Kikkabu: How to make kabu chrysanthemums

Here’s an easy recipe you can use for special winter celebrations such as Oshogatsu. Kikkabu: kabu cut to look like kiku (chrysanthemum flowers). They look much more difficult to make than they really are. Anyone with good knife skills can easily do this at home.

Kabu are Japanese turnips. In Japan they come in many sizes and colors, but in the U.S. they are most commonly found in white and are a little bigger than golf balls. This is the perfect size to make the flowers, which people always think are too pretty to eat (but are really glad when they try them). They’re wonderfully crunchy, fresh and sweet.

RECIPE (serves eight)

1. Peel eight kabu. Cut the bottoms so they lie flat on the cutting board between 2 chopsticks. (You can chop and salt the green leafy tops to make quick pickles).

2. Make very thin (1/8″ or less) vertical slices, taking care not to cut all the way to the bottom. The chopsticks prevent this for the most part, but be careful with the first and last slices. You must cut perfectly square and even slices that are perpendicular to the cutting board.

3. Turn 90 degrees and make vertical slices again. This is a little tricky because you must hold the slices together with your other hand while slicing. Be careful of your fingers! If your slices were not perfectly uniform, you may have some stray pieces, but that’s OK.

4. Soak kabu in a bowl filled with 1 cup of cold water mixed with 1 tsp salt for 30 minutes (as shown in the top photo).

5. Remove, squeeze out as much water as possible, and soak at least eight hours (or overnight) in a container filled with 1/2 cup water, 3 tbs rice vinegar, 4 tbs sugar, 1/3 tsp salt and one 2 inch piece of kombu (kelp).

6. Remove kabu from the marinade and arrange the sliced “petals” outward to resemble flowers. (You’ll find the texture has changed and the kabu are softer than before.) Garnish with a few slices of dried red pepper in the middle of each flower, as shown in the photo.

You can use kikkabu as an edible garnish, add to a jubako (lacquer box) or served in individual portions on kozara (small plates). Browse our small selection of colorful, antique kozara on our online gallery for fine Japanese tableware, Mizuya.

New Year’s Eve at our house

Today’s Chicago Tribune (in the Food section) has an article about Japanese New Year’s Eve traditions called “A Savory End to the Old Year”. It tells a bit about our family’s Oshogatsu tradition and why my husband and I can be found in the kitchen instead of the dance floor on New Year’s Eve.

It’s to prepare for the big day, of course: Three full days of shopping, chopping, slicing, simmering, broiling and more chopping. Last year I documented the process in a series of blog posts: Part I is about shopping, Part II is the preparation and cooking, and Part III is the celebration.

You can read more about our family’s Oshogatsu tradition here, where there are also links to recipes for Osechi-ryori, the ancient kind of food served during New Year’s. They include tai (sea bream), kuromame (black beans), tataki gobo (pounded burdock), kurikinton (creamy sweet potatoes with candied chestnuts, my personal favorite) and more.

The photo above is from last year’s jubako (lacquer box). We’ll post new photos on January 2nd. What our guests don’t know (yet) is that we’re not planning to make tai this year, but snow crab, jellied yamaimo squares and even beef carpaccio a la Toshiro Konishi. We have to change it up to keep it interesting for us, but we’ll still make all my family’s favorites. To do otherwise would likely cause an uproar.

What does your family serve for New Year’s? Do you make any of these old-fashioned osechi-ryori dishes? My friends in Tokyo tell me that they don’t know anyone that still makes osechi, so I wonder if we’re just old-fashioned?

Everyday Japanese Brings Japan’s Ingredients Home

Today I opened up my order from the new e-commerce store, Everyday Japanese.  Carefully unwrapping each item, I was filled with joy — and a tiny bit of envy. You see, when noted food writer Harris Salat announced his new venture earlier this month on his popular blog The Japanese Food Report (as well as his Facebook page of the same name), I felt a twinge of jealousy because it was something we at Savory Japan had been wanting to do for a long time: Offer Japanese regional food products and homespun, artisanal ingredients, kitchen tools and more. It wasn’t just an opportunity, but something we strongly felt needed to be done to help support small family-owned businesses in Japan. But our work on Mizuya, our gallery for fine Japanese tableware delayed that step, and Everyday Japanese beat us to the kitchen, so to speak.

But I quickly got over such thoughts and promptly placed an order. I ordered ingredients not easily found in Chicago, such as the rich and flavorful kiriboshi shoyu (freshly pressed soy sauce) and iburi jio (smoked sea salt) shown above. How do you smoke salt, you might ask? Well, you must go to the site to find out, because Mr. Salat does a wonderful job of explaining where and how it’s made, as well as how to use it in the kitchen. My little container smells wonderfully smoky, and I’m waiting for just the right recipe to match its particular flavor.

There’s even free shipping on orders over $60 and 10% off orders placed by Dec. 31. I ordered two of some items above to give to my dear old dad for the holidays. He’s something of a salt connoisseur, and I just know he’ll be delighted.

Kunio Tokuoka, Kitcho’s Kaiseki Visionary

Savory Japan is updated for December with a new page in the LEARN section for Seminars and Classes. Featured there is an overview of the Japan: Flavors of Culture conference we attended last month and featured here in three postings. The page will be a home for links to more in-depth articles that will be added in the coming months. Kicking off the series is a cooking session with legendary Kitcho chef and owner Kunio Tokuoka, whose book we reviewed  a few weeks back.

Featured in this beautiful book on page 155 is this photo of Oyster Rice that would be perfect for the coming cold and snowy months, when oysters are at their most flavorful.

 Oyster Rice 

 Photo and excerpt from the book Kitcho; Japan’s Ultimate Dining Experience, courtesy of the author and publisher, Kondansha International. All rights reserved

SERVING VESSEL: Black earthenware pot, ca. 2000

ARTIST: Masatake Fukumori

 The lid of the pot comes off to release the irresistible aroma of oysters mingled with a subtle hint of soy sauce. Some of the oysters are deep-fried; others are simmered briefly in kelp stock, which is then used to make the rice. Just as the heat is turned off, both kinds of oysters are arranged on the rice and chopped water dropwort (seri) is scattered on top. Kunio has removed the black edges from the oyster meat, as he maintains that they do not taste good—once again defying conventional thinking in pursuit of pure, perfect flavor.

Shino: Shades of White

In honor of the coming snowy months, Savory Japan brings you an introduction to Shino ware. Shino is actually the name for the white glaze (Japan’s first), which varies from snowy white to beige, with red or orange scorch marks. There are also variations in gray, called nezumi (mouse) Shino, and e-Shino, which features painted drawings.

Spiritual, ephemeral and other-worldly, Shino-yaki is loved for its zen-like simplicity and is one of our favorite types of pottery.

The large platter above–which reminds us of pines seen through a snow storm — is currently available on Mizuya.

Book Review: Kitcho- Japan’s Ultimate Dining Experience

Recently, at the CIA’s  Japan: Flavors of Culture conference and festival, Kunio Tokuoka–third generation kaiseki chef and owner of the legendary Kitcho group of restaurants– was one of the star presenters. In addition to giving seminars and demonstrations, Tokuoka was also signing copies of Kitcho: Japan’s Ultimate Dining Experience released November 1 by Kodansha International.

The book is a miracle. It’s one of the most beautiful books about a Japanese subject–be it cuisine, art or culture–that I’ve ever seen. It’s not just a lushly illustrated and evocative introduction to the restaurant (taking the place of dining there for most mortals), but explains Tokuoka’s cooking philosophy, something he calls “Rimpa-style cuisine”; as explosively creative, sumptuously gorgeous and poetic as the artwork made famous by Tawaraya Sotatsu, Hon’ami Koetsu, Ogata Korin and most of all, Ogata Kenzan, the potter who painted Rimpa motifs on dishes that were revolutionary in his day. In fact, the book is as much about art as food, and Tokuoka dives right in with the importance of tableware from the very beginning of the book, quoting famed 20th-century potter Rosanjin Kitaoji (who figures prominently in Kitcho’s history) famous line: “Dishes are clothing for food.”

As you might know, Savory Japan places special attention on the importance of tableware, so this is a book after our own hearts. But even for cooks and foodies who own not a single Japanese dish, the techniques and ideas in this book should provide inspiration for anyone.

Take–for example–the o-toro (fatty tuna) sushi. Kunio’s version (as many of the dishes in the book are named) has the neta (topping) sliced into three thin slices. These are stacked on top of pillowy sushi rice that is light and airy because it is not squeezed together, but is instead artfully arranged on the tines of a fork, so the diner can enjoy one perfect mouthful of bliss. The photo and description of this immediately made my mouth water, and at this moment I came to realize just how revolutionary Kitcho is.

In fact, the restaurant is known for innovation–and there is plenty of evidence of such in the book. As for recipes, well, they’re lacking, for the dishes are described much like a chef would describe them to a fellow chef: No measurements, but more than enough information for chefs and serious cooks to take to heart, make their own and take off to the kitchen. (That said, we asked Kodansha if Savory Japan can obtain the recipe for Eggs Kunio, and they are currently trying to secure it. More later.)

But there is plenty of the really important stuff here; information you won’t easily find in other books on cuisine, such as a clear explanation of mitate–the Japanese way of seeing one thing in another. The book also takes you through the seasons (starting in Spring), much like Yoshihiro Murata’s Kaiseki: The Exquisite Cuisine from Kyoto’s Kikunoi Restaurant does. Like Murata’s book, one learns as much about Japanese culture–with its festivals, deep-rooted traditions, Shinto and Buddhist origins and its reverence of nature–as kaiseki cuisine.

You’re probably wondering which book I like better, and it’s honestly impossible for me to say. I had the unique opportunity to dine at Kikunoi, but unless something miraculous happens to my pocketbook it’s unlikely I will ever get the chance to dine at Kitcho, for it is much more expensive. So while Kaiseki–with its spirituality and deep Kyoto roots–holds a special place in my heart, Kitcho represents a dream. Just like the book’s apt title, it leaves me wondering whether Kitcho is the ultimate dining experience–perhaps not just in Japan–but the world.

Compare both books on our Recommended Reading page in the Learn section.

Kenchin-jiru: Buddhist vegetarian soup recipe

November’s essay for Savory Kyoto is about shiru (Japanese soup). What a welcome thought it is — during bone-chilling days like today — to cup your hands around a nice hot bowl of hearty soup and letting the fragrant steam rise to your face before the nourishing liquid warms you to the core.

Featured is this recipe for Kenchin-jiru, a hearty Buddhist vegetarian soup that  can either be made with miso, or with soy sauce and salt. My mother always made a version with pork and miso, but recently I’ve taken to this vegan version because you can really taste all the wonderful vegetables. Richness comes from the intense flavors of the gobo (burdock) and shiitake mushrooms, as well as the creamy texture of the sato-imo. This hearty soup is more like a stew, and can be considered a meal unto itself when served with rice and pickles.

6 cups vegetarian dashi
1/4 daikon, cut into cubes
1 carrot, cut into rangiri
3 shiitake mushrooms, soaked
1/2 gobo, peeled and sliced
4 satoimo, peeled
Soy sauce, to taste
Sea salt, to taste

Cut vegetables into a variety of pleasing shapes, as seen above. Soak the gobo in cold water to prevent discoloration and remove bitterness. Simmer the gobo and daikon in 6 cups of dashi for 15 minutes. Add the remainder of the ingredients and simmer for another 10 minutes, or until tender. Season with soy sauce and sea salt to taste, or add four tablespoons of country miso.

The soup is served in Meiji era (1868-1912) red and black lacquer bowls, available on Mizuya.

Japan, Flavors of Culture: Final Day

The final day of the conference (which took place on November 6), started with a selection of breakout sessions. I chose Flavor Convergence: Melding Culinary Ideas from Spain and Japan by Way of American and Peruvian Kitchens (how could I NOT choose this intriguing title?) which set the tone for the day, which was in many ways an investigation of the culinary reach of Japanese techniques, ideas and influence on the world, as well as the influx of Western ideas and foods to Japan.

The seminar was led by Toshiro Konishi, a fourth-generation kaiseki chef and chef/owner of Toshiro’s in Lima, Peru. His beef carpaccio–marinated in soy sauce, sherry and dashi–was a delight, as were the kombu-marinated oysters rolled in Iberico ham. The “flavor convergence” was indeed a success, and if I ever make it to Lima, it’ll be my first stop.

Other highlights included noted American food writer and critic Ruth Reichl’s fascinating timeline of the introduction of Japanese cuisine, ingredients and techniques on American dining since 1914, tracing their influences and misunderstandings on America’s collective palate. She also made a prediction that the Japanese concept of texture will be the next frontier. Here’s to hoping natto clears the hurdles to acceptance it currently faces!

Part of the reason for Japan’s culinary influence on the world stage is its’ well-known health benefits. After all, the Japanese have the longest life span in the world (especially in Okinawa) and one of the lowest obesity rates, as stated in the session Balance, Long Life and the Japanese Diet: Ideas for American Menus.

However, with the Westernization of diet– including the consumption of red meat–Lawrence Kushi, SC.D. at Kaiser Permanente showed some startling statistics charting the corresponding rise of breast and colon cancer. (I spoke with Mr. Kushi, who agreed to share the stats with us on Savory Japan for an upcoming article.)

Even though beef consumption is on the rise, in fine dining it is often merely a flavoring agent, used sparingly. This was beautifully demonstrated by seven Michelin-starred chef  Yoshihiro Murata of Kikunoi in his beef shabu shabu with two dipping sauces. Blanching and draining the beef takes away much of the fat, and the dipping sauces: Ponzu that contains dashi, mirin, vinegar, wasabi, sesame paste and lemon juice; and creamy tofu, made from ground tofu, sesame paste, light soy sauce and marscapone (which can be omitted) are both flavorful without having much fat. Additionally, they can be served with salads and vegetables as well as beef.

Perhaps the most healthy diet of all is vegan, and shojin (vegetarian) cuisine is not yet known in the West to the extent that kaiseki is. I was extremely lucky to attend Daisuke Nomura’s (chef/owner of two Michelin-starred Daigo in Tokyo) seminar Shojin Cuisine: Inside the Japanese Vegetarian Kitchen. Mr. Nomura has never been away from his restaurant and in fact closed it for two weeks in order to spread the concept of Shojin-ryori to the West. His restaurant serves shojin-ryori in the kaiseki-style to attract new devotees. I’ve long been a fan of this cuisine, but learned something new: the concept of tanmi (subtle flavor) during a tasting exercise. Okayu (rice porridge), fresh yuba (tofu skin) and simmered daikon were cooked first without flavor, then with a touch of salt, and finally, with dashi and other flavorings (the way they would be served at the restaurant). By tasting each dish successively from light to strong, I learned to appreciate and discern the subtlety of flavor of the main ingredients.

This concept resonated in my mind as I strolled the aisles of the World Marketplace during lunch, where we were able to sample many of the dishes created that day. There was a marked increase in salt, fat and spice the further one ventured from Kyoto and Tokyo; from traditional to modern and domestic to international. The dishes with the most flavor and “wow” factor tend to be bold and up front. I had to quiet my taste buds to appreciate raw yuba with no seasoning, or the richness of maguro sushi with just a light brush of soy sauce by Kyubey’s sushi artists. But these were for me the most satisfying flavors.

The conference ended with a fun segment about the TV show The Iron Chef, and Masaharu Morimoto, David Chang, Masayasu Yonemura and Kunio Tokuoka rose to the challenge of creating dishes with the secret ingredients kabocha (pumpkin) and matsutake mushrooms.

Finally, the closing included a traditional clapping ceremony led by the team of chefs. This led to a rousing standing ovation by the crowd, which seemed to surprise the modest chefs, all of whom left their restaurants during the busy fall color season to impart their knowledge to the crowd.

It remains to be seen what the effect of this amazing conference will be on the culinary world. With ideas exchanged and friendships formed, new ingredients tried and recipes improvised, who knows what will come next? We’re eager to find out, and look forward to the years ahead, when we firmly believe Japanese cuisine will be viewed as one of the greatest and most influential in the world.

Japan: Flavors of Culture, Day 2

Today was the last day of this three-day extravaganza, and my head is spinning from the amazing amount of information I’ve heard, new flavors I tasted, and beautiful presentations I’ve seen. It’s simply too much to write about just now with any sense of clarity, for there simply isn’t enough time (nor space). So I’ll just give a brief overview and post a few photos. Please visit the Savory Japan Facebook page to see a more extensive photo album. When I return to Chicago I’ll post articles on certain subjects in their respective categories on Savory Japan.

The second day of this amazing culinary event started with classic, traditional Japanese cuisine, with an introduction to three chefs from three Kyoto ryotei (Japanese traditional restaurants), who in turn introduced three dishes. It ended with a showcase of Japanese and American chefs who push the boundaries of tradition to create their own unique dishes. In between, there were kitchen workshops, tastings and lectures on culinary history, food philosophy and even anthropology.

What follows are some highlights from day 2:

Hisato Nakahigashi owner/chef of Tankuma Kitamise, a counter style ryotei favored by professional tea masters created a lavish wansashi, (sashimi served in a bowl) for five people for a celebratory occasion.

Starting with a large square white bowl as his “blank canvas”, Nakahigashi created a landscape depicting San Francisco. A lobster represented the undulating contours of the Golden Gate bridge, while auspicious red- and white–fleshed fish: Maguro (tuna), hirame (flounder), hotate (scallops) and hamachi (yellowtail).

Nakahigashi also talked about the concept of shun, a celebration of the seasons. In Kyoto, the four seasons are divided into 12 months, and each month divided in two, marked by various subtle changes to the weather and available produce, as well as festivals. For instance, chestnuts represent the month of September. However, they are first green, then change to yellow and finally, brown. Each change is incorporated into the cuisine.

Next, a quick succession of chefs introduced various casual comfort foods, including Mr. Yoshihiro Maeda of Hanamaru Udon, a company that makes Sanuki style udon.  The ingredients for udon are simply flour, salt and water. (The softer the water, the better–It also has the be the right temperature, 30 degrees C or less). First, he mixed the water and flour together so that the water penetrated the flour to create flaky dough. This was then wrapped between two sturdy pieces of plastic and stomped by foot, then folded and repeated seven times. (Maeda explained that they have a machine to replicate this action). He then boiled the noodles and created a quick dashi soup. Other notable presenters included Ivan Orkin of Ivan Ramen, whose excellent ramen we got to taste during dinner.

This was followed by breakout sessions. I picked the seminar on Japanese tofu and  vegetable traditions, given by Kunio Tokuoka of three-Michelin-starred Kitcho. He made hirousu, deep-fried tofu balls with sauteed vegetables, as well as age dashi dofu (fried tofu) which was served in a rich soup made of chicken stock and smoked whipped cream. Both dishes were understated and elegant–but curiously–not vegetarian.

At the end of the day there was a fascinating showcase by Japanese chefs who interpret the food of the West, or use Japanese ingredients to create a new cuisine. The cross-cultural currents proved to be intriguing and made me want to try new restaurants.

Masayasu Yonemura’s demonstration was a standout due to his natural style and delicious-looking fois gras dish. His eponymous restaurant in Kyoto has earned one  Michelin star. There was also a session devoted to umami, and a seminar on the differences between kaiseki and cha-kaiseki, which I’ll cover later on Savory Japan.

As I said, it was a full day, with just too much information to do any justice to. I learned some new tips that I’m sure will help me be a better cook, and have added more restaurants to my list.

I’ll just say that I wish the conference was spread out over a week instead of just three days. However, judging from the international roster of guests and presenters, that would have been a difficult undertaking. The chefs were all unpaid, freely giving of their time and culinary secrets. Some of them even had to close their restaurants in order to attend.

I’ll follow up with a post on the highlights from today, Day 3, soon.

Japan: Flavors of Culture Conference & Festival

The opening day of the 13th annual CIA conference, Japan: Flavors of Culture; From Sushi & Soba to Kaiseki. A Global Celebration of Tradition, Art & Exchange started off with a thought-provoking subject: Traditions and Innovations in Japanese Cuisine: An Inquiry into the Source of Diversity. Moderator/presenter Yoshiki Tsuji illustrated this diversity within Japan by introducing three chefs from three cities which have been the driving forces in shaping the culinary landscape since the 1700s: Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.

First, Yousuke Imada, chef/owner of Kyubey in Tokyo gave an introduction of Edo-mae sushi while demonstrating the preparation of two classic neta (toppings): kohada (shad), which is marinated in salt and vinegar to soften the tiny bones and intensify the flavor, and toro (fatty tuna) preserved in a mixture of soy sauce and either dashi or mirin, to get rid of excess moisture and soften what is often called the “king of fish”.

Next, Yoshihiro Takahashi, 15th-generation chef/owner of Hyotei demonstrated nimono (simmered) tai (sea bream) with Kyoto vegetables and pumpkin tofu. Tai is not only a seasonal (November brings the best flavor) but a celebratory choice, while the appearance of matsutake mushrooms symbolizes the transition from autumn to winter — and the end of the season. He even described the proper way to enjoy the soup to the audience (many of whom had never been to Japan) — from the lacquer bowl that feels soft to the touch and transfers the warmth to the diner’s hands, to the proper way to sip the hot liquid — slurping with sound, so that air mixes with the soup to enjoy the flavor more fully.

Finally, Kunio Tokuoka, 3rd generation chef/owner of Kitcho demonstrated the art of the hassun (appetizer arrangement), Osaka-style. A culinary icebreaker for conversation to be enjoyed with sake: Part landscape, part visual poetry, full of symbolism and designed to be viewed from each diners’ perspective. His ikebana-like autumn arrangement included flowers from Napa Valley in honor of the conference, which brings together a team of 50 top chefs and culinary experts from Japan and 40 from the U.S., Europe and South America for what is the first serious investigation and professional exchange of its kind.

The knowledge each chef and presenter was able to impart in a few minutes left me wanting to spend three days (or three years) with each one. To bring such great talent under one roof was a massive undertaking that took three years of preparation by devoted teams of organizers, advisers and sponsors from Japan and the U.S.

This was followed by a tasting and dinner featuring food, drink, food products and book signings. The massive hall proved too big to explore in its entirety because we kept stopping for fascinating conversations with traditional Japanese producers of katsuobushi, tea and sake. Luckily we can return tomorrow for more inspiration.