It was a typical summer in Japan, hot and humid with the occasional torrential downpour and thunderstorm. In an effort to save money on our bills, we played this silly game where we would see how far into the summer we could make it without turning on our air conditioner (once we made it until the beginning of August!) Absurd, yes, but there it is.
So our little Japanese apartment was obviously warm, but we had several fans going that made it bearable. I thought that lettuce wraps might be a good meal for a hot evening. I washed the lettuce leaves then got the “brilliant” idea (blame the heat?) to throw them in the freezer for a minute to keep them cold while we set the table. Ha. You know what happens when you put lettuce in the freezer? All the moisture in the leaves freezes almost immediately, and then when you take them out, they defrost immediately, leaving you with pathetic wilty leaves. Awesome. I can’t believe I just told that story. That night we enjoyed the lettuce wrap filling on its own, and I think I made some steamed rice to go with it. Needless to say, I never blogged about lettuce wraps. And we might have broken down and turned on the air conditioner.
This time around we were much more successful, and since we live in Santa Cruz and most houses don’t even have air conditioners, we’ll never play that ridiculous game again. Leaves from a beautiful head of red leaf lettuce remained in the refrigerator until dinner time and were perfectly crisp and ready to be filled with seasoned pork, bright green cilantro, crunchy chow mein noodles (from a can, yes, but oh so good), peanuts, and plenty of Sriracha to spice it all up.
1/2 TBS. canola oil 1/2 TBS. sesame oil 1 lb. ground pork 1 TBS. grated or minced ginger 1 TBS. minced garlic 2 green onions, diced 2 TBS. soy sauce 1 TBS. mirin 1 TBS. rice vinegar 1/2 TBS. oyster sauce* 1 small spoonful of peanut butter 2 tsp. agave nectar 1 head of red leaf lettuce, leaves separated, washed and dried Cilantro leaves Crunchy Chow Mein Noodles, such as La Choy Roasted, salted peanuts Sriracha
*This can be omitted if you don’t have it on hand – we used it to add a little thickness and saltiness to the sauce
Add the canola oil and sesame oil to a large skillet and heat over medium high heat. Add the ground pork and cook until no longer pink, using a wooden spoon to break up the meat. If there is any fat, drain with a spoon. Return skillet to medium heat. Add the garlic, ginger and cook for several minutes, stirring frequently. Add the green onions and stir to combine.
In a small bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, mirin, rice vinegar, oyster sauce, peanut butter, and agave nectar. Taste and adjust ingredients as necessary. These lettuce wraps are very adaptable to your tastes!
Add the sauce to the pork mixture and cook over medium high heat, stirring, until it reduces slightly and incorporates into the meat.
Transfer the pork mixture to a serving bowl. Place your lettuce leaves on a serving platter. Put the cilantro, chow mein noodles, and peanuts in little bowls and place everything on the table for everyone to serve themselves. Don’t forget the bottle of Sriracha!
To go with our lettuce wraps, I used a vegetable peeler to make shavings of daikon (Japanese white radish) and carrot, tossed with a little sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, sugar & salt to taste, and a sprinkling of black sesame seeds.
Thank goodness for gyoza. It sustained us for a couple evenings during that first week in Japan when we were still jet-lagged, everything felt so foreign, and we hadn’t yet learned how to navigate our supermarket across the street. When we got up the courage to walk in, we were bombarded with bright florescent lights, foreign sounds, and (hallelujah) the prepared foods section, where we were immediately drawn to something familiar – plastic packages containing 6 perfectly browned gyoza, with a packet of dipping sauce on the side. We threw several packages into our basket, fumbled our way through the check-out line, and made it home. We heated them up in a pan (the one pan that was in our furnished apartment), poured the prepared dipping sauce packet into a small bowl, and made our first batch of rice in our rice cooker. It was one of our first dinners in our little Japanese apartment, and to this day we still talk about how delicious and comforting that supermarket’s gyoza was. It was also a good opportunity to practice our chopstick skills before going out in public :).
Toward the end of our two and a half years in Japan (and after buying countless packages of that prepared gyoza), we finally learned how to make it from one of our dear friends and colleagues, a woman named Chihiro. We sat around a table one spring afternoon, spooning a ground pork and cabbage mixture into gyoza wrappers and pinching the ends together. Even though we didn’t have much proficiency in each other’s languages, we still managed to share plenty of stories and laughs. It’s amazing how food crosses language and cultural barriers and brings people together. We hope that you’ll try this recipe and enjoy assembling the gyoza with the people you care about as well.
Sadly, in the move from Japan back to California, the recipe that Chihiro shared with us got lost in the shuffle. To make this gyoza, I looked at several recipes to try to find something similar. We ended up using Morimoto’s recipe, but added several things to the filling, including minced garlic, fresh ginger, a splash of soy sauce and sake, and sesame oil.
3 cups finely shredded Napa cabbage
2 green onions, chopped
1 TBS. coarse salt
1 lb. ground pork, preferably something on the fatty side like shoulder
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 garlic clove, minced
1 TBS. soy sauce
1 TBS. sake
1 TBS. sesame oil
1 package gyoza wrappers (10-12 oz.)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
For the Dipping Sauce:
seasoned rice vinegar (if unseasoned, add salt & sugar to taste)
Japanese chili pepper blend (Nanami Togarashi)
water to dilute
Toss the cabbage with the chopped green onions and the salt in a medium bowl. Let stand for 10 minutes or until cabbage is very wilted. Rinse and drain in a colander. Squeeze the cabbage and green onions, a handful at a time, to extract as much liquid as possible.
Place the cabbage and green onions in a mixing bowl. Add the ground pork, pepper, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, sake, and sesame oil. Add a tiny pinch of salt, but not too much because the cabbage has already been salted. Mix everything together gently, but thoroughly.
Fill a small bowl with water. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and dust it with cornstarch. Place 1-2 teaspoons of the pork and cabbage filling into the center of a gyoza wrapper. Dip your finger into the water and moisten the edges of the wrapper. Bring one edge of the wrapper up over the filling to meet the other edge. Press the edges together firmly. Place the gyoza on the parchment pepper, plumping the bottom of the gyoza so that it stands with the pinched-together part facing up. Repeat with remaining filling and wrappers. Cover and refrigerate until ready to cook (can be made up to 4 hours ahead).
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Heat 2 TBS. of the oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until the oil is very hot but not sizzling. Place half the gyoza in the skillet, pinched part up, letting the gyoza touch each other (traditionally, they are served attached to each other, but it’s fine if they don’t!) Let cook for several minutes. Add 2/3 cup of water to the skillet and cover tightly. Cook for 5 minutes, adding more water if it evaporates before the 5 minutes is up. Cook until water is evaporated and the gyoza are nicely browned on the bottoms, about 7 minutes total. Invert the gyoza onto a platter and place in the oven to keep warm. Repeat with remaining 2 TBS. of oil and gyoza. Depending on the size of your skillet, you might need to do a third batch, adding a little extra oil.
To make the dipping sauce, combine equal parts soy sauce and rice vinegar in a small bowl. Add a little splash of sesame oil, a sprinkle of Japanese chili pepper blend, and a little agave nectar for sweetness. Stir together. Add water to dilute the sauce slightly. Taste and adjust amount of water or ingredients until it tastes right to you. It should be a nice balance of salty, sweet, and sour, with a little spice.
Serve the gyoza with a bowl of steamed rice and the dipping sauce on the side. Add a salad with sesame dressing and you have a comforting Japanese dinner!
My Japanese cookbook translates this recipe as “Fried Chicken Chunks,” but I don’t think that name does it justice. We nostalgically refer to Tori no Karaage (which means “fried chicken”) as “Japanese festival chicken” because whether the occasion was cherry blossom-viewing in the spring or a hanabi (fireworks) show in the summer, we could always count on there being a fried chicken stand (which was more appealing to us than the whole-squid-on-a-stick stand). As you walk through a Japanese festival, the air smells like a sweet and savory combination of fried food, seafood, and caramelized soy sauce (the latter comes from the squid-on-a-stick; It’s doused in a sweet soy sauce before being grilled over an open flame). If you don’t read Japanese, don’t worry; all of the food stands have a banner displaying a cute little cartoon of the animal they’re cooking, such as a chicken, octopus or squid.
What makes Japanese fried chicken unique is that it’s marinaded in soy sauce and sake first, and then coated in potato (or corn) starch before being deep-fried, producing a very flavorful, moist inside and a distinct, crispy coating. It’s great eaten hot out of the oil for dinner with mayonnaise and spicy Japanese mustard for dipping, or eaten cold in a bento box for lunch. It’s also a popular beer snack. You’ll find this dish on the menu at izakaya, Japanese bars that also serve snacks.
We decided to make wasabi potato salad to go with our Japanese fried chicken. Just as American fried chicken and potato salad often go together at 4th of July BBQs, you’ll find potato salad (along with macaroni salad) in the prepared foods section of Japanese grocery stores, conveniently located right next to all of the fried food offerings.
Japanese Mayonnaise – “Kyu-pi Ma-yo-ne-zu“
A couple weeks ago, a friend (and English student) of ours from Japan sent us a package with lots of Japanese goodies, including the makings for Japanese potato salad: Japanese mayonnaise (which is slightly sweeter than the American variety and packaged in a squeeze bottle made of soft plastic), wasabi, and a bottle of Japanese pepper (Sanshou, which comes from the Sanshou plant and can be eaten in leaf or powder form). You mix those three ingredients into finely chopped boiled potatoes and you have authentic Japanese potato salad! I also added some sliced cucumber, because the supermarket that was across the street from our apartment prepared it that way and I have fond memories of eating it for lunch.
(If you want to read more about Japan’s love for fried foods, you might enjoy this old post, which I’ll resurrect for you. I talked about kushi-katsu restaurants that serve various fried foods on sticks that you dip into a communal sauce at your table. Sound fun?)
Tori no Karaage (Japanese Fried Chicken)
(Adapted from this little Japanese cookbook that one of my English students gave me called Japanese Favorites by Angela Nahas. It didn’t exist on Amazon, otherwise I’d link to it :))
16 oz. chicken tenders (or boneless-skinless chicken breasts), cut into bite-sized pieces 3 tsp. soy sauce 3 tsp. sake* 1 tsp. sesame oil 4 TBS. potato or corn starch Canola oil for deep-frying
* We didn’t have time to run to the store, so I just used mirin, a Japanese rice cooking wine
In a medium bowl, combine the chicken, soy sauce, sake and sesame oil. Cover and let marinate for at least 30 min. or overnight. Meanwhile, place the potato (or corn) starch in a large ziplock bag.
Drain the chicken and place it in the bag with the starch. Close bag securely and shake until the chicken pieces are well coated. Add a little more starch if needed.
Heat the oil in a wok (or medium saucepan) until bubbles start to form around the handle of a wooden spoon when it’s lowered into the oil (this is a cool little trick I learned from the book!) Fry the chicken in batches, about 3-4 min. for each batch, or until chicken is golden brown, turning once.
Drain on paper towels and serve with wasabi potato salad. Serves 3-4.
Wasabi Potato Salad
yellow new potatoes or yukon gold potatoes, peeled (about 1 lb. for 2 people) Japanese mayonnaise, to taste wasabi, to taste Japanese Sanshou pepper, to taste (or regular black pepper) thinly sliced English cucumbers (optional)
Place the peeled potatoes in a pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, then simmer, uncovered, until potatoes are tender. Drain and allow potatoes to cool.
Finely chop potatoes and transfer to a bowl. Add a couple good squeezes of Japanese mayonnaise, a squeeze of wasabi, and season with Japanese pepper. Mix well. Taste and add more mayo, wasabi and/or pepper if needed. Add the sliced cucumbers right before serving and gently mix to combine.
While making this baked fusilli, my mind wandered to Japan and its cheese situation. We used to travel 15-30 minutes on the train to various import food stores, where we’d pay an exorbitant amount for “exotic” cheeses like cheddar, parmesan, and mozzarella. At regular Japanese supermarkets, some of the few cheeses available were “pizza cheese” (shredded, mild white cheese), and cottage cheese, which for some reason was more like ricotta cheese in texture and taste. One of our fellow English teachers found that Japanese cottage cheese was a good substitute for ricotta in her baked ziti recipe. Sure enough, we tried it and it was true! We were reminded of that baked ziti when we tasted this pasta dish, but for this recipe we were able to purchase the ricotta we needed, and at a reasonable price! It’s sort of a cheater dish, because we used our favorite jarred marinara (Newman’s Own Organic), but we don’t mind cutting corners when we have an almost-crawling 8 month old!
As a side-note, over dinner we were reminiscing about our English classes and remembered that one of our students said that her favorite lasagna recipe (given to her by an American English teacher) included cream of mushroom soup. We had never heard of this before! Has anyone actually put cream of mushroom soup in lasagna!? The idea sort of offends me, but maybe it’s a regional thing (?)
Baked Fusilli with Marinara, 3 Cheeses & Spinach
3/4 lb. Fusilli 2 TBS. extra virgin olive oil 1 clove garlic, minced 2 bunches of spinach, trimmed and washed Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper 1 24-oz. jar of your favorite Marinara (you’ll use about 3/4 of it; save the rest for another use) 1 tub of Ricotta 4 oz. fresh Mozzerella, grated grated Parmesan
Cook the fusilli in boiling water for a little less time than indicated on the package so that it’s pretty al dente. Drain and set aside.
In a large skillet over medium heat, sauté garlic in olive oil until fragrant and beginning to turn golden, about 1 minute. Add the spinach and stir until wilted. If skillet becomes dry, add a tiny bit of water. Season with a little kosher salt & freshly ground pepper.
Add 3/4 of the jar of Marinara to the wilted spinach, a couple dollops of ricotta cheese, and a small handful of Parmesan. Stir to combine.
Pour the cooked pasta into the skillet with the sauce and gently toss to combine. Pour half the pasta/sauce mixture into a greased baking dish. Scatter several more dollops of ricotta over the pasta. Pour the remaining pasta/sauce mixture over the ricotta. Top with a liberal amount of shredded Mozzerella cheese, and another small handful of Parmesan.
Bake at 375 until the cheese is melted and the whole thing is starting to bubble, about 15-20 min. Place under the broiler for the last minute so the cheese can brown nicely. Let rest a few minutes before serving. Serves 3-4 (or 2 hungry people with leftovers).
We miss our “yakitori man.” There was a supermarket right across the street from our apartment in Japan, and every Friday a man would set up a little red cart right out front. Starting at about 10 am, we’d start to smell that sweet sauce brushed over skewered chicken (and other meats) cooking over an open flame, and it became the official smell of Fridays in Japan. Especially in the winter (because the warmth of the grill felt good in the 20 degree air), we would walk across the street to get yakitori for dinner. We were the only foreigners in our neighborhood, so I wonder if he thought it was slightly odd that these Americans stood in his line on Fridays and butchered the ordering of his tasty, skewered treats.
In Japanese, the counting system is far from consistent. Depending on the shape of the item (flat, round, stick-like) or the state of its being (animal, human, large electrical appliance) there is a different way to count. Of course the first time we tried to order 8 yakitori skewers, we used the wrong word for 8, and he kindly corrected us. That’s how we learned the correct way to order 8 stick-like objects.
The chicken itself was never the best quality. In fact, most of the pieces were more fat than meat. But the sauce that the yakitori man brushed on those skewers as they were cooking was so addicting, that somehow we tolderated the fatty chicken and ate it anyway. To enjoy yakitori at home, we recommend using boneless skinless thigh meat, like we did last night. Serve the skewers over steamed white rice and some cucumber salad (marinate sliced cucumbers in rice vinegar, sliced chiles, and salt and sugar to taste), because something pickled cuts through the richness of the sauce and the slight amount of fat on the chicken.
1 1/2 lb. boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup mirin (Japanese sweet cooking wine)
1-2 TBS. brown sugar
5 green onions (thick green onions work best)
6-8 bamboo skewers
Combine equal parts soy sauce and mirin (we used about 1/4 cup each), and the brown sugar in a large baking dish that’s long enough for the skewers to fit into. Taste and add more brown sugar if you like a sweeter sauce. Add the chicken pieces and toss well to coat. Marinate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or overnight.
Meanwhile, soak bamboo skewers in water.
Slice the thick part of the green onions into 1-inch long pieces, reserving the thinner green part for another use. Set aside. Prepare your grill (use charcoal for best taste!)
Assemble the yakitori. Take the chicken pieces out of the marinade and put on the skewers, along with the green onion pieces. Grill for 5-6 minutes on each side, or until chicken is browned and cooked through.
Serve with steamed rice, cucumber salad, and miso soup.
Our bowls and chopsticks often inspire me to make dinner. Each one tells a different story and conjures up a different time and place. These bowls were hand-crafted at a local artisan shop downtown and were given to us as a wedding gift 3 1/2 years ago. I love that they have little indentations on the edge for resting your chopsticks. The chopsticks came from a student of ours in Japan as a goodbye present. My decision to make something Asian-inspired for dinner came from looking at these bowls and wanting to eat something out of them! Stir fried noodles seemed appropriate because it was one of our weeknight standby meals in Japan. I don’t know how it never made it on the blog, but finally it’s making an appearance. We enjoyed a nice Junmai-style sake (best when served at room temp) with this meal and it transported me back to our tiny apartment in Osaka. Vegetable Lo Mein with Salmon:
1 package Chinese Style Noodles (such as Nasoya brand) 3 to 4 TBS. canola oil 2 cloves of garlic, chopped 1 white onion, diced 1 cup snowpeas, ends trimmed and cut in half 1 cup sliced shitake mushroom, stems removed a small head of broccoli, florets removed, and stems cut into equal-sized pieces 3 to 4 TBS. soy sauce 1 TBS. hot chili sauce (such as Sriracha) 2 TBS. rice wine vinegar 2 tsp. mirin 2 tsp. brown sugar salt & pepper to taste 3/4 lb salmon, cooked and flaked*
*This recipe is ideal for using up leftover salmon (or other meat), but this time we cooked ours on the same night: We preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a small bowl, Dustin mixed up our usual Honey-Soy Glaze that we often put on tuna in Japan. We poured some of the glaze mixture over the salmon in a baking dish before putting it in the oven, then based it every 10 minutes until the salmon was done (about 20 minutes) and we could easily flake it with a fork.
Cook the noodles according to package directions (we boiled them for 3 minutes), drain, rinse with cold water, and drain again. Set aside.
Heat the oil in a wok until very hot. Add the onion and garlic and stir fry for 1 minute. Add the broccoli and put a lid down over the veggies for about 3 minutes to speed up the cooking. Remove the lid and add the shitake mushrooms and snowpeas. Stir fry for about 2 minutes. Add soy sauce, vinegar, chili sauce to taste (we add a lot), mirin, brown sugar, and salt & pepper to taste. Stir together with the veggies. Tilt the wok so the sauce runs to one side. Cook sauce over the heat for a minute until it begins to thicken a little, then combine with the veggies again.
Add the noodles to the wok, and drizzle a little oil over them (about 1 tsp). Stir fry for a few minutes, combining them with the veggies and sauce. We found using tongs worked best for this!
Add the flaked salmon and toss to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Serve in your most beautiful bowls 🙂
What makes blueberry muffins even better? A crumbly cinnamon & sugar topping! I made these several times in Japan for my students. In true Japanese fashion, the students would always request that the muffins be divided into quarters. Then they would eat one quarter at a time (until they had eaten a whole muffin) with a small dessert fork. Picking up a whole muffin and biting into it must be an American thing! Anyway, cultural differences aside, this is a very easy and delicious muffin recipe that’s even better made with fresh blueberries. Try this crumb topping on any muffin!
We enjoyed this dish several times in Japan. Ma-Po Tofu is to Japan what maybe Kung Pao Chicken or Chicken Chowmein is to America. In Japanese supermarkets you can buy an instant version of it in a box. You cook the pork and tofu and then squeeze in the little packet containing the flavorful sauce. Sort of gross, yeah, but we were guilty of trying it out once. Now that we’ve made the real thing, we’ve found that it’s really quite simple! We were excited to use the authentic red miso that one of our dear English students mailed us all the way from Japan. This rendition is from my favorite Iron Chef – Masaharu Morimoto – so I trust his Japanese twist on a Chinese classic. We served this dish on top of steamed short grain rice, homemade miso soup (the real thing this time – made with dashi stock instead of chicken! woo hoo!), and a cucumber salad with rice vinegar and sliced chilis.
1 large or 2 medium dried shitake mushrooms*
1 TBS. vegetable oil
2 cloves finely chopped garlic
1 TBS finely chopped peeled fresh ginger
1 scallion, white and green separated, finely chopped
1 TBS. finely chopped bamboo shoot**
1 TBS. finely chopped celery
12 ounces (250 g) ground pork
1 cup chicken (or vegetable) stock
1 TBS. red miso
1 TBS. Chinese hot chile sauce (tobanjan)***
1 TBS. sugar
1 TBS. soy sauce
2 tsp. cornstarch, dissolved in 1 TBS. water
1 pound (450 g) firm tofu, diced
scallion, sliced, for garnish
* we used 3 medium fresh shitake mushrooms
** we could only find canned bamboo shoot in our store, but it worked out fine
*** we used Sriracha hot chili sauce
If using dried shitake mushrooms, soak in hot water to cover until soft, about 20 minutes. Drain, squeeze to remove as much liquid as possible. Remove stem and finely chop mushroom caps. If using fresh shitake mushrooms, simply remove the stem and finely chop the mushroom caps.
In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the garlic, ginger, white part of the scallion, bamboo shoot, celery, and hopped shitake mushrooms. Cook, stirring often, until the garlic is tender, 2 to 3 minutes.
Add the pork and raise the heat to medium-high. Cook, breaking up any lumps of meat with the side of a spoon, until it is cooked through, with no trace of pink, about 7 minutes.
Add the chicken stock, red miso, chili sauce, sugar, and soy sauce and bring to a boil. Stir in the dissolved cornstarch and cook, stirring, until thickened, about 30 seconds.
Shortly before serving, add the tofu and gently stir to mix. Cook until it is heated through, about 3 minutes. Serve in bowls with steamed rice. Garnish with a little chopped scallion. Makes 4 servings.
If you love Caesar salad, you’ll be a fan of this one. I first came across this recipe while watching TV in Japan. I used to watch the Japanese version of the food network called “Foodies TV,” my favorite place to learn the Japanese words for boil, steam, grill, etc. Other times I would laugh at the obscene amount of mayonnaise being used in a recipe, or learn from a Japanese housewife how to make the perfect dashi stock or daikon salad. But once in a while, Foodies TV would play some English cooking shows, and for those I was extremely grateful, especially when I was going through a homesick phase. Giada, Jamie Oliver, and Everyday Food, to name a few, graced my Japanese television screen. The inspiration for this salad came from the latter. We decided to add avocado to the salad, because the tortilla crisps were crying out for it. You could also add some minced anchovies to the dressing, if you like that sort of thing. Adapted form Everyday Food; Serves 4.
4 corn tortillas (5-inch)
2 tsp. canola oil
1 1/2 tsp. chili powder
coarse salt and ground pepper
3/4 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/3 cup mayo
2 TBS. fresh lime juice
2 TBS. grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish 1 large head romaine lettuce, chopped 2 avocados, sliced
Preheat oven to 375°.
Place tortillas on a baking sheet. Brush both sides with 1 teaspoon oil; sprinkle with about 1/2 tsp. of the chili powder, and season with salt and pepper. Bake until golden brown and crispy, turning once, 8 to 10 minutes. Cool, then break into pieces.
In a large bowl, toss shrimp with remaining teaspoon of oil and chili powder. Season with salt and pepper. Lay shrimp flat on a broiler pan, and cook until browned and opaque, turning once, 3 to 4 minutes (instead of using the broiler, we cooked our shrimp in a frying pan).
In a small bowl, whisk together mayonnaise, lime juice, Parmesan, and up to 2 tablespoons water for desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper.
Toss lettuce with dressing. Divide among bowls, and top each with shrimp, avocado slices, and broken tortillas. Garnish with more Parmesan, if desired.
Ahh … as you lift a bowl of miso soup to your lips, and the smell of the steam meets your nose, there’s a short moment when you feel that everything is going to be alright. We love the taste of red miso. Its flavor is a little richer and earthier than white miso, which is sweet. Since coming back from Japan, miso soup has become my comfort food. Funny, huh? Even though this recipe isn’t as authentic because it’s made with vegetable stock instead of dashi, it was still warm, comforting, and nostalgic. I highly recommend it this fall!
We had marinated some skirt steak in our own teriyaki concoction (equal parts soy sauce and mirin, a splash of sake, two spoonfuls of sugar, and some crushed garlic) for a few hours, then BBQ-ed it. We served it with the miso soup, steamed rice, cucumbers marinated in rice wine vinegar, sugar, and chilies, and a bottle of sake.
Warm, Comforting Miso Soup for 4:
6 cups vegetable stock 3 TBS dried wakame seaweed 3 scallions, thinly sliced 4 TBS red miso 9 oz. firm or semi-firm tofu, cubed
In a pot bring stock to a simmer.
Meanwhile, soak the wakame seaweed in fresh water for about 10 minutes. Drain.
Add the wakame to the stock and simmer for 1 minute. Add scallions and simmer for 1 minute more. Turn off the heat.
Add the tofu and gently stir.
Transfer a little broth from the pot to a small bowl. Dissolve the miso into the broth and then return to the pot.
Stir gently for a minute to allow the miso to steep, then serve immediately.
This will probably be our last Japan post, but don’t be sad. Oishii will definitely continue as we begin new culinary adventures in California. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s a really cool crab to talk about! You know you’re in Osaka when you spot this crab. His legs move up and down, beckoning you to come closer and take a picture of this Osaka symbol. Which we did. Many times. This is our favorite part of Osaka, an area called Dotonburi. We’ve probably been here a total of 7 or 8 times.We especially love it at night – the flashing neon lights and the way they reflect in the canal, the uniquely dressed teenagers, the smell wafting from little stands cooking takoyaki (distinctly Osaka octopus dumplings), and the sound of women welcoming you into their stores in high pitched whiny voices. It all comes together to create that “we’re not in Kansas anymore” feeling.
This is our friend Brandon and I in front of the famous Glico man sign. Glico is a famous food company in Japan that started off by selling caramel candy. The running man is its well known mascot.
Check out this couple that we saw enjoying a romantic evening together. Don’t you feel encouraged?
There used to be a Kirin brewery/tasting room in this area of Osaka, but it recently got boarded up. Hopefully they’re just remodeling. Here’s a picture from Christmas time two year ago when we went there with my family. I love this picture of my mom and hopefully she approves that I’m posting this 🙂
Dotonburi is also home to this really interesting elliptical ferris wheel that we’ve ridden one too many times. (Again, an older picture. We’re definitely not wearing sweaters in the 90 degree heat!)
さよなら (sayonara), Osaka! We hope to visit you again someday.
Despite our lack of posts lately, we definitely haven’t been going hungry over here! So many generous people have planned farewell lunches and dinners. Here’s a recap of what we’ve been eating and doing this past week.
My Tuesday evening class is a huge fan of my Mom’s oatmeal cookie recipe. I brought them the cookies one last time so they could pose in a picture with them.
We also played their favorite game, Qwitch. If you don’t know Qwitch you should strongly consider going out and buying it. It’s great for people who like competitive, fast-paced games.
Our Wednesday class students brought an insane amount of desserts – two kinds of cheesecake, strawberry cake, melon, and chocolates. We also learned how to whisk the perfect cup of matcha (green tea) with just the right amount of foam on top using a bamboo whisk.
Our Thursday morning classes took us to a very quaint Italian restaurant that served very Japanese style food. For example, the pasta course choices were eel with cream sauce, or clam and squid. Take your pick. The most interesting (and aesthetically pleasing) course was corn soup (a favorite in Japan), a martini glass of Caesar salad, and two raw shrimp served over a bed of pesto garnished with mini cherry tomatoes.
In the evening, our classes had a joint tea/sandwich party. Dustin’s student Michiko made several kinds of sandwiches on crustless white bread: egg salad, potato salad with tuna and carrots, and ham and cucumber. They were very comforting.
My Friday morning ladies surprised me with a beautiful selection of parfaits, which we devoured at 10:30 in the morning as a second breakfast. I ate the one in the background – panna cota covered with a layer of peach “jello” that encased raspberries and pineapple.
Then Dustin’s Friday morning class gave us a break from Japanese Italian and took us to a traditional Japanese restaurant for lunch. We enjoyed tempura, sashimi, wheat gluten, eel, pickled cucumbers, sweet beans, edamame, and many other tasty things, all beautifully presented.
The style of the restaurant was very rustic Japanese, and they served coffee in antique cups.
For our final Sunday class we lugged our waffle iron to the church and made cinnamon apple waffles for the students, using a mix that I had to use up before we move home. They were intrigued but the students seemed to really enjoy them, especially served with maple syrup and fresh blueberries.
Now that our classes are finished it’s time to focus on packing, but we’re also trying to fit in some fun things like karaoke and conveyor belt sushi for one last time 🙂
No one will ask you how you like your meat cooked at a yakiniku restaurant. Plates of sliced raw meat are brought to your table and you cook it yourself on a mini BBQ built into your table! How fun!
Yakiniku means “grilled meat.” Last Friday we went to a Korean style yakiniku restaurant with two of our students, 9 year old Yu, 7 year old Mana, and their mother Yuki.
We sat on thin cushions on a hard wood floor around a low table, and listened intently to see if we could catch what Yuki was ordering from the menu. Unfortunately we couldn’t catch any of the words because there was a table of loud, drunk business women beside us kanpai-ing every 10 seconds. Or maybe it was because we hadn’t learned the names for various organs. First, we encountered an appetizer of sliced raw liver drizzled with sesame oil, and sprinkled with sesame seeds and sliced onion. The taste was okay, but we weren’t fans of the melty texture. Luckily, Yu was really into the raw liver, so I kept sneaking her bites. She enthusiastically thanked me.
After we had pushed aside our appetizer we were ready for something grilled! What better way to start then …a steak? Nope. A plate of sliced tongue! After it was grilled it was actually quite tender and delicious, and tasted like beef, at least that’s what I kept telling myself.
We were happy when two plates of thinly sliced beef were brought to our table. Finally, something familiar. After they were cooked, we plucked the grilled pieces off the grill with our chopsticks and dipped them in a small dish of spicy sauce. In the meantime, various side dishes arrived at our already crowded table, like beef tartare with raw egg yolk. You’re supposed to mix the two together with your chopsticks before eating.
And some spicy fermented cucumbers and cabbage (of course known as kimuchi).
At the end of our meal, when we were completely stuffed, I gave Yu a chance to show off her English skills. When I first had her as a student she was 7 years old and spent the entire 50 minute lesson under the table kicking and screaming. Since then she’s done a complete 180, and she is one of my favorite students:
My first encounter with somen noodles was at an elementary school summer festival in Yamaguchi Prefecture 4 years ago. I watched as thin, white noddles were sent sliding down halved bamboo shoots, and children and parents gathered around trying to grab them with their chopsticks on their way down. The noodles that made it down to the bottom of the shoot without being caught were collected in a large bowl, then brought back up to the top to continue their journey again. I thought it was a very intriguing game, and apparently a summer custom.
We decided to try somen noodles, but we didn’t have to catch ours. Traditionally the cooked noodles are kept in a bowl of ice water in the center of the table. People help themselves and dip each bite into a bowl of special dipping sauce – made from a combination of soysauce, mirin, and dashi stock. My wonderful student Rei gave us 6 bundles of dried noodles, a bottle of dipping sauce, and some illustrated directions, so we decided to embrace this Japanese summer meal. Her pictures speak better than my words:
1 bundle of somen noodles per person 1 bottle of somen sauce – combine 1 part sauce with 3 parts water fresh grated ginger wasabi 2 shiso leaves, thinly sliced
Boil the noodles for 2 minutes only. Meanwhile, prepare a bowl of ice water. Drain the noodles and rise in cold water until they are cool. Transfer to the ice water.
In a small dish (1 for each person), combine the sauce and water. Add the ginger, wasabi, and shiso.
Take the noodles out of the ice water with chopsticks, dip in your sauce bowl and enjoy!
Anything coated in crunchy panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried has to be irresistible. Known as “food for the common people,” Kushi-katsu is popular among young and old in the neighborhood of Shinsekai, home of Tsutenkaku Tower – the symbol of Osaka.
Tsutenkaku means “tower reaching heaven.” It was built in 1912, but was taken apart in 1943 because the iron was needed for the war. Later in the 50s, the local people of Osaka rebuilt it and now it’s a symbol of Osaka and its citizens.
We took an elevator to the top of the tower and were greeted by Billiken, the cute god of good luck (and the god of the common people in Osaka). He mysteriously appeared in the dream of a female American artist in 1908, but exactly how he came to be a mascot in Osaka, we have no idea.
Rumor has it if you rub the soles of Billiken’s feet, your wish will come true! People lined up to give it a try.
We walked down busy streets, past street vendors selling necklaces and Hello Kitty purses, karaoke shops, rooms of old men playing an ancient game related to chess, pachinko parlors (Japanese pinball/slot machines), and many kushi-katsu shops in search of the perfect one for lunch. When my students decided they had found it, we squeezed into the tiny booth in the far corner of the long and narrow shop. The menu conveniently doubled as wall paper. Almost every surface of the wall was covered with writing describing all the delicious fried things to eat, and refreshing things to drink. Japanese sensory overload.
My students didn’t waste any time ordering beer and sake. If you drink 2, the 3rd one’s on the house. What a deal!
One of my students immediately ordered an appetizer for us. Then he proudly told us it was stomach stewed in white miso. The texture of the stomach was soft and easy to chew, but it was a little slimy. I thought the miso masked any offensive tastes that the stomach might have had.
Overall it wasn’t that bad, but if we hadn’t been told what we were eating, it would have tasted even better.
There were so many kinds of kushi-katsu to choose from on the vast menu, but we tried the quail eggs, shrimp, eggplant, onion, pumpkin, asparagus, lotus root, shitake, squid, and beef.
As we waited for our fried skewers to arrive, we snacked on fresh raw cabbage leaves dipped in the tangy brown sauce – complimentary on every table. The kushi-katsu arrived steaming hot and we consumed them quickly after dipping them once into the sauce.
There’s an important rule that’s actually posted on a sign outside on the street: no double dipping kushi-katsu!
This is the Osakan summer we remember. Mid-90s. 80% humidity. It’s really grand. But anyway, last week we went not once, but twice to a little shop that sells the best yakisoba on the planet. (Yakisoba means “fried noodles” and is just that; soba noodles stir fried with cabbage and a deliciously tangy brown sauce similar to Worcestershire). Their desserts are just as good, especially this one.
All you need is 3 simple ingredients to recreate it at home (well, assuming you have a shaved ice machine):
shaved ice a can of azuki beans (sweet red beans – can be found at any Asian supermarket) sweetened condensed milk
Fill a bowl with shaved ice. Put a scoop of azuki beans on top. Mound with more shaved ice. Drizzle with sweetened condensed milk. Dig in. It’s like a little edible Mt. Fuji!
Gaijin means “foreign person.” It’s not the most respectful term in Japanese, but it’s not degrading either. It simply means you are not Japanese, but for some reason you are here in Japan. So what do gaijin do on 4th of July? Well, we don’t have BBQs because people only do that during cherry blossom season. And we don’t go to parades or wear red, white, and blue (because we stand out enough already), but we do gather everything we can to make a meal that resembles the one that we share with friends and family back home. And we do light sparklers and other kinds of firecrackers (calledhanabi) because unlike some counties in California, they’re perfectly legal and available everywhere.
Playing with fire – what Japanese children (and gaijin) do during the summertime.
Our main dish was hotdogs. Sounds easy enough. But Japanese hotdogs are usually cocktail sized, or taste more like breakfast sausages. The closest thing to an Oscar Meyer or a Ballpark are sold with sticks in them (this is how they’re sold at Japanese festivals with really spicy mustard). So we removed the sticks, heated them in a hot pan, and devoured them with lots of mustard, chopped onions, and tomatoes.
I wanted to make some sweet, smoky baked beans to go with our hotdogs, so this is the recipe that I came up (minus the bacon, because for some reason they discontinued it in our supermarket recently, along with butter. There seems to be a shortage going on. WTF!?)
1 can white cannellini beans, drained 1 tsp. olive oil 1 clove garlic, minced 1/4 of a white onion, diced BBQ sauce (twice around the pan, if you’re Rachael Ray) Worcestershire sauce (once around the pan) 2 TBS. molassas 2 TBS. brown sugar 2 squeezes of ketchup 1 tsp. Dijon mustard salt & pepper to taste
Drain the beans and set aside.
Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and onion and cook, stirring frequently, until color just begins to change.
Add the beans, followed by all the other ingredients. Simmer for about 15 minutes. Taste and adjusting seasonings if necessary.
We also ate chips and habanero salsa, cornbread and watermelon! Usually we can’t find cornmeal here, but last week one of my students brought me a package of cornbread mix from Costco, so I happily accepted it!
So that’s what these gaijin did on Independence Day! God Bless America, but God Bless Japan too!! 🙂
You could easily walk right by the restaurant we ate at last Saturday and not even know it. It blends into the rest of the old merchant town of Ohmi in Shiga prefecture. Traditional houses and businesses resembling those of late Edo and early Meiji period line the quiet streets; a gentle reminder that Japan hasn’t always been bustling with crowded crosswalks, neon signs, and electronic districts. A group of our English students made reservations at Satou–pronounced sa-toe, meaning “sugar”–where we joined three other tables of diners in a single room and embarked together on an 8-course feast.
We were intrigued when a woman wearing an ornate kimono carried a bowl of what appeared to be snow to our table. Upon closer inspection we saw decorative sake cups chilling in the ice, and in the middle, buried deep, was a glass container of sake. Our lunch was off to a great start as one of our students offered the obligatory Kanpai! before taking the first sip.
There wasn’t much time to admire the snow bowl, because the woman was already placing a small dish in front of each of us. We waited until all the tables in the room were served, and the woman had given an explanation of the dish (that we couldn’t quite understand, so we relied on the rough translation from students ). Then we all started together on the first course: halved shrimp, cucumbers and radish in a cool vinegary broth with specks of seaweed. It was refreshing and reminded us of a Japanese version of gazpacho.
We saw the woman peering at us from behind the kitchen as we finished off our first course. She was probably surprised that us gaijin (foreigners) were using chopsticks. This is a common misconception among our students and restaurant staff. Yes, indeed, we can use chopsticks and we can also eat raw fish!
Our dishes were whisked away and replaced with black lacquer bowls with tight fitting lids. We removed the lids. Once the steam cleared we saw the clear broth, flavored with two kinds of Japanese citrus peels: yuzu (orange) and sudachi (green). In the middle was a block of tofu marbled with some ground shrimp paste. It was covered by a transparent circle. We must have looked confused because my students began to explain that it’s a vegetable like a cucumber that grows in Okinawa . It was so thin that we didn’t notice its taste much at all. Sprouts from a fresh water plant called junsai floated on the surface, but they were covered with a naturally occurring gelatinous substance that made them not as appealing.
As the woman cleared our soup bowls and began to pass out beautiful bright green plates, she explained that they were supposed to be for dessert, but she bought them for the purpose of serving sashimi. We agreed that they were appropriate. Soon our attention was no longer on admiring the woman’s dishes, but on the most beautiful sushi boat we’d ever seen.
Slices of tuna, mackerel, sea bream, and yellow tail, sitting atop a pile of shaved ice, garnished with shiso leaf, and sprouts, were just crying out to be eaten with wasabi and soysauce. The mackerel was especially delicious as it had been soaked in vinegar prior to being served. I was wary at first of eating the skin, but it didn’t deter at all from the flavor of the fish.
Even after we’d devoured the sashimi, I was sad to see the plate leave. The fresh cut flowers poking out of the crushed ice were a stunning table decoration. But the woman had more in store for us, such as a long, ceramic dish filled with little goodies. Starting from the left side there was a small bowl of bamboo, shredded dried fish, and brown seaweed. It was a harsh way to start the 4th course, but we told our taste buds they had to build up some endurance. We still had many things to try. In front of the little bowl was a block of “freeze-dried” tofu, as my students explained to us. This had a much more pleasing taste, except for the small dab of fermented fish paste on top. (I was hoping and expecting it to be something sesame flavored. My mouth was extrememly disappointed).
The soramame (“sky beans” or Japanese broad beans) tricked us. When we put them in our mouths they were sweet like candy. They must have been boiled with sugar. What a nice surprise. Behind them were snow peas with a sweet tomato sauce. The crunchy, pickled renkon (lotus root) was a nice contrast to the sweetness of the beans. This was the best section of the dish.
A piece of salmon with a creamy sesame-tartar sauce was a nice familiar item that we happily consumed. The toothpick with sweet, candied ginger was delicious too. However, we should have saved it as a reward for trying the shredded daikon (white radish) mixed with sea urchin. One bite of that was enough for me. Dustin was more gracious and ate it all.
Working our way down to the right end of the dish, we ate a piece of zucchini with some cooked eel lodged in the center. After eating the sea urchin, the eel was nice and mild, lacking that overwhelming fishy taste. We ended with a whole sardine. My students and Dustin popped the whole thing into their mouths, but I couldn’t eat the part with the eyes. I’ve never been able to eat things that are looking at me. By the time we finished all the items on the dish we were already getting full. A feeling of panic came over us as we realized we still had 4 more courses to go.
The next course didn’t photograph too well because it was moving too fast! We figured a video might capture it better.
A bubbling nabe (pot of soup) was set in front of us, containing leeks, shitake mushrooms, and balls of mochi (pounded rice) stuffed with ground meat. We could have ended the meal right there with the level of satisfaction that we felt.
But the woman returned with more. A bowl of sweet boiled pumpkin, spinach, and bamboo in a light broth with a piece of wheat gluten shaped like a leaf. We must be nearing the end, we thought. Then the woman put a giant bowl of rice in the middle of our table with a thud. We laughed because it seemed like a more appropriate response than a groan.
The rice was so good we only wish we had been able to enjoy it earlier in the meal, maybe in place of the sea urchin. It was steamed with little bits of ginger, infusing the entire bowl with a lovely aroma. It was accompanied by a small dish of picked daikon, nasu (eggplant) and cucumber, and a bowl of miso soup. We were ready to take a short nap right there at the table, but when we heard that the next course was dessert we gave a sigh of relief and decided we could finish the marathon.
Not one, but two desserts awaited us. There’s a saying in Japanese similar to “there’s always room for dessert!” At this moment we had to believe it was true! On the left was a glass with three layers: Sweet red azuki beans and sliced bananas topped off with a scoop of yuzu sorbet, garnished with a few Japanese maple leaves. On the right was a chilled bowl of clear jelly with sliced fruits, decorated with rainbow sprinkles. We washed our excessive dessert down with some genmaicha green tea that has a nice toasty flavor because the tea leaves are combined with roasted rice.
Full and content (well, beyond content) we left the restaurant Satou. The woman in the kimono held out her hand. We’ve been in Japan so long that we almost forgot what that gesture means. Then it came back to us. She happily shook our hands and thanked us for dining in her restaurant. We left with a small gift–some embroidered flower cell phone charms, something modern in the midst of a town so old–and navigated our way back through the streets, just like the merchants did long ago.
We love Pepsi’s limited edition flavors in Japan. Last year it was cucumbers, and this year it’s pineapples and lemons! The color entices you and gives you a sudden desire to go swimming. The name and label evoke strolling barefoot along sandy beaches with a Mai Tai. Too bad when you open it, it tastes like gummy bears in liquid form. That’s a good thing if you like gummy bears. Dustin says it’s “fruity and delicious”. I think it’s too sweet, not as refreshing as iced cucumbers, and doesn’t remind me at all of my last Hawaiian vacation. But if you come across it and are curious … Kanpai!
Hands down, tempura is my favorite Japanese food. And yes, I cheated below and used a picture from our lunch in Kyoto two weeks ago. My student Mieko and her husband Koichi invited us over for a Father’s Day dinner last Sunday, but we were so enthusiastic about eating the tempura hot out of the fryer that we neglected to take a picture. Besides, our fingers were too greasy. Forgive us. Anyway, Mieko and Koichi are such a great family. From day 1 in Japan they’ve been like our parents away from home. In fact, they are very welcoming to all foreigners. They often host international students in their home, and Koichi loves teaching Japanese.
We ate cook-your-own-tempura in the middle of the table. Mieko made her special tempura batter. She starts with the store-bought tempura mix that is made from a blend of wheat flour, cornstarch, and baking powder. Then she mixes it with shochu (a distilled spirit that’s sometimes made from sweet potatoes, but also barley or rice) and egg yolk. Ice water is most commonly used to make the batter, but she loves the flavor from using shochu instead. When the batter was ready, we dipped skewered shrimp, eggplant, onion, and peppers into it and fried them in vegetable oil until they were golden and crunchy. We dipped them in a dish of tempura sauce mixed with fresh grated daikon (white radish). There was also a beautiful plate of sashimi – salmon, tuna, and sea bream – a bowl of sushi rice, and a stack of seaweed squares ready for assembling temaki-sushi (hand-rolled sushi).
1 egg yolk 3/4 cup ice water (or cold shochu) 1 cup tempura flour (or 1/2 cup cornstarch mixed with 1/2 cup flour) prawns Japanese egg plant, cut into medallions onions, cut into sections (see picture below) green bell peppers, cut into piecesor thick strips vegetable oil for frying
Combine the egg yolk, and ice water in a bowl. Add half the tempura flour and whisk together. Add the remaining flour and mix until almost incorporated. A few lumps are okay.
Skewer your veggies. Make 3 or 4 slits along the underside of the prawns to prevent them from curling when fried.
Heat your oil to 180 C (350 degrees) in a deep fryer or saucepan.
Coat the veggies and prawns in batter, and fry for about 3 minutes, turning once. They should be very lightly colored. Remove from the oil and serve immediately with tempura sauce, either store-bought or homemade.
Combine 1/2 TBS sugar, 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup mirin, and 1 cup dashi soup stock (if difficult to find, substitute with any broth, but the taste won’t be exactly the same) in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Pour into dishes and top with freshly grated daikon.