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If you want to be savvy when you travel to Japan, know that there’s an unwritten code that applies to everyday routines. For example, wearing the wrong slippers outside your hotel will draw shocking stares. Here are six tips to help you save face while traveling around the country.
Bars: City vs. country
Don’t plan on having a before-dinner cocktail hour when you are staying at Japanese inns in the countryside, whether traditional or modern. Bars, if they exist, probably won’t be open until 8 p.m. or later — after the dinner hour. The inns don’t take notice of the usual Western predinner cocktail, and I’m not sure why. In major cities, however, hotel bars always open before dinner.
Also, Japanese country inns usually serve a fixed multicourse dinner featuring local ingredients. Often the first group of dishes — the appetizer — is served with an aperitif, such as plum wine. This is a “welcome” drink on the house. After the meal, you may find a bar open. It will be crowded with other guests. What they are doing is called a ‘nijikai,‘ a “second-round” party after dinner. Those who want more after-dinner fun gather in these usually dark and sometimes smoky bars for drinks, chats and, sometimes, alcohol-infused singing.
Wear your yukata, or kimono-style gown
A Japanese inn offers men and women a yukata, or a kimono-style gown. You’ll find it in your room. Today some Japanese inns may offer guests a colorful and sometimes nontraditional choice: a top and loose pants. Guests at the inn are encouraged to shed their street clothes and don a yukata. You can go everywhere in the hotel wearing one, including to the dining room and even outside for a stroll. The yukata is very comfortable. But after wearing one for dinner five consecutive nights at several inns, I tired of it.
At my sixth dinner, I wore my travel dinner “uniform”: a casual dress. It was fine, and I did not feel out of place. When you put on a yukata, there is one rule that you must never ignore: After putting your arms through the sleeves, always place the right-hand side of the fabric over your body with the left side of the yukata on top. Doing the opposite — right over left — is reserved for wrapping the dead before cremation.
Women tie the yukata’s obi belt that secures it over the waist line and men place the obi a bit lower, over the hip bone. Don’t worry if the obi seems too long; arrange it so the knot is in front for women, and at the back for men. And one word of caution: Don’t try to run anywhere when you’re wearing a yukata! You’ll expose your legs (and maybe more?) and you might trip, too.
Different slippers, different functions
At Japanese inns, you may be asked to take off your shoes when you enter. The inn may store your shoes at the front door. Instead, you’ll be given a pair of slippers, and they become your “in-house” shoes. At some inns, they’ll ask you to remove shoes only when you enter your own room. In that case, take off your shoes and leave them in the entry foyer of the room. Then use the in-room slippers you’ll find there.
However, if the room floor is covered in straw tatami mats, no slippers are worn; only bare feet or socks are acceptable. Most of the time, I ignore the in-room slippers and walk in my bare feet regardless of the floor covering, since it’s always impeccably clean.
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Don’t fold those train tickets!
Hold onto your tickets after boarding without bending or mutilating them, no matter what happens or how long your journey takes. It’s the system bequeathed by the British, who built the first railways in Japan.
You need your ticket when you enter the platform and the train and you’ll need it again when leaving the platform or station. At Japan Railway stations, you can buy a card, called Suica, and load money onto it to buy tickets, similar to a MetroCard in New York City. Put it in your wallet as the Japanese do. At the station, just touch your wallet at the ticket gate and, after it reads the built-in chip, the automatic gate will open.
When you leave, do the same thing. The fare is debited from the card, and the amount of cash remaining on your card will flash briefly at the exit gate. Cards can be reloaded with more funds, and they also may be used on non-Japan Railway trains and subways. You can even use the card for purchases at station kiosks and convenience stores. It is a marvelously efficient and easy-to-use system.
Get out your hankies
When you land in Japan, one of the first things you should do is buy a couple of inexpensive handkerchiefs. You can find simple handkerchiefs at convenience stores and more expensive ones at department stores, including international designer brands. When you eat at casual restaurants, they may serve a wet cloth, oshibori, but no paper or cloth napkins. The oshibori is too wet to put on your lap. The handkerchief is perfect for such duty.
For reasons that are not at all clear, soba and udon noodle shops do not supply napkins of any kind, so your handkerchief will be quite handy after slurping a bowl of the delicious noodles. A handkerchief is also very convenient for wiping away sweat if you’re out and about during the steamy, sweltering Japanese summer. One thing a handkerchief is never used for in Japan: to blow your nose.
Stay to the left side, mostly
For the most part, Japan adopted British norms of pedestrian and vehicle traffic flow. Therefore, we drive on the left and even walk on the left. When it comes to escalators, it is not so straightforward. In Tokyo, we stand on the left side and let the hurrying people pass us on the right. In Osaka, this becomes the opposite; stand on the right. A nationwide survey found that 57% of the population follows the Tokyo way, 13% the Osaka way, 9.2% depend on the local situation, and 12.3% simply do not let other people pass. So observe and do as the locals do in each part of Japan you are visiting.
Main photo: An aerial view of the Tokyo Dome at night. Credit: Copyright Lukas/Wikimedia Commons
It began at 3 a.m., a bursting, loud, rumbling noise that broke the rural silence and my sleep. It came and went continuously. I couldn’t take it anymore and got up to investigate.
I was staying at a Japanese resort hotel next to Lake Saroma on the northeastern coast of the island of Hokkaido. Little did I know that the jarring racket in this usually quiet town would lead me to discover one of the most memorable meals of my trip and one of the area’s most lucrative food industries: scallop farming.
Scallop farming starts with a perfect lake
Lake Saroma, the third largest lake in Japan, is adjacent to the Sea of Okhotsk, separated from the sea by a narrow sand spit. It was once a freshwater lake. Every year in April and May, snow melt from the mountains gushed into the 13 rivers that empty into the lake and flooded the area. Aside from destroying homes and villages, it also ruined the livelihood of the fishermen. To prevent future floods, locals dug out a bit of the sand strip to create a channel.
The narrow passage not only let the freshwater out to ease flooding, it also allowed seawater to come in, especially during high tide, leaving much of the lake brackish.
The passage frequently closed because of moving sand during winter storms, and locals worked to reopen the channel every year. People soon discovered other advantages to keeping the passage open.
New fish come to the lake and scallops, too
Fishermen could now easily catch salmon, herring and ocean trout that swam into the lake. Scallops and oysters that thrive in brackish water also found a home. In the 1950s, Japan studied the idea of introducing scallop farming at the lake, and it has been very successful. Today the lake has two permanent, man-made concrete passages to the sea.
When I checked into the hotel the day before, I found a pair of binoculars in the room and admired the calm, silent lake and the sea beyond. The next morning I rubbed my drowsy eyes and tried to reconcile two very different experiences: the prior day’s calm with the early morning noise. Soon I saw the source of the racket: boats moving at high speed on the lake. I noticed that the boats raced out, stopped for a while and then raced back to shore. They looked as if they were competing. I quickly dressed and went to the reception desk to find out what was happening. “They are scallop farmers at Sakaeura Fishery,” I was told. Without having breakfast, I dashed to the fishing port about a mile from the hotel to get a firsthand look at the operation.
Fishermen work day and night bringing in scallops
Fishing boats were still coming in and leaving the port every few minutes. I approached a senior fisherman, Kuniyoshi Ooi, who seemed to be overseeing the operation. He told me that 90 fishermen in this port are licensed to farm scallops. Each fisherman has his own boat, and each employs an average of 10 part-time workers — students from a nearby university — at this busy time of the year. Students are attracted by the good pay, $25 dollars an hour for work from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m., Ooi said. The workers, dressed in bright colored uniforms, work as if part of a conveyor belt operation inside a long shed, extending several hundred feet along the quay.
Baby scallops are retrieved from the sacks
Scallop farming in Lake Saroma is a sustainable, environmentally friendly business. The first year of scallop culture begins in May when the fishermen drop a rope with a knitted sack to collect natural scallop larvae in the lake. Scallop larvae in nature affix themselves to the grass in water. In farming, it’s different. The larvae attach to the ropes lowered by the fishermen.
In August, fishermen remove the ropes with larvae from the water, transfer them to a larger, roughly knitted square sack and drop it into the water again. By the following May, the scallops in the sack have grown to about 2 inches. The boats retrieve the sacks, 200 at a time, with 1-year old scallops, called chigai.
Mostly students work on the scallop harvest
It was the roar of the boats engaged in this process that woke me from my deep sleep. The part-time workers removed the scallops from each sack, cleaned and sorted them, and transferred them into large, blue plastic bins. After unloading the sacks for processing at the dock, the boat again sped back onto the lake to fetch more.
No words were exchanged among the workers; each silently and rapidly did his job — on the boat, on the pier and in the shed. Neither did anyone show any interest in the visitor watching them and snapping iPhone photos so early in the morning. I learned that the year-old scallops are then transported through the channels to the sea and remain there to mature for 3 years before being harvested and sent to market.
Scallops go back to the sea for three more years
According to Ooi, the scallop harvest from the lake is about 44,000 tons each year. Fresh, frozen and dried scallops from this port not only satisfy the market in Japan but are exported to China, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and the United States. The 90 fisherman are part of a cooperative that provides for all of their needs, including food and housing allowances, funds for boat upkeep and crews, and generous retirement benefits. Ooi said last year’s profit from the scallop harvest, after all expenses, was more than $250,000 for each member of the co-operative. Not a bad catch; these fishermen are not poor.
The sustainable side of scallop farming
In addition to their sustainable scallop farming operation, the Tokoro Fishery Association, of which the Sakaerura Fishery is a part, helps maintain the health of the local environment. In the past, cutting trees for opening the nearby land upstream from the lake for commercial development created problems at the fishery. Eroded sand and soil entered the lake and suffocated the fish. And the chemical contamination from the developed land degraded the water quality, which also affected the fishery.
The sustainable side of scallop farming
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The next day on my way north to Wakkanai, the northernmost city of Hokkaido, I stopped at a roadside restaurant to sample the “scallop ramen.” As I devoured the delicious dish, vivid memories of my early morning visit to the fishing port flashed back to my mind. No scallops ever tasted better than the ones in my ramen.
Main photo: The memorable scallop ramen at the roadside restaurant found on the way north from Lake Saroma to Wakkanai. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo
These days, many are choosing a gluten-free lifestyle. But artificially contrived gluten-free products such as pasta, bread and baked goods can be disappointing. With its rich tradition of rice-based dishes, Japanese cuisine beautifully suits a gluten-free diet. Here are six delicious, easy to prepare, gluten-free Japanese rice dishes for spring and summer.
Stir-fried rice with hijiki and Parmesan
Stir-fried rice dishes make use of one- or two-day-old rice and other ingredients that happen to be on hand. This recipe is one I invented for American audiences to showcase hijiki, my favorite Japanese seaweed. Rich in dietary fiber and minerals, it also has a pleasantly crunchy texture and tastes of the sea. It uses the black hijiki along with Parmesan cheese, cilantro and ginger.
The cheese is the secret to the success of this dish, whose recipe was in my first cookbook, “The Japanese Kitchen.” Fifteen years later, hijiki is much more widely available in this country.
Maze-gohan with parsley, shiso and egg
Maze-gohan, translated as “tossed rice,” is a simple dish of cooked rice tossed with flavorings. This version uses chopped parsley, dried purple shiso leaves and scrambled egg — ingredients that elevate the flavor, color and texture of plain cooked rice into a festive dish. Western-style flavorings can be used instead, such as ground black pepper, crisp butter-browned sliced garlic, finely chopped parsley and toasted pine nuts.
Maze-gohan goes well with any protein dish, such as fish, chicken or meat.
Donburi with teriyaki steak
Donburi dishes combine cooked rice with a topping of separately cooked ingredients and sauce. This one is a beef lover’s favorite: I cook the steak in a skillet, cut it into cubes and flavor them with a sizzling sauce of shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) and mirin (Japanese sweet cooking wine) to create everyone’s favorite teriyaki sauce.
When it’s time to serve the donburi, put the teriyaki beef and sauce over freshly cooked rice for a quick, mouthwatering dish. The sauce trickles down and gives its delicious flavor to the rice. A similar dish can be made with chicken teriyaki.
Takikomi-gohan with chorizo and peas
Takikomi-gohan is rice that is cooked with seasonal vegetables and/or seafood or poultry in kelp stock or dashi stock. It’s like Japanese paella or risotto.
Spring pea rice is a traditional version of takikomi-gohan for spring or summer. The key to producing the best green pea rice is to blanch the peas in stock, then cook the rice in that stock and add the briefly cooked peas toward the end of rice cooking. This method keeps the peas very green and firm.
I emphasize the paella comparison by adding chorizo as well as ginger. Unlike paella or risotto, though, takikomi-gohan usually has no added butter or oil. This allows all the ingredients to speak for themselves in the dish.
Takikomi-gohan with mushrooms
For a version of takikomi-gohan studded with mushrooms, I use shimeji mushrooms for savory umami flavor, maitake for their fragrance and king mushrooms for their distinctive texture.
For all these rice dishes, I recommend that you use freshly picked vegetables and mushrooms from your local market or store. The natural taste and sweetness will come through.
Corn rice with shoyu and butter
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The diverse world of Japanese cuisine contains hundreds of such naturally gluten-free dishes. If you are looking for more recipes, consult my two books, “The Japanese Kitchen” and “Hiroko’s American Kitchen.” Both are widely available and contain detailed instructions to make some of the dishes described here.
Corn and Ginger Rice with Shoyu and Butter
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
2 ears corn
2 1/4 cups short or medium grain polished white rice, rinsed and soaked 10 minutes, then drained
2 1/2 cups kelp stock or low-sodium vegetable stock
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 1/2 ounces peeled ginger, finely julienned (1/2 cup)
1 tablespoon shoyu (Japanese soy sauce)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1. Remove the corn husks and quickly grill the ears over a medium open flame on a gas stove, turning them until the entire surface becomes lightly golden. Or, boil the corn in salted water for 1 minute.
2. Cut each ear of corn in half. Place each half ear on the cut end in a large, shallow bowl and use a knife to separate the individual kernels from the cob. Repeat with all the pieces. You will have about 1 1/2 cups of kernels.
3. Place the drained rice and the stock in a medium heavy pot. Sprinkle the corn, salt and ginger evenly over the rice. Cover the pot with a lid and cook the rice over moderately high heat for 3 to 4 minutes or until the stock comes to a full boil.
4. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook the rice for 6 to 7 minutes, or until all the water is absorbed. Turn the heat to very low and cook for 10 minutes.
5. Remove the lid and add the soy sauce and butter. With a spatula, gently and quickly toss and mix the rice. Divide the rice into small bowls and serve.
Main photo: Tossing the ingredients for maze-gohan. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo
The dogma about sake today is that high-quality versions must be served chilled, but that is a total misconception. In fact, there are many quality sakes that are best enjoyed warmed.
It’s true that sake, a traditional Japanese rice wine, was once consumed warmed if its quality was not good enough to be appreciated when chilled. But sake has gone through a dramatic change in quality in Japan in the last 50 years.
In the 1970s, specific yeasts that could produce delicate, sophisticated aromas and flavors in sake were developed. This accelerated the creation of high-grade ginjo sake. Made with highly polished rice, ginjo sake is lower in acidity, more fragrant and possesses elegant flavor. Because of the delicacy of its flavors, it should not be warmed.
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I believe that the development of ginjo sake was hugely influenced by the introduction and growing popularity in Japan of wine from Europe and America. French, European or American meals served on white tablecloths with forks and knives accompanied by wine were seen as sophisticated and modern.
So when the new ginjo sake arrived on the scene, style-conscious drinkers became convinced that all good sake should be consumed cold or chilled.
But some traditional sake lovers shunned ginjo sake because of its lack of acidity and rich flavors. Some sake brewers also went against the trend and focused on producing quality traditional sake, which is high in acidity that is bold and round in flavor. They are known as junmai (100% rice sake), yamahai, kimoto and honjozo (alcohol added) sake. These varieties are well suited to be enjoyed in a different range of serving temperatures.
Five reasons to drink your sake warm
1. Warming sake helps to blossom its natural flavors and fragrance.
2. Warming sake balances its sweetness, acidity and astringency.
3. It is wonderful to consume warmed sake with meals during the cold winter. It’s like mulled wine, but with no added sugar.
4. Warmed sake is absorbed by the body more quickly, so we can “feel” it sooner and control the amount we drink.
5. Without learning how to appreciate warmed sake, we can never say that we have a complete understanding of this wonderful beverage.
Certain groups of sake can be enjoyed at nine different temperatures. This may seem intimidating, but according to Hiroshi Ujita, president of Tamanohikari Brewery in Kyoto, there is no strict rule on warming sake. Each sake lover in Japan has a preferred temperature for a particular sake.
How much to warm the sake is also influenced by the season, the temperature of the dining room and the temperature of the dishes that will be consumed with it. You can find temperature guidance on warming sake in my book “The Sushi Experience,” but here is some guidance on four easy to master-and-understand sake temperature levels that you can use to begin exploring the joys of warmed sake. Consider these levels and try them on your favorite robust flavorful sake: Body temperature (hitohada), 98 F; lukewarm (nurukan), 104 F; warm (jokan), 113 F; hot (atsukan), 122 F.
I suggest that before using real sake, you practice recognizing these temperatures with some warm water and a thermometer. It won’t take you long to distinguish with a touch of liquid on your hand between the four levels I have suggested. If you decide to try warming sake, follow the very basic instructions in the recipe.
Sakes made for warming
Here are some recommended sakes to start on your warmed sake adventure. If you start with this group, you will fall in love with these warmed beverages for the rest of your life. The recommended temperature is only a guideline. As Ujita advises, explore different temperatures to see what you prefer, and have fun with it.
1. Tamanohikari Yamahai: This sake comes from the 342-year-old Tamanohikari Brewery. After the war, a rice shortage forced brewers to produce sake with less rice and added alcohol. In 1964, Tamanohikari Brewery was the first company to revert from its postwar poor sake production method to the original, traditional method using 100% rice-produced sake. Tamanohikari Yamahai has good acidity, umami and round body. Recommended at 98 F.
2. Tengumai Yamahai: This sake comes from the 192-year-old Shata Shuzo Brewery in Ishikawa Prefecture. The name Tengumai implies that everyone wants to dance after drinking this sake. Acidity is high with slight astringency and strong aroma. Recommended at 98 F and 113 F.
3. Kokuryu Junmai Ginjo: This sake comes from the 211-year-old Kokuryu Brewery in Fukui Prefecture. The company has been developing robust tasting ginjo sake that has been designed to be consumed warmed, going against the major trend of chilling ginjo sake. Warming Kokuryu Junmai Ginjo enriches the characteristics of sake — roundness, robustness and refined flavor. Recommended at 98 F.
The next time you are dining at your favorite Japanese restaurant, try ordering your sake warmed to your preferred temperature.
How to warm sake like a pro
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 2 to 3 minutes
1. Transfer sake into a flask, filling to 90% of the flask.
2. Add cold water in a medium pot, enough to submerge 80% of the flask, and bring it to a boil.
3. Turn off the heat and add the flask in the center of the pot and leave it until the preferred temperature. It will take about 1 to 2 minutes to heat to 98 F. If you want to warm it a bit more, leave it for an additional minute.
4. Warmed sake should be served in a small sake cup and consumed while it is nice and warm.
- Use a little ceramic or heat-proof glass flask that can hold about 1 cup of sake.
- Use a pot of boiling water to warm the sake; don’t put it in a microwave oven.
- Enjoy warm sake in a small ceramic o-choko cup, or a small heat-proof glass cup.
- As a beginner, follow the temperature guidelines above. Be careful not to overheat the sake; the modestly warm temperatures I have suggested are best.
- Enjoy different temperatures and find the preferred one for your selected sake.
Photo: Bottle of sake with a traditional ceramic carafe and small cups known as o-choko. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo
After graduating from university, I got a secretarial job in a Tokyo office. Among the many tasks to which I was assigned, including the ridiculous role of serving cups of tea to company guests and my male office colleagues, there was one that I loved to perform every time: finding the best hot pot (nabemono) restaurant for our office New Year’s party. I was always hungry for good food, and the search — long before the Internet — was an interesting and challenging assignment.
Nabemono is a dish in which many varieties of very fresh raw or partially prepared ingredients are cooked in a large pot over a tabletop gas burner at the dining table. The dish is consumed throughout all seasons, but winter is the best time because the dish warms up your entire body.
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Unlike most Japanese meals, for which all of the prepared foods are served in individual small plates, empty serving bowls for nabemono are placed in front of each diner. Nabemono dining is a communal affair with the large cooking pot at the center of the table shared among the diners. At the yearly party everyone, even some of my male colleagues who would never dream of setting foot in a kitchen, helped cook the dish at the table while sipping beer or sake. The animated conversation ranged from how to cook the ingredients correctly to critiques of recent ball games. When the food is cooked, each diner carefully fetches the very hot items from the pot, transferring them into their own small bowl. There is often dipping sauce for each diner in small cups. The cooking is done in several batches. After the first batch is cooked and consumed, a second batch of ingredients is added to the pot. This repeated process continues until all is consumed. It’s a body and spirit warming, fun meal.
There are more than a hundred nabemono dishes across Japan, many of regional origin that make use of local ingredients. Some of the popular ones that Americans may recognize include shabu shabu (paper thin sliced beef cooked along with vegetables in kelp stock and served with flavored sauce) and sukiyaki (thinly sliced beef cooked in sweetened soy sauce along with vegetables). Other popular nabemono dishes employ tofu, shelled oysters, chicken, pork, assorted seafood, duck or vegetables.
One attribute common to all nabemono dishes is that they’re filled with plenty of vegetables, typically about 50% protein and 50% vegetables. Nabemono dishes, therefore, are a wonderful way to enjoy more vegetables in your diet. If you wish, a 100% vegetarian or vegan nabemono can be quite good, but I always like to include some protein in my nabemono to make the meal more satisfying in flavor and more balanced nutritionally.
The nabemono dining style originated in rural Japan, particularly the cold north. A large house, typically, was occupied by three or four generations of family members and equipped with an irori hearth at its center. This hearth was large enough so that all family members could sit around the fire for meals and warmth. A long iron pole with a hooked end was hung from the ceiling over the hearth and the hook held a large iron cooking pot that was placed directly over the fire. Meals were cooked in this one pot and shared by all.
However, building an irori hearth in a modern urban house with a single-generation family is not at all practical. In 1969, Iwatani Company invented a table top butane gas burner, thereby allowing Japanese family to enjoy nabemono anytime, anyplace. A slightly improved version of that tabletop gas burner is still in production, and is a very convenient piece of equipment even in American kitchen. I highly recommend that you get one (or even and electric or induction version) and start making nabemono and other tabletop fare at your home.
One special joy of nabemono dining comes at the very end of the meal, when the ingredients have all been cooked. You’ll find a highly flavored, concentrated sauce on the bottom of the pot that is perfect to mix with cooked rice for a very special dish. We add the cooked rice and some water, if necessary, and cook it until each grain of rice absorbs the full flavor of the sauce and is well heated. The rice is wonderfully delicious as is, or you can break one or two eggs into the pot, break the yolks, stir with the rice and cook until the eggs are barely done.
Here is a sukiyaki recipe adopted from “Hiroko’s American Kitchen“ (page 161). I created this recipe so that you can enjoy the traditional full flavor of sukiyaki meal without getting any special tools or ingredients such as table top gas burner and thinly sliced meat. This recipe also has three times more vegetables than meat. You will prepare this sukiyaki meal in a skillet in the kitchen and serve it at the table.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: Four servings
6 large cremini mushrooms
2 ounces carrot
6 ounces cabbage
10 ounces purple potato
2 ounces red bell pepper
2 ounces orange bell pepper
7 ounces red Swiss chard
2 boned short-rib (1 pound)
8 cipollini onions, peeled
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons sugar
2 1/2 tablespoons butter
4 to 6 tablespoons shoyu (Japanese soy sauce)
1/2 cup sake
1/2 cup water
1. Cut each mushroom in quarters. Cut the carrot, cabbage, purple potato, red bell pepper and orange bell pepper into bite sized pieces. Cut the Swiss chard into half lengthwise in the center along the stem, and then, into 2-inch thick slices crosswise. Cut each short-rib into about 10 thin slices (about 2-inch x 2-inch square).
2. Place the potato and cipollini onion in a large pot with cold water to cover over high heat, bring it to a simmer, and cook about 7 minutes. After cooking the potato and cipollini for 7 minutes add the carrot, cabbage and bell peppers to the pot. Cook the vegetables for 3 more minutes. Drain all of the cooked vegetables in a strainer and air dry.
3. Season the beef with salt and pepper on both sides. Heat the butter in a skillet over medium heat and sprinkle half of the sugar over the butter. Add the beef, sprinkle the remaining sugar over the beef, and cook the beef until both sides are golden, or for about 5 to 6 minutes total. Transfer the beef to a platter.
4. In a small saucepan add the sake and shoyu and cook it over high heat until the volume reduces to half. Turn off the heat.
5. Add the mushrooms, stem part of the Swiss chard and drained vegetables to the skillet. Cook the vegetables until the surfaces of each vegetable are lightly golden, or for about 3-4 minutes. Turn the vegetables once over for even browning. Turn off the heat.
6. Push the vegetables to one side of the skillet and return the beef to the skillet. Pour the reduced sake and shoyu over the beef and vegetables and turn on the heat to medium-high heat. Add the leafy part of the Swiss chard to the skillet and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, frequently basting the beef and vegetables with the sauce.
7. Divide the vegetables and beef among deep bowls and serve.
Main photo: Cooked nabemono ingredients. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo
After moving to the United States, I was fascinated and eventually hooked by the way Americans welcome the new year. There were New Year’s Eve parties peppered with all kinds of excitement: sexy dresses, endless champagne, playful party props, dancing, counting down the seconds and kissing whomever is near while listening to “Auld Lang Syne.” None of these elements — except counting down the seconds — exist in our Japanese tradition. I was brought up in a culture in which welcoming the new year is a spiritually refreshing traditional event, packed with ancient superstitions and customs, that extends from the end of the old year into the first three days of the new.
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In Japan, New Year’s Eve is as important as Christmas Day in Western countries. It is a solemn moment for us to reflect on ourselves, looking back at the past year. What kinds of sins and mistakes did we commit? Did we do anything especially good? By identifying these elements, we try not to carry bad luck into the new year. We also try to complete unfinished tasks. The new year must be a fresh start, without unwanted baggage from the old year. During this period in the Shinto religion, we observe a change in the god of the year. At the end of the year, we express thanks to the departing god for protection during the past year. On the first of January, we welcome a new god and ask for his favor in the new year.
Nearly all the Japanese population eats soba (buckwheat noodles) on New Year’s Eve. This is one of the superstitions involving new year culinary traditions. When you visit Japan at this time of the year you see signs at restaurants and food stores, many of them written on handmade washi paper with bold ink brush strokes, notifying customers that they will offer Toshikoshi soba, the buckwheat noodles especially eaten on Dec. 31. Toshikoshi soba itself is really nothing special as a dish. It is actually the same soba noodles consumed during the rest of the year.
The tradition of eating soba at the end of each year goes back to the latter part of the Edo period (1600-1868). Because buckwheat flour does not have gluten, the cooked noodles break apart easily. Hence, our superstitious ancestors concluded that eating soba at the end of the year helps to cut off bad luck and bad omens that plagued us during the old year.
If you want to test this superstition or at least participate in a delicious tradition, here is one important reminder: You need soba noodles made from 100 percent buckwheat flour. Japanese and Asian stores in America, and even some American ones, carry soba noodles, but many of them are made from a combination of buckwheat and other flours. These noodles won’t break so easily, so they won’t separate you from last year’s bad luck!
Soba meets its match
Tempura is a perfect accompaniment to soba. My mother prepared a feast at the end of every year, but simple soba noodles with shrimp tempura were the highlight of the meal. The live shrimp were sent to us by one of my father’s patients as a thank-you gift on Dec. 31 for as long for as I can remember. After eating the tempura and soba, all of us were certain of a very healthy, good year.
After the meal, close to midnight, we would head to the nearby Buddhist temple, where the priests performed a special service welcoming the new year for the community. A large bonfire, created for the warmth and for burning old talismans and any unwanted documents from the past, brightened up dark, cold environment. As we watch the fire and listened to the temple bell tolling 108 times, our past sins and errors were dispelled so we could to welcome the fresh start for the new year. People quietly greeted each other with “Omedeto gozaimasu” (Happy New Year), and the voices and people soon disappeared into the dark in every direction. Each headed to enjoy brief sleep before the next morning’s pilgrimage to a Shinto shrine to make the new year offering and prayers. This was followed by the huge New Year’s Day festive feast, Osechi-ryori, a meal packed with additional symbolic and good fortune food items.
If you want to enjoy an important part of our tradition, here is the recipe for Toshikoshi soba. As I mentioned, make sure to secure 100 percent buckwheat noodles for this special occasion. The tempura accompaniment here is called kakiage tempura. Chopped shrimp and vegetables are deep-fried in the form of a delicious pancake.
Dozo Yoi Otoshio! (Please have a good end of the year!)
Toshikoshi Soba With Kakiage Tempura
Adapted from Hiroko’s American Kitchen
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
Canola oil or vegetable oil for deep-frying
1/2 cup frozen green peas
1/2 cup eggplant, finely diced
1/2 ounce kale, julienned
5 ounces peeled and deveined shrimp, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons tempura flour or a blend of 80% cake flour and 20% cornstarch
3/4 cup cold water
14 ounces dried soba noodles (preferably 100% buckwheat noodles)
5 cups hot noodle broth
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 tablespoon scallion
1. Heat 3 inches of the canola oil in a heavy skillet to 350 F. Place a slotted spoon in the oil and allow it to heat to the temperature of the oil to prevent the batter from sticking to it.
2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over medium heat. In a bowl, toss the green peas, eggplant, kale and shrimp with 2 tablespoons of the tempura flour. In another bowl, mix the remaining tempura flour with the cold water. Stir with a fork until smooth. Add the tempura batter to the shrimp mixture and mix with a large spoon.
3. Using the large spoon, scoop 1/4 of the shrimp mixture from the bowl and pour it into the slotted spoon that was warming in the oil. Immediately lower the slotted spoon into the heated oil and submerge the shrimp mixture. Leaving the spoon in place, cook the mixture (kakiage) for 1 1/2 minutes or until the bottom side is cooked. Using a steel spatula, remove the kakiage from the slotted spoon and let it float free in the oil. Cook the kakiage for about 4 minutes, or until lightly golden, turning it a few times during cooking. Transfer the cooked kakiage to a wire rack set over a baking sheet and let drain. Repeat the process for the remaining batter.
4. While cooking the kakiage, cook the soba noodles in a boiling water for 1 minute less than the suggested cooking time on the package. Drain the noodles in a colander and rinse them under cold tap water. Drain the noodles and keep them in the colander.
5. Prepare a kettle of boiling water. Pour the boiling water over the cooked noodles to re-warm them. Drain the noodles and divide them into bowls. Bring the noodle broth to a simmer in a medium pot over medium heat. Pour the hot broth into the bowls. Divide the kakiage tempura among the bowls. Garnish with the ginger and scallions and serve.
Main photo: Toshikoshi Soba With Kakiage Tempura. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo