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.
Wagashi- traditional Japanese confectionery- tends to be an elegant and artistic representation of the season. As we’ve recently passed the equinox and the cooler nights are starting to extend, nature is gradually turning from green to red and it’s time to embrace the change and eat something a little more Autumnal. Alongside kabocha, mushrooms and persimmons, sweet potatoes are one of the key flavours that the Japanese look forward to eating during shokuyoku no aki or ‘the increased appetite of autumn’ and one of most popular ways to enjoy them is as a smooth, firm bar of imo yōkan.
Yōkan is one of the oldest forms of sweet still eaten regularly across Japan and is essentially a block of jellied mashed azuki beans, or in this case, mashed sweet potatoes. We’ve enhanced our yōkan further with the addition of pieces of intense, almost chestnut-tasting, candied sweet potato to exaggerate the earthy, woodland flavour and add an extra texture to the jelly. This delicately coloured, refreshing treat is the perfect accompaniment to a cup of matcha both in looks and taste, the sweet gel coating your mouth, balancing and rounding out the bitterness of the tea.
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.
Tsukemono- preserved vegetables- pop up nearly every time food is consumed in Japan but can easily go unnoticed; they’re served with sushi to cleanse the palate in between flavours, as a snack with beers after a long day at work, used to top a bowl of rice and garnish dishes or as a course all of their own in a traditional kaiseki meal. These pickles help bring balance and harmony to a meal, they awaken the senses and excite the mouth preventing flavour fatigue and they add textures and colours that are otherwise missing from the foods that they accompany; samurai even used them for a quick energy boost during battle- and that alone is a good enough endorsement for me.
Unlike most Western pickles, those of Japan don’t rely purely on salt or vinegar to take care of the preservation of the main ingredient- tsukemono can be made with leftover lees from brewing sake, rice bran, mustard, soy sauce or as in this recipe, miso. These misozuke pickles are perhaps the most intensely savoury of all the tsukemono, garlic cloves are buried in a finger-licking mixture of miso, sake and mirin before being left for months to slowly transform. The miso helps temper the fiery flavour of the garlic which in turn mellows out the saltiness of the miso, resulting in two beautifully balanced condiments; a crunchy, umami-rich pickled garlic that’s a perfect accompaniment to meat or fish dishes, and a garlic enhanced nerimiso that’s just crying out to be stirred into a soup, spooned over hot steamed vegetables or smeared onto a crispy, lightly singed yaki onigiri. Oishii!