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.)
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.
The most popular meat in modern Japan- with yearly sales surpassing both chicken and beef combined- is without a doubt, pork. Ever since the wild boar was domesticated during the iron age, it has made up a large part of the country’s diet; even during the Warring States years of samurai rule and national adherence to Buddhism, when the eating of four-legged beasts was particularly frowned upon, the descriptive euphemisms “mountain whale” and “walking vegetable” were used to tiptoe around the rules denying the people their favourite meat. Much like prohibition pharmacists in the US selling whisky to patients with enough money, unscrupulous Edo period doctors would prescribe pork as a health food for its stamina building properties and a black market trade developed up until the 1900s. The twentieth century saw the government’s opinion of meat change dramatically- advisors decided that it was the vast amounts of meat consumed by Europeans that made them grow large and powerful; so for them to not be left behind in the changing world, it became of great national importance that the Japanese took up eating pork again.
The Kagoshima region on the south-western tip of Kyūshū is home to the most acclaimed pork in all of Japan; bred from Okinawan Berkshire pigs, Kurobuta pork has particularly fine muscle fibres, a rich delicate flavour and above all, light, non-sticky and incredibly tasty fat. Besides the regular pork dishes found across the country, Kagoshima has a number of delicacies that are almost impossible to find anywhere else, our favourite of these is a sticky variation on niku miso, packed with the savoury black pork that the region prides itself on. Darkly sweet from unrefined brown sugar, salty and umami-rich from the mugimiso and deeply satisfying and savoury from slowly simmered pork, kurobuta miso is Japan’s answer to bacon jam. It can be enjoyed smeared across an onigiri, packed into a sandwich, spooned over hot steamed rice, dropped into a bowl of ramen like a savoury depth charge or used as a simple sauce for a vegetable stir fry. Perhaps the best way to eat it though is with crudités, scooped up greedily on a stick of raw cucumber or carrot, the cooling crunch of the vegetables offsetting the rich, intensity of the miso perfectly.
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.
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!
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.
Food in Japan is divided into two distinct categories; Washoku, the native, traditional cuisine that dates back many hundreds if not thousands of years, and Yōshoku (or seiyōshoku), Western style dishes that started being imported into Japan’s culinary tapestry during the Meiji restoration. Along with firm favourites such as karē, tonkatsu, and ramen, ebi furai- or breaded, fried prawns lie firmly within the yōshoku camp, probably owing their heritage to Portuguese traders who introduced crumb coated pork cutlets to Japan during the late 1880s. Much later, an enterprising chef combined two of the most popular yōshoku, ebi furai and hambāgā to create an ebi katsu burger, chopped prawns shaped into a patty, breaded and then deep fried before being served in a soft buttery bun with the traditional furai accompaniments of tartare and tonkatsu sauces. We’ve adapted this modern classic slightly by mixing our prawn meat with minced hanpen, a very airy fishcake made from pollock and nagaimo yam, which gives the burger a particularly light, bouncy, juicy texture without detracting from the sweet, delicate flavour of the prawn.
Onipote (a contraction of the words onion and potato) is a half portion of onion rings served with a half portion of fries, a dish we first came across in an Akihabara branch of MOSBurger, Japan’s largest fast food chain. Why chose between both of these classic sides when you can have a little of each? Rather than batter our onion rings we’ve opted for the same crunchy panko crumbs that we used on our ebi burger and then dredged both these and the super skinny fries with a sweet and spicy shichimi togarashi salt. Perfect!