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.
As was the case across much of the world, sugar didn’t become widely available in Japan until the late 1800s- it was an expensive luxury ingredient exclusively for the kitchens of the wealthy and was used by artisan craftsmen to create elegant desserts and sweets. Outpriced by the upper classes, the sweet cravings of everyone else were instead satisfied by a uniquely Japanese ingredient; a mellow, toasty, nutty, yellow flour called kinako. Made from finely ground roasted soy beans, kinako has a delicate sweetness, much more subdued than that of sugar, but more than just sweetness, it imparts a wonderful flavour of its own wherever it is used- a distinctive, warming, caramelly mixture of freshly popped corn and roasted nuts. Typically used as a powdery topping for sticky rice cakes like daifuku, warabi mochi bracken jellies, or heaped atop a mound of snowy shaved ice, kinako also makes a fantastic flavouring for baked treats like airy chiffon cakes and impossibly light French style cookies.
When one thinks of French cookies, macarons are normally the first image that springs to mind- the perfectly round sandwiched confections, with their shiny, smooth outer shell and concealed creamy centre- and, while kinako does make for an exquisitely flavoured macaron, I’d much rather eat this humble powder in a gutsier, less delicate form. That form is in the macaron’s unassuming, rustic country cousin, the dacquoise. More straightforward to make than a macaron, the dacquoise uses much of the same ingredients and techniques- folding ground almonds and icing sugar into beaten egg whites- but produces a much cakier cookie, with a meltingly chewy centre and a craggy crisp exterior. The nutty aromatic toasted kinako pairs wonderfully with the almond in the cookie shell, and the brown sugar in the silky buttercream filling heightens the rich, warming, caramel flavours. Despite their homely appearance, these dacquoise make a fantastic addition to an afternoon tea or packed as part of a picnic for your next blossom viewing party.
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.