Steaming hot crescent moons, an aromatic mixture of juicy pork, cabbage and garlic chives encased within a chewy skin, fried on one side until shatteringly crisp and served with a slightly sour dipping sauce. Gyoza have become an integral and hugely popular part of nearly every ramenya’s menu, finding their place as an almost essential accompaniment to the deep, nourishing bowls of noodles. When cooked poorly they can drag down a memorable dish of ramen, but if cooked well, with consideration and care, they have the power to raise a lacklustre meal to giddy heights, providing a contrasting texture to the silky noodles and soothing broth. High quality frozen gyoza wrappers are available in most oriental supermarkets these days, meaning that home-made dumplings are more achievable than ever before, and while the filling and pleating of the little parcels can take a while to get used to, there’s a huge amount of satisfaction to be had when you gaze upon a tray of your handiwork.
Hanetsuki gyoza are a recent variation of these classic pot-stickers, where a number of plump, steamed dumplings are fused together in a hot pan with a thin mixture of flour and water. This batter crisps and darkens to form lacey skirts or wings (hane) around the edges of each dumpling, creating more surface area for crunchy, brittle bubbles to form and when placed in the middle of the table, it makes a fantastic tear-and-share style dish, perfect for relaxed dining with friends.
Yaki Udon is a Fukuoka variation on one of Japan’s most beloved street foods- yakisoba, or fried noodles. A colourful mixture of lightly wilted but still crunchy vegetables, a mound of chewy noodles and a scattering of meat or seafood, all fried together and coated in a sweet, fruity and slightly spicy sauce. At festivals and in parks up and down Japan you’ll find yatai food carts serving yakisoba, the smell of the sōsu caramelizing on the huge iron hot-plates enticing you over and tempting you into having a bowlful. Despite the name suggesting it should be made from buckwheat soba noodles, most of the country makes yakisoba with long, thin wheat noodles similar to ramen, while the people of Fukuoka have elevated the dish to an even more substantial place by making it with our personal favourite noodle, the thick and toothsome udon.
A seafood yaki udon was perhaps the first Japanese meal we ever ate, back in 2001, and it has remained a firm favourite since then. Not many weeks pass by without us making a panful at least once, loaded with vegetables for a quick after-work evening meal. It’s an almost infinitely flexible dish, add whatever vegetables or meat you like to it, just make sure that they’re bright, colourful and full of varied flavours and textures.
Crustaceans have always played a large part in the cuisine of Japan and one of our favourite uses of them is in kani meshi. It belongs to a family of dishes known as takikomi gohan which translates roughly as ‘cooked with rice’. In a similar way to a pilaf or kedgeree, takikomi dishes usually involve cooking rice in a seasoned broth to introduce extra layers of flavour along with the addition of vegetables or meat; in the case of kani meshi, this is the sweet juicy white flesh of a crab.
Whilst shopping for our kani meshi, we were distracted by some incredible looking Scottish langoustines, they were too perfect to resist- miniature, eight inch lobsters, fiercely armed and packed with a delicately perfumed flesh not dissimilar to prawns. We decided on the spot that they would make a fantastic variation on the standard crab kani meshi, and to compliment their sweet briny flavour we’ve added some seaweed and dried bonito to create a subtly flavoured rice that reminds us of holidays by the coast, both here in the UK and in Japan. Our kani meshi makes a great side dish in place of regular rice, and there’s a deliciously tactile pleasure in cracking the claws open and picking out the morsels of flesh from inside.
Fried chicken. Two simple words that have the power to whet appetites across the globe and set imaginations spinning, whether you’re in Louisiana, Mali or Scotland, you know that when you order your local rendition of the dish you’ll be getting moist, juicy meat in a crisp coating packed full of flavour. Karaage is the fried chicken of Japan- nearly always meat from the thigh of the bird, seasoned with soy sauce and ginger before being dusted in a light coating of potato starch and fried to crunchy perfection. Unusually for Japanese cuisine, large amounts of garlic are included in the marinade for karaage, along with the addition of some sake this helps to offset the slightly gamey flavour that chickens had before post-war American birds were imported to become the mainstay of local farms. The soy sauce used in marinating the chicken imparts a slightly reddish brown colour to the coating, which is said to resemble the reflection of maple leaves in the water of the river Tatsuta in Nara, and is how the dish received its second, more romantic name, Tatsuta-age.
We like to accompany our karaage with a fresh dipping sauce made from spring onions and shiro shoyu, or white soy sauce; brewed with more wheat than other soy sauces, it has a much milder flavour which makes it perfect for seasoning lighter meats such as chicken or seafood.
Whether you know them as karaage, Tatsuta-age or even as JFC, these two-bite-sized pieces of juicy chicken are a perfect way to start a meal or make a fantastic addition to a bento or lunch box.
Simultaneously being both the lightest, most delicate, cloud-like bun imaginable and the richest, sweetest, most succulent pork belly possible, kakuni manjū are perhaps the ultimate variation on a bacon sandwich and frankly, I can’t think of a better combination of meat and bread that I’ve ever eaten.
Like the sweet, soy braised pork that fills them, manjū– or hirata buns to give them their recently adopted American name- owe their heritage to Chinese steamed buns such as the snowy white stars of many a dim sum menu, char siu bao. During the two hundred and twenty year period of isolation, Japan closed off its borders to the outside world, and the only way in or out was through Nagasaki, which quickly became what is now the country’s oldest Chinatown. Workers and traders travelling through the port took with them their favourite home comforts which were quickly adopted by local restaurants and yatai (food carts) before spreading across the country. Slow braised dongpo pork from Eastern China and pillowy mantou steamed bread from the North were two such dishes that arrived in this influx of unfamiliar cuisine, and were the culinary parents of this most delicious of sandwiches (perhaps with a little matchmaking courtesy of both Japan and China’s occupation of Taiwan and its now famous gua bao split steamed buns).
Breaking from tradition, we’ve added a few extras to our kakuni manjū- the creaminess of the mayonnaise and the crisp, refreshing bite of cucumber and shredded spring onions help to lift and round out the flavour of the bun. Eat them on their own with a few drinks, or as is now common practice, as an accompaniment to a deep, meaty bowl of ramen for the ultimate pork filled meal.