Whilst under Shogunate rule during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, trade and interaction with the outside world was tightly restricted, borders were sealed and Japan effectively became a closed country. A closed country that is, except for the port of Nagasaki on the western coast of Kyūshū, a bustling hub for the importing and exporting of produce, people and ideas. Much of the trade through Nagasaki was conducted with the Portuguese who were expanding their empire from Lisbon via the coasts of Africa, the Middle East and Goa. These Nanban- Southern Barbarians- brought with them the Christian church, the technology to make firearms, foods like peppers, chillies and vinegar, and new cooking techniques such as deep frying in breadcrumbs and batter, all of which were assimilated quickly by the locals. One of Portugal’s most popular methods of preserving fish for long journeys- escabeche, proved to be a huge success when tasted by the Japanese and has remained a favourite ever since. Literally meaning ‘pickled in the southern barbarian style’, nanbanzuke normally refers to whole fried fish or fillets soused in a vinegary sauce with vegetables, but we’ve enjoyed it many times with octopus- another staple of the travelling Europeans.
In our version of nanbanzuke we poach a whole octopus until tender, then marinade it with a selection of crunchy vegetables in a mixture of fish stock and rice vinegar with plenty of spicy red chilli and ginger to add some fieriness. Served at room temperature, nanbanzuke makes a wonderful addition to a picnic lunch, or when chilled it’s the perfect dish to serve in the summer when all you want to eat is something cooling, light and refreshing.
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.
Ebi Furai- colossal, breaded, deep fried prawns- became the signature dish of Nagoya thanks to a quip made by the television comedian Tamori at the expense of the city’s dialect and accent. Misunderstanding of this joke led to the nation believing that Nagoya excelled in making the succulent, sweet prawns coated in shatteringly crisp shards of panko, and the city was happy to adopt this modern meibutsu as their speciality. In reality ebi furai was created during the Meiji Restoration period of the late nineteenth century in response to the increasingly popular deep fried yōshoku dishes such as tonkatsu and menchi-katsu that were being served in the larger, metropolitan cities. Traditionally made using Kuruma ebi (Japanese imperial prawns) which can grow to a monstrous thirty centimetres in length, nowadays the more ecologically sustainable black tiger shrimp is used in making this celebration of oversized shellfish.
Breaded, fried prawns have since become one of the most common ingredients for bentō packed lunches, crammed into ebi-sando sandwiches smeared with coleslaw or even served hotdog style in long soft bread rolls topped with creamy tartar sauce. Perhaps our favourite way to eat ebi furai though is paired with another yōshoku bentō staple, the Japanese take on potato salad. Creamier and more tangy than your typical potato salad, this version uses mashed potatoes studded with nuggets of smoked ham, crushed hard boiled eggs, salted cucumbers, and ultra sweet, exploding kernels of corn bound together with the ubiquitous Kewpie mayonnaise and a dash of vinegar. These two dishes make a delicious light meal when combined with some thinly shredded cabbage and a drizzle of the thick Worcestershire-style sauce that goes so well with fried breaded foods, or they work wonderfully well individually as starting points for making a packed lunch.
Transporting fresh fish from the coast of Japan to its major inland cities was almost impossible before the advent of refrigerated trains; the days required to travel by horse resulted in inedible, spoiled goods unfit for the population of the Kansai region. The only reliable means of getting fish to the then-capital city of Kyoto was to preserve it in some way- fermenting the fish in rice was popular, which extended its shelf-life to six months or more but altered the flavour dramatically. In this early form of sushi, the rice was discarded and only the soured, preserved fish was eaten; it would take another three or four hundred years until the mid 1600s for a version with edible rice to evolve. As the techniques for making sushi developed, the preservation of the fish improved but palates accustomed to the old style dishes yearned for the sour tang and started adding vinegar to the rice, creating the seasoned sushi rice we know and love today.
Sabazushi, still one of Japan’s most popular forms of sushi, lies comfortably between the fish preserving necessities of old that led to the development of sushi and the modern, perfectly crafted slices of fish atop vinegared rice that spring to mind as this most ubiquitous Japanese delicacy. Glistening, iridescent, tiger-striped fillets of mackerel are salted and lightly cured before being wrapped over a pillow of seasoned sticky rice and sliced into perfect, jewel topped pieces. Traditionally in Osaka, you would press this in an oshizushihako box mould to create a rectangular block, but we prefer to make it Kyoto-style and shape it by hand so you can appreciate the naturally domed top that the fish forms. Whether you press it or not this makes a plate of beautiful, two-bite sized morsels; delicate, refreshingly tangy and with just enough of the rich, creamy fattiness that we love mackerel for.
An izakaya staple and to my mind one of the most elegant ways to serve beancurd, agedashi tofu is in essence a very simple recipe- smooth, delicate kinugoshi silken tofu is dusted in potato starch, deep fried and served in a bowl of seasoned dashi broth. A light, crisp shell gives way to a gently yielding, creamy, custard-like texture that melts in your mouth while the katakuriko gives the agedashi its distinctive soft, stretchy, jelly-like coating when immersed in the sweet, smoky soup. The two main elements of the dish are further enhanced by a selection of toppings- normally fresh spring onions, spicy daikon oroshi, savoury katsuobushi flakes and intensely powerful grated ginger- but you can also add chopped shiso leaves, shredded sheets of nori seaweed or a citrussy chilli kick from some shichimi togarashi.
Documented as early as the 1780s in Ka Hitsujun’s Tofu Hyakuchin- an immensely popular Edo period book on tofu- the clean, harmonious flavours and ease of preparation have helped keep this unassuming, humble looking dish a favourite across all of Japan, and one that we make a beeline for whenever we see it on a restaurant menu. The simplicity of the recipe allows each component to really shine and since they have nothing to hide behind you want to use the best quality ingredients you can find, make them all memorable and you’ll have a beautifully balanced bowl of food.
Tsukemono- preserved vegetables- pop up nearly every time food is consumed in Japan but can easily go unnoticed; they’re served with sushi to cleanse the palate in between flavours, as a snack with beers after a long day at work, used to top a bowl of rice and garnish dishes or as a course all of their own in a traditional kaiseki meal. These pickles help bring balance and harmony to a meal, they awaken the senses and excite the mouth preventing flavour fatigue and they add textures and colours that are otherwise missing from the foods that they accompany; samurai even used them for a quick energy boost during battle- and that alone is a good enough endorsement for me.
Unlike most Western pickles, those of Japan don’t rely purely on salt or vinegar to take care of the preservation of the main ingredient- tsukemono can be made with leftover lees from brewing sake, rice bran, mustard, soy sauce or as in this recipe, miso. These misozuke pickles are perhaps the most intensely savoury of all the tsukemono, garlic cloves are buried in a finger-licking mixture of miso, sake and mirin before being left for months to slowly transform. The miso helps temper the fiery flavour of the garlic which in turn mellows out the saltiness of the miso, resulting in two beautifully balanced condiments; a crunchy, umami-rich pickled garlic that’s a perfect accompaniment to meat or fish dishes, and a garlic enhanced nerimiso that’s just crying out to be stirred into a soup, spooned over hot steamed vegetables or smeared onto a crispy, lightly singed yaki onigiri. Oishii!
If you ever have the pleasure of eating in one of Japan’s more formal kaiseki ryōri restaurants, you’ll probably be served a futamono- “lidded course” between your sashimi and your grilled yakimono course. Your futamono could be a small stew of seasonal ingredients, a soup such as a suimono, or our favourite, chawanmushi- a silky smooth treasure hunt of a dish. Named after the lidded tea-cup or chawan that it is cooked in, chawanmushi is a wonderfully light, delicate egg custard, seasoned with dashi and mirin, and steamed until just set enough to encase and obscure the morsels trapped within its depths. Each spoonful of custard is an edible lucky dip where you might bring up a firm ginkgo nut, a tender prawn, a juicy chunk of shiitake or a sour, palate cleansing bubble of yuzu pulp.
A popular, and to my mind almost compulsory addition to chawanmushi is a spoon or two of ankake sauce added moments before serving. This mildly fishy, faintly smoky sauce adds an extra savoury oomph to each mouthful and helps you appreciate the sweetness of the steamed eggs.