When you mention Japanese soup, the dish that springs to mind instantly is the timeless, classic miso soup with tofu and wakame seaweed; in the colder months of the year however, and particularly on the pork-loving island of Kyushu, another soup reigns as king- Tonjiru. Sometimes called Butajiru, both names literally meaning pork soup, it is a much heartier affair than the standard bowl of miso; enhanced with strips of braised pork belly, a selection of root vegetables, blocks of springy jelly-like konnyaku and deeply savoury shreds of mushroom, a bowl of this wintery, sustaining soup quickly starts to feel like a meal in itself. Possibly not a soup suited to breakfast time due to its more stew-like consistency, it makes a fantastic accompaniment to both meaty dishes and also beer, and as such it finds its way onto the menus of many izakaya, tonkatsu restaurants and gyudon joints. Outside of restaurants, we’ve found it for sale at religious festivals, farmers’ markets, sporting events and anywhere that large numbers of people gather together and need feeding; a homely classic full of earthy flavours that brings diners together and ignites childhood memories of mothers’ cooking.
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.)
Theatre and diner interaction play a huge part in Japanese dining, the artistry of the tea ceremony, the DIY grilling over a hibachi when you eat yakiniku, the almost exclusively Northern dish of wanko soba where attendants deftly fling mouthfuls of noodles into your bowl as you eat, and our favourite- shabu shabu. Named after the onomatopoeic sound of people doing laundry, flapping sheets and clothing around in a pot of bubbling water, a shabu shabu meal sees diners sat around a steaming pot of stock, individually dipping in wafer thin slices of raw meat and vegetables until cooked, then quickly anointing them with a sour ponzu dipping sauce and greedily gobbling them down before repeating the act with the next morsel. It is one of the most entertaining, communal and theatrical of Japanese meals, but- because of the huge amounts of steam generated by the hotpot (or more correctly, hotpots, since you’re likely to be eating shabu shabu in a restaurant specialising in the dish)- only really suited to winter dining.
What happens then in the warmer, more humid months if people crave the flavours of shabu shabu but not the hour or two huddled around a pot of steaming pork and beef broth which would be so welcome later in the year? Reishabu is the answer- a selection of Japanese leaves topped with the poached pork that would be the feature of the hotpot, along with daikon, grapes, and a citrussy dipping sauce to refresh and revitalise you on even the hottest of days. You get all the flavours of shabu shabu, just in a lighter, cooler, balanced salad, and if you don’t dress the leaves with the ponzu until you’re ready to eat it, this makes a fantastic picnic lunch.
Grasslands and wooded areas surrounded the old capital of Kyoto for centuries, making the perfect hunting grounds for feeding the wealthy citizens; birds of all sorts from the large colourful pheasants and statuesque pigeons down to small songbirds were trapped by the locals before being taken to market or grilled as yakitori. These days the term yakitori is normally used in relation to chicken, but the word literally means ‘grilled bird’, so it’s no surprise that different regions have their specialities featuring other fowl. To the restaurants around the sacred town of Fushimi, yakitori is all about two birds, sparrows eaten whole including their bones and crunchy beaks, and the meatier and more westerner-friendly quails. After a visit to the most well-known Inari shrine complex in the country- the Fushimi Inari Taisha- it’s almost impossible to leave the area without smelling the charcoal smoke and appetizing aroma of scorched meat wafting from the restaurants selling yakitori quail.
Eating yakitori like this is a primal meal, huddled around a dimly lit restaurant, breathing in the smoke and tearing into the grilled meat. A slightly sweet soy glaze enhanced with the essence of all the birds cooked before yours clings lightly to your lips as you devour the perfectly cooked bird, feeling more like the fox totem of Inari happily munching on a little bird in a shaded grove, than the person you were when you sat down at the bench table. To drink with the delicate flesh of the quails? Beer obviously, but what else to eat? Chicken wouldn’t be appreciated next to the delicate birds, tsukune would feel almost too processed, only one other yakitori favourite would sit harmoniously with the quails and that’s Uzura no tamago, bacon wrapped quail eggs. The ultimate pairing of parent and child found in many Japanese dishes such as oyakodon, the creamy eggs and salty charred pancetta add delicious little bursts of richness between mouthfuls of meat, a squeeze of sharp kabosu juice and a peppery sprinkle of ground sanshō balances all the elements to perfection.
Though not particularly prevalent in northern Japan and around Honshu, the south western island of Kyushu embraces the nose to tail ethos of consuming animals and has restaurants dedicated to beef and pork offal, or horumon, which you would be remiss not to visit if an opportunity arises. To most westerners, the term offal conjures up thoughts of tough, gamey, questionable tubes hidden amongst favourable cuts of meat, perhaps encased within a pastry crust, or smothered in so much gravy that you can’t distinguish what you’re eating. This is not the case with Japanese offal however- nearly always coming from prime wagyu cows, the organs have a rich beefy flavour, a tender bite and a slight underlying sweetness, and are generally served up in one of two popular ways: horumon-yaki, where delicate cuts of heart, diaphragm, stomach and cheek are grilled quickly over a charcoal brazier before being plunged into a dipping sauce and eaten scaldingly hot, or as the Fukuokan speciality, motsunabe.
Motsunabe is the soul food of the Hakata district- diners huddle around a hotpot perched on a portable gas stove, the pan containing a mound of peppery white cabbage, a lightly sweetened soy based stock, short lengths of pungent garlic chives and the star of the show, beef small intestines. The offal itself has a meltingly soft consistency, a pleasingly fatty bite and a rich, almost buttery flavour which pairs wonderfully with the vegetables and the ubiquitous cubes of tofu that you couldn’t have a nabe without. After the chunks of vegetable, meat and tofu have been greedily picked from the pot and eaten, the heat is turned up beneath the broth and fresh ramen noodles are added to the boiling liquid, cooking in a matter of minutes, soaking up the meaty flavours of the motsunabe and thickening the sauce. For me, this shime or ‘finishing course’ is the most anticipated part of the meal, an extra chance to savour the essence of the nabe and a final slurp of starchy noodles cooked in the fortified broth.
For the most authentic motsunabe at home, cooking the dish on a camping stove at the dining table is preferable, allowing diners to pluck morsels from the trembling liquid at various stages of tenderness and to breath in the wafts of steam that make hotpot dining so much fun.
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.
The four heavenly creatures in Japanese mythology are: Seiryu the blue-green dragon, Suzaku the vermilion bird, Byakko the white tiger and Genbu the black turtle. They govern over the four points of the compass, appear as major constellations in the night sky, embody four of the five classical elements and are representatives of the four seasons. These godly animals are honoured annually with festivals held for each of them throughout Japan, but their presence can also be felt watching over you more subtly during other times of the year, if you know where to look.
One of the most well known events of Spring is Hinamatsuri, or Doll’s day- red fabric-draped platforms appear in houses, shrines and businesses, and atop these pedestals sit ornamental dolls in the form of the Emperor, Empress, ministers, musicians and other courtly attendants. People celebrate, pray for the health and happiness of girls in their family, drink shirozake, and most popularly, eat bowls of seasoned rice strewn with a confetti of celebratory toppings. Literally meaning ‘scattered sushi’, chirashizushi -whilst not only being delicious- pays tribute to the four heavenly creatures by means of their respective colours; blue, red, white and black, all of which are present in the toppings: crisp, tangy vinegared renkon for Byakko; savoury, umami packed shreds of nori and mushrooms for Genbu; crunchy, fresh pieces of mangetout for Seiryu; and finally the saline, bursting bubbles of ikura for Suzaku. Like the dolls of the festival, these toppings perch on a carpet of shredded sweetened omelette, laid over a platform of seasoned su meshi rice, creating a meal perfectly balanced in textures and flavours.
By far one of the simplest sushi dishes to make in the home, chirashizushi doesn’t require any of the precision slicing or delicate wrapping of seaweed commonly associated with the cuisine, yet it makes a fantastic, vibrant dish to bring to the table for celebrations of all kinds. It also works incredibly well packed as a bento lunch for those special occasions when you won’t be at home, and is perfect for taking to a tranquil spot in the countryside for a leaf or blossom viewing party.