One of the most popular dishes across of all Japan whether you’re in a restaurant or at home, also happens to be one of the easiest to make and needs only a small handful of basic store cupboard ingredients. An incredibly soothing, rich and soulful meal that tastes like you’ve known it all of your life even on your first time eating it. Oyakodon- literally meaning ‘parent and child rice bowl’- is a satisfyingly large and filling bowl of rice, topped with succulent pieces of chicken thigh and onion, coated in a smooth and brothy mixture of dashi and barely set eggs. Each mouthful of this creamy chicken feast is slightly different as the egg continues to cook with the heat of the rice, so whilst the first bite might bring back memories of boiled eggs and soldiers for breakfast, the second could be a roast dinner and the third a warming bowl of hot rice pudding- is it any wonder that oyakodon is so comforting when every one of these dishes has the power to make you recall childhood memories?
Thought to have been invented in a Tokyo restaurant in the late 1800s, the poetic name which references the chicken and egg components of the dish led to the creation of the equally-delicious Tanindon or ‘unrelated person rice bowl’, which replaces the parental chicken with thinly sliced pieces of unrelated beef. Our recipe works just as well for this version of the dish too, just substitute in slices of either pork or beef and continue as normal.
One of the most wide-spread and well recognised of all Japanese foods is ebiten, or tempura prawns. Go to any Japanese restaurant around the world and you’ll find these battered delights served either on their own, sitting atop a bowl of noodles or spread seductively across a bed of rice as tendon; when they appear on the conveyor belt at a sushiya they never make it all the way round the circuit, being plucked off deftly by the hands of the hungry punters lucky enough to be seated at the start of the track. As deliciously simple as these deep fried prawns are, and they truly are- being one of the most delightful snacks available- they are only the starting point, the figurehead at the prow of the tempura ship, there are much more varied, maybe even greater tempura to be found if you’re willing to look further afield. Succulent toriten fried chicken from Kyushu, ikaten squid from Hokkaido, bird’s-nest-like mixed vegetable kakiage fritters, fish tempura from the Seto inland sea and perhaps the most traditional- yasai, or vegetable tempura.
When sixteenth century Portuguese traders were at their most prominent, and inadvertently spreading their cuisine across most of Asia, it was their deep fried foods that took hold in Japan, particularly a festival dish called Peixinhos da Horta, ‘little fish of the garden’. These battered and fried green beans were eaten on holy days when consuming fish or meat was forbidden, and provided a substantial alternative that was both economical and nutritious; although their likeness to fish is debatable, they remain a Portuguese favourite to this day. The Japanese took these battered mouthfuls and improved upon them, making the coating lighter and crispier, experimenting with more fillings, sauces to dip them into, and refining the whole process into the culinary art form that we know today. Yasai tempura holds the torch as the closest remaining relative of this venerable cooking technique; a fine, lacy covering of crisp, pale blond batter, encapsulating a steaming hot, perfectly cooked morsel of sweet, nutty kabocha or maybe a smooth, meltingly creamy slice of aubergine or a spicy, almost minty shiso leaf. As with all Japanese food, the vegetables used change with the seasons, the airy batter allowing the flavours of the fillings to concentrate as they steam within their protective shells and paint a picture of the subtly changing environment outside.
The key to making successful tempura at home is in the temperature of the batter- keep all your batter ingredients as cold as possible, and always make the batter immediately before you fry your ingredients to prevent the gluten from developing and giving an undesirably chewy texture.
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.