As the sweltering summer days drift slowly into mild, contemplative Autumn, nature’s hues turn to yellows and reds, and we long for cooling, refreshing food to take our minds off what’s left of the oppressive heat; luckily our gardens present us with exactly what we need- a bountiful crop of round, juicy tomatoes. Cooking with tomatoes isn’t exactly commonplace in Japan; they are however often enjoyed on their own, added to colourful salads or used as a bright topping for a cool creamy block of tofu along with something a little neba neba.
Neba neba is an onomatopoeic word used to describe foods with a sticky, slimy or stringy texture- qualities not normally desired in most Western cuisine, but looked upon as being incredibly healthy and delicious in Japan. The spectrum of neba neba ingredients range from those suited only to the most dedicated gourmand- pungent fermented soybean natto, raw egg whites, and tororo grated mountain yam- to the entry level mozuku seaweed, nameko gelatinous mushrooms and the almost universally accepted okra. While many cultures have fought against okra’s desire to impart a gluey consistency to dishes by soaking out the juices or refusing to cut the vegetable, Japanese chefs have embraced and even sought out ingenious ways to encourage this characteristic.
Our recipe for hiyayakko tofu is a great way to gingerly encounter neba neba food for the first time. It combines both tomatoes and okra with a refreshingly sharp and citrussy ponzu dressing to give a dish that is both cool and creamy, but still packed with enough zingy, salty punch to liven things up a little and the slightest hint of the stringy texture that the Japanese so love.
- 600g chilled firm silken tofu
- 200g tomatoes (it doesn’t matter what type of tomatoes you use, just make sure that they’re ripe and packed with flavour)
- 50g okra
- 30ml soy sauce
- 30ml yuzu juice
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon salt
- To prepare the okra, start by tossing them with the salt in a mixing bowl, then firmly rub the outside of each pod with the abrasive salt until you have removed all of the hairy coating from their skins. Discard the pointed tip and stalk end from each of the okra and then slice into centimetre thick slices. Blanch the sliced okra in a pan of boiling water for one minute before draining into a sieve. At this point you should start to see the neba neba qualities of the okra developing.
- Combine the soy sauce, yuzu juice and sugar in a bowl, mixing until the grains of sugar have fully dissolved then add the blanched okra and stir thoroughly.
- Remove the stalks from the tomatoes then cut them into bite sized pieces before mixing them and any juices from the chopping board into the okra and ponzu dressing. It is best to use the dressed vegetables immediately, although you can leave them for up to an hour in the fridge before serving- any longer than that and they will start to deteriorate.
- Cut the tofu into four equal sized blocks and place each one in an individual serving bowl, taking care not to tear the delicate beancurd. Top each piece of tofu with a pile of tomatoes and okra, allowing the dressing to flow over the cut edges and pool in the bottom of the bowl. We like to eat the hiyayakko tofu just like this, but if you feel you want an extra bit of spiciness you can garnish it with some shichimi togarashi (or even a dab of yuzukosho) which goes wonderfully well with the tomatoes.
Serves 4 people as an appetiser or as part of a multi-course meal.