If you ever have the pleasure of eating in one of Japan’s more formal kaiseki ryōri restaurants, you’ll probably be served a futamono- “lidded course” between your sashimi and your grilled yakimono course. Your futamono could be a small stew of seasonal ingredients, a soup such as a suimono, or our favourite, chawanmushi- a silky smooth treasure hunt of a dish. Named after the lidded tea-cup or chawan that it is cooked in, chawanmushi is a wonderfully light, delicate egg custard, seasoned with dashi and mirin, and steamed until just set enough to encase and obscure the morsels trapped within its depths. Each spoonful of custard is an edible lucky dip where you might bring up a firm ginkgo nut, a tender prawn, a juicy chunk of shiitake or a sour, palate cleansing bubble of yuzu pulp.
A popular, and to my mind almost compulsory addition to chawanmushi is a spoon or two of ankake sauce added moments before serving. This mildly fishy, faintly smoky sauce adds an extra savoury oomph to each mouthful and helps you appreciate the sweetness of the steamed eggs.
For me, spring only truly starts when the first foods of the season are ready to harvest or forage, and one of the plants that I most eagerly look out for each year is wild garlic or ramsons. Ten minutes walk from our house is a small brook, its banks lined with a stretch of woodland that provides a welcome glimpse of nature among the noise and rush of the city. Within the dappled light of these woods lies a patch of ramson plants, carpeting the edges of pathways and giving off their distinctive pungent aroma whenever they’re lightly brushed by a passing bird or walker. The leaves of this shamefully overlooked and short-lived plant provide a powerful garlic hit along with a spring onion-like flavour that makes it perfect for mixing into dipping sauces and dumpling fillings, and if you’re lucky enough to find some plants with open flowers they offer up an edible garnish of such intense flavour you won’t believe it came from such a delicate looking thing.
Seasonality and the use of local produce are two of the main cornerstones of Japanese cuisine so these wild ramsons are the perfect ingredient to use in the kaiseki style dish of suimono or clear soup. A delicate, lightly seasoned broth that allows you to focus on the flavours of the individual elements that it contains, in this case a pile of carefully crimped duck and wild garlic gyoza and a scattering of flowers and leaves from both the foraged ramsons and some young chives.
In the past few years tonkotsu has become the coolest style of noodles to be seen eating or making here in the UK; a thick, unrefined, intensely meaty broth, served with the regular gang of ramen toppings, chashu pork, boiled eggs and bamboo shoots. Restaurants vie to see who has the longest simmered stock with the most opaque suspension of fat and collagen, while critics search for the ramenya with the softest pork and the most unctuous fat. Worthy of equal praise and attention though, is the lesser known, neglected relative of tonkotsu, and one of the unsung heroes of the noodle world- Tori Paitan Ramen. A richly satisfying, creamy broth of chicken bones, skin and cartilage, milky in appearance and sticky on the lips from the copious amounts of fat and gelatin present and the long periods of fierce boiling. To accentuate the deep chickeny flavour of the broth, we’ve added lots of garlic in the form of fried garlic chips and a spoon of powerful, garlic infused duck fat which lends an intense muskiness and a brilliantly rich mouth feel to the finished soup.
A bowl of ramen wouldn’t be complete without some slow-cooked meat to top your mound of noodles, but rather than use the traditional pork, we’ve kept our paitan a purely poultry dish and created a torchon of chicken by wrapping together thigh and breast meat in a layer of skin. When sliced thinly, this sausage of chicken makes the perfect topping for ramen and falls apart at the slightest pressure from your chopsticks.
We’ve been visiting noodle restaurants for almost as long as I can remember, and have passed over a basic sounding dish on the menu many times, dismissing its simplicity in favour of the more showy, topping laden bowls. That is at least, until a couple of years ago whilst on a lunchtime visit to a market in Kyoto, we stopped by an udonya and tried the curiously named Kitsune Udon (fox noodles) for the first time and became instant converts. A deep bowl of perfectly cooked, thick white udon, a slightly smokey, fish based soup, and a single piece of inari-age, simmered in a sweet soy and mirin liquor until the sponge-like tofu had absorbed a massive amount of flavour. The clean soup paired with the rich, sweetness of the tofu was an incredibly soothing combination, and one that we’ve tried to eat as often as possible since our first taste.
Many people like to add narutomaki or kamoboko to their kitsune udon -and feel free to if you want, they’re both delicious additions- but we like to keep ours uncomplicated and the way we’ve always eaten it in Japan; just the noodles, the broth, a sweet slab of toothsome inari-age and a mound of spicy, fresh spring onions. Perfect comfort food if you’re feeling a little under the weather and great fuel for foxes on a night-time prowl.
The wonderfully rich, slightly gamey flesh of duck and the intense earthy, woodland flavour of mushrooms are one of the most natural and instinctive combinations in cookery. It’s a pairing you might expect to see in Italy, Russia, Sweden or France; countries that used to be blanketed with dense forests and vast lakes, countries that have a deep folklore and long history of woodsmen, making their living from what nature provides. All of these features are equally true of Japan, and unsurprisingly the Japanese made the same discovery early on, that marrying wild duck with foraged mushrooms was a union worth remembering. The other classic Japanese accompaniment to duck are the buckwheat noodles known as soba. Deliciously nutty in flavour and with a slightly toothsome texture, soba are one of the oldest known types of noodle in Japanese cuisine, dating back over 2500 years to the Jōmon period and even further in Chinese cookery where they probably originated.
We’ve combined all three of these ingredients in a classic Kamo Nanban Soba- a dish that smells and tastes like a stroll through an ancient forest; with rich, life giving soil and a wealth of fungus sprouting from the crumbling trunks of fallen trees. It wouldn’t be a kamo nanban without some sweet, charred spring onions, and to lift the earthy flavours slightly we’ve added a tiny hint of orange zest, perfect for cutting through the richness of the duck fat.
Finding inventive ways to make use of leftovers is a problem home cooks have no matter what country they’re in, so it should come as no surprise that Japanese cooks have been putting their excess portions of curry to good use for decades, stretching them out as fillings for doughnut like breads or turning them into soups. Karē udon is a perfect example of this respectful attitude towards “waste” food, by adding leftover pork and vegetable curry to a fishy broth and some thick, chewy noodles you can create a wholesome, warming dish perfect for getting you through these freezing Winter nights. It might not seem like the obvious choice to use a dashi based stock for this soup, but it creates a wonderfully rounded savoury flavour rather than anything particularly fishy tasting. This combination of dashi, sake, mirin and soy sauce as a soup stock is known as mentsuyu, and is the classic starting point for many udon and soba dishes, even being used as a refreshing dipping sauce for cold noodles.
Karē udon, perhaps one of the country’s most popular comfort foods, has the same effect on the Japanese as a plate of macaroni and cheese might on an American or a bowl of hotpot on a Lancastrian. It has the incredible power of evoking nostalgic memories of childhood, relieving emotional stress and giving a feeling of the security of being at home, somewhere you belong. Not bad for a bowl of soup.
According to the lunar calendar today is Setsubun- the day before the start of spring, a sort of New Year’s Eve. It is believed that at the start of a new year, the mortal world and the spirit world move closer together than normal, so spirits can wander more easily into our world. Because of this, people all over Japan take part in purification rituals to ward off bad fortune for the year to come, traditionally using fukumame (‘lucky beans’, roast soybeans) to chase demons and evil spirits from their homes and invite good luck in. These beans are either thrown out of the door or at a representation of an evil spirit- normally a member of the family, wearing an oni mask- whilst chanting “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” or “Demons out! Luck in!” It is also traditional to eat a roasted soybean for each year of your life, plus an extra one for the coming year, to bring good health.
Soybeans are a ubiquitous part of Japanese cuisine, used in the production of tofu, soy sauce and miso amongst other foodstuffs. To commemorate Setsubun we’ve combined puréed soybeans and miso paste to make gojiru, a thick warming soup, full of vegetables, that’s sure to bring you health for the whole of the year.