Summer fatigue or natsubate can be a big problem during the humid middle months of the year; people become lethargic, have trouble sleeping, lose their appetites and in the workplace, productivity hits an annual low. The Japanese way to combat this starts with the copious amounts of air conditioning installed within practically every home and building, but the most effective treatment against overheating comes through the application of food. You could follow in the habits of the kappa- a fart-loving mythical water dwelling creature, and enjoy a salty, marinated cucumber on a stick, perhaps sit down to a mound of shaved ice topped with mashed beans and fruity syrups or greedily devour a wedge of melon, but snacking can only get you so far through the day and eventually you’ll want to eat a real meal. A dish of simmered and chilled tōgan- a close relative of both the cucumber and watermelon, can provide the relief needed to get you through the most oppressive of summer days. Known across much of Asia as Winter Melon because it is one of the only fresh vegetables still available by that season, tōgan is recognised in both Ayurvedic and Yakuzen schools of medicine as being able to remove excess heat from the body and revive flagging energy. After being cooked briefly in dashi and dressed with minced prawns and chicken, also known in folk remedies for its restorative qualities, this chilled tōgan makes a light but sustaining meal with a crisp bite and a soothingly cool sauce that makes even the hottest, stuffiest weather that little bit more manageable.
- 1kg tōgan (winter melon)
- 600ml dashi stock
- 200g raw prawns
- 200g chicken mince (minced thighs will give better flavour but breast mince will give a cleaner colour to the ankake sauce)
- 15ml sake
- 30ml mirin
- 30ml shiro shoyu (white soy sauce)
- 15ml soy sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 40g caster sugar
- 3 teaspoons potato starch
- 2 spring onions
- Peel the tough green outer skin off the tōgan, remove the seeds and chop it into pieces just large enough to greedily fit in your mouth or perhaps eat in two bites. Bevel the cut edges of the melon with a sharp knife or peeler to help the pieces keep their shape during cooking.
- Combine the dashi, sake, mirin, salt, sugar and both types of soy sauce in a large pan and bring the liquid slowly to the boil over a medium heat. Add the chopped tōgan pieces and lower the heat until at a simmer then allow the melon to cook gently for five minutes or until you can just about pierce the flesh with the point of a knife; we like our tōgan to retain a slight firmness, but feel free to cook it for more or less time according to your preference. Carefully remove the cooked melon pieces and set to one side while you make the soboro ankake sauce from the cooking liquid.
- Shell and de-vein the prawns if needed then finely chop by hand to give a coarser texture than using a mincer. Add the chicken to the pan of dashi and bring it back to a simmer, stirring constantly to make sure the mince breaks up and no large clumps remain. After around three minutes skim and discard any froth that has gathered on the surface of the dashi, then add the chopped prawns and cook through until they turn from grey to a delicate coral pink colour. Slake the potato starch in a tablespoon or two of cold water, then add it to the sauce and stir thoroughly until it thickens.
- Pour the ankake sauce over the cooked winter melon, allow it to cool completely and then put in the fridge for at least an hour. Serve the chilled melon and sauce in shallow bowls with a spicy tangle of shredded spring onions nestled on top.
Serves 4 people as a main course or 6-8 as a side dish or appetiser.