After receiving a present of some sake from a friend, we wanted to have a dinner themed around the gift to make the most of it, and what better food to serve than two izakaya favourites, both steeped in the delicate flavours of rice wine. The star of the meal was Asari no Sakamushi, a mountain of fresh white clams, steamed in sake flavoured with plenty of ginger and a pungent sprinkling of garlic chives. As is the case with many other seafood-loving nations around the world, the Japanese know that the best way to treat shellfish is to not mess around and cook them quickly with a few aromatics and a splash of regional wine. To go with the clams we chose a side dish of Nasu Dengaku- soft, creamy baked aubergines topped with a slick of sake-enhanced miso and a nutty crunch of toasted sesame seeds. The grilled, slightly charred vegetable providing a pleasing contrast to the delicate, steamed clams and by cooking both of the dishes with the same sake that we were going to be drinking, we were able to keep a continuity of flavours running through the meal.
Every now and then you come across an ingredient that you fall head-over-heels in love with, you cook everything imaginable with it and spend hours dreaming about how to get just one more recipe out of it. For us, that ingredient is murasaki imo, or purple sweet potato. Similar to the pale yellow or white fleshed sweet potatoes usually favoured by the Japanese, these purple potatoes have more dry matter than the orange fleshed American variety, and a much stronger taste. A rich, fruity, almost winey flavour, an otherworldly, deep purple colour and the added bonus that they are packed full of vitamins make them a winner in our books for savoury dishes or desserts.
Japanese meals do not traditionally have a dessert course or end with something sweet. The time for a sweet treat is at around either 10am or 3pm, as a contrasting flavour to go with the slightly bitter green tea that workers would normally stop for. The confections served with tea vary from moulded higashi of sugar and rice flour to fresh fruits, and from jelly-like warabi mochi made from bracken starch to small French style cakes and tarts such as this Okinawan creation. Murasaki imo is mashed, enriched with cream, butter and sugar then piped into crisp pastry cases, just enough for three or four bites before you get back to work.
Dating back as far as the 1600s, shichimi togarashi is a vibrant condiment that started life as a medicine mixed by herb & spice dealers in Edo- old Tokyo- before becoming popular as a seasoning for food. The combination of citrus, chilli and seaweed flavours make it a perfect accompaniment to slow cooked soups and fatty meats, or whenever you want to add a bit of freshness and heat to a dish. There are many popular blends of shichimi togarashi (the name means ‘seven flavour chilli’ by the way) available on the market, but when made fresh at home it has a much brighter flavour, and of course you have the ability to tweak the recipe to your liking.
By mixing our shichimi with salt and sugar, we’ve made a delicious seasoning for an izakaya favourite- renkon chips. With a flavour slightly sweeter than potato and a long history of being used medicinally, lotus root makes a perfect partner to the seasoning and when thinly sliced and fried as chips it makes a fantastic bar snack.
Few meals can match the allure of a rich, hot bowl of porky ramen. Soothing, deeply flavoured broth, a tangled mass of slightly chewy noodles, slowly braised meat and a creamy boiled egg. This now staple dish is only a relatively recent addition to the patchwork cuisine of Japan- the first ramen restaurant opened in Yokohama in 1910 and sold a simpler version of the dish called shina soba, or Chinese noodles. Countless variations on the theme of broth, noodles and toppings have sprung up since then, many of them being extremely regional specialities that you’d have problems finding outside of a particular town. Our favourite combination of ramen flavours is one that we’ve eaten many times in Tokyo; a soy flavoured pork broth, straight noodles, a pile of shredded spring onions, a few slices of fishcake, a boiled egg, stewed bamboo shoots and most importantly, fatty, yielding, slow cooked pork belly. We’ve borrowed an idea from David Chang’s recipe for ramen by adding some bacon to the broth for an irresistible smoky note and to boost the pork flavour.
Making ramen at home isn’t a particularly difficult affair, but it does take a long time. Cooking the broth and the pork are the most time consuming parts, and they’re also the components that you’ll most likely want to get just right- the broth is really the star of the show and worth every minute you can put into it, no amount of flashy toppings can make up for a bowl of ramen with under-flavoured soup. Both the pork and broth can be made in advance and stored in the refrigerator for three to five days for convenience, once you have those ready you can put together all manner of ramen dishes in very little time.
In October 2010, in a small unassuming restaurant in Kyoto, I tasted a dish which has haunted my heart ever since (so much so that we named our blog after it). A small hand formed brown kyo-ware bowl, lined with a single shiso leaf, a spoonful of sweet cooking liquid and three cubes of pork belly, braised for hours until the layers of meat, gelatinous skin and fat had reached a meltingly soft texture unlike anything I’d eaten before or since. After some research, we discovered that this beautifully yielding showcase of pork belly at its best was known as Nagasaki pork, or Buta no Kakuni. Kakuni probably started off as a Chinese dish called Dongpo pork, and in its migration to Japan the flavours evolved to suit the local tastes of Kyushu while keeping the same cooking techniques used for centuries prior.
We’ve spent years trying to match the flavour of the kakuni we first encountered in Kyoto, and have finally got it just right. Although we haven’t been able to find a source of shiso leaves here in the UK, we’ve accompanied our kakuni with some young flowering leeks and a dab of tobanjan to give a spicy, fresh counterpoint to balance out the rich pork.
Raw fish in the form of sashimi is quite often the first thing a foreigner thinks of when you mention Japanese food, but perhaps less well known is gyuu tataki, a lightly cooked piece of beef fillet that while seared on the outside remains completely raw in the centre. We’ve paired our beef with a couple of citrussy accompaniments, firstly a home-made take on yuzukosho (we’ve used the word ‘modoki’ in the title, which means pseudo or mock) and then with a ponzu style dipping sauce made of lime juice and soy sauce.
Yuzukosho is a fantastically strong, fiery condiment used mainly with hotpot dishes and sashimi, made from fermented citrus fruit and green chilli peppers. Yuzu- the traditional fruit used in the seasoning- is unfortunately for us very hard to come by in England, so we have combined a number of different fruits to craft a flavour reminiscent of the complex aroma the original has. This zesty paste brings together sour, bitter, floral, salty and spicy flavours which all balance the beef’s natural earthiness and when used as an appetiser at the start of a meal really awakens your palate.
During our last visit to Arashiyama, we visited a little restaurant specialising in Kyo-ryori, or Kyoto style cuisine, where among other regional fare we ate some little fried tofu fritters. Similar to ganmodoki, these springy morsels were made of crushed tofu mixed with assorted vegetables and hijiki seaweed before being deep fried. We were immediately taken by the combination of flavours which managed to evoke being by the seashore despite being surrounded by mountains and forest. To enhance this coastal feel we’ve added a second seaweed to our version, both in the fritters and as a flavour boosting topping.