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.
Wagashi- traditional Japanese confectionery- tends to be an elegant and artistic representation of the season. As we’ve recently passed the equinox and the cooler nights are starting to extend, nature is gradually turning from green to red and it’s time to embrace the change and eat something a little more Autumnal. Alongside kabocha, mushrooms and persimmons, sweet potatoes are one of the key flavours that the Japanese look forward to eating during shokuyoku no aki or ‘the increased appetite of autumn’ and one of most popular ways to enjoy them is as a smooth, firm bar of imo yōkan.
Yōkan is one of the oldest forms of sweet still eaten regularly across Japan and is essentially a block of jellied mashed azuki beans, or in this case, mashed sweet potatoes. We’ve enhanced our yōkan further with the addition of pieces of intense, almost chestnut-tasting, candied sweet potato to exaggerate the earthy, woodland flavour and add an extra texture to the jelly. This delicately coloured, refreshing treat is the perfect accompaniment to a cup of matcha both in looks and taste, the sweet gel coating your mouth, balancing and rounding out the bitterness of the tea.
The most popular meat in modern Japan- with yearly sales surpassing both chicken and beef combined- is without a doubt, pork. Ever since the wild boar was domesticated during the iron age, it has made up a large part of the country’s diet; even during the Warring States years of samurai rule and national adherence to Buddhism, when the eating of four-legged beasts was particularly frowned upon, the descriptive euphemisms “mountain whale” and “walking vegetable” were used to tiptoe around the rules denying the people their favourite meat. Much like prohibition pharmacists in the US selling whisky to patients with enough money, unscrupulous Edo period doctors would prescribe pork as a health food for its stamina building properties and a black market trade developed up until the 1900s. The twentieth century saw the government’s opinion of meat change dramatically- advisors decided that it was the vast amounts of meat consumed by Europeans that made them grow large and powerful; so for them to not be left behind in the changing world, it became of great national importance that the Japanese took up eating pork again.
The Kagoshima region on the south-western tip of Kyūshū is home to the most acclaimed pork in all of Japan; bred from Okinawan Berkshire pigs, Kurobuta pork has particularly fine muscle fibres, a rich delicate flavour and above all, light, non-sticky and incredibly tasty fat. Besides the regular pork dishes found across the country, Kagoshima has a number of delicacies that are almost impossible to find anywhere else, our favourite of these is a sticky variation on niku miso, packed with the savoury black pork that the region prides itself on. Darkly sweet from unrefined brown sugar, salty and umami-rich from the mugimiso and deeply satisfying and savoury from slowly simmered pork, kurobuta miso is Japan’s answer to bacon jam. It can be enjoyed smeared across an onigiri, packed into a sandwich, spooned over hot steamed rice, dropped into a bowl of ramen like a savoury depth charge or used as a simple sauce for a vegetable stir fry. Perhaps the best way to eat it though is with crudités, scooped up greedily on a stick of raw cucumber or carrot, the cooling crunch of the vegetables offsetting the rich, intensity of the miso perfectly.
The last thing many people can imagine wanting to do on a hot, humid day in late Summer is to huddle over a deep bowl of ramen, with clouds of meaty steam billowing up and enveloping your face while you slurp on mouthful after mouthful of scalding hot noodles slick with unctuous pork fat. This of course would be a huge problem for the tens of thousands of ramen-ya owners all across the country, if not for the wonderfully refreshing and reviving noodle dish Hiyashi Chūka which dominates their menus in the more oppressive months. Sitting comfortably on the halfway-line between a crisp salad and the familiar bowl of soup noodles, hiyashi chūka keeps many of the most popular ramen toppings but adds plenty of crunchy fresh vegetables and replaces the savoury broth with a chilled vinegary dressing, making this the perfect dish for a lunchtime spent hiding from the midday heat. Like most dishes in Japanese cuisine, the colour and temperature of the food is just as important as the flavour and texture, and in this most summery of noodle dishes they all come together harmoniously to cleanse, stimulate and revitalise the senses.
In our version of hiyashi chūka, we’ve incorporated two of the most popular toppings- crab sticks and cucumber- directly into the chūkamen themselves to create an even lighter noodle base. We’ve crowned this tangle of enhanced noodles with a crunchy slaw made from spicy radishes and turnips, earthy carrots and crisp nashi pear to add even more freshness, and a springy, knobbly chikuwa fishcake for an extra hit of sweet ocean flavour. All of that is doused liberally with the bracing vinegar, soy sauce and sesame dressing at the table with extra on the side for those who want a more intense, soupy mouthful.
Like a large number of foods popular in Japan today, Purin owes its name and heritage to visiting Portuguese traders who, in the sixteenth century, brought over their jiggly, set custard dessert, pudim. Much like the French crème caramel or the Latin American flan, caramelised sugar is topped with a sweetened egg and milk mixture then steamed in a bain-marie before being inverted onto a plate and served with the caramel on top- the slightly bitter caramel sauce creating an elegant contrast of colours and offsetting the sweetness of the custard.
Although it is a staple snack or dessert all year round, purin to me marks the start of Summer; a chilled, lightly set, creamy custard has a wonderful soothing effect and refreshes your spirits after a hard day at work in sweltering temperatures. We like to infuse the milk and cream with the toasty, almost caramel-like flavour of hōjicha, roasted green tea. Eating just a spoonful of this dessert brings back comforting childhood memories of lifting the rim of a cereal bowl to your lips and drinking the milk after you’d finished the bowl of crunchy flakes. You could easily swap out the hōjicha in this recipe for vanilla to create a classic European version or matcha powder to make an intensely coloured, green tea flavoured variation. However you choose to flavour it, serve your purin with a handful of fresh seasonal berries to really highlight the time of year.
Transporting fresh fish from the coast of Japan to its major inland cities was almost impossible before the advent of refrigerated trains; the days required to travel by horse resulted in inedible, spoiled goods unfit for the population of the Kansai region. The only reliable means of getting fish to the then-capital city of Kyoto was to preserve it in some way- fermenting the fish in rice was popular, which extended its shelf-life to six months or more but altered the flavour dramatically. In this early form of sushi, the rice was discarded and only the soured, preserved fish was eaten; it would take another three or four hundred years until the mid 1600s for a version with edible rice to evolve. As the techniques for making sushi developed, the preservation of the fish improved but palates accustomed to the old style dishes yearned for the sour tang and started adding vinegar to the rice, creating the seasoned sushi rice we know and love today.
Sabazushi, still one of Japan’s most popular forms of sushi, lies comfortably between the fish preserving necessities of old that led to the development of sushi and the modern, perfectly crafted slices of fish atop vinegared rice that spring to mind as this most ubiquitous Japanese delicacy. Glistening, iridescent, tiger-striped fillets of mackerel are salted and lightly cured before being wrapped over a pillow of seasoned sticky rice and sliced into perfect, jewel topped pieces. Traditionally in Osaka, you would press this in an oshizushihako box mould to create a rectangular block, but we prefer to make it Kyoto-style and shape it by hand so you can appreciate the naturally domed top that the fish forms. Whether you press it or not this makes a plate of beautiful, two-bite sized morsels; delicate, refreshingly tangy and with just enough of the rich, creamy fattiness that we love mackerel for.
The powdered Chinese green tea favoured by the Southern Song dynasty arrived on the shores of Japan in the late twelfth century, carried by the monk Eisai Zenji who had returned home from studying Chan Buddhism. After two hundred years of being a purely religious beverage, Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa secularised the performance of making and drinking tea and it slowly evolved into the ritualistic ceremony we are familiar with today. Whilst nearly every country the world over now drinks the later-developed steeped or infused tea, the powdered green tea known to us as matcha has remained a singularly Japanese drink, even being lost to the Chinese during the Mongol invasion. The differences between the two types of tea are remarkable, to the extent that even some of the most enthusiastic of Western tea drinkers can sometimes find the deep green flavour and slight bitterness of matcha difficult or off-putting. We’ve found that the easiest way to introduce the new and perhaps unexpected flavour of matcha to people is through desserts or baked goods such as these delicate, crisp tuile biscuits. The buttery tuile batter and drizzle of rich, silky white chocolate help to balance out the mild astringent taste of the tea to create a biscuit perfect for snacking on or for accompanying a cup of your favourite brewed tea.
Fried chicken. Two simple words that have the power to whet appetites across the globe and set imaginations spinning, whether you’re in Louisiana, Mali or Scotland, you know that when you order your local rendition of the dish you’ll be getting moist, juicy meat in a crisp coating packed full of flavour. Karaage is the fried chicken of Japan- nearly always meat from the thigh of the bird, seasoned with soy sauce and ginger before being dusted in a light coating of potato starch and fried to crunchy perfection. Unusually for Japanese cuisine, large amounts of garlic are included in the marinade for karaage, along with the addition of some sake this helps to offset the slightly gamey flavour that chickens had before post-war American birds were imported to become the mainstay of local farms. The soy sauce used in marinating the chicken imparts a slightly reddish brown colour to the coating, which is said to resemble the reflection of maple leaves in the water of the river Tatsuta in Nara, and is how the dish received its second, more romantic name, Tatsuta-age.
We like to accompany our karaage with a fresh dipping sauce made from spring onions and shiro shoyu, or white soy sauce; brewed with more wheat than other soy sauces, it has a much milder flavour which makes it perfect for seasoning lighter meats such as chicken or seafood.
Whether you know them as karaage, Tatsuta-age or even as JFC, these two-bite-sized pieces of juicy chicken are a perfect way to start a meal or make a fantastic addition to a bento or lunch box.
Simultaneously being both the lightest, most delicate, cloud-like bun imaginable and the richest, sweetest, most succulent pork belly possible, kakuni manjū are perhaps the ultimate variation on a bacon sandwich and frankly, I can’t think of a better combination of meat and bread that I’ve ever eaten.
Like the sweet, soy braised pork that fills them, manjū– or hirata buns to give them their recently adopted American name- owe their heritage to Chinese steamed buns such as the snowy white stars of many a dim sum menu, char siu bao. During the two hundred and twenty year period of isolation, Japan closed off its borders to the outside world, and the only way in or out was through Nagasaki, which quickly became what is now the country’s oldest Chinatown. Workers and traders travelling through the port took with them their favourite home comforts which were quickly adopted by local restaurants and yatai (food carts) before spreading across the country. Slow braised dongpo pork from Eastern China and pillowy mantou steamed bread from the North were two such dishes that arrived in this influx of unfamiliar cuisine, and were the culinary parents of this most delicious of sandwiches (perhaps with a little matchmaking courtesy of both Japan and China’s occupation of Taiwan and its now famous gua bao split steamed buns).
Breaking from tradition, we’ve added a few extras to our kakuni manjū- the creaminess of the mayonnaise and the crisp, refreshing bite of cucumber and shredded spring onions help to lift and round out the flavour of the bun. Eat them on their own with a few drinks, or as is now common practice, as an accompaniment to a deep, meaty bowl of ramen for the ultimate pork filled meal.