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.)
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.
A hand formed pillow of sweet, vinegared sushi rice just the right size for a greedy mouthful or two dainty bites, with a glossy green perimeter wall of toasty seaweed surrounding it, holding back a cascade of glistening, salty, baubles like an overfilled treasure chest bursting at its seams. A relative newcomer to the world of sushi, gunkan maki- or battleship rolls- were created in the 1940s with one purpose in mind- to hold in the soft, loose ingredients that had been missing from menus for too long. The tall boundary of nori confines some of the most coveted toppings (but also daunting in the eyes of many westerners): creamy, saline oysters; savoury, pungent nattō; the smooth, delicate roe of sea urchins; and our favourite- tumbling mounds of spherical, translucent, jewel-like fish eggs.
The eggs used for topping gunkan maki vary tremendously from the large red and orange ikura and sujiko roe of the pacific salmon, to the tiny, crunchy tobiko flying fish roe; masago from smelt and ebiko shrimp roes are also popular, with sturgeon caviar even making an appearance from time to time in modern restaurants. Whichever roe you choose, they all make a delightful morsel, packed with unique flavours and textures unlike those found anywhere else on the sushi menu, and often made even more special by the addition of the yolk from a quails egg, the rich creamy taste smoothing out the briny, ocean notes of the roe and creating a simple, harmonious sauce for the sushi.
Most commonly encountered grated as a garnish for oroshi dishes or as a crunchy pickle (the Nihombashi district of Tokyo even holds an annual daikon festival every October where hundreds of vendors sell their own variation on the pickle), daikon- Japan’s unwieldy, oversized white radish- is surprisingly even tastier when used in a warm cooked dish than when eaten raw. The mellow sweetness of the root is encouraged into the limelight by gentle stewing while the spicy, almost watercress-like flavour is ushered into a supporting role- more of an intriguing, characterful nuance than its normal in-your-face approach. A soft, juicy disc of daikon is a prize to be found bobbing around in a steaming vat of oden along with the assorted fish cakes, or cut into tiny cubes sunk into a bowl of miso soup, but by far the best way to enjoy cooked daikon is as a tender, gently simmered ‘steak’. Our preferred partner to a succulent piece of daikon is a classic nerimiso sauce; intensely flavoured on its own, too savoury and far too salty, but after you bite into the tender radish, it releases its juices and they combine together with the yuzu perfumed paste to create the perfect seasoning.
After a bout of illness or a long trip abroad, simmered daikon is often the first comfort food that Japanese people crave; the enveloping, warming aroma eliciting carefree childhood memories and the soothing, nostalgic taste of mothers’ homely cooking. Whilst its close relative the turnip has fallen out of favour in British cuisine in recent years for being too old-fashioned in flavour, stewed daikon has never lost its popularity in Japan, remaining a winter favourite and an example of traditional, country style cooking at its finest.
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.
As the sweltering summer days drift slowly into mild, contemplative Autumn, nature’s hues turn to yellows and reds, and we long for cooling, refreshing food to take our minds off what’s left of the oppressive heat; luckily our gardens present us with exactly what we need- a bountiful crop of round, juicy tomatoes. Cooking with tomatoes isn’t exactly commonplace in Japan; they are however often enjoyed on their own, added to colourful salads or used as a bright topping for a cool creamy block of tofu along with something a little neba neba.
Neba neba is an onomatopoeic word used to describe foods with a sticky, slimy or stringy texture- qualities not normally desired in most Western cuisine, but looked upon as being incredibly healthy and delicious in Japan. The spectrum of neba neba ingredients range from those suited only to the most dedicated gourmand- pungent fermented soybean natto, raw egg whites, and tororo grated mountain yam- to the entry level mozuku seaweed, nameko gelatinous mushrooms and the almost universally accepted okra. While many cultures have fought against okra’s desire to impart a gluey consistency to dishes by soaking out the juices or refusing to cut the vegetable, Japanese chefs have embraced and even sought out ingenious ways to encourage this characteristic.
Our recipe for hiyayakko tofu is a great way to gingerly encounter neba neba food for the first time. It combines both tomatoes and okra with a refreshingly sharp and citrussy ponzu dressing to give a dish that is both cool and creamy, but still packed with enough zingy, salty punch to liven things up a little and the slightest hint of the stringy texture that the Japanese so love.