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 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.
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.
Once places of legend and mystery- boiling sulphurous waters forced from deep within the earth, gouts of fiercesome steam and perhaps even home to ghosts and monsters- the onsen or spa towns that are dotted along Japan’s mountain ranges are now prime destinations for people to bathe and absorb the health giving properties of the mineral rich waters. Tourists flock to towns such as Beppu in Kyushu to take in the eight different ‘Hells’, buy concentrated mineral salts to infuse their own baths at home and to sample local foods cooked in the steam that issues from the hillside. These geothermally cooked foods are not just a recent invention for tourists however, locals have been utilising the naturally stable and constant temperature of the springs to prepare their food for centuries, the most popular use being for soft poached eggs, or onsen tamago. After dropping a basket of eggs into the pool of a hot spring, they could be left unattended for an hour or two while the owner went about their other duties (or simply had a relaxing bath) before returning to collect their cooked eggs- rich, soft, custardy yolks, suspended within the silkiest of egg whites, the type of slow cooked eggs that modern restaurant reviewers rave about.
These most delicate of eggs can be made just as well at home and with no need for a volcanic hot spring, slow cooking them for three quarters of an hour at a low temperature is all that’s needed to coax the eggs to lightly set perfection. Unlike boiled eggs which are forced into springy submission by the fierce heat of the water, onsen tamago are gently persuaded to gel into a mass that can barely hold itself together, collapsing lazily at the slightest touch of a chopstick into a creamy unctuous puddle. They’re a staple part of a Japanese breakfast, served on top of steaming hot rice or plunged in a pool of broth, but they also make an incredible topping for a bowl of ramen, cracked open over a plate of spicy karē-raisu or dipped into batter and fried as one of the most delectable tempura imaginable.
Hugely popular from its creation in the late Edo period, to modern times, Unadon- or Unagi Donburi to give the dish its full name- is one of the most common ways to eat freshwater eels in Japan. An oversized lacquer bowl, a mound of perfectly cooked, pearly white rice, and a fillet of eel, glazed to a rich mahogany colour with a mixture of soy and mirin, caramelised and slightly charred. The first time we ate unadon was early one Summer’s morning in Shibuya. After a dawn visit to the Meiji shrine complex we needed a hearty breakfast to boost our flagging energy, knowing little Japanese at the time we stumbled across a restaurant that was open where we recognised the word for ‘eel’ and decided to give it a go. It proved to be the ultimate reviver, the sugary, salty kabayaki glaze along with the big hit of protein and fat got us back on our feet in no time and it has gone on to become one of our favourite breakfast dishes.
Despite being traditionally eaten all over the UK, getting fresh eels nowadays is a little difficult, so over the years we’ve experimented with cooking different native fishes in the kabayaki style. The closest match we’ve been able to find is the locally abundant garfish, long and silvery with a fine flesh and just a little fat, it even looks pretty similar to an eel and should be easy to get hold of in most fishmongers. Whilst at our fishmongers we also saw some beautiful samphire for sale and knew that this vibrant, salty, shoreline succulent would make the perfect gomaae accompaniment to the unadon; while these are both classic breakfast dishes, they’re delicious for any meal of the day.