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.
Perhaps coming by its name through a translation error, or maybe an evolution of an earlier Western recipe, Japanese strawberry shortkeki bears little resemblance to the dessert of the same name eaten across America and the UK, and has grown to become the nation’s most widely purchased cake. A celebration, no matter how small, would be incomplete without a gleaming snowy-white, cream-covered, red berry studded shortcake; it is even the Christmas cake of choice and a flood of signs reminding you to order yours pop up in bakeries from October onwards.
The cake is, in its purest form, an incredibly light and fluffy genoise sponge in two or three layers, filled with silky whipped cream and juicy strawberries, and iced with more of the same. The success of such a simply presented cake depends greatly on the quality of its ingredients: enormous, fragrant Amaou strawberries from Fukuoka, the finest eggs from free range chickens fed on speciality grains, the richest, tastiest cream from Hokkaido, and flour and sugar with refined flavours far surpassing those you would normally expect from basic ingredients. Getting hold of Fukuokan berries in England is nigh on impossible, we’re in luck though since Britain grows some of the finest strawberries in the world and the first crops are just starting to come into season, meaning right now is the perfect time to enjoy this most Disney princess-like of confections.
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.