Musashibō Benkei- a key hero in Japanese folklore and a warrior monk of great prowess- is rumoured to be instrumental in the creation of one of the country’s most popular street foods, the dorayaki. Hiding from one of his many foes in a farmer’s house while he recovered from wounds inflicted upon him, he accidentally left his ceremonial gong behind upon leaving the dwelling. The farmer searched for the hero near and far, but to no avail, and not knowing what the object was used for, he placed the gong in a fire and fried little round pancakes on the metal surface. Wrapping the sweet, hot discs around a ball of mashed red beans the treat was born, albeit in a far more fanciful way than the reality of them being based on a Portuguese sponge cake recipe. However you choose to believe they came about, these little gong cakes have become an icon of Japanese cuisine, thanks in part to them being the favoured food of a futuristic robotic cat called Doraemon from the manga of the same name.
Fluffy sponge discs, warmly fragrant with honey and faintly scented with sweet mirin wine, sandwiched around a smooth filling of pureed azuki beans, dorayaki were our first encounter with street food in Japan and helped spark our obsession with recreating the flavours of the country. The ubiquitous little cakes can be bought in nearly every convenience store or bakery, from vendors on street corners and festival markets, even from kiosks on railway station platforms, and now hopefully you’ll try making them at home too. After you’ve perfected cooking your own dorayaki, try experimenting with other traditional fillings such as custard, mashed chestnuts, sweetened whipped cream or the strangely comforting margarine and maple syrup- the last one greatly inspired by the American breakfast staple.
One of the most popular dishes across of all Japan whether you’re in a restaurant or at home, also happens to be one of the easiest to make and needs only a small handful of basic store cupboard ingredients. An incredibly soothing, rich and soulful meal that tastes like you’ve known it all of your life even on your first time eating it. Oyakodon- literally meaning ‘parent and child rice bowl’- is a satisfyingly large and filling bowl of rice, topped with succulent pieces of chicken thigh and onion, coated in a smooth and brothy mixture of dashi and barely set eggs. Each mouthful of this creamy chicken feast is slightly different as the egg continues to cook with the heat of the rice, so whilst the first bite might bring back memories of boiled eggs and soldiers for breakfast, the second could be a roast dinner and the third a warming bowl of hot rice pudding- is it any wonder that oyakodon is so comforting when every one of these dishes has the power to make you recall childhood memories?
Thought to have been invented in a Tokyo restaurant in the late 1800s, the poetic name which references the chicken and egg components of the dish led to the creation of the equally-delicious Tanindon or ‘unrelated person rice bowl’, which replaces the parental chicken with thinly sliced pieces of unrelated beef. Our recipe works just as well for this version of the dish too, just substitute in slices of either pork or beef and continue as normal.
Along the picturesque and rocky coast of Southern Japan, previously the haunt of pirate clans and mythical creatures, fish- as you would expect- make up a substantial part of the locals’ diet. From the large, headliners of the fish world like tuna, black cod, bream and salmon, to the smaller mackerel, sardines and anchovies, they are all consumed with delight- one species peculiar to Japanese waters however is perhaps the smallest fish you’re ever likely to eat- the miniscule Shirasu.
Shirasu are juvenile katakuchi iwashi, a type of sardine. Tiny, pearlescent fish barely a centimetre in length with a blushing pink spot on their belly, boiled in salted water and then semi-dried to preserve them and enhance their flavour. Some of the most memorable meals we’ve had the fortune of eating on Shikoku or Kyūshū have been served with a mound of these delicate slivers gracing the tray, or perched atop a bowl of food, looking to the uninitiated like a tiny portion of rice until you get close enough to see their minute, perfectly preserved features. The shirasu bring a clean, white fish flavour and a hit of saltiness to any dish that you add them to- stirred into sunomono salads, packed into an onigiri, mixed with grated daikon and served over rice or eaten as a bar snack with a cold beer. Our favourite way to eat them though is in a dish we were served at a motsu restaurant, an appetiser that the chef placed in front of us while we were deciding what to order with the assistance of some particularly boisterous local diners. A small handmade bowl containing only two or three mouthfuls of food, a few lengths of finely sliced konnyaku, doused in a mixture of bonito-infused soy sauce and kabosu juice, a tangle of the little fish and a thoughtfully placed garnish. The smoky, sour and salty dressing working wonders on the slippery, springy konnyaku which acted as the perfect textural contrast to the miniature fish. Such a simple presentation of a handful of ingredients spelled out the essence of Japanese cuisine to me way more than any other dish has before or after and has remained as one of my favourite dishes ever since.
(Shirasu are available frozen in many of the larger oriental supermarkets, a close second if you can’t get them however are chirimen jako, which are the same fish but fully dehydrated. Soak them in some cold water for an hour and you’ll end up with a similar, though slightly less clean-tasting treat.)
One of the most wide-spread and well recognised of all Japanese foods is ebiten, or tempura prawns. Go to any Japanese restaurant around the world and you’ll find these battered delights served either on their own, sitting atop a bowl of noodles or spread seductively across a bed of rice as tendon; when they appear on the conveyor belt at a sushiya they never make it all the way round the circuit, being plucked off deftly by the hands of the hungry punters lucky enough to be seated at the start of the track. As deliciously simple as these deep fried prawns are, and they truly are- being one of the most delightful snacks available- they are only the starting point, the figurehead at the prow of the tempura ship, there are much more varied, maybe even greater tempura to be found if you’re willing to look further afield. Succulent toriten fried chicken from Kyushu, ikaten squid from Hokkaido, bird’s-nest-like mixed vegetable kakiage fritters, fish tempura from the Seto inland sea and perhaps the most traditional- yasai, or vegetable tempura.
When sixteenth century Portuguese traders were at their most prominent, and inadvertently spreading their cuisine across most of Asia, it was their deep fried foods that took hold in Japan, particularly a festival dish called Peixinhos da Horta, ‘little fish of the garden’. These battered and fried green beans were eaten on holy days when consuming fish or meat was forbidden, and provided a substantial alternative that was both economical and nutritious; although their likeness to fish is debatable, they remain a Portuguese favourite to this day. The Japanese took these battered mouthfuls and improved upon them, making the coating lighter and crispier, experimenting with more fillings, sauces to dip them into, and refining the whole process into the culinary art form that we know today. Yasai tempura holds the torch as the closest remaining relative of this venerable cooking technique; a fine, lacy covering of crisp, pale blond batter, encapsulating a steaming hot, perfectly cooked morsel of sweet, nutty kabocha or maybe a smooth, meltingly creamy slice of aubergine or a spicy, almost minty shiso leaf. As with all Japanese food, the vegetables used change with the seasons, the airy batter allowing the flavours of the fillings to concentrate as they steam within their protective shells and paint a picture of the subtly changing environment outside.
The key to making successful tempura at home is in the temperature of the batter- keep all your batter ingredients as cold as possible, and always make the batter immediately before you fry your ingredients to prevent the gluten from developing and giving an undesirably chewy texture.
The mountains and hillsides of Japan are blanketed with some of the world’s finest woodlands and forests; proud, scaly, pointed hinoki trees; beautifully domed, ruddy-leafed maples; giant, venerated sugi cedars dating back thousands of years and my favourite, the gnarled ume trees, with their blackened fingers reaching ever skywards. Nearly always overshadowed by their relative the cherry, the fruit of these wild plum trees (a hard, astringent, mouth puckeringly sour, green apricot) have found their way into Japanese cuisine via two main avenues- as umeboshi, salt-pickled plums coloured with red shiso leaves and normally eaten on a bowl of rice for a invigorating breakfast, or used to flavour the perennially enjoyed liqueur umeshu. Locals scour the countryside looking for these wild plums every year so they can top up their supply of the fruity spirit, families pass down their secret recipes on their deathbeds, and many a Japanese drama has been based upon the bitter-sweet moment that the last drops of a deceased loved one’s plum wine passes over your lips, never to be enjoyed again.
Replicating umeshu outside of Japan can be achieved via a well stocked oriental supermarket in early to mid summer when the ume plums are in season. Doing so creates a delicious drink, but misses out on the connection with nature that one would attain by foraging for the fruits yourself; fortunately, an equally fragrant and acerbic but darker hued plum can be found in hedgerows and fields all across the UK- the sloe. This bluish black, marble-sized treasure has been used for decades to flavour and colour gin, making it the perfect candidate for adding to shochu- Japan’s clear alcohol of choice- along with some rock sugar and a little patience to create a hybrid liqueur celebrating both the spirit of the Japanese classic and the abundant autumnal harvest of an often ignored British fruit.
Rock sugar is traditionally used when making umeshu as the crystals dissolve more slowly than granulated sugar, giving the alcohol plenty of time to extract the scent and flavour from the plums resulting in a fruitier finished product. If you can’t get your hands on rock sugar (or ‘candy’ as it’s often labelled in Chinese supermarkets) then you can use granulated sugar instead, but only add it to the liqueur after it has had a month or two of steeping with the fruit to keep the flavours properly balanced.
When you mention Japanese soup, the dish that springs to mind instantly is the timeless, classic miso soup with tofu and wakame seaweed; in the colder months of the year however, and particularly on the pork-loving island of Kyushu, another soup reigns as king- Tonjiru. Sometimes called Butajiru, both names literally meaning pork soup, it is a much heartier affair than the standard bowl of miso; enhanced with strips of braised pork belly, a selection of root vegetables, blocks of springy jelly-like konnyaku and deeply savoury shreds of mushroom, a bowl of this wintery, sustaining soup quickly starts to feel like a meal in itself. Possibly not a soup suited to breakfast time due to its more stew-like consistency, it makes a fantastic accompaniment to both meaty dishes and also beer, and as such it finds its way onto the menus of many izakaya, tonkatsu restaurants and gyudon joints. Outside of restaurants, we’ve found it for sale at religious festivals, farmers’ markets, sporting events and anywhere that large numbers of people gather together and need feeding; a homely classic full of earthy flavours that brings diners together and ignites childhood memories of mothers’ cooking.
One day in the warren-like shopping arcades of Asakusa, on our first trip to Tokyo, we spotted an enormous queue of people slowly leading past the main Sensō-Ji temple and associated buildings to a wooden food counter set into a wall. Being of the inquisitive type, and knowing that if locals are willing to queue for something then it must be good, we joined the line and patiently waited between a group of school girls and a venerable elderly lady with a walking stick who steadfastly refused to take our place in line. The queue stopped and started. Twenty or thirty people would buy something wrapped in a paper bag and leave, then more waiting before another twenty or thirty people moved along, all the while the smell of freshly baked goods was building ever stronger and filling our minds with suspense. What were we queueing for? Was it savoury or sweet? Was there a choice? The possibility that the language barrier would prove too hard to break through and us end up with nothing flashed through my mind. As we approached the shop front we could make out that they were selling only one thing, large round bread buns which people were greedily eating from paper bags as roving gangs of hoodlum sparrows harassed them for stray crumbs. By now we had waited for around half an hour- a rich, sweet, vanilla scented thirty minutes; we got to the stall and found ourselves confronted by a wall of undecipherable Kanji, except for two romanized words- Melon Pan ¥200. That settled it, we awkwardly ordered two melon pan and shied away to the shade of a gingko tree to see what we had been waiting so long for.
Peeling back the paper wrapper we revealed a pair of relatively plain looking bread rolls, around twenty centimetres wide, light golden brown, attractively scored in a criss-cross, melon rind pattern, but pretty unremarkable- until we tore into them that is. A brittle, aromatic, sugary cookie crust shattered and gave way to a warm, delicate, butter enriched bread, lighter in texture than a brioche but without giving up any of its richness. This unassuming roll was one of the most ethereal breads I had ever eaten and within two minutes it was all gone and I found myself wanting to rejoin the queue for a second taste, realising only then why people were buying them in fives and sixes rather than individual buns.