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.
Of all the little rituals and practices involved in Japanese dining, my favourite is associated with preparing the sauce that accompanies crispy, deep fried pork at nearly all good tonkatsu restaurants. The sound of a wooden surikogi grinding against the coarse, ribbed ceramic suribachi evokes images of craftsmen and traditions long lost to history; the nutty aroma of the sesame seeds pulverised between stick and bowl rise to meet your nose and do just as much to ready your appetite as the smell of the meat itself. You dampen the crumbly powdered seeds with a ladle or two of tangy sōsu from a dark glazed pot, swirl it briefly with a stroke of your surikogi, then plunge a scalding hot nugget of pork into the marbled sauce on its way towards your mouth. The simple but delicate act of adjusting the flavour of the sauce you’re about to eat creates an emotional connection to the food that makes you far more appreciative of it; it no longer feels like a quick bite to eat, it’s a feast that you’ve helped to make in some small way. Each mouthful feels more satisfying and precious than it would have if you’d been served the seeds ready ground- and the flavour, far greater still.
Of course, this act of grinding your own seeds isn’t the only element that makes a tonkatsu meal so enticing; the incredibly hot, crisply crumbed, juicy fried pork steaks; the mountain of crunchy, cooling shredded cabbage (which normally comes with unlimited refills); the sticky, perfectly cooked blend of rice and barley mounded up in your bowl; and the ability to choose between the fattier more flavourful rosu and the tender and cleaner tasting hire cuts of pork all help make it one of our favourite meals to eat in Japan.
You can follow the same technique described below with a flattened out chicken breast to make torikatsu, a variation of tonkatsu which has become even more popular in the UK than the original, and frequently served with karē sauce.
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.
When one thinks of ramen, deep steaming bowls of unctuous porky broth often spring to mind, accompanied by slices of meltingly fatty meat, perhaps a haphazard pile of spicy spring onions and some savoury marinated menma. By no means is this the only way the Japanese crave their soup noodle fix though, with areas of the country creating their own specialities reflecting their own tastes and regional produce. One version of the dish we were recently introduced to and have reproduced here is the poetically named Kitano Megumi Ramen, or the Blessing of the North Ramen; a creamy, soothing concoction that rejoices in using everything good from the most northerly island- Hokkaido.
Thanks to its cooler climate and the massive expanses of pasture land that cover Hokkaido- the least developed of the main islands- it is able to support a thriving dairy industry. Smooth milk and rich, creamy butter from the island command a high price because of their superior quality- they proudly display their heritage and nearly always have the iconic outline of Hokkaido prominent on their packaging. Similarly, prime examples of sweetcorn grow in abundance on the rich, volcanic soil and the kernels are often found bobbing around playfully in the salty, miso based ramen broths favoured in Sapporo, surprising your palate with a pop of freshness. Particularly juicy cooked hams crafted from Sangen pigs complete this cornucopia of produce from the rugged north, creating a uniquely Hokkaidoan interpretation of the classic ramen.
To compliment the savoury, milky soup we’ve created a dashi flavoured compound butter to crown the ramen, but don’t feel limited to using it on just this dish- a pat or two of the smoky, seaweed infusion makes a fantastic oozy topping for a rib-eye steak or pork chop, and when tossed into steamed greens it lifts a relatively basic vegetable and turns it into something very special.