The wonderfully rich, slightly gamey flesh of duck and the intense earthy, woodland flavour of mushrooms are one of the most natural and instinctive combinations in cookery. It’s a pairing you might expect to see in Italy, Russia, Sweden or France; countries that used to be blanketed with dense forests and vast lakes, countries that have a deep folklore and long history of woodsmen, making their living from what nature provides. All of these features are equally true of Japan, and unsurprisingly the Japanese made the same discovery early on, that marrying wild duck with foraged mushrooms was a union worth remembering. The other classic Japanese accompaniment to duck are the buckwheat noodles known as soba. Deliciously nutty in flavour and with a slightly toothsome texture, soba are one of the oldest known types of noodle in Japanese cuisine, dating back over 2500 years to the Jōmon period and even further in Chinese cookery where they probably originated.
We’ve combined all three of these ingredients in a classic Kamo Nanban Soba- a dish that smells and tastes like a stroll through an ancient forest; with rich, life giving soil and a wealth of fungus sprouting from the crumbling trunks of fallen trees. It wouldn’t be a kamo nanban without some sweet, charred spring onions, and to lift the earthy flavours slightly we’ve added a tiny hint of orange zest, perfect for cutting through the richness of the duck fat.
Food in Japan is divided into two distinct categories; Washoku, the native, traditional cuisine that dates back many hundreds if not thousands of years, and Yōshoku (or seiyōshoku), Western style dishes that started being imported into Japan’s culinary tapestry during the Meiji restoration. Along with firm favourites such as karē, tonkatsu, and ramen, ebi furai- or breaded, fried prawns lie firmly within the yōshoku camp, probably owing their heritage to Portuguese traders who introduced crumb coated pork cutlets to Japan during the late 1880s. Much later, an enterprising chef combined two of the most popular yōshoku, ebi furai and hambāgā to create an ebi katsu burger, chopped prawns shaped into a patty, breaded and then deep fried before being served in a soft buttery bun with the traditional furai accompaniments of tartare and tonkatsu sauces. We’ve adapted this modern classic slightly by mixing our prawn meat with minced hanpen, a very airy fishcake made from pollock and nagaimo yam, which gives the burger a particularly light, bouncy, juicy texture without detracting from the sweet, delicate flavour of the prawn.
Onipote (a contraction of the words onion and potato) is a half portion of onion rings served with a half portion of fries, a dish we first came across in an Akihabara branch of MOSBurger, Japan’s largest fast food chain. Why chose between both of these classic sides when you can have a little of each? Rather than batter our onion rings we’ve opted for the same crunchy panko crumbs that we used on our ebi burger and then dredged both these and the super skinny fries with a sweet and spicy shichimi togarashi salt. Perfect!
Finding inventive ways to make use of leftovers is a problem home cooks have no matter what country they’re in, so it should come as no surprise that Japanese cooks have been putting their excess portions of curry to good use for decades, stretching them out as fillings for doughnut like breads or turning them into soups. Karē udon is a perfect example of this respectful attitude towards “waste” food, by adding leftover pork and vegetable curry to a fishy broth and some thick, chewy noodles you can create a wholesome, warming dish perfect for getting you through these freezing Winter nights. It might not seem like the obvious choice to use a dashi based stock for this soup, but it creates a wonderfully rounded savoury flavour rather than anything particularly fishy tasting. This combination of dashi, sake, mirin and soy sauce as a soup stock is known as mentsuyu, and is the classic starting point for many udon and soba dishes, even being used as a refreshing dipping sauce for cold noodles.
Karē udon, perhaps one of the country’s most popular comfort foods, has the same effect on the Japanese as a plate of macaroni and cheese might on an American or a bowl of hotpot on a Lancastrian. It has the incredible power of evoking nostalgic memories of childhood, relieving emotional stress and giving a feeling of the security of being at home, somewhere you belong. Not bad for a bowl of soup.
During the twentieth century a large number of Sichuan immigrants made their way to Japan, taking with them their own cuisine and eventually opening up restaurants catering to their fellow countrymen. As time went on, the prickly, spicy dishes that the Sichuan province is famous for changed to suit the local tastes, gone were the copious amounts of dried chillies, pungent garlic and mouth-numbing peppercorns, instead replacing them with savoury miso, aromatic sake and sweet mirin. One popular dish which received this transformation was mapo doufu or pock-marked beancurd; originally a sweat-inducingly hot, oil based sauce with pork and soothing pieces of beancurd to take the edge off the spiciness. The Japanese version of the dish is a much more mellow affair, sweet and salty with a slight hint of chilli-heat, and a thicker, unctuous sauce. This version of mabo tofu has found its place in Japanese cuisine as the nation’s favourite Chinese dish; in a similar way to Britain’s much-loved adaptation of Indian tandoori food, chicken tikka masala, it has evolved from its original form and become a fantastic dish in its own right.
A relatively modern etymological trend in Japan is the use of portmanteau in describing foods, such as anmitsu being a contraction of the words anko and kuromitsu, and in this case mabo tofu donburi- a bowl of rice with a topping- becoming simply mabodon.
Partially down to the way Japanese meals are structured, and partially because they tend to specialise in one type of dish and not stray far from that, many Japanese restaurants don’t tend to offer desserts. When you do stumble across one that does serve a sweet course, a lot of the time it’ll be the perennial favourite, anmitsu. At first glance appearing to be a fruit salad, the closer you look the more you start to notice key Japanese flavours and ingredients within it. Sweetened red bean paste and green tea flavoured cream sit atop a mound of cubed kanten- clear water jelly made from red algae, and small round rice dumplings are anointed with a slick of kuromitsu black sugar syrup, before the whole dish is adorned with the selection of fresh or preserved fruits that first caught your attention. Shiratama dango are traditionally made from just rice flour and water, but we’ve added silken tofu to ours to make a softer, more delicate dango that dries out less and has an irresistibly bouncy, squidgy bite to it. All of the elements combine harmoniously to create a very refreshing dish, perfect for eating after a particularly rich or spicy meal or it makes an excellent snack on a hot Summer’s day.
A dark, unrefined, deeply caramel flavoured ‘black’ sugar is cultivated and processed on the Southern Japanese island of Okinawa. The almost constant sunshine, volcanic soils and nutrients provided by sea spray have created the ideal growing conditions for producing this mineral rich sweetener which has, quite naturally, found its way into a lot of both island and mainland Japanese cuisine. Pieces of the dense, almost raisiny tasting sugar are often consumed as a sweet along with green tea, or used as a flavouring in rafute pork stew, but our favourite way to use it is in these steamed cakes that we first encountered in a Tokyo depachika. Fresh from the steamer these light, airy cakes remind me of the geothermal, mountainous areas of Japan- their craggy, ruptured exterior, internal veins of rich gooey syrup and vents issuing jets of hot air. They are best eaten greedily, while still scalding hot, to really enjoy the texture and contrasting flavours of the delicate dough and the random nuggets of sugar.
Bearing more similarities to rösti or bubble and squeak than pizza, as it is often compared, okonomiyaki is to my mind one of the best ways to eat cabbage and a great example of wartime necessity creating fantastic food. During World War II, when rice supplies were at their lowest, inexpensive wheat flour was made into a thick batter, mixed with shredded cabbage and fried as filling, savoury pancakes. Seventy years and numerous adaptations to the original recipe later and we now have one of Japan’s most popular dishes. Nagaimo (a type of yam from a climbing vine) is often added to the batter nowadays to enhance the consistency with its unique sticky, foamy texture. If you can’t find nagaimo in an oriental supermarket, beating some air into the two egg whites in the recipe will help to make the okonomiyaki fluffier and closer to the real thing.
The word okonomi translates as ‘what you like’ and yaki to ‘grilled’, and as the name suggests, you can add whatever toppings you like to this dish, our favourite combination being prawns and smoked bacon. Whatever extra ingredients you choose, just make sure to top the pancake with aonori seaweed, dried bonito flakes, Japanese mayonnaise and the punchy, fruity brown sauce known as sōsu or okonomi sauce.