For me, spring only truly starts when the first foods of the season are ready to harvest or forage, and one of the plants that I most eagerly look out for each year is wild garlic or ramsons. Ten minutes walk from our house is a small brook, its banks lined with a stretch of woodland that provides a welcome glimpse of nature among the noise and rush of the city. Within the dappled light of these woods lies a patch of ramson plants, carpeting the edges of pathways and giving off their distinctive pungent aroma whenever they’re lightly brushed by a passing bird or walker. The leaves of this shamefully overlooked and short-lived plant provide a powerful garlic hit along with a spring onion-like flavour that makes it perfect for mixing into dipping sauces and dumpling fillings, and if you’re lucky enough to find some plants with open flowers they offer up an edible garnish of such intense flavour you won’t believe it came from such a delicate looking thing.
Seasonality and the use of local produce are two of the main cornerstones of Japanese cuisine so these wild ramsons are the perfect ingredient to use in the kaiseki style dish of suimono or clear soup. A delicate, lightly seasoned broth that allows you to focus on the flavours of the individual elements that it contains, in this case a pile of carefully crimped duck and wild garlic gyoza and a scattering of flowers and leaves from both the foraged ramsons and some young chives.
In the past few years tonkotsu has become the coolest style of noodles to be seen eating or making here in the UK; a thick, unrefined, intensely meaty broth, served with the regular gang of ramen toppings, chashu pork, boiled eggs and bamboo shoots. Restaurants vie to see who has the longest simmered stock with the most opaque suspension of fat and collagen, while critics search for the ramenya with the softest pork and the most unctuous fat. Worthy of equal praise and attention though, is the lesser known, neglected relative of tonkotsu, and one of the unsung heroes of the noodle world- Tori Paitan Ramen. A richly satisfying, creamy broth of chicken bones, skin and cartilage, milky in appearance and sticky on the lips from the copious amounts of fat and gelatin present and the long periods of fierce boiling. To accentuate the deep chickeny flavour of the broth, we’ve added lots of garlic in the form of fried garlic chips and a spoon of powerful, garlic infused duck fat which lends an intense muskiness and a brilliantly rich mouth feel to the finished soup.
A bowl of ramen wouldn’t be complete without some slow-cooked meat to top your mound of noodles, but rather than use the traditional pork, we’ve kept our paitan a purely poultry dish and created a torchon of chicken by wrapping together thigh and breast meat in a layer of skin. When sliced thinly, this sausage of chicken makes the perfect topping for ramen and falls apart at the slightest pressure from your chopsticks.
Every now and then you come across a side dish so vibrant, flavoursome and bountiful that it could be- and often is in our household- a main meal in itself. Yasai no Agebitashi, or ‘fried and soaked vegetables’ to translate its name, is one such dish. Nearly always made with aubergine as the main ingredient, a selection of firm vegetables are deep fried quickly without any form of coating, ‘suage’ style. The fierce heat of the oil causes the insides of the vegetables to steam through before they get marinated in a sweetened dashi broth; the tender, cooked vegetables absorb the liquid like a sponge, carrying the flavour throughout. This technique creates silky, creamy aubergines that melt in your mouth, while crisper vegetables like the lotus root and red peppers retain just the right amount of bite, providing a fantastic contrast of textures. Topped off with a spicy mound of grated daikon and ginger to counter the richness of the vegetables and the sweetness of the broth, this is the perfect appetiser or side dish to go with nearly any meal, and by changing the dashi to a kombu broth you can easily make a vegan or vegetarian version.
We’ve been visiting noodle restaurants for almost as long as I can remember, and have passed over a basic sounding dish on the menu many times, dismissing its simplicity in favour of the more showy, topping laden bowls. That is at least, until a couple of years ago whilst on a lunchtime visit to a market in Kyoto, we stopped by an udonya and tried the curiously named Kitsune Udon (fox noodles) for the first time and became instant converts. A deep bowl of perfectly cooked, thick white udon, a slightly smokey, fish based soup, and a single piece of inari-age, simmered in a sweet soy and mirin liquor until the sponge-like tofu had absorbed a massive amount of flavour. The clean soup paired with the rich, sweetness of the tofu was an incredibly soothing combination, and one that we’ve tried to eat as often as possible since our first taste.
Many people like to add narutomaki or kamoboko to their kitsune udon -and feel free to if you want, they’re both delicious additions- but we like to keep ours uncomplicated and the way we’ve always eaten it in Japan; just the noodles, the broth, a sweet slab of toothsome inari-age and a mound of spicy, fresh spring onions. Perfect comfort food if you’re feeling a little under the weather and great fuel for foxes on a night-time prowl.
Hugely popular from its creation in the late Edo period, to modern times, Unadon- or Unagi Donburi to give the dish its full name- is one of the most common ways to eat freshwater eels in Japan. An oversized lacquer bowl, a mound of perfectly cooked, pearly white rice, and a fillet of eel, glazed to a rich mahogany colour with a mixture of soy and mirin, caramelised and slightly charred. The first time we ate unadon was early one Summer’s morning in Shibuya. After a dawn visit to the Meiji shrine complex we needed a hearty breakfast to boost our flagging energy, knowing little Japanese at the time we stumbled across a restaurant that was open where we recognised the word for ‘eel’ and decided to give it a go. It proved to be the ultimate reviver, the sugary, salty kabayaki glaze along with the big hit of protein and fat got us back on our feet in no time and it has gone on to become one of our favourite breakfast dishes.
Despite being traditionally eaten all over the UK, getting fresh eels nowadays is a little difficult, so over the years we’ve experimented with cooking different native fishes in the kabayaki style. The closest match we’ve been able to find is the locally abundant garfish, long and silvery with a fine flesh and just a little fat, it even looks pretty similar to an eel and should be easy to get hold of in most fishmongers. Whilst at our fishmongers we also saw some beautiful samphire for sale and knew that this vibrant, salty, shoreline succulent would make the perfect gomaae accompaniment to the unadon; while these are both classic breakfast dishes, they’re delicious for any meal of the day.