Miso is one of the cornerstones of Japanese cuisine, a protein rich paste of fermented soy beans used in making pickles, sauces, spreads and in its most well known guise as soup. Here in the middle of the UK it is pretty difficult to get hold of good miso, and when you find it you can end up paying luxury prices for a basic ingredient, so, having some home-brewing experience we decided to try making our own. A fungus called koji is grown on grains such as rice or barley before being introduced to cooked beans and salt. The salt kills off any bacteria present to make an environment conducive to fermenting, but since the koji enzymes can still function in a salty environment, they continue to do their job breaking down the carbohydrates and proteins creating the paste we know and love.
The process of making your own miso isn’t a short one, taking around two months to get a usable product, but we feel that following the journey from beans to miso is helpful in understanding Japanese food. Rice grains inoculated with koji can be bought online from a number of suppliers, otherwise all the ingredients are extremely easy to get and the hardest part of the procedure is the waiting and resisting using your paste before it’s ready. Incidentally, you also end up with a small amount of home-brewed tamari every now and then as it leaches out of the miso. We wouldn’t have been able to work out how to make miso without the help of the brilliant, but out of print, Book of Miso by William Shurtleff & Akiko Aoyagi; we highly recommend hunting down a copy if you want to experiment some more with fermenting your own miso.
Just like ochazuke, upon which this soup is probably based, keihan is made up of a bowl of rice, topped with all manner of tasty things and then doused in a delicious, warming broth. A dish as simple as this relies on the quality of its ingredients to shine through, so a well flavoured, properly seasoned, rich chicken stock is imperative. The first time we tasted keihan was in a yakitoriya in the sake producing district of Fushimi, where they took a holistic approach to their chicken cooking, using every last scrap of chicken on the grill, and then the bones and any other remnants to make this wonderful soup. The stock had a hint of sake in it, which may not be completely authentic, but we’ve decided to keep it in our recreation of the dish.
This is a great recipe for using up leftover scraps of meat from your Christmas bird, and the roast carcass makes for a fantastic stock too.
Being an island nation, Japan has always consumed a huge quantity of seafood, and up until recently this has also been true of the British Isles, a tradition that we’re sadly losing. Whilst shopping in our local fish market we came across some beautifully fresh sprats, a very typical fish in classic British cuisine and knew we could use them to make something very Japanese. Sprats, as with most small fish, have fallen out of favour in recent years as people tend to prefer larger fish with fewer bones, however they’re packed full of omega oils and B-vitamins and their flavour is well worth the little extra effort. As sprats are from the same family, these little oily fish are a perfect substitute for the sardines that would normally be used in this old fashioned dish of daikon, ginger, fish and a sweet sticky sauce.
An old Japanese trick to cook oily fish with sake to lessen the strong odours is used in this recipe, and the spicy shards of ginger cut through the richness. If you can’t get hold of sprats then use sardines and allow 2-3 fish per person for a main course.
With Christmas being a week away today, the time is just right for cooking up something using some festive ingredients, namely the much maligned Brussels sprout and that street vendor classic, roast chestnuts. Sprouts aren’t that common in Japanese cuisine, but being from the cabbage family they fit into the flavour palate beautifully, and when paired with a classic shiraae dressing and the rich flavour of chestnuts they make a fantastic aemono dish.
Aemono translates roughly as ‘harmonised food’, and refers to dressed vegetable dishes, rather like cooked salads, eaten as accompaniments to main meals. The different dressings used in aemono range from mustard or vinegar to miso and sesame paste; we’re pairing our vegetables with a shiraae dressing based on tofu and white miso, to give a smooth, cool, creamy side.
The rather cryptically named daigaku imo, or university potatoes, have been a staple snack food across the university towns of Japan since the 1920s. Deep fried sweet potatoes, tossed in caramel flavoured with soy sauce which quickly becomes brittle in the air; what’s not to love about them? The soy caramel coating brings to mind the salted caramel chocolates which have become popular in the UK over the last decade, and the glazed potatoes make me think of American Thanksgiving style candied yams. Traditionally these are made with the red-pink skinned, white fleshed sweet potatoes most common in Japan, but we ate some made with the gloriously bright purple murasaki imo in Kamakura and couldn’t resist recreating those in part here. Murasaki imo have an almost winey, lychee flavour to them which works wonderfully with the salty soy sauce.
Although it is only a relative newcomer to the cuisine of Japan, curry and rice can be bought in any town across the country from a huge range of restaurant chains. Karē is based upon a British Raj style curry, so has more in common with Victorian English cookery than it does true Indian cuisine, and although traditional Northern Indian style curries have recently found their way into Japan’s diet, Japanese karē remains one of the country’s most popular dishes.
Instant karē sauces are readily available from convenience stores and supermarkets in roux form, and they’re all delicious, but we’ve chosen to make our own from scratch. Straying slightly from the path of tradition we’ve gone for a chunkier version of karē with more vegetables and meat, but we still have the smooth, silky, sweet sauce that everyone loves. If you leave out the vegetables and meat from our recipe you’ll have an excellent sauce for katsu-karē or a base for curry udon soup.
An onigiri (rice ball) is to Japan as a sandwich is to England. It’s a filling and cost effective replacement for a real meal that you can grab from any convenience store before jumping on a train or rushing back to the office to work through your lunch break. Often, you can improve a sandwich by grilling it, creating a crispy golden exterior that gives way to a warm soft inside. By that same logic, grilling an onigiri gives you a delicious treat that enlivens a go-to snack and raises it to a new place. We have filled ours with an onigiri classic; shiozake, a kind of semi-cured salmon which we’ve infused with sake and sweet mirin. These yaki-onigiri have an outer crust that tastes almost like a toasted senbei cracker glazed with sweet soy sauce, while the inside resembles a warm gravlax or smoked salmon.
One of the most enjoyable things about a Japanese meal is the sheer number of plates and bowls you get, little plates of pickles, bowls of dipping sauce, salads and small vegetable sides. In a restaurant you can think you’re ordering one basic dish and then end up with seven or eight little portions on your table per person. In this post we’ve got recipes for two such dishes; a punchy, strong pickled cucumber, powerfully seasoned with raw garlic, and a fresh salad of chikuwa fishcake mixed with spring onions and red peppers, topped with dried bonito shavings.
Perhaps the most popular deity in Shinto belief, Inari is the kami of fertility, prosperity, agriculture and foxes. One of the favoured foods of Inari is abura-age or fried tofu, so these sweet pouches of fried tofu stuffed with rice have become a preferred offering at his shrines and a delicious snack for their patrons. The largest shrine dedicated to Inari is in Fushimi, Kyoto, famous for its thousands of vermilion torii, and on the roads leading up to the shrine’s entrance you’ll find stalls selling these treats. You can often find these in sushi restaurants, bento meals or convenience stores, but because of the foxes and their love for them they’ll always remind us of the hour and a half walk up Inari mountain and the peaceful glades found along the way.
Of all of the varieties of pancake available in Japan, the fish-shaped taiyaki sold by street vendors are the ones we’re always drawn to. A sweet, tender waffley outer shell, hiding its scalding hot filling of red bean paste or on rare occasions custard or white beans. Historically they came about as a seasonal variation of imagawayaki during the Meiji era, changing the squat cylindrical mould into one shaped like a sea-bream, a fish that only the wealthy could afford and that was generally reserved for festivals. The anko (red bean) filling is slightly off-putting to many westerners, so we’ve opted for the milder, smoother shiro-an (white bean) filling which has a soft marzipan texture to it and a slightly nutty taste.
To make taiyaki you’ll need a cast-iron taiyaki pan, if you don’t have one then you can use the same recipe to make shiro-an dorayaki- just fry the batter as small round pancakes and sandwich the filling between them.