One of the most wide-spread and well recognised of all Japanese foods is ebiten, or tempura prawns. Go to any Japanese restaurant around the world and you’ll find these battered delights served either on their own, sitting atop a bowl of noodles or spread seductively across a bed of rice as tendon; when they appear on the conveyor belt at a sushiya they never make it all the way round the circuit, being plucked off deftly by the hands of the hungry punters lucky enough to be seated at the start of the track. As deliciously simple as these deep fried prawns are, and they truly are- being one of the most delightful snacks available- they are only the starting point, the figurehead at the prow of the tempura ship, there are much more varied, maybe even greater tempura to be found if you’re willing to look further afield. Succulent toriten fried chicken from Kyushu, ikaten squid from Hokkaido, bird’s-nest-like mixed vegetable kakiage fritters, fish tempura from the Seto inland sea and perhaps the most traditional- yasai, or vegetable tempura.
When sixteenth century Portuguese traders were at their most prominent, and inadvertently spreading their cuisine across most of Asia, it was their deep fried foods that took hold in Japan, particularly a festival dish called Peixinhos da Horta, ‘little fish of the garden’. These battered and fried green beans were eaten on holy days when consuming fish or meat was forbidden, and provided a substantial alternative that was both economical and nutritious; although their likeness to fish is debatable, they remain a Portuguese favourite to this day. The Japanese took these battered mouthfuls and improved upon them, making the coating lighter and crispier, experimenting with more fillings, sauces to dip them into, and refining the whole process into the culinary art form that we know today. Yasai tempura holds the torch as the closest remaining relative of this venerable cooking technique; a fine, lacy covering of crisp, pale blond batter, encapsulating a steaming hot, perfectly cooked morsel of sweet, nutty kabocha or maybe a smooth, meltingly creamy slice of aubergine or a spicy, almost minty shiso leaf. As with all Japanese food, the vegetables used change with the seasons, the airy batter allowing the flavours of the fillings to concentrate as they steam within their protective shells and paint a picture of the subtly changing environment outside.
The key to making successful tempura at home is in the temperature of the batter- keep all your batter ingredients as cold as possible, and always make the batter immediately before you fry your ingredients to prevent the gluten from developing and giving an undesirably chewy texture.
As the sweltering summer days drift slowly into mild, contemplative Autumn, nature’s hues turn to yellows and reds, and we long for cooling, refreshing food to take our minds off what’s left of the oppressive heat; luckily our gardens present us with exactly what we need- a bountiful crop of round, juicy tomatoes. Cooking with tomatoes isn’t exactly commonplace in Japan; they are however often enjoyed on their own, added to colourful salads or used as a bright topping for a cool creamy block of tofu along with something a little neba neba.
Neba neba is an onomatopoeic word used to describe foods with a sticky, slimy or stringy texture- qualities not normally desired in most Western cuisine, but looked upon as being incredibly healthy and delicious in Japan. The spectrum of neba neba ingredients range from those suited only to the most dedicated gourmand- pungent fermented soybean natto, raw egg whites, and tororo grated mountain yam- to the entry level mozuku seaweed, nameko gelatinous mushrooms and the almost universally accepted okra. While many cultures have fought against okra’s desire to impart a gluey consistency to dishes by soaking out the juices or refusing to cut the vegetable, Japanese chefs have embraced and even sought out ingenious ways to encourage this characteristic.
Our recipe for hiyayakko tofu is a great way to gingerly encounter neba neba food for the first time. It combines both tomatoes and okra with a refreshingly sharp and citrussy ponzu dressing to give a dish that is both cool and creamy, but still packed with enough zingy, salty punch to liven things up a little and the slightest hint of the stringy texture that the Japanese so love.
The most popular meat in modern Japan- with yearly sales surpassing both chicken and beef combined- is without a doubt, pork. Ever since the wild boar was domesticated during the iron age, it has made up a large part of the country’s diet; even during the Warring States years of samurai rule and national adherence to Buddhism, when the eating of four-legged beasts was particularly frowned upon, the descriptive euphemisms “mountain whale” and “walking vegetable” were used to tiptoe around the rules denying the people their favourite meat. Much like prohibition pharmacists in the US selling whisky to patients with enough money, unscrupulous Edo period doctors would prescribe pork as a health food for its stamina building properties and a black market trade developed up until the 1900s. The twentieth century saw the government’s opinion of meat change dramatically- advisors decided that it was the vast amounts of meat consumed by Europeans that made them grow large and powerful; so for them to not be left behind in the changing world, it became of great national importance that the Japanese took up eating pork again.
The Kagoshima region on the south-western tip of Kyūshū is home to the most acclaimed pork in all of Japan; bred from Okinawan Berkshire pigs, Kurobuta pork has particularly fine muscle fibres, a rich delicate flavour and above all, light, non-sticky and incredibly tasty fat. Besides the regular pork dishes found across the country, Kagoshima has a number of delicacies that are almost impossible to find anywhere else, our favourite of these is a sticky variation on niku miso, packed with the savoury black pork that the region prides itself on. Darkly sweet from unrefined brown sugar, salty and umami-rich from the mugimiso and deeply satisfying and savoury from slowly simmered pork, kurobuta miso is Japan’s answer to bacon jam. It can be enjoyed smeared across an onigiri, packed into a sandwich, spooned over hot steamed rice, dropped into a bowl of ramen like a savoury depth charge or used as a simple sauce for a vegetable stir fry. Perhaps the best way to eat it though is with crudités, scooped up greedily on a stick of raw cucumber or carrot, the cooling crunch of the vegetables offsetting the rich, intensity of the miso perfectly.
Thanks mainly to a nationwide on-again-off-again relationship with Buddhism and vegetarianism, Japanese chefs have become adept at transforming soy beans into incredibly realistic mock-meat products. These are not just commercially made, industrial scaled foodstuffs though- even the smallest of farmsteads with minimal equipment and space can create tofu with the most delicate flavour and the silkiest of textures to rival the technologically advanced, multinational corporations, resulting in a wealth of artisanal and regional tofus across the country. Mount Kōya, in the Wakayama prefecture, has been the home of Shingon Buddhism in Japan for over a thousand years and according to legend, the birthplace of freeze-dried Kōyadofu. During the Edo period, a monk is said to have unintentionally left an offering of tofu outside overnight; being eight hundred metres up a mountain, the beancurd quickly froze in the night air and was forgotten about until the next morning. Upon discovering his mistake the monk allowed the frozen block of tofu to defrost before eating it as normal, which is when he noticed the structural changes and intensified flavour resulting from the overnight chilling.
By freezing and defrosting, you reduce the amount of water that it can hold within its gel-like structure, turning the tofu into a spongy, crumbly mass similar in texture to cooked minced pork. Fried lightly in a little oil to increase the fat content and with the addition of some finely chopped mushrooms to boost the savoury umami flavour, you end up with the perfect base for a vegan-friendly version of the classic gyoza that even the most tofu-phobic of people will enjoy.
Whilst under Shogunate rule during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, trade and interaction with the outside world was tightly restricted, borders were sealed and Japan effectively became a closed country. A closed country that is, except for the port of Nagasaki on the western coast of Kyūshū, a bustling hub for the importing and exporting of produce, people and ideas. Much of the trade through Nagasaki was conducted with the Portuguese who were expanding their empire from Lisbon via the coasts of Africa, the Middle East and Goa. These Nanban- Southern Barbarians- brought with them the Christian church, the technology to make firearms, foods like peppers, chillies and vinegar, and new cooking techniques such as deep frying in breadcrumbs and batter, all of which were assimilated quickly by the locals. One of Portugal’s most popular methods of preserving fish for long journeys- escabeche, proved to be a huge success when tasted by the Japanese and has remained a favourite ever since. Literally meaning ‘pickled in the southern barbarian style’, nanbanzuke normally refers to whole fried fish or fillets soused in a vinegary sauce with vegetables, but we’ve enjoyed it many times with octopus- another staple of the travelling Europeans.
In our version of nanbanzuke we poach a whole octopus until tender, then marinade it with a selection of crunchy vegetables in a mixture of fish stock and rice vinegar with plenty of spicy red chilli and ginger to add some fieriness. Served at room temperature, nanbanzuke makes a wonderful addition to a picnic lunch, or when chilled it’s the perfect dish to serve in the summer when all you want to eat is something cooling, light and refreshing.
Summer fatigue or natsubate can be a big problem during the humid middle months of the year; people become lethargic, have trouble sleeping, lose their appetites and in the workplace, productivity hits an annual low. The Japanese way to combat this starts with the copious amounts of air conditioning installed within practically every home and building, but the most effective treatment against overheating comes through the application of food. You could follow in the habits of the kappa- a fart-loving mythical water dwelling creature, and enjoy a salty, marinated cucumber on a stick, perhaps sit down to a mound of shaved ice topped with mashed beans and fruity syrups or greedily devour a wedge of melon, but snacking can only get you so far through the day and eventually you’ll want to eat a real meal. A dish of simmered and chilled tōgan- a close relative of both the cucumber and watermelon, can provide the relief needed to get you through the most oppressive of summer days. Known across much of Asia as Winter Melon because it is one of the only fresh vegetables still available by that season, tōgan is recognised in both Ayurvedic and Yakuzen schools of medicine as being able to remove excess heat from the body and revive flagging energy. After being cooked briefly in dashi and dressed with minced prawns and chicken, also known in folk remedies for its restorative qualities, this chilled tōgan makes a light but sustaining meal with a crisp bite and a soothingly cool sauce that makes even the hottest, stuffiest weather that little bit more manageable.
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.