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.
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.
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.
An izakaya staple and to my mind one of the most elegant ways to serve beancurd, agedashi tofu is in essence a very simple recipe- smooth, delicate kinugoshi silken tofu is dusted in potato starch, deep fried and served in a bowl of seasoned dashi broth. A light, crisp shell gives way to a gently yielding, creamy, custard-like texture that melts in your mouth while the katakuriko gives the agedashi its distinctive soft, stretchy, jelly-like coating when immersed in the sweet, smoky soup. The two main elements of the dish are further enhanced by a selection of toppings- normally fresh spring onions, spicy daikon oroshi, savoury katsuobushi flakes and intensely powerful grated ginger- but you can also add chopped shiso leaves, shredded sheets of nori seaweed or a citrussy chilli kick from some shichimi togarashi.
Documented as early as the 1780s in Ka Hitsujun’s Tofu Hyakuchin- an immensely popular Edo period book on tofu- the clean, harmonious flavours and ease of preparation have helped keep this unassuming, humble looking dish a favourite across all of Japan, and one that we make a beeline for whenever we see it on a restaurant menu. The simplicity of the recipe allows each component to really shine and since they have nothing to hide behind you want to use the best quality ingredients you can find, make them all memorable and you’ll have a beautifully balanced bowl of food.
We’ve been visiting noodle restaurants for almost as long as I can remember, and have passed over a basic sounding dish on the menu many times, dismissing its simplicity in favour of the more showy, topping laden bowls. That is at least, until a couple of years ago whilst on a lunchtime visit to a market in Kyoto, we stopped by an udonya and tried the curiously named Kitsune Udon (fox noodles) for the first time and became instant converts. A deep bowl of perfectly cooked, thick white udon, a slightly smokey, fish based soup, and a single piece of inari-age, simmered in a sweet soy and mirin liquor until the sponge-like tofu had absorbed a massive amount of flavour. The clean soup paired with the rich, sweetness of the tofu was an incredibly soothing combination, and one that we’ve tried to eat as often as possible since our first taste.
Many people like to add narutomaki or kamoboko to their kitsune udon -and feel free to if you want, they’re both delicious additions- but we like to keep ours uncomplicated and the way we’ve always eaten it in Japan; just the noodles, the broth, a sweet slab of toothsome inari-age and a mound of spicy, fresh spring onions. Perfect comfort food if you’re feeling a little under the weather and great fuel for foxes on a night-time prowl.
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.
During our last visit to Arashiyama, we visited a little restaurant specialising in Kyo-ryori, or Kyoto style cuisine, where among other regional fare we ate some little fried tofu fritters. Similar to ganmodoki, these springy morsels were made of crushed tofu mixed with assorted vegetables and hijiki seaweed before being deep fried. We were immediately taken by the combination of flavours which managed to evoke being by the seashore despite being surrounded by mountains and forest. To enhance this coastal feel we’ve added a second seaweed to our version, both in the fritters and as a flavour boosting topping.
With Christmas being a week away today, the time is just right for cooking up something using some festive ingredients, namely the much maligned Brussels sprout and that street vendor classic, roast chestnuts. Sprouts aren’t that common in Japanese cuisine, but being from the cabbage family they fit into the flavour palate beautifully, and when paired with a classic shiraae dressing and the rich flavour of chestnuts they make a fantastic aemono dish.
Aemono translates roughly as ‘harmonised food’, and refers to dressed vegetable dishes, rather like cooked salads, eaten as accompaniments to main meals. The different dressings used in aemono range from mustard or vinegar to miso and sesame paste; we’re pairing our vegetables with a shiraae dressing based on tofu and white miso, to give a smooth, cool, creamy side.
With its roots in shojin-ryori Buddhist cuisine, this hearty miso enriched soup is a great way to get more vegetables into your diet and warm you up on these windy, rainy days. It reminds me of tonjiru, but without the porky overtones, and is the type of soup that makes you feel almost invincible after eating a bowlful. We make ours with homemade chicken stock, which adds a medicinal chicken soup vibe to help ward off those winter bugs. You can of course keep it traditional by using vegetable stock which makes it vegan friendly and just as delicious.