Musashibō Benkei- a key hero in Japanese folklore and a warrior monk of great prowess- is rumoured to be instrumental in the creation of one of the country’s most popular street foods, the dorayaki. Hiding from one of his many foes in a farmer’s house while he recovered from wounds inflicted upon him, he accidentally left his ceremonial gong behind upon leaving the dwelling. The farmer searched for the hero near and far, but to no avail, and not knowing what the object was used for, he placed the gong in a fire and fried little round pancakes on the metal surface. Wrapping the sweet, hot discs around a ball of mashed red beans the treat was born, albeit in a far more fanciful way than the reality of them being based on a Portuguese sponge cake recipe. However you choose to believe they came about, these little gong cakes have become an icon of Japanese cuisine, thanks in part to them being the favoured food of a futuristic robotic cat called Doraemon from the manga of the same name.
Fluffy sponge discs, warmly fragrant with honey and faintly scented with sweet mirin wine, sandwiched around a smooth filling of pureed azuki beans, dorayaki were our first encounter with street food in Japan and helped spark our obsession with recreating the flavours of the country. The ubiquitous little cakes can be bought in nearly every convenience store or bakery, from vendors on street corners and festival markets, even from kiosks on railway station platforms, and now hopefully you’ll try making them at home too. After you’ve perfected cooking your own dorayaki, try experimenting with other traditional fillings such as custard, mashed chestnuts, sweetened whipped cream or the strangely comforting margarine and maple syrup- the last one greatly inspired by the American breakfast staple.
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.
One day in the warren-like shopping arcades of Asakusa, on our first trip to Tokyo, we spotted an enormous queue of people slowly leading past the main Sensō-Ji temple and associated buildings to a wooden food counter set into a wall. Being of the inquisitive type, and knowing that if locals are willing to queue for something then it must be good, we joined the line and patiently waited between a group of school girls and a venerable elderly lady with a walking stick who steadfastly refused to take our place in line. The queue stopped and started. Twenty or thirty people would buy something wrapped in a paper bag and leave, then more waiting before another twenty or thirty people moved along, all the while the smell of freshly baked goods was building ever stronger and filling our minds with suspense. What were we queueing for? Was it savoury or sweet? Was there a choice? The possibility that the language barrier would prove too hard to break through and us end up with nothing flashed through my mind. As we approached the shop front we could make out that they were selling only one thing, large round bread buns which people were greedily eating from paper bags as roving gangs of hoodlum sparrows harassed them for stray crumbs. By now we had waited for around half an hour- a rich, sweet, vanilla scented thirty minutes; we got to the stall and found ourselves confronted by a wall of undecipherable Kanji, except for two romanized words- Melon Pan ¥200. That settled it, we awkwardly ordered two melon pan and shied away to the shade of a gingko tree to see what we had been waiting so long for.
Peeling back the paper wrapper we revealed a pair of relatively plain looking bread rolls, around twenty centimetres wide, light golden brown, attractively scored in a criss-cross, melon rind pattern, but pretty unremarkable- until we tore into them that is. A brittle, aromatic, sugary cookie crust shattered and gave way to a warm, delicate, butter enriched bread, lighter in texture than a brioche but without giving up any of its richness. This unassuming roll was one of the most ethereal breads I had ever eaten and within two minutes it was all gone and I found myself wanting to rejoin the queue for a second taste, realising only then why people were buying them in fives and sixes rather than individual buns.
Usually found in little sachets within packages of kabayaki eel, served sprinkled on top of yakitori for an extra kick or as a seasoning for sushi, sanshō is Japan’s answer to the now world-famous Szechuan peppercorn from south western China. Whilst not related to peppercorns in any way, they’re both berries from prickly ash trees and share the pepper monicker due to the spicy, fiery slow-building heat that they impart to food. The flavour of sanshō starts with a peppery grapefruit scented awakening of the saliva glands and passes through fizzy, cooling, electric sensations before calming into an almost anaesthetic numbness, a long lasting souvenir of the food you’ve eaten. Not an immediate heat like you would get from a chilli pepper, but a more subtle experience, delivering its nuanced qualities in waves.
This complex spice doesn’t often get to make an appearance in sweet dishes, being mostly recognised as a savoury flavour, but while experimenting with making some gingersnap cookies we stumbled across sanshō’s affinity for buttery, crisp biscuits, and haven’t been able to stop making them since. Imagine German pfeffernüsse, kruidnotenof the Netherlands, or the gingerbread men from England, but with a zesty lemony aroma and a bit more punch and you’re getting close to these spicy little treats. They have a firm, crisp snap, and a wonderfully crackled surface, perfect for wrapping up as a homemade gift for loved ones or for serving with a cup of tea.
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.
Of all the flowers one could associate with Japan, from the chrysanthemum of the royal throne to the short lived morning glories and the ume which marks the official start of spring, the sakura or cherry blossom is the flower that most captures the hearts of the people. A stark black skeleton of a tree stretching limbs skywards, wreathed in soft pink garlands that delicately flutter from its fingertips creating a carpet of blush snow underfoot- one of the most celebrated images signalling the progression of the seasons, and catching a glimpse of this natural wonder has been a national obsession since the eighth century. Poetry is composed, love is declared and sake is drunk (often in excessive quantities) as people party in the shade of the cherry trees and take part in one of Japan’s favourite pastimes- Hanami, or ‘looking at flowers’. School children, salarymen, old ladies, weather beaten fishermen, celebrities and priests alike all stop to view the beauty of the sakura blossoms, and like the ethereal blossoms themselves, contemplate the fleeting nature of existence and the meaning of life.
The sakura petals are used in all manner of foods, from the salted preserved flowers pressed into cookies and wagashi, to brightly coloured syrups added to lattes and ice creams. The flower itself has a complex but delicate flavour and a hint of bitterness somewhere between the sour cherries that one would assume it tastes of, and its close cousin the almond; even when eaten, this most philosophical of flowers manages to echo Japan’s cultural beliefs.
As our tribute to these beautiful blossoms that herald the forthcoming warmer weather, we’ve composed a parfait dessert combining sweet, sour, bitter and creamy elements along with cubes of soft sponge cake and brittle shards of nutty caramel- the perfect sundae to eat whilst reclining on the floor, wishing you were in the shade of a gnarled old cherry tree. Although there are a lot of components in this recipe, they can nearly all be made in advance and stored until needed, meaning that a tasty reminder of spring can be whipped together in a matter of minutes.