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.)
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.
The fishing town of Mori on the eastern coast of the Oshima Peninsula is famous for three things; sweet farmed scallops, bountiful catches of Pacific herrings and an abundance of Japanese flying squid. It was this easy-to-catch and incredibly popular squid that, with the ingenuity of a local shopkeeper, would help rice rations stretch twice as far during WWII and go on to become the regional dish of Hokkaido. A bentō shop in Mori railway station came upon the idea of filling the cavity of the plentiful squid with the slowly dwindling rice supply before boiling it in a seasoned broth, the added bulk of the squid making the precious rice go that bit further. As with so many other modern classic dishes, frugal cooks and wartime necessity had resulted in the creation of something delightful.
Plump, burnished squid stuffed to almost bursting point with sweet, pearlescent rice and glazed with a thick, sticky soy sauce have remained a station bentō favourite since they won their creator first prize in the annual Keio department store ekiben competition, which sought to find the best regional delicacies from around Japan. Ikameshi makes an impressive but deceptively simple centrepiece for a meal, and is perhaps at its most hauntingly beautiful when served in a dimly lit, traditional izakaya accompanied by a handful of good friends and a glass or two of the local spirit. We’ve shortened the preparation time of our ikameshi by steaming the rice before filling, which means that the squid cooks in about five minutes, preventing it from becoming tough.
Ebi Furai- colossal, breaded, deep fried prawns- became the signature dish of Nagoya thanks to a quip made by the television comedian Tamori at the expense of the city’s dialect and accent. Misunderstanding of this joke led to the nation believing that Nagoya excelled in making the succulent, sweet prawns coated in shatteringly crisp shards of panko, and the city was happy to adopt this modern meibutsu as their speciality. In reality ebi furai was created during the Meiji Restoration period of the late nineteenth century in response to the increasingly popular deep fried yōshoku dishes such as tonkatsu and menchi-katsu that were being served in the larger, metropolitan cities. Traditionally made using Kuruma ebi (Japanese imperial prawns) which can grow to a monstrous thirty centimetres in length, nowadays the more ecologically sustainable black tiger shrimp is used in making this celebration of oversized shellfish.
Breaded, fried prawns have since become one of the most common ingredients for bentō packed lunches, crammed into ebi-sando sandwiches smeared with coleslaw or even served hotdog style in long soft bread rolls topped with creamy tartar sauce. Perhaps our favourite way to eat ebi furai though is paired with another yōshoku bentō staple, the Japanese take on potato salad. Creamier and more tangy than your typical potato salad, this version uses mashed potatoes studded with nuggets of smoked ham, crushed hard boiled eggs, salted cucumbers, and ultra sweet, exploding kernels of corn bound together with the ubiquitous Kewpie mayonnaise and a dash of vinegar. These two dishes make a delicious light meal when combined with some thinly shredded cabbage and a drizzle of the thick Worcestershire-style sauce that goes so well with fried breaded foods, or they work wonderfully well individually as starting points for making a packed lunch.
The rather cryptically named daigaku imo, or university potatoes, have been a staple snack food across the university towns of Japan since the 1920s. Deep fried sweet potatoes, tossed in caramel flavoured with soy sauce which quickly becomes brittle in the air; what’s not to love about them? The soy caramel coating brings to mind the salted caramel chocolates which have become popular in the UK over the last decade, and the glazed potatoes make me think of American Thanksgiving style candied yams. Traditionally these are made with the red-pink skinned, white fleshed sweet potatoes most common in Japan, but we ate some made with the gloriously bright purple murasaki imo in Kamakura and couldn’t resist recreating those in part here. Murasaki imo have an almost winey, lychee flavour to them which works wonderfully with the salty soy sauce.
Perhaps the most popular deity in Shinto belief, Inari is the kami of fertility, prosperity, agriculture and foxes. One of the favoured foods of Inari is abura-age or fried tofu, so these sweet pouches of fried tofu stuffed with rice have become a preferred offering at his shrines and a delicious snack for their patrons. The largest shrine dedicated to Inari is in Fushimi, Kyoto, famous for its thousands of vermilion torii, and on the roads leading up to the shrine’s entrance you’ll find stalls selling these treats. You can often find these in sushi restaurants, bento meals or convenience stores, but because of the foxes and their love for them they’ll always remind us of the hour and a half walk up Inari mountain and the peaceful glades found along the way.
With Autumn being our favourite time of year it only stands to reason that kabocha squash, being such an Autumnal vegetable, is one of our go-to ingredients when we want to eat something Japanese and comforting. Kabocha, with its sweet yet savoury flavour makes a great main component for a meal, but works just as well as a side dish or a splash of colour in a bento. These recipes work well with butternut squash or most other hard skinned winter squashes (crown prince is a really good match for kabocha in both flavour and texture, but it’s probably best to peel its harder outer skin away)
Namul (or namuru) is a family of dishes of Korean origin; shredded vegetables, seasoned with sesame and served as a side dish. This namul works really well as a side dish to rich, sweet meat dishes such as buta no kakuni, and its nutty flavour contrasts extremely well with vinegared foods or those served with a ponzu dipping sauce. It even makes a great coleslaw substitute in sandwiches.