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Some foods belong in a restaurant and some belong at home. To a Japanese person, sushi, for the most part, would be considered a restaurant food: You go to a sushi bar and the sushi chef makes it for you. The quintessential sushi is nigiri sushi – hand-formed rice made into a small, bite-size clump with sliced raw fish resting on top. With nigiri sushi, both the fish and the rice are fresh. When made by a skilled sushi chef, the flavor is divine. I don’t make that kind of sushi.
Still, when people find out that I teach Japanese cooking classes, one of the first questions they ask is if I teach sushi making. When I have to tell them that I don’t teach nigiri sushi, they seem rather disappointed. What I make is home-style sushi, which includes chirashi sushi, Inari sushi and maki sushi, but I leave nigiri sushi to the professional chefs. Most cooks in Japan will tell you the same thing. It takes years of laborious practice to learn how to properly select, clean and cut fish to make good sushi — just watch the documentary “Jiro’s Dreams of Sushi.”
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Recently, I was browsing on Amazon and found dozens of sushi cookbooks, many of them featuring nigiri sushi. Can there be that many people attempting to make nigiri sushi at home? Or are they just salivating over the beautiful pictures of nigiri sushi?
On the contrary, if you go to bookstores in Japan, you will have a hard time finding a cookbook devoted to sushi for home cooks. You would mostly likely have to look in the professional section. And because sushi is a trade you learn through years of training under a sushi master, you won’t really find a manual for it at your corner bookstore.
The only memory I have of making nigiri sushi is with my grandmother while growing up near the sea in Kamakura, Japan, where there were plenty of fishermen and fish to be had. Grandmother and I would get up at dawn to buy fresh fish fresh off the boat. We got to look at and pick the fish, and the price depended on the fishermen’s mood. The fish was still wiggling in the bag while we walked home.
My grandmother would clean the fish, fillet it and marinate it in a vinegar sauce for a few minutes. We then cooked some rice, which she seasoned with salt, sugar and vinegar to make sushi rice, and she would julienne some fresh ginger. When the fish was marinated and cooked like ceviche, she sliced it up, made little rice balls and put the fish on top. That was her version of nigiri sushi. The rice clumps were not even and artful like a sushi master’s, but it was tasty because the ingredients were good and they were made by my grandmother.
Coming back to the present, there is hardly any sushi-grade fish like that available here in Southern California where I live, so there is no point in pursuing that kind of sushi. Sushi chefs can go to wholesale sellers and buy sushi-grade fish, but home cooks rarely have that kind of access to high-quality fish.
Let’s not be completely pessimistic. I do have a few things to make sushi that are harvested in Southern California — sea urchin, Santa Barbara shrimp and squid. But I don’t make nigiri sushi with them. I just slice them up sashimi style and eat them with wasabi and soy. Easy.
Sushi for home cooks
So what is the sushi I make at home or most home cooks in Japan make at home? There are basically four varieties: chirashi sushi, maki sushi, Inari sushi and oshizushi.
Chirashi is a kind of a pilaf, made with sushi rice and a variety of toppings. You are already familiar with maki sushi if you have eaten a California roll or other sushi rice — it is a sushi roll that includes toasted nori seaweed rolled around vinegar-flavored rice and various fillings, including raw seafood and vegetables. California roll was invented by a sushi chef based in Los Angeles who, in the early days of sushi, didn’t have good access to sushi-grade fish like the fatty tuna. He discovered that avocado had a similar meaty and fatty flavor and texture, so he used that to make the rolls, and history was made.
Inari sushi, or footballs, as Japanese-Americans nicknamed them, is a deep-fried tofu pouch stuffed with seasoned sushi rice and vegetables. There is also oshizushi, which is a type of sushi that uses a small wooden box to press the sushi into little rectangles.
These types of sushi are easy to make for a home cook, and the ingredients can be varietal. These types of sushi also don’t require hand-molding each piece. I wouldn’t hesitate to make sushi with non-Japanese ingredients.
In spring, Japan celebrates Girl’s Day on March 3 with chirashi zushi, but this pilaf-like sushi can be eaten throughout the year. I make it quite often, using a vegetarian recipe. But you can also add shrimp, sea urchin or slices of fish toppings. If you happen on something very fresh — sushi-grade quality — slice it up and put it on, too.
Vegetable chirashi sushi
For the sushi:
16 ounces (450 grams) short-grain rice
1 piece kombu, about 2 inches long
3 tablespoons ginger, peeled and minced
10 shiso leaves, minced
3 tablespoons roasted sesame seeds
Amazu ginger for garnish (optional)
For the vinegar dressing:
5 tablespoons rice vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
For the kanpyo (dried gourd) and dried shitake mushroom filling:
8 dried shiitake mushrooms, hydrated with 2 cups water
½ ounce (15 grams) of dried kanpyo, hydrated
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 to 2 tablespoons sugar
For the carrot filling:
1 carrot, julienned
½ teaspoon salt
For the tamago, or egg topping:
3 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon cornstarch, dissolved with 1 tablespoon water
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
For the garnish:
2 or 3 mitsuba leaves or watercress leaf
1. Cook the rice with the kombu seaweed as you would standard rice, according to package directions.
2. Meanwhile, mix the ingredients for the vinegar dressing in a bowl and combine.
3. To make the seasoned gourd and shitake mushrooms, combine the hydrated shitake mushrooms and kanpyo in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn heat to a simmer and season the vegetables with the salt, sugar and soy sauce until most of the liquid is absorbed. Remove the mushrooms and kanpyo, then mince them and set aside.
4. Bring water to a boil in a small pan, add salt and blanch the carrots. Drain. Set aside.
5. To make the tamago, beat the eggs, cornstarch solution, salt and sugar in a bowl.
6. In a non-stick frying pan, heat oil over medium high heat and add ⅓ of the beaten egg mixture to make a thin crepe. When one side is cooked, flip the crepe over and cook the other side. Repeat two more times.
7. Slice the crepes into 1½–inch (4-centimeter) matchsticks. Set aside in a bowl.
8. When the rice is cooked, discard the kombu and transfer the rice into a large bowl. Add the vinegar dressing and toss lightly.
9. Add the minced ginger, shiso and roasted sesame seeds to the rice.
10. Add the minced shitake mushrooms, kanpyo and carrots to the rice and toss lightly.
11. Top with slices of egg and garnish with watercress or mitsuba leaves.
Top photo: Vegetable chirashi sushi. Credit: Sonoko Sakai
Every week, I make a pot or two of fresh stock, but it doesn’t involve cooking bones, meat or chicken in water over low heat for hours. Mine takes less than 20 minutes to put together, yet it is the foundation of all my cooking. It’s dashi, the quintessentially Japanese stock, made of dried bonito and konbu seaweed.
It forms the base of my breakfast miso soup, or part of a sauce to make stews and curries, and even a seasoning for my salad dressings. Dashi is a natural umami enhancer that never overwhelms, and not a drop of oil is used in its making, which makes for a clean taste. When Michelin three-star French chefs Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon opened their restaurants in Japan and learned the Japanese didn’t care for cream, butter and oily sauces, they incorporated dashi. Now, Kanbutsu-ya — dashi specialty shops in Japan — are seeing a surge in overseas sales of katsuobushi, dried bonito and konbu seaweed.
Theories about making dashi
People have different schools of thought about how to make a good dashi. The most popular combination is bonito flakes and konbu seaweed. Every Japanese chef or cook will agree the konbu seaweed goes into the pot of water first and is then plucked out of the water before it reaches its boiling point. Then the bonito flakes are added.
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Some chefs will argue that when making primary dashi, the mixture should cook over low heat for just a few minutes. Others will tell you to completely turn off the heat once the flakes are added and let them steep in the liquid like tea. Ignoring these steps and instead overcooking the dashi ingredients or pressing down the konbu and bonito flakes with a spatula could turn your dashi cloudy and fishy.
Secondary dashi, a weaker broth but just as useful as primary dashi, can be made with used konbu and bonito flakes from the primary dashi. I throw these used strips of konbu into my salads and pickles, or munch on them straight. It’s a great source of fiber. My kitty loves bonito flakes dried or cooked, so there is never any waste.
The changing form of katsuobushi – dried bonito
In the old days, every Japanese household used dried bonito whole and shaved its own bonito flakes with a katsuobushi kezuriki — a plane tool. When my father was drafted as a soldier during World War II, one of the things my grandmother gave him to take on his arduous journey was a block of dried bonito, or katsuobushi. She figured if he got hungry, he could lick the block or break it with a hammer and cook the pieces in water to make a nourishing soup. Not exactly like beef jerky, but it was a great survival food.
The process of making katsuobushi is laborious. Fish is cleaned, sliced into fillets, cooked and smoked, and some go through another step where the smoked fillets are shaved, inoculated with a beneficial mold and sun-dried to produce a katsuobushi of extraordinarily rich umami flavors.
Dashi made with such dried bonito — called karebushi or hongarebushi – is tantalizingly fragrant, but it can take as long as six months to produce a single karebushi, and such artisans are sadly disappearing from Makurazaki, Kagoshima, on the island of Kyushu, Japan, where most of the production takes place.
These days, Japanese chefs and cooks rely on pre-shaven bonito flakes sold in packages. While the pre-shaven flakes don’t compare in flavor to the freshly shaven flakes, they are pretty good, and that is what you can find in the U.S.
I store bonito flakes in the refrigerator and try to use them up quickly. What you want to avoid is using powdered dashi that contains flavor enhancers and preservatives. You can also purchase dashi packs, which resemble tea bags. Some are made of all-natural ingredients. I recommend buying pre-shaven katsuobushi and konbu seaweed and making dashi from scratch, as it really doesn’t take long to assemble it.
The synergy between konbu and bonito flakes
You can make dashi with a single ingredient, but a combination of ingredients such as konbu and bonito flakes does wonders for the flavor. The naturally occurring glutamic acid in konbu and the inosinic acid in bonito flakes have a synergistic effect on the umami scale. In this case, one plus one doesn’t not equal two but three, five or seven. Add to that equation dried shiitake mushrooms, another ingredient rich in glutamic acid, and the stock will have an almost meaty flavor.
What to look for when you buy konbu and bonito flakes
Konbu seaweed has a white powdery surface. It’s the essence of konbu, so don’t wash it off. If the seaweed looks dusty, take a well-wrung cloth and give it a gentle wipe. Keep konbu in a plastic bag away from moisture.
With bonito flakes, you want to get a large bag (80 grams to 100 grams) that contains long, shiny shavings. You don’t want bonito flakes that look yellowish and flat — that means they are old and oxidized. Some bonito flakes contain more red meat than white meat, and those will taste slightly smokier and meatier. Some bonito flakes also include other fish, like saba (dried mackerel) shavings, which also make for good dashi.
Once opened, store the bonito flakes in the refrigerator and try to use them up as quickly as possible. And you will if you practice the dashi ritual like I do.
Makes 3½ cups, or four servings of stock to make miso soup. Dashi will keep fresh for three to five days in the refrigerator, so you can make it in advance and just add miso paste and vegetables for a quick breakfast of miso soup.
3-inch piece of konbu seaweed
4 cups water
4 cups of loosely packed bonito flakes
1. Using scissors, make several crosswise cuts in the konbu. This helps to extract the flavor during cooking.
2. Place the konbu and water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil.
3. Cook over medium heat until the water almost boils. Remove konbu just before the water boils to avoid a fishy odor.
4. When the water boils, turn off the heat then add bonito flakes. Do not sitr. Let stand for three to five minutes to let the flakes steep, then strain the dashi through a very-fine mesh sieve or a sieve lined with cheesecloth or a paper towel. Don’t press the bonito flakes because it will cloud the dashi. Your primary dashi is now ready for use.
Note: To make a secondary dashi, use the bonito flakes and konbu seaweed from the primary dashi. Cook them in 4 cups of water over medium-low heat for five to eight minutes. Follow the straining technique used for the primary dashi. You can use secondary dashi for making more miso soup or use it to make curries, stews and salad dressings.
Pumpkin and Tofu Miso Soup
3½ cups dashi (recipe above)
¼ kabocha pumpkin, peeled and sliced thinly into ¼-inch thick bite-size pieces
3 to 4 tablespoons koji or mugi, white or red miso
½ a block of tofu, soft or firm
1 scallion sliced thinly
1. Bring the dashi and kabocha to a boil in a medium saucepan, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer until the kabocha is tender.
2. In a small bowl, dissolve the koji or miso in a few tablespoons of the warm dashi. Add the mixture to the saucepan. Taste and add more miso paste, dashi or water, depending on how strong the soup tastes.
3. Add the tofu and simmer for a minute. Turn off heat.
4. Pour the soup into individual bowls and garnish each bowl with scallions. Serve immediately.
Top photo: Bowls of dashi. Credit: Sonoko Sakai
New Year’s Eve is a special food day in Japan because it is the one time of the year that everyone collectively eats soba, or buckwheat noodles, not just for the good flavor but also to celebrate the metaphor of leanness and longevity.
Even those who prefer ramen noodles, udon noodles or pasta, or those who usually don’t eat noodles, will slurp a mouthful of soba because it is a cultural tradition. Soba even gets a special name on this day — Toshi-koshi soba, or passing-of-the-year soba. If you miss the ritual, it’s like you missed the year-end detox program.
Buckwheat, the main ingredient in soba noodles, is a plant cultivated for its grain-like seeds. In the U.S., it is for the most part used as a cover crop. Despite its name, buckwheat is unrelated to wheat; instead, the plant belongs to the family of rhubarb, sorrel and knotweed. It takes only 75 days to grow and doesn’t require fertile land, so it is highly sustainable.
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Bees love buckwheat, and so did our ancestors, including George Washington, who planted it as a presidential crop, and songwriter Stephen Foster, who included buckwheat in his lyrics to “Oh! Susanna”:
“The buckwheat cake was in her mouth
The tear was in her eye
Says I, ‘I’m coming from the south,
Susanna, don’t you cry.’ ”
But as a food source in the U.S., buckwheat kind of got lost along with our heritage grains when industrial mono-cropping of wheat took over and wiped out the varieties and flavors in our diet. A growing group of scientists, farmers, millers, chefs and cooks in this country are slowly bringing our heritage grains back, including the pseudo-grain buckwheat.
Buckwheat is a delicious fruit seed that makes good flour for noodles and baking bread and cakes. In Japan, buckwheat is considered a medicinal food. It is high in protein, higher than wheat or rice. It is also known to help lower blood pressure and cholesterol and clean your blood, not to mention it is easy to digest and contains no gluten. Soba noodles made with new-crop buckwheat are especially sought after, like a seasonal fruit. At its peak season, the color of the buckwheat flour is a creamy light olive. It’s nutty fragrance and sweet flavor is incredibly satisfying.
Soba and gongs mark New Year’s Eve in Japan
Eating soba is a good year-end detox food, and the practice can be doubly so if you pair it with temple gongs. When I was growing up in Kamakura, the ancient capital of Japan, we would eat our soba noodles on New Year’s Eve and for further detoxing of the soul go to a nearby Buddhist temple to listen to the 108 gongs (Joya-no-kane). According to Buddhist scriptures, for every gong you hear, one of your wrongdoings will be forgiven. I remember trying to stay up to listen to all 108 gongs and figuring out how many mean things I had done to my brothers and sisters during that year. I suppose the practice can be compared to a long Catholic confession session, without the guidance of the priest and Hail Marys to recite.
I usually didn’t stay awake to the last gong, but then, I didn’t feel that bad because I had slurped the soba noodles. On New Year’s Day, I would wear a kimono and tried to act feminine for once and do calligraphy — writing Chinese characters like “peace,” “happiness,” “health,” “endeavor” and “filial piety” on rice paper — and prepare to face the new challenges that awaited me.
The simplest way to eat soba noodles is plain, with a dipping sauce and a few condiments like sliced scallions and grated daikon radish. You never want to demote soba noodles to be served as a side dish. Serve the noodles with grated wasabi if you can get some, but it is not necessary and fake ones don’t do justice. Use grated ginger instead if you want the spice.
You can make a batch of soba noodles by hand, which is what I do. It takes less than 20 minutes to make them from scratch. Cook the noodles in a big pot of boiling water for a couple of minutes, do a good rinse and strain off the water. Slurp the noodles with the dipping sauce. You will be happy eaters who will live nearly forever.
Nihachi-style Soba Noodles
These soba noodles use 80% buckwheat flour and 20% all-purpose wheat flour. Makes 2 to 3 servings.
10 ounces stone-milled soba-grade buckwheat flour
2.5 ounces all-purpose flour
6 ounces hot water
Cornstarch or tapioca flour for dusting
1. Place the buckwheat and all-purpose flours in a large bowl. Pour most of the hot water over the entire flour mixture, using a wooden spoon as a guide. (Reserve a small amount of the hot water in case you need to add more in the next step.) Mix the dough quickly until it forms a single mass. Once the dough is cooled off, use your hands to massage the dough until the flour and water are distributed evenly and there is no flour left on the bowl.
2. Place the dough on a cutting board. Work quickly with the heels of your hands to form a smooth dough. If the dough feels dry, lightly wet the tips of your fingers with more water, brushing them against the surface of the dough while kneading until smooth. The final dough will be soft and smooth and not sticky. This will take about 8 to 10 minutes.
3. Form the dough into a smooth ball and place it on the cutting board and lightly sprinkle cornstarch over the top. Using the palm and heel of your hand, flatten the ball into a disk about half an inch thick.
4. Use a rolling pin to roll the disk into a rectangle about the thickness of a credit card. Generously sprinkle cornstarch over half the dough and fold the other half over like a book. (The cornstarch will keep the dough from sticking together as it is cut). Generously dust another crosswise half of the dough with cornstarch and fold again.
5. Starting along the short, folded side of the dough, slice the dough into very thin (about 1/16th inch) noodles. Keep the noodles loosely covered with plastic wrap while you boil the water for cooking.
6. To cook the noodles, bring a large pot of water (at least 2 gallons) to a boil over high heat. Gently drop the soba into the boiling water. Keep the water boiling vigorously to prevent the noodles from sticking together. Cook the noodles to al dente, about 90 seconds (timing will vary depending on the thickness of the noodles).
7. Immediately remove the noodles to a strainer set in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Wash the noodles, using both hands to remove any surface starch. Prepare a second bowl of ice water to shock the noodles. Drain the noodles well. Serve with soba-tsuyu dipping sauce (see accompanying recipe) on the side, along with desired condiments.
Note: You can source fresh mill-to-order organic sobako-grade flour from Anson Mills, or you can also try Japanese markets. Cold Mountain and Nijiya makes sobako-grade flours.
Easy dipping sauce
4 cups water
4 cups bonito flakes, divided
4 ounces mirin
4 ounces soy sauce (Usukuchi or Koikuchi-type Japanese soy sauce)
1. Make a dashi broth by bringing four cups of water to boil, then turning off the heat for one minute before adding in three loosely packed cups of bonito flakes. The flakes will wilt and shrivel upon contact with the steam. Let the liquid steep for five minutes before draining the liquid into a bowl through a paper towel or cheese cloth lined strainer. (Don’t press on the flakes or the liquid will turn cloudy and fishy.)
2. Measure out three cups (24 ounces) of the dashi broth and bring it to a boil with 4 ounces of mirin and 4 ounces of soy sauce.
3. As soon as it boils, turn off the heat and add in one more cup of bonito flakes. Let them steep for one minute before draining the liquid into another bowl. Let cool. This will make enough dipping sauce for three to four servings of soba. Refrigerated, it will keep for a week.
Top photo: Soba noodles. Credit: Patrick Gookin
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