient for all cooks.
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They washed and chopped the vegetables and filled the stock pot all the way to the rim. I let the soup simmer awhile and then added the miso paste. It was the most colorful, complex and fragrant miso soup I ever concocted. Everyone tried using the chopsticks to pick up the morsels of vegetables from the soup. Some used them as a skewer. Who would have thought of using these herbs in the soup except the children who grew the foods in this garden?
A long soup line formed immediately, and everyone was drinking it with gusto. Some fathers gathered around the pot of miso soup asking for more. “It’s like menudo but healthier,” one father remarked. “This miso soup is so delicious,” shouted Cotts, who gave some to her toddler son.
We then moved on to making the onigiris with the rice I brought, and we decorated them with herbs, flowers, fruit and vegetables. The rice grains stuck on fingers, so I told them to dunk their hands in the bowl of water before handling the rice. Japanese rice is stickier than the long-grain rice Latinos are used to eating. Some children were already familiar with nori seaweed from eating sushi. Onigiris are like sushi’s distant cousin — another finger food, but without the fish on top. The pack of 50 sheets of nori disappeared in no time. Some children decorated the onigiris with nasturtiums and kumquats. I have never seen onigiris so colorful and original. I was relieved that none looked like Hello Kitty. Those few onigiris that were not quickly eaten sat on the vinyl floral tablecloth bathing in the sun with the loveliest expressions.
1 (6-inch long) piece of Kombu seaweed
4 cups filtered water
2 cups bonito flakes (Katsuobushi)
1. Take the kombu and make several crosswise slits in it using scissors.
2. Steep the kombu in 4 cups water over medium heat. Just before the water comes to a boil, pluck the seaweed out of the water. Discard or use it to make optional secondary dashi (see below).
3. Turn heat to low, then add 2 cups dried bonito flakes. Do not stir. Let the bonito flakes steep gently like tea for one minute. Turn off the heat.
4. Strain the mixture in a sieve lined with a paper towel or cheesecloth, and then the dashi is ready to be used for making soups and sauces. Discard the flakes or use it to make secondary dashi.
Variation: For added umami flavor, add one or two dehydrated shiitake mushrooms to the dashi. First, soak the dried mushrooms in 1 cup of water overnight. Add the soaking liquid and the mushrooms to the broth. Keep it in the broth to simmer. Follow Step 4. Discard the mushroom or slice it up and eat it with a little soy sauce or put it in your miso soup.
To make secondary dashi, combine the used kombu seaweed and bonito flakes with 4½ cups of filtered water in the same saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes, then strain. It is great for use in miso soup.
Makes 4 servings
This miso soup is made with turnips, snow peas and tofu. You can use a variety of vegetables in your miso soup.
4 cups prepared dashi, divided
2 baby turnips, thinly sliced
5 to 8 snow peas, veins removed
⅓ of a tofu brick, sliced into half-inch cubes
3½ to 4 tablespoons white or red miso paste or a combination of both
1. Pour 3½ cups of dashi into a medium-sized saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the turnip and snow peas and cook over low heat for 1 minute.
2. Thin the mixture with a half cup of dashi broth. Add enough to lend flavor without making the broth too salty.
3. Add the tofu to the broth. Bring to a simmer until the tofu is heated, about one minute.
4. Add the miso paste and mix thoroughly into the soup.
5. Divide the broth between four bowls. Garnish with scallions and serve.
Tip: Miso soup does not improve in flavor when reheated, so you will experience full flavor once all the ingredients are added.
Makes 4 onigiris
Onigiri molds come in different shapes and sizes. Moisten the mold and place it over a slightly damp cutting board to prevent the rice from sticking. You can also use your hands to mold the onigiris.
2 cups freshly cooked short-grain rice
Salt to taste
Onigiri mold, or you can use your hands to mold the onigiris
A small bowl of water to dunk your hands and mold
1. Season the rice with salt to your taste. Fill the mold halfway with rice and make a small dent in the middle and place the filling (see below) in it.
2. Cover the rest of the mold with rice and pack it in well without pressing too hard.
3. Turn the mold over to take out the onigiri. Dunk your hands in the bowl of water and moisten your hands lightly. Press the onigiri with your hand so it holds its shape.
4. Wrap the onigiri with a strip of nori seaweed or serve it plain or with furikake (see below).
Tip: Stick your wet finger into a bowl of salt and dab the salt on your palm before molding the rice.
• Umeboshi (pitted pickled plum)
• Grilled chicken
Sprinkle ideas for the top of the onigiri, called furikake
• Roasted black or white sesame seeds
• Various nuts
• Katsuobushi (bonito flakes)
• Nori seaweed cut into strips
• Shiso leaves
Top photo: Children in the cooking class taste the miso paste. Credit: Sonoko Sakai
The city of Saiki on the island of Kyushu in southern Japan is blessed by nature. In the surrounding mountains, farmers grow shiitake mushrooms, prized for their thick meat. The crystal clear sea is abundant with sardines, mackerel, squid and local fish whose names are not familiar to me. I was happily treated to both, though the main purpose of my visit to Saiki was neither mushrooms nor fish but mold. I came to visit Myoho Asari, the ninth-generation proprietor of the 300-year-old Kojiya Honten, whose family has been making koji. The process involves inoculating rice with A. oryzae spores, originally for miso, soy sauce and amazake and more recently for shio-koji, a koji-salt-based seasoning that has become trendy with Japanese cooks and chefs.
Fermented foods form the basis of a Japanese diet
Since ancient times, fermented foods have been the backbone of Japanese cuisine. The practice was developed to preserve food and enhance the flavor and nutrition of foods.
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The essential condiments in the Japanese pantry include soy sauce, rice vinegar, miso, sake, mirin, salt and sugar. What is uniquely Japanese is that all these condiments, with the exception of salt and sugar, are fermented foods made with koji. My Japanese kitchen would be incomplete if any single one of these items went missing. But when I heard about this new seasoning, shio-koji, I was curious. There is a Japanese tradition of pickling vegetables with koji, but why is koji salt that appealing to many Japanese consumers?
The visit to Kojiya Honten
Kojiya Honten is on a quiet street on Sendo-machi. Asari greeted me, wearing her signature samui, Japanese worker’s clothes, which she made by altering her mother’s old kimonos. A clean, white collar outlined her neck. Asari revealed to me that the collar was a fake snap-on type, and she was wearing a simple tank top underneath the samui. She laughed about it like a girl. I liked that she was practical and honest. Asari wears the outfit every day, except when she was recently honored by Oita newspaper for her cultural contribution as a koji maker. She wore a silk kimono for that occasion.
The struggle to persist and find a new market for koji
Once there were koji makers in nearly every village. However, in these changing times, it has become a rare profession, with only 1,000 artisanal koji makers left in Japan. When Asari took over the reins to help run her father’s business after her mother passed away in 2007, the business was not doing well because fewer people were making miso and amazake at home, and instead opted for cheaper, commercially made products. To keep the koji business alive, the Asaris supplemented their income, selling bento boxes and ice, and teaching math to local children. Asari researched old texts and cookbooks from the Edo period to see how koji was used in their daily cooking and began developing recipes for modern cooks. It was through hard work and persistence that Asari and other koji makers were able to diversify and expand the market for koji. Now, they are experiencing a resurgence of koji-based foods, particularly shio-koji.
Asari showed me the original muro, the dark and cave-like koji-propagating room made with clay walls and paved with large stones that remain from the days when the area was a loading dock. The steamed rice is inoculated with koji that used to incubate in the muro, but because of the danger of the roof falling from old age, they moved the operations to a modern building next door. The old muro will shortly undergo retrofitting to strengthen the ceiling.
Young and old koji makers work together to maintain tradition
It’s 2 p.m. at Kojiya Honten, and Asari’s 88-year-old father, Koichi Asari, a koji master, is supervising the koji-making. Three college interns from the Tokyo University of Agriculture are turning the steaming rice with large wooden paddles.
Ryotoku, Asari’s second son, who is now being groomed to run the business, inoculates the rice with koji powder and gives orders out loud, making sure the bag of steaming hot rice is transported to the koji-propagating room in a timely manner.
Asari’s father, who is the first son born in a century of mostly matriarchal lineage, spent three years in a labor camp in Siberia before he returned to Japan to take over the family business. He says the secret to longevity is to work hard and drink amazake — a koji-based non-alcoholic rice drink — three times a day.
Can shio-koji replace salt?
What I learned from Asari through this visit was not only about the nutritional benefits of Koji but also its versatility as I got to savor many delicious dishes. I learned shio-koji is a natural seasoning made of koji, water and salt. It’s a creamy, white liquid with a grainy consistency that tastes salty and sweet, and it can be made simply at home. When koji is used in cooking, the enzyme proteases break down proteins to produce amino acids, including glutamate. The amino acid is responsible for umami, which enhances the flavor of foods. Another enzyme, amylase, is known for its ability to break down starches into simple sugars, which ensures foods prepared with koji have a rounder and deeper flavor. With 50% less salt content, good flavor and high nutrient content, I can see why some people are swearing by it as the new “salt.” Shio-koji can be used to season and tenderize meat and seafood. Even a tough piece of meat can turn into something quite good. You can also use shio-koji in soups, salad dressings, even in your pancake batter instead of salt. How about ice cream with shio-koji? When I was sitting with Asari, we got to talking about all kinds of ways to use shio-koji, and the possibilities were infinite. What makes it most interesting for eaters and cooks, though, is that koji is a living food.
(From the Kojiya Honten website)
500 grams (17 ounces) koji
170 grams (5.9 ounces) sea salt
650 cubic centimeters water (2¾ cups of water)
1. Put the koji in a bowl and rub with your hands to break up any clumps.
2. Add the salt and mix thoroughly with your hands, rubbing vigorously until the mixture sticks together when squeezed.
3. Add just enough water to cover the mixture, stir and transfer to a clean, covered container. Keep at room temperature.
4. For the first week, stir once a day until the flavor settles. Stir from the bottom to bring air into the mixture. It takes seven to 10 days to reach full flavor, depending on the season. When it is done, the rice kernels are smaller and the fragrance is salty and sweet.
Golden ratio of shio-koji
(From the Kojiya Honten website)
Using this ratio will bring out the best flavor in foods: 1:10 ratio of shio-koji weight to total ingredient weight.
For each 100 grams of ingredients, use 10 grams (1½ teaspoons) of shio-koji.
For each pound of ingredients, use 2½ tablespoons of shio-koji.
For each half-pound of ingredients, use 4 teaspoons shio-koji.
When substituting for salt in a recipe: For each teaspoon of salt, use 2 teaspoons of shio-koji.
Green bean salad with shio-koji
(From the Kojiya Honten website)
The dressing is made with basic seasoning and aromatic ingredients. In our family, when making sesame-dressed vegetables, we use only sesame seeds and shio-koji. The delicious sesame shio-koji blends well with the simple flavors of the vegetables.
Makes two servings
For the salad:
100 grams of green beans
1 tablespoon shio-koji
For the dressing:
1½ teaspoons shio-koji
2 tablespoons ground black sesame seeds (White sesame seeds can also be used.)
Dried hot chili pepper to taste
1. String the green beans and cut into 5-centimeter lengths.
2. Boil water in a saucepan. Add the green beans and 1 tablespoon of shio-koji to the boiling water and blanch.
3. Remove from heat, drain and chill in cold water. Drain again.
4. Mix the dressing ingredients together. Add the green beans and toss.
Photo: Preparing steamed rice to make koji. Credit: Sonoko Sakai