When you mention Japanese soup, the dish that springs to mind instantly is the timeless, classic miso soup with tofu and wakame seaweed; in the colder months of the year however, and particularly on the pork-loving island of Kyushu, another soup reigns as king- Tonjiru. Sometimes called Butajiru, both names literally meaning pork soup, it is a much heartier affair than the standard bowl of miso; enhanced with strips of braised pork belly, a selection of root vegetables, blocks of springy jelly-like konnyaku and deeply savoury shreds of mushroom, a bowl of this wintery, sustaining soup quickly starts to feel like a meal in itself. Possibly not a soup suited to breakfast time due to its more stew-like consistency, it makes a fantastic accompaniment to both meaty dishes and also beer, and as such it finds its way onto the menus of many izakaya, tonkatsu restaurants and gyudon joints. Outside of restaurants, we’ve found it for sale at religious festivals, farmers’ markets, sporting events and anywhere that large numbers of people gather together and need feeding; a homely classic full of earthy flavours that brings diners together and ignites childhood memories of mothers’ cooking.
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.
By far the easiest Japanese dish to make at home, and a great introduction to Japanese flavours for the nervous first-time diner, teriyaki chicken- whether served on skewers, tucked inside a fluffy burger bun, or crowning a bowl of pearly white rice- has become one of the most recognisable faces of washoku the world over. The alchemical combination of the three classic sauce ingredients- soy sauce, mirin and sake, create the quintessential basic Japanese flavour that so many other dishes build upon, and the addition of warming, soft brown sugar thickens the sauce into an incredibly sticky, mahogany lacquer. It is the lustrous glaze that is referred to in the name of this cooking technique- teri literally meaning shine and yaki, to grill, although use of the term has now expanded to include the sauce too, leading to the bottled sauces on the supermarket shelves that we’re all familiar with, but bearing little resemblance to the simple, authentic dish at its roots.
Sweet, sticky, intensely savoury and endlessly versatile, this technique lends itself just as well to thin beef steaks, chunky pork chops, pieces of salmon or mackerel, blocks of tofu or even meatballs and burgers, but to my mind, chicken thighs are the ultimate subject for teriyaki. Biting through the crisp, slightly charred skin covered in the deep red-brown caramel glaze, giving way to the succulent, delicate white flesh of the thigh before finding your way to the soothing, polished rice is a delicious mouthful, needing just a hint of the nutty snap of toasted sesame seeds to push it into the realms of perfection.
(Any cold, leftover teriyaki chicken makes a wonderful sandwich filling when accompanied by crisp iceberg lettuce, a squirt of Kewpie mayonnaise, and served on the softest bread you can find.)
Theatre and diner interaction play a huge part in Japanese dining, the artistry of the tea ceremony, the DIY grilling over a hibachi when you eat yakiniku, the almost exclusively Northern dish of wanko soba where attendants deftly fling mouthfuls of noodles into your bowl as you eat, and our favourite- shabu shabu. Named after the onomatopoeic sound of people doing laundry, flapping sheets and clothing around in a pot of bubbling water, a shabu shabu meal sees diners sat around a steaming pot of stock, individually dipping in wafer thin slices of raw meat and vegetables until cooked, then quickly anointing them with a sour ponzu dipping sauce and greedily gobbling them down before repeating the act with the next morsel. It is one of the most entertaining, communal and theatrical of Japanese meals, but- because of the huge amounts of steam generated by the hotpot (or more correctly, hotpots, since you’re likely to be eating shabu shabu in a restaurant specialising in the dish)- only really suited to winter dining.
What happens then in the warmer, more humid months if people crave the flavours of shabu shabu but not the hour or two huddled around a pot of steaming pork and beef broth which would be so welcome later in the year? Reishabu is the answer- a selection of Japanese leaves topped with the poached pork that would be the feature of the hotpot, along with daikon, grapes, and a citrussy dipping sauce to refresh and revitalise you on even the hottest of days. You get all the flavours of shabu shabu, just in a lighter, cooler, balanced salad, and if you don’t dress the leaves with the ponzu until you’re ready to eat it, this makes a fantastic picnic lunch.
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.
Though not particularly prevalent in northern Japan and around Honshu, the south western island of Kyushu embraces the nose to tail ethos of consuming animals and has restaurants dedicated to beef and pork offal, or horumon, which you would be remiss not to visit if an opportunity arises. To most westerners, the term offal conjures up thoughts of tough, gamey, questionable tubes hidden amongst favourable cuts of meat, perhaps encased within a pastry crust, or smothered in so much gravy that you can’t distinguish what you’re eating. This is not the case with Japanese offal however- nearly always coming from prime wagyu cows, the organs have a rich beefy flavour, a tender bite and a slight underlying sweetness, and are generally served up in one of two popular ways: horumon-yaki, where delicate cuts of heart, diaphragm, stomach and cheek are grilled quickly over a charcoal brazier before being plunged into a dipping sauce and eaten scaldingly hot, or as the Fukuokan speciality, motsunabe.
Motsunabe is the soul food of the Hakata district- diners huddle around a hotpot perched on a portable gas stove, the pan containing a mound of peppery white cabbage, a lightly sweetened soy based stock, short lengths of pungent garlic chives and the star of the show, beef small intestines. The offal itself has a meltingly soft consistency, a pleasingly fatty bite and a rich, almost buttery flavour which pairs wonderfully with the vegetables and the ubiquitous cubes of tofu that you couldn’t have a nabe without. After the chunks of vegetable, meat and tofu have been greedily picked from the pot and eaten, the heat is turned up beneath the broth and fresh ramen noodles are added to the boiling liquid, cooking in a matter of minutes, soaking up the meaty flavours of the motsunabe and thickening the sauce. For me, this shime or ‘finishing course’ is the most anticipated part of the meal, an extra chance to savour the essence of the nabe and a final slurp of starchy noodles cooked in the fortified broth.
For the most authentic motsunabe at home, cooking the dish on a camping stove at the dining table is preferable, allowing diners to pluck morsels from the trembling liquid at various stages of tenderness and to breath in the wafts of steam that make hotpot dining so much fun.