If time allows in the busy schedules of modern city living, one of the most harmonious and revitalizing meals you could possibly enjoy can be found in the traditional Japanese breakfast, or asa teishoku. Built around the structural concept of ichijusansai, meaning one soup and three dishes, the standard spread for a Japanese breakfast includes miso soup, salted grilled fish, a piece of rolled omelette, and a couple of small vegetable dishes, all accompanied by the ubiquitous bowl of rice and plate of pickles. Much like a full English breakfast it contains all of the necessary nutrients and calories for a productive morning’s work, but unlike its British cousin doesn’t make you sluggish or weigh you down with unwieldy amounts of meat, and it even contains a large amount of your daily recommended fruit and vegetable intake.
At first glance, a breakfast feast of nine or more components may seem like far too much work to undertake on a day-to-day basis (and in many respects it is- most modern Japanese people now eat a Western-style breakfast of bread or pancakes more often than a traditional spread) but most of the dishes are served either cold or at room temperature so can be made in advance and kept refrigerated until required, with only the soup and rice really needing to be cooked fresh in the morning. All of the dishes from this typical breakfast also work incredibly well when used in a bento lunch or as side dishes to an evening meal.
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.
The four heavenly creatures in Japanese mythology are: Seiryu the blue-green dragon, Suzaku the vermilion bird, Byakko the white tiger and Genbu the black turtle. They govern over the four points of the compass, appear as major constellations in the night sky, embody four of the five classical elements and are representatives of the four seasons. These godly animals are honoured annually with festivals held for each of them throughout Japan, but their presence can also be felt watching over you more subtly during other times of the year, if you know where to look.
One of the most well known events of Spring is Hinamatsuri, or Doll’s day- red fabric-draped platforms appear in houses, shrines and businesses, and atop these pedestals sit ornamental dolls in the form of the Emperor, Empress, ministers, musicians and other courtly attendants. People celebrate, pray for the health and happiness of girls in their family, drink shirozake, and most popularly, eat bowls of seasoned rice strewn with a confetti of celebratory toppings. Literally meaning ‘scattered sushi’, chirashizushi -whilst not only being delicious- pays tribute to the four heavenly creatures by means of their respective colours; blue, red, white and black, all of which are present in the toppings: crisp, tangy vinegared renkon for Byakko; savoury, umami packed shreds of nori and mushrooms for Genbu; crunchy, fresh pieces of mangetout for Seiryu; and finally the saline, bursting bubbles of ikura for Suzaku. Like the dolls of the festival, these toppings perch on a carpet of shredded sweetened omelette, laid over a platform of seasoned su meshi rice, creating a meal perfectly balanced in textures and flavours.
By far one of the simplest sushi dishes to make in the home, chirashizushi doesn’t require any of the precision slicing or delicate wrapping of seaweed commonly associated with the cuisine, yet it makes a fantastic, vibrant dish to bring to the table for celebrations of all kinds. It also works incredibly well packed as a bento lunch for those special occasions when you won’t be at home, and is perfect for taking to a tranquil spot in the countryside for a leaf or blossom viewing party.
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.
At the foundation of nearly all Japanese food is a handful of key flavours and ingredients; salty fermented soy products such as miso and soy sauce; sweet mirin and aromatic sake rice wines; and the underlying essence of the sea- a delicate, smoky, ocean scented stock called dashi. At its most basic and purest form, dashi is simply dried kombu seaweed, rehydrated and steeped in water until it releases all of its delicious, rich minerals creating a savoury broth to boost the taste of any dish. More complicated versions of the liquor add sawdust-like smoked bonito flakes, small dried fish such as sardines or anchovies and maybe even a handful of woody, earthy tasting shiitake mushrooms to supercharge the umami qualities of this liquid flavour bomb.
Umami- the fifth taste after sweet, salty, bitter and sour- is a loan word from Japanese, literally meaning ‘delicious flavour’ and it describes the brothy, savoury, meaty taste identified when the tongue’s receptors react to the presence of glutamic acid in food. Dried kombu is particularly rich in glutamic acid (so much so that you can even see crystals of it on the seaweed’s surface, looking like a white powdery bloom) and the savoury aspects become even stronger when combined with bonito flakes thanks to the synergistic relationship between glutamates and the inosinates present in nearly all dried seafood. Only explained by science in the early twentieth century, the cooks of Japan have known about the mouth watering qualities of combining these flavours together for centuries, using dashi in everything from pancake batters to soups and stews.
Nowadays there are plenty of very good instant dashi powders and granules easily available in supermarkets- we use them regularly when we don’t want the dashi itself to be an overly prominent flavour in the finished dish- but nothing really compares to making your own, adjusting the seasoning to your liking, adding more or less of one ingredient or another, or perhaps even adding a completely new ingredient (the addition of smoked bacon or air dried ham creates an unconventional but intoxicatingly heady dashi that goes brilliantly with darker, red miso soups). We’re certain that after you’ve tried making your own dashi, you’ll want to always keep a packet of kombu and katsuobushi handy in your store cupboard at all times.
PS. Whatever you do, don’t throw away the used flavourings after you’ve strained your broth, make them into a delicious seasoning for your rice by following our recipe for homemade furikake or cook them up again to make niban dashi.
Of all the little rituals and practices involved in Japanese dining, my favourite is associated with preparing the sauce that accompanies crispy, deep fried pork at nearly all good tonkatsu restaurants. The sound of a wooden surikogi grinding against the coarse, ribbed ceramic suribachi evokes images of craftsmen and traditions long lost to history; the nutty aroma of the sesame seeds pulverised between stick and bowl rise to meet your nose and do just as much to ready your appetite as the smell of the meat itself. You dampen the crumbly powdered seeds with a ladle or two of tangy sōsu from a dark glazed pot, swirl it briefly with a stroke of your surikogi, then plunge a scalding hot nugget of pork into the marbled sauce on its way towards your mouth. The simple but delicate act of adjusting the flavour of the sauce you’re about to eat creates an emotional connection to the food that makes you far more appreciative of it; it no longer feels like a quick bite to eat, it’s a feast that you’ve helped to make in some small way. Each mouthful feels more satisfying and precious than it would have if you’d been served the seeds ready ground- and the flavour, far greater still.
Of course, this act of grinding your own seeds isn’t the only element that makes a tonkatsu meal so enticing; the incredibly hot, crisply crumbed, juicy fried pork steaks; the mountain of crunchy, cooling shredded cabbage (which normally comes with unlimited refills); the sticky, perfectly cooked blend of rice and barley mounded up in your bowl; and the ability to choose between the fattier more flavourful rosu and the tender and cleaner tasting hire cuts of pork all help make it one of our favourite meals to eat in Japan.
You can follow the same technique described below with a flattened out chicken breast to make torikatsu, a variation of tonkatsu which has become even more popular in the UK than the original, and frequently served with karē sauce.