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.
By far the easiest Japanese dish to make at home, and a great introduction to Japanese flavours for the nervous first-time diner, teriyaki chicken- whether served on skewers, tucked inside a fluffy burger bun, or crowning a bowl of pearly white rice- has become one of the most recognisable faces of washoku the world over. The alchemical combination of the three classic sauce ingredients- soy sauce, mirin and sake, create the quintessential basic Japanese flavour that so many other dishes build upon, and the addition of warming, soft brown sugar thickens the sauce into an incredibly sticky, mahogany lacquer. It is the lustrous glaze that is referred to in the name of this cooking technique- teri literally meaning shine and yaki, to grill, although use of the term has now expanded to include the sauce too, leading to the bottled sauces on the supermarket shelves that we’re all familiar with, but bearing little resemblance to the simple, authentic dish at its roots.
Sweet, sticky, intensely savoury and endlessly versatile, this technique lends itself just as well to thin beef steaks, chunky pork chops, pieces of salmon or mackerel, blocks of tofu or even meatballs and burgers, but to my mind, chicken thighs are the ultimate subject for teriyaki. Biting through the crisp, slightly charred skin covered in the deep red-brown caramel glaze, giving way to the succulent, delicate white flesh of the thigh before finding your way to the soothing, polished rice is a delicious mouthful, needing just a hint of the nutty snap of toasted sesame seeds to push it into the realms of perfection.
(Any cold, leftover teriyaki chicken makes a wonderful sandwich filling when accompanied by crisp iceberg lettuce, a squirt of Kewpie mayonnaise, and served on the softest bread you can find.)
If time allows in the busy schedules of modern city living, one of the most harmonious and revitalizing meals you could possibly enjoy can be found in the traditional Japanese breakfast, or asa teishoku. Built around the structural concept of ichijusansai, meaning one soup and three dishes, the standard spread for a Japanese breakfast includes miso soup, salted grilled fish, a piece of rolled omelette, and a couple of small vegetable dishes, all accompanied by the ubiquitous bowl of rice and plate of pickles. Much like a full English breakfast it contains all of the necessary nutrients and calories for a productive morning’s work, but unlike its British cousin doesn’t make you sluggish or weigh you down with unwieldy amounts of meat, and it even contains a large amount of your daily recommended fruit and vegetable intake.
At first glance, a breakfast feast of nine or more components may seem like far too much work to undertake on a day-to-day basis (and in many respects it is- most modern Japanese people now eat a Western-style breakfast of bread or pancakes more often than a traditional spread) but most of the dishes are served either cold or at room temperature so can be made in advance and kept refrigerated until required, with only the soup and rice really needing to be cooked fresh in the morning. All of the dishes from this typical breakfast also work incredibly well when used in a bento lunch or as side dishes to an evening meal.
At the foundation of nearly all Japanese food is a handful of key flavours and ingredients; salty fermented soy products such as miso and soy sauce; sweet mirin and aromatic sake rice wines; and the underlying essence of the sea- a delicate, smoky, ocean scented stock called dashi. At its most basic and purest form, dashi is simply dried kombu seaweed, rehydrated and steeped in water until it releases all of its delicious, rich minerals creating a savoury broth to boost the taste of any dish. More complicated versions of the liquor add sawdust-like smoked bonito flakes, small dried fish such as sardines or anchovies and maybe even a handful of woody, earthy tasting shiitake mushrooms to supercharge the umami qualities of this liquid flavour bomb.
Umami- the fifth taste after sweet, salty, bitter and sour- is a loan word from Japanese, literally meaning ‘delicious flavour’ and it describes the brothy, savoury, meaty taste identified when the tongue’s receptors react to the presence of glutamic acid in food. Dried kombu is particularly rich in glutamic acid (so much so that you can even see crystals of it on the seaweed’s surface, looking like a white powdery bloom) and the savoury aspects become even stronger when combined with bonito flakes thanks to the synergistic relationship between glutamates and the inosinates present in nearly all dried seafood. Only explained by science in the early twentieth century, the cooks of Japan have known about the mouth watering qualities of combining these flavours together for centuries, using dashi in everything from pancake batters to soups and stews.
Nowadays there are plenty of very good instant dashi powders and granules easily available in supermarkets- we use them regularly when we don’t want the dashi itself to be an overly prominent flavour in the finished dish- but nothing really compares to making your own, adjusting the seasoning to your liking, adding more or less of one ingredient or another, or perhaps even adding a completely new ingredient (the addition of smoked bacon or air dried ham creates an unconventional but intoxicatingly heady dashi that goes brilliantly with darker, red miso soups). We’re certain that after you’ve tried making your own dashi, you’ll want to always keep a packet of kombu and katsuobushi handy in your store cupboard at all times.
PS. Whatever you do, don’t throw away the used flavourings after you’ve strained your broth, make them into a delicious seasoning for your rice by following our recipe for homemade furikake or cook them up again to make niban dashi.
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!
Grain milling technology is said to have entered Japan during the thirteenth century when a Buddhist monk, Enni Ben’en, returned with it after studying meditation in China. Along with that mechanical knowledge, he brought with him the idea that would eventually lead to the thick, white, toothsome, wheat flour noodle that we know today as udon. Easily our favourite type of noodle, udon has enough character to be the main focal point of a dish, whether it’s a meal of chilled noodles with dipping sauce in the heat of the Summer, a plate of fried yaki-udon bought from a yatai at a festival or sunken deep in a bowl of smoky pork broth, topped with slow braised meat and a boiled egg. There are some fantastic udon available to buy from supermarkets, even here in the UK, and they’re the ones we use day-to-day, but when we want something that little bit special, when you want the noodle to break free from its supporting role and be the star of the dish, nothing beats making them yourself.
Making noodles at home is a simple affair, requiring very few ingredients and not taking much time at all; kneading the dough is perhaps the only labour-intensive part of the process and that is made a lot easier by letting your feet do the work rather than wearing out your arm muscles. The beauty of making udon yourself rather than buying them really lies in the ability to make them whatever size and shape you like- from the almost paper thin Himokawa noodles of Gunma Prefecture, to the finger-thick “Two Noodle” udon of Kyoto’s Tawaraya restaurant and everything inbetween. Our preference lies somewhere towards the Ise udon end of the spectrum- larger and thicker than commercially available noodles, but not so fat that they take a whole hour to boil them.
Originally created as a calcium rich dietary supplement to combat malnutrition in the working classes and the soldiers of the First World War, furikake rice topping has since become a store-cupboard staple found in nearly every Japanese household. First marketed by pharmacists during the 1910s, it went by many names including ‘Kore Wa Umai’ or ‘This is Good’ before it was christened furikake in the late 1950s. Since then the make-up of the seasoning has evolved down multiple pathways creating an almost endless variety of flavours, nearly all of them based around the standard elements of seaweed, sesame seeds, salt and dried fish products.
The first step of many Japanese recipes is making dashi, a mellow broth of kombu and katsuobushi that forms a solid foundation upon which you base the rest of your dish. Once the stock has been drained and used, the seaweed and bonito flakes are normally discarded, but they contain far too much flavour to simply throw away, so we like to recycle these unwanted ingredients into our own homemade furikake. When combined with toasted sesame seeds, soy sauce and mirin the result is a deeply savoury condiment with a hint of smoky nuttiness that’s perfect for topping a bowl of hot steamed rice, mixing into an onigiri or even scattering over a fresh batch of popcorn.