One of the most popular dishes across of all Japan whether you’re in a restaurant or at home, also happens to be one of the easiest to make and needs only a small handful of basic store cupboard ingredients. An incredibly soothing, rich and soulful meal that tastes like you’ve known it all of your life even on your first time eating it. Oyakodon- literally meaning ‘parent and child rice bowl’- is a satisfyingly large and filling bowl of rice, topped with succulent pieces of chicken thigh and onion, coated in a smooth and brothy mixture of dashi and barely set eggs. Each mouthful of this creamy chicken feast is slightly different as the egg continues to cook with the heat of the rice, so whilst the first bite might bring back memories of boiled eggs and soldiers for breakfast, the second could be a roast dinner and the third a warming bowl of hot rice pudding- is it any wonder that oyakodon is so comforting when every one of these dishes has the power to make you recall childhood memories?
Thought to have been invented in a Tokyo restaurant in the late 1800s, the poetic name which references the chicken and egg components of the dish led to the creation of the equally-delicious Tanindon or ‘unrelated person rice bowl’, which replaces the parental chicken with thinly sliced pieces of unrelated beef. Our recipe works just as well for this version of the dish too, just substitute in slices of either pork or beef and continue as normal.
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.
Sea bream or Tai is without a doubt Japan’s most beloved fish. Being a symbol of good fortune it is traditionally served during celebrations, which is alluded to in the term ‘medetai’, a phrase used to congratulate people on auspicious events. During the Edo period tai was so prized that it was reserved almost exclusively for the tables of the wealthy and a market solely trading in this king of fish was even set up in Osaka. Lucky bream shaped sweets are a popular favour handed out at Japanese weddings, and the hot, sweet, bean-filled pancakes called taiyaki can be bought at stalls and cafés all over the country. Ebisu- one of the traditional seven gods of fortune, is portrayed holding a fishing rod in one hand and carrying a huge red tai in the other. It is the symbol of wealth, prosperity and high quality; it even spoils at a slower rate to other fish thanks to the high levels of inosinic acid present in its flesh, making it an excellent choice for sashimi.
One of the best ways to enjoy this luckiest of fish is in this ‘surf & turf’ inspired takikomi gohan; the sweet, succulent pearly flesh of the tai is paired with meaty, earthy mushrooms and the spicy freshness only ginger can provide, to create a deliciously savoury rice dish that borders on the decadent. We’ve used a selection of our favourite mushrooms in this recipe, some frilly, some dense and some tender, but feel free to use whatever is available locally to you. If you’re fortunate enough to have some of the highly sought after, distinctly flavoured, matsutake mushrooms, they would make a phenomenal addition to your tai-meshi, combining both the country’s favourite fish and fungus into one memorable dish that spells out what the Japanese value most in food.
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.
Owing its heritage to char siu- the bright red, five-spice seasoned barbecued pork served in Cantonese restaurants, chāshū has become perhaps the world’s favourite ramen topping. This is of course for good reason, meltingly tender succulent meat, braised at a low temperature for hours until the tough connective tissues and collagen have turned into silky soft gelatin, yielding to the slightest pressure from a chopstick. The sweet, juicy layers of fat and moist, savoury meat are enhanced further by leaving them in a soy and sake seasoned broth overnight before being thinly sliced and seared in a hot pan to reawaken the glistening fats and juices hiding within the pork.
Chāshū isn’t only enjoyed with soup and noodles however, and one of our favourite ways to eat it is on top of a big bowl of rice as a chāshūdon. Combined with other noodle toppings such as boiled eggs, pink pickled ginger and spicy Korean radish kimchi, you have a dish that gives you the same satisfaction as a deep bowl of brothy noodles but with a lot less effort.
Originally created as a calcium rich dietary supplement to combat malnutrition in the working classes and the soldiers of the First World War, furikake rice topping has since become a store-cupboard staple found in nearly every Japanese household. First marketed by pharmacists during the 1910s, it went by many names including ‘Kore Wa Umai’ or ‘This is Good’ before it was christened furikake in the late 1950s. Since then the make-up of the seasoning has evolved down multiple pathways creating an almost endless variety of flavours, nearly all of them based around the standard elements of seaweed, sesame seeds, salt and dried fish products.
The first step of many Japanese recipes is making dashi, a mellow broth of kombu and katsuobushi that forms a solid foundation upon which you base the rest of your dish. Once the stock has been drained and used, the seaweed and bonito flakes are normally discarded, but they contain far too much flavour to simply throw away, so we like to recycle these unwanted ingredients into our own homemade furikake. When combined with toasted sesame seeds, soy sauce and mirin the result is a deeply savoury condiment with a hint of smoky nuttiness that’s perfect for topping a bowl of hot steamed rice, mixing into an onigiri or even scattering over a fresh batch of popcorn.
Hugely popular from its creation in the late Edo period, to modern times, Unadon- or Unagi Donburi to give the dish its full name- is one of the most common ways to eat freshwater eels in Japan. An oversized lacquer bowl, a mound of perfectly cooked, pearly white rice, and a fillet of eel, glazed to a rich mahogany colour with a mixture of soy and mirin, caramelised and slightly charred. The first time we ate unadon was early one Summer’s morning in Shibuya. After a dawn visit to the Meiji shrine complex we needed a hearty breakfast to boost our flagging energy, knowing little Japanese at the time we stumbled across a restaurant that was open where we recognised the word for ‘eel’ and decided to give it a go. It proved to be the ultimate reviver, the sugary, salty kabayaki glaze along with the big hit of protein and fat got us back on our feet in no time and it has gone on to become one of our favourite breakfast dishes.
Despite being traditionally eaten all over the UK, getting fresh eels nowadays is a little difficult, so over the years we’ve experimented with cooking different native fishes in the kabayaki style. The closest match we’ve been able to find is the locally abundant garfish, long and silvery with a fine flesh and just a little fat, it even looks pretty similar to an eel and should be easy to get hold of in most fishmongers. Whilst at our fishmongers we also saw some beautiful samphire for sale and knew that this vibrant, salty, shoreline succulent would make the perfect gomaae accompaniment to the unadon; while these are both classic breakfast dishes, they’re delicious for any meal of the day.
Crustaceans have always played a large part in the cuisine of Japan and one of our favourite uses of them is in kani meshi. It belongs to a family of dishes known as takikomi gohan which translates roughly as ‘cooked with rice’. In a similar way to a pilaf or kedgeree, takikomi dishes usually involve cooking rice in a seasoned broth to introduce extra layers of flavour along with the addition of vegetables or meat; in the case of kani meshi, this is the sweet juicy white flesh of a crab.
Whilst shopping for our kani meshi, we were distracted by some incredible looking Scottish langoustines, they were too perfect to resist- miniature, eight inch lobsters, fiercely armed and packed with a delicately perfumed flesh not dissimilar to prawns. We decided on the spot that they would make a fantastic variation on the standard crab kani meshi, and to compliment their sweet briny flavour we’ve added some seaweed and dried bonito to create a subtly flavoured rice that reminds us of holidays by the coast, both here in the UK and in Japan. Our kani meshi makes a great side dish in place of regular rice, and there’s a deliciously tactile pleasure in cracking the claws open and picking out the morsels of flesh from inside.
During the twentieth century a large number of Sichuan immigrants made their way to Japan, taking with them their own cuisine and eventually opening up restaurants catering to their fellow countrymen. As time went on, the prickly, spicy dishes that the Sichuan province is famous for changed to suit the local tastes, gone were the copious amounts of dried chillies, pungent garlic and mouth-numbing peppercorns, instead replacing them with savoury miso, aromatic sake and sweet mirin. One popular dish which received this transformation was mapo doufu or pock-marked beancurd; originally a sweat-inducingly hot, oil based sauce with pork and soothing pieces of beancurd to take the edge off the spiciness. The Japanese version of the dish is a much more mellow affair, sweet and salty with a slight hint of chilli-heat, and a thicker, unctuous sauce. This version of mabo tofu has found its place in Japanese cuisine as the nation’s favourite Chinese dish; in a similar way to Britain’s much-loved adaptation of Indian tandoori food, chicken tikka masala, it has evolved from its original form and become a fantastic dish in its own right.
A relatively modern etymological trend in Japan is the use of portmanteau in describing foods, such as anmitsu being a contraction of the words anko and kuromitsu, and in this case mabo tofu donburi- a bowl of rice with a topping- becoming simply mabodon.