Japanese Recipes for Fall

It’s finally autumn, my favorite season. I love the cool, crisp days and the sweet, melancholic feeling of gradually slipping sunlight. It’s also a wonderful season — one of the best, in fact — for food. Featured this month on Savory Japan is a menu of favorite fall recipes, including braised eryngii (black trumpet) mushrooms. What is great about these giant mushrooms is not the flavor, but the texture. If you’ve never tried them, you’re in for a treat.

Luckily, eryngii mushrooms are widely available in the West, which unfortunately can’t be said for our favorite; matsutake mushrooms.

However, we’re in luck this year because we’re heading for Japan tomorrow to eat as much (or more likely, more than) we can afford of this delectable treat. Follow us here or join us on Facebook for updates, not just about matsutake mushrooms, but restaurants, ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) and more.

 

Tarako (salted cod roe) onigiri recipe

Here’s another classic onigiri recipe: Tarako onigiri. Tarako (cod roe) is sold raw in Japanese markets, usually in packages of several small caviar sacs. (When I was a child, I always thought they looked like tongues!)

The bright red color is beautiful, and you can choose from regular or spicy. For onigiri, regular tarako is used more often.

While raw tarako is delicious over hot rice (no need to add any flavoring, as it’s already very salty), for onigiri, I prefer it cooked. You can do this by placing a few sacs under the broiler or on a stovetop grill until the red color turns pink.

 

 

Making Takaro Onigiri, step-by-step

1. Cut the cooked tarako into 1/3" slices (reserving one slice per onigiri) and break the rest of the caviar up with your fingers. You'll have to remove the outer film, which can be a little tedious. For the best results, try to break it up as finely as possible.
2. Mix the tarako into hot rice, incorporating it evenly, until it turns a nice shade of pale pink. As with the takano recipe, you can mix only a portion of rice in a large bowl - as shown here - or use separate bowls. I usually make a variety of onigiri, so I don't make more than a few of each kind.
3. Scoop a handful of rice into the palm of your hand (after wetting but not salting them. In this case the tarako is very salty, so you don't want to add extra salt)
4. Make an indentation into the rice and fill it with a piece of tarako.
5. Press - firmly but not too hard - turning and pressing the onigiri in your hands until it forms a triangle. You might want to use plastic wrap to keep your hands clean for this one, because the tarako does tend to get messy.

If you’ve never tried tarako before, I wish I could describe the experience to you. It’s not only the rich, somewhat smoky and intense caviar flavor, but the dry mouth-feel of the tarako that is so nice. Tarako is delicious when tossed with spaghetti and flavored with dashi — the umami effect is a little like Parmesan cheese.

Takana (Japanese mustard green) onigiri recipe

Takana (Japanese mustard green) is wonderfully bitter and slightly spicy; a perfect leafy vegetable for making tsukemono (pickles). You might be able to find takana tsukemono at your local Japanese market, and if you’re lucky, it will come whole, in huge leaves that can be cut down to bite-sized pieces for tucking into the corner of a bento, or to wrap around onigiri, which we’ll do here.

Takana is good for you as well. It has loads of vitamin A and K. I also think that having at least one tsukemono onigiri in a grouping of onigiri provides a nice contrast of color, texture and flavor, especially when eaten with rich, oily fillings like ikura (salmon caviar).

Making takana onigiri, step-by-step

1. Chop up one takana leaf into a fine dice. Mix well with hot rice so that it is evenly incorporated. If you are making a variety of onigiri, you can just mix the takana into part of a bowl of rice -- or if you're more practical -- use separate bowls or save the takana for last
2. Wet and salt hands, and press firmly (but not too hard, remember?), turning and pressing the rice until you form a triangle
3. Stretch a takana leaf out flat and trim away the heavy central stem. You should have a piece large enough to wrap comfortably around the onigiri. And if you're picky (like me) you can orient the veins of the leaf in a pleasant way. You can see what I mean with the last photo.
4. Wrap the takana tightly around the onigiri, one side at a time. It's a little like wrapping a present. The thin -- yet surprisingly strong -- leaf somehow stays in place nicely
5. The finished takana onigiri. Now you can see what I mean about the veins. I don't know if anyone would notice, but I like the way this looks.

OK, as long as we’re talking fussy, take a look at the photo in the Onigiri Basics article and see how you can also arrange a selection of onigiri in a pleasing way, altering colors and flavors. This kind of thing comes natural to many Japanese. It’s part of what I like to call our “power of five” thinking.

Salt-grilled sake (salmon) onigiri recipe

Sake (salmon) is one of THE classic onigiri fillings. To be flavorful enough for a proportionately large amount of rice, it must be liberally salted before grilling or broiling. Here’s a simple recipe for salt-grilled salmon. It should be well-cooked for using in onigiri — not too soft.

Once the salmon is prepared in this way, it stays fresh for a few days and can be kept in the fridge to have on hand for placing in bentos and using for ochazuke (rice with tea) as well as for filling onigiri.

You’ll first need to break the salmon into bite-sized pieces before filling the onigiri. The amount of  salmon pictured here (about 4 oz) can make four or five onigiri. If you haven’t read the previous blog about onigiri basics, which include making rice and getting ready, you might want to do so now.

Making Onigiri, step-by-step

 

 

1. Wet hands with water and coat liberally with salt.
2. Scoop 1/2 cup of rice into the palm of your hand. It will be a little hot at first, so take care!
3. Make an indentation in the middle of the rice.
4. Place a piece of salmon in the indentation. The piece shown here is rather large for onigiri, but I prefer more filling. It's a matter of taste.
5. Press the rice firmly, but not too hard, or the onigiri will become too dense.
6. Keep pressing and turning the rice, shaping it into a triangle. The trick is to work fast so that the rice doesn't start sticking to your hands. If this happens, dip your hands into water again. Alternatively, you can cheat and use plastic wrap. (It's OK, lots of people use plastic wrap!)
7. Wrap a 1" strip of nori (seaweed) around the onigiri. This not only adds flavor, but keeps the diner's hands from getting sticky. Some people prefer to add the nori just before serving so that the nori still retains a crisp texture. Other people like the nori to soften and meld with the rice.
8. The completed onigiri is a beautiful thing, no matter how imperfect the shape. The challenge now is to keep yourself from devouring it at once!

We’ll feature other classic onigiri recipes during September. I also thought it might be fun to gather some unconventional recipes for later in the year. We’d love to hear from you if you have anything to share.

Onigiri Basics

Onigiri, or rice balls, are often described as Japan’s equivalent of the sandwich. Humble, simple and basic to the core, they are made simply from pressing hot rice around some kind of savory filling and forming it into a shape (usually triangular). The name comes from the act of pressing (nigiru means “to press” or “grasp”), and is plural, because they are usually eaten, not one, but two or more at a time. You might recognize the word from nigiri sushi (rice topped with seafood, etc.) as well, since it’s the same action; it’s just that the result is smaller and perhaps more refined.

Onigiri may be humble when compared to sushi, but they are no less loved. We’ve grown up eating onigiri, enjoying them on outings and in school bentos, car trips and the like, for they are the perfect portable food: Filling, simple, convenient and satisfying, meant to be eaten with one’s hands and complete unto itself; no fancy sauces or condiments needed. Additionally, the salt on the outside acts as a preservative, keeping them fresh on a day’s journey (useful in the days before coolers and ice packs).

Everyone has their favorite, and our memories reflect upon the shape and texture of the onigiri our mothers’ hands created: A symbol of home, of family, and perhaps even what it means to be Japanese.

We’ll cover the basic techniques for making onigiri starting with this, our first in a series of blog posts.

Preparation
Good quality rice is the most important ingredient for onigiri, whether it’s cooked in a rice cooker or on the stovetop. For the best results, use hot, freshly made rice, and use ONLY Japanese rice. Other types will not be sticky enough and will not produce the right results.

Since the beauty of onigiri is having a variety of fillings, it is important to lay out the ingredients on a work surface so that everything is close at hand. This means cooking and seasoning the fillings beforehand. We’ll cover each type in separate recipes to come.

Typical ingredients include — above, from left to right: tarako (salted cod roe); ikura (salmon caviar); sake (salt-grilled salmon) and umeboshi (pickled plum). You’ll also need a bowl of water to keep your hands wet, a dish of salt and some nori (seaweed) cut into strips.

Ready? Let’s start with salt-grilled sake (salmon) onigiri, one of the classics. We’ll post illustrated step-by-step instructions tomorrow.

Tableware, from left to right: tarako in a vintage Bizen clam-shaped bowl; ikura in a small bowl lined with gold leaf; salmon in a vintage ridged plate; umeboshi in an Oribe mukozuke by Tomonori Koyama; nori on a Bizen plate; salt in a 19th century mugiwara lid, used as a dish; water in a red Bizen bowl; rice in an antique Mishima bowl. Select items available on Mizuya.

Green Beans with Creamy Miso Sauce

Following up on our miso article, here’s a quick and easy recipe that’s low in calories and high in flavor. I learned this in Elizabeth Andoh’s kitchen a few years ago, and it’s one I rely on all the time. Instead of roasting and grinding sesame seeds, Andoh uses neri goma (roasted white sesame paste that comes in a tube) as a shortcut. For our lesson, she served the sauce with Manganji peppers.  She suggests poblano peppers in the U.S.,  but I use this sauce most often with green beans.

RECIPE

Serves Four

Wash and sort the beans. Cut or break them in half, or into bite-size pieces. Bring a small pot of lightly salted water to a roiling boil. Boil the beans for 2-3 minutes, or until they turn bright green. They should still be crisp. Drain the beans into a colander and cool with cold running water.

To make the sauce, mix 2 tablespoons of Saikyo miso with 1 tablespoon of neri goma (roasted white sesame paste). The mixture will be very thick. Gradually add dashi, one tablespoon at a time, until the dressing has the consistency of thick cream.

Arrange beans in a bowl and spoon sauce on top. Garnish with a few white sesame seeds. Alternately, place a serving (stacked neatly) on a small individual plate. Pictured above is  a chrysanthemum-shaped plate by Kyoto ceramic artist Saiko Fukuoka.

NOTE: Leftover sauce can be kept in the fridge for a few days. It’s great on grilled eggplant, roasted chilies (choose poblano or mild green chilies. They should not be too spicy or they will overpower the subtle flavor of the sauce) and boiled spinach.

We’ve featured this recipe as part of our suggested Spring menu on Savory Japan.

Winter Warm-ups: Amazake, Green Tea and Kinako Latte

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty tired of winter. It might be early spring in some parts of the globe, but here in Chicago it’s still cold.

Here’s a way to enjoy (or at least endure) cold days. For this month’s Savory Kyoto, we feature some traditional (and not so traditional) winter brews that are guaranteed to warm you through and through.  The recipes include Amazake, a sweet and boozy concoction made of sake-kasu, which is the stuff that is leftover from making sake.

Not your style? (Amazake is not a favorite of mine either) Perhaps Green Tea, a sweetened drink made with matcha (powdered green tea), or a Kinako Latte (kinako is a delicious, nutty roasted soybean powder) would be more to your liking. Both recipes have only a few ingredients and couldn’t be any easier. And they’re delicious enough to make you forget about coffee for at least a while.

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.

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.

INGREDIENTS
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

DIRECTIONS
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.