Boiled eggs feature in many dishes like oden and ramen, and they make a great snack or addition to a bento. Most often they are cooked until the yolks are solid, however we like ours to be barely set, especially with tiny quail eggs which you pop in your mouth whole and burst to release the rich gooey centre. By lightly pickling them in a sweet and sour soy liquor you can add a level of complexity to their whites and stain them an attractive glossy brown colour too. Shoyu tamago are a great replacement for use in any recipe which calls for boiled eggs, and their natural saltiness makes them a perfect accompaniment to drinks.
Hakusai no shiozuke is on the other end of the flavour spectrum, rather than being rich and gooey like the shoyu tamago it is crisp, spicy and fresh with lemon zest. Chinese cabbage is pressed and pickled for a short amount of time to provide a punchy accompaniment to meals and a perfect counterpoint to rich or fatty meats. This traditional recipe is a delicious introduction to salted pickles for those who’re a little wary of the tsukemono plate that comes with most Japanese meals.
Miso is one of the cornerstones of Japanese cuisine, a protein rich paste of fermented soy beans used in making pickles, sauces, spreads and in its most well known guise as soup. Here in the middle of the UK it is pretty difficult to get hold of good miso, and when you find it you can end up paying luxury prices for a basic ingredient, so, having some home-brewing experience we decided to try making our own. A fungus called koji is grown on grains such as rice or barley before being introduced to cooked beans and salt. The salt kills off any bacteria present to make an environment conducive to fermenting, but since the koji enzymes can still function in a salty environment, they continue to do their job breaking down the carbohydrates and proteins creating the paste we know and love.
The process of making your own miso isn’t a short one, taking around two months to get a usable product, but we feel that following the journey from beans to miso is helpful in understanding Japanese food. Rice grains inoculated with koji can be bought online from a number of suppliers, otherwise all the ingredients are extremely easy to get and the hardest part of the procedure is the waiting and resisting using your paste before it’s ready. Incidentally, you also end up with a small amount of home-brewed tamari every now and then as it leaches out of the miso. We wouldn’t have been able to work out how to make miso without the help of the brilliant, but out of print, Book of Miso by William Shurtleff & Akiko Aoyagi; we highly recommend hunting down a copy if you want to experiment some more with fermenting your own miso.
Rice is the most important component in nearly every Japanese meal so cooking it correctly is a good skill to master if you want to regularly eat Japanese food. When we first read about cooking rice the Japanese way, we were put off by the washing stages, thinking that they couldn’t possibly make a difference to the finished product- how wrong we were! If you don’t wash your rice well, or even if you wash it half-heartedly, you end up with an overly starchy mass which lacks the flavour, character and definition of properly cooked rice. In our opinion the best rice to use is Koshihikari (Megumi is an excellent brand), it has very short grains which retain a distinct bite, a beautiful pearly appearance, and a sweet flavour unrivalled by other rices. There have been many times while eating a bowl of this rice that I have thought to myself, I could be happy eating nothing else but perfectly cooked plain white rice for three meals a day.
In Japan, nearly all rice is prepared in electric rice cookers, and while we couldn’t justify the storage space for a dedicated rice cooker, we have perfected a way to cook it in an Instant Pot electric pressure cooker that gives identical results. Don’t worry if you haven’t got an Instant Pot, we’ve included instructions for cooking rice in a saucepan too.