Ochazuke is a firm favourite when we want a simple warming meal, green tea poured over a bowl of rice topped with salmon. However, tonight we wanted something darker, something sweeter and most importantly, something to use the beautiful piece of organic beef we got from our butcher. This is what we came up with; a sweet, sticky, gingery beef tsukudani, rich and powerful with plenty of soy and sake in it. The depth of flavour in the beef would have overpowered the green tea normally used in ochazuke, so we decided to use dashi-infused hojicha instead, and topped the whole dish off with a lightly cured egg yolk to add extra creaminess and provide a more substantial sauce for the beef and rice. Any leftover tsukudani can be chopped up finely and used as a filling for some beef onigiri, or used as a punchy addition to a bento.
Just like ochazuke, upon which this soup is probably based, keihan is made up of a bowl of rice, topped with all manner of tasty things and then doused in a delicious, warming broth. A dish as simple as this relies on the quality of its ingredients to shine through, so a well flavoured, properly seasoned, rich chicken stock is imperative. The first time we tasted keihan was in a yakitoriya in the sake producing district of Fushimi, where they took a holistic approach to their chicken cooking, using every last scrap of chicken on the grill, and then the bones and any other remnants to make this wonderful soup. The stock had a hint of sake in it, which may not be completely authentic, but we’ve decided to keep it in our recreation of the dish.
This is a great recipe for using up leftover scraps of meat from your Christmas bird, and the roast carcass makes for a fantastic stock too.
Although it is only a relative newcomer to the cuisine of Japan, curry and rice can be bought in any town across the country from a huge range of restaurant chains. Karē is based upon a British Raj style curry, so has more in common with Victorian English cookery than it does true Indian cuisine, and although traditional Northern Indian style curries have recently found their way into Japan’s diet, Japanese karē remains one of the country’s most popular dishes.
Instant karē sauces are readily available from convenience stores and supermarkets in roux form, and they’re all delicious, but we’ve chosen to make our own from scratch. Straying slightly from the path of tradition we’ve gone for a chunkier version of karē with more vegetables and meat, but we still have the smooth, silky, sweet sauce that everyone loves. If you leave out the vegetables and meat from our recipe you’ll have an excellent sauce for katsu-karē or a base for curry udon soup.
An onigiri (rice ball) is to Japan as a sandwich is to England. It’s a filling and cost effective replacement for a real meal that you can grab from any convenience store before jumping on a train or rushing back to the office to work through your lunch break. Often, you can improve a sandwich by grilling it, creating a crispy golden exterior that gives way to a warm soft inside. By that same logic, grilling an onigiri gives you a delicious treat that enlivens a go-to snack and raises it to a new place. We have filled ours with an onigiri classic; shiozake, a kind of semi-cured salmon which we’ve infused with sake and sweet mirin. These yaki-onigiri have an outer crust that tastes almost like a toasted senbei cracker glazed with sweet soy sauce, while the inside resembles a warm gravlax or smoked salmon.
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.
Rice is the most important component in nearly every Japanese meal so cooking it correctly is a good skill to master if you want to regularly eat Japanese food. When we first read about cooking rice the Japanese way, we were put off by the washing stages, thinking that they couldn’t possibly make a difference to the finished product- how wrong we were! If you don’t wash your rice well, or even if you wash it half-heartedly, you end up with an overly starchy mass which lacks the flavour, character and definition of properly cooked rice. In our opinion the best rice to use is Koshihikari (Megumi is an excellent brand), it has very short grains which retain a distinct bite, a beautiful pearly appearance, and a sweet flavour unrivalled by other rices. There have been many times while eating a bowl of this rice that I have thought to myself, I could be happy eating nothing else but perfectly cooked plain white rice for three meals a day.
In Japan, nearly all rice is prepared in electric rice cookers, and while we couldn’t justify the storage space for a dedicated rice cooker, we have perfected a way to cook it in an Instant Pot electric pressure cooker that gives identical results. Don’t worry if you haven’t got an Instant Pot, we’ve included instructions for cooking rice in a saucepan too.