Ohagi: Japanese sweet bean and rice cake recipe

This month’s Savory Kyoto essay in Kyoto Visitor’s Guide is about the different kinds of wagashi (Japanese snacks). Wagashi are not technically desserts — as we categorize them on Savory Japan — because they can be savory as well as sweet, and are typically eaten in the middle of the day instead of after dinner.

One of the easiest types of wagashi to make at home are Ohagi, glutinous rice cakes either filled or covered with anko (sweet bean paste). Additionally, the main ingredients are dried and readily available outside of Japan. You can even buy prepared anko in a can or sealed bag at your local Japanese grocer to save time. As an added bonus, since ohagi are supposed to look home made, it’s not important for them to be perfect.

NOTE: While anko keeps for several weeks in the fridge, ohagi must be consumed the day they’re made, because the rice gets hard. It’s not the kind of thing you make for two, but for parties and special occasions, they’re perfect AND likely to disappear, so you don’t have to worry about leftovers.

1 cup uruchi mai (white rice)
1 cup mochigome (sweet rice)
¼ tsp salt
2.5 cups anko (sweet bean paste)
6 tbsp rice flour or kinako (powdered soybean)

Mix the rices and prepare as basic rice. Remove the hot rice into a sturdy bowl, add salt and mix vigorously with a wooden pestle or sturdy spoon. This will take some muscle, and will inevitably leave some kernels intact, which I prefer. Or, you can use a breadmaker or mixer with a dough attachment, if you want perfectly smooth cakes.

Wet your hands with salted water, pinch a golfball-sized piece of dough and flatten it in the palm of your hand. Put one spoonful of bean paste in the center and pinch the sides of the dough up to encase the paste. This is quite tricky, because the paste is sticky. Dip the completed ohagi into the rice flour or powdered kinako.

Alternatively, you can form a ball from the rice paste and cover with the bean paste, as seen above.  You’ll need small forks to serve this type.

Makes about 12 ohagi

Rice with Chicken and Bunashimeji Mushrooms

Savory Japan’s recipe section is updated with a hearty Autumn menu that’s perfect for cool days like today. Central to the meal is this very simple takikomi gohan (flavored rice) recipe with chicken and bunashimeji mushrooms. This is SO much simpler than the takikomi gohan recipe we featured last fall. It only takes 15 minutes to put together, and the rice cooker does the rest.

Takikomi means “to simmer into”, and this recipe does just that: by simmering everything together,  the rice is infused with the rich flavor of chicken. In a departure from traditional Japanese recipes, we used butter to saute the chicken and mushrooms, and chicken stock instead of dashi. The result is a rich rice dish that is a little like Spanish arroz con pollo, but soy sauce and sake give it a uniquely Japanese flavor.

We served this with roasted rakkyo, which is difficult to find in the West. Shallots or pearl onions would do nicely. Just roast them with a little oil, and then glaze with soy sauce mixed with a little sugar.

3 cups uruchi mai (white rice) or haiga mai (half-polished brown rice)
3 1/2 cups chicken stock
2 boneless chicken thighs
1 package bunashimeji mushrooms
4″ x 4″ square of kombu (kelp)
1 tbsp butter
1 tsp salt
freshly ground pepper
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp sake

Dice the chicken thighs into 1/2″ cubes. Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Set aside for a few minutes. Cut off the bottom inedible portion of the bunashimeji mushrooms and discard. Cut mushrooms into 1/2 inch pieces.

Saute chicken in butter over high heat until the outsides are seared. Add mushrooms saute for 2 minutes.

Measure, wash and drain the rice, and add to a rice cooker. Add the chicken and mushroom mixture. Add chicken stock, sake and soy sauce. Mix.  If desired, place the kombu on top of the rice. Turn on rice cooker.

When the rice is finished, remove the kombu and gently mix (the mushrooms tend to float to the top). Taste to adjust seasonings. If desired, add extra butter for flavor.

Serves 6

By the way, the photo above was done to show different varieties of rice for the current issue of Kyoto Visitor’s Guide. We normally wouldn’t serve rice this way; we just wanted to show the colors of autumn against the vivid green of the Raku box.

Inekari, the rice harvest

September is the month for inekari — the rice harvest — in Japan, and to celebrate the season we feature this most vital grain —  the heart and soul of Japan — on Savory Kyoto, published by Kyoto Visitors Guide.

A simple but satisfying way to serve rice is by making onigiri (rice balls). Onigiri are made by simply forming balls of hot rice with your hands (after wetting them and dipping them in salt). It takes some doing, as the rice should be fresh and quite hot, and you must move the rice along, turning and squeezing with both hands, taking care not to burn your hands.

You can either make classic triangle shapes, or barrels — as shown here — to evoke the straw-covered rice barrels that were once distributed in flat-bottomed boats along Kyoto’s canals. We used different varieties of rice (including kurogome (black rice) for the purpose of the photo shoot, but they are most commonly made with plain white rice filled with a variety of delicious ingredients. Recipes for onigiri and other rice dishes can be found on Savory Japan’s Rice recipe page.

The antique raku boat is one of a handful of items originally purchased for our online gallery for Japanese tableware, Mizuya that we just can’t bear to part with.

Salmon and Sansho Rice

Today, as I was working on an upcoming article featuring Kyubei, a Michelin-starred sushiya in Tokyo, I was overcome with hunger. While editing the photos and remembering our fabulous meal, I HAD to have seafood, and I had to have it right away.

But what to do? My neighborhood is not known for great sushi joints, and all my fish was frozen solid.

Luckily, I remembered that I had a nice chunk of salted and grilled Norwegian salmon that was left over from last night. I had been a little overzealous with the salt, but it would be a perfect filling for onigiri. But even that was too much trouble, as I didn’t want to stop working, so I flaked it up, mixed it with preserved sansho pods and reheated white rice. (I  don’t like using the microwave, but it’s actually perfect for warming up Japanese rice.)

It amounted to a quick homemade furikake, a kitchen staple used by moms across Japan to add some sweet and salty flavor to rice, especially for kids. They usually include dried seaweed, roasted rice, salt and flavoring of some kind, as well as dried fish. It’s the kind of fall-back condiment that makes a quick snack, much like Westerners have come to rely on cold cereal with milk for a quick bite on the go: Perhaps not nutritious, but not too bad for you.

The trick to keeping leftover fish for several days is that it must be quite salty. The salt preserves the fish, and the intense flavor works well for furikake, onigiri or ochazuke (rice with tea) because rice predominates.

I marinated the salmon (2 small fillets) overnight in 1 tsp sea salt, 1/2 tsp sugar and a splash of vodka. (The sugar and vodka are my own additions; I find they add a nice flavor.) Sprinkle all sides with salt and place them, skin side out, in a plastic bag, removing all the air so the salmon is properly coated. You can then grill or broil them. Follow these instructions for cooking any kind of fish.

Oh, the sansho (peppercorn) pods are a great addition, as they provide a nice zesty kick and tongue-numbing spiciness. They are in season in May, and can be found preserved in salt or simmered in soy sauce and made into tsukudani, usually with kombu. I always pick some up when I’m in Japan. If you can find them in the West, try them!

Chilled Dashi-rich Japanese Vegetables

The heat just doesn’t seem to be letting up, and today was particularly humid. For this season, chilled dashi-rich Japanese vegetables provide a nice change of pace in place of summer salads. This simple simmering method provides just the right umami richness of dashi, which enhances the flavors of the vegetables without overpowering them.

Like many good things, this dish takes a little planning, because the secret is to simmer the vegetables ahead of time, let them cool in the flavored dashi so the vegetables soak up the richness of the simmering liquid, and then to chill thoroughly. Therefore, don’t decide to make this dish at 6:00pm, or your dinner will be very late indeed!

The last time I made chilled dashi-rich vegetables, it was out of necessity. I had to use up a daikon to make way for a new one. It had withered just slightly and had lost its crunch, but in the spirit of mottainai, I didn’t want to waste it. So I cut it up and made a big pot of simmered daikon (usually a winter dish), using half for soup and reserving the rest for chilled vegetables the next day.

This colorful dish can be made with an assortment of any three or more vegetables, preferably in season. Zucchini would be great (and plentiful these days), as well as lightly boiled tomatoes with skins removed. Fresh okra is also good, especially when they are just barely cooked. Unless one vegetable has a particularly strong taste, everything can be simmered together, but take care to watch the cooking time because each vegetable should be tender, but not soft.

6 inch piece of daikon, cut into rounds and then quartered
1 package of bunashimeji mushrooms
1 carrot, peeled and cut into rangiri
12 snow peas
2 cups of dashi
salt, sugar, sake and light soy sauce, to taste

Boil daikon in water to cover for 30 minutes. When tender and translucent, strain (you can use part of the daikon water to add to the simmering liquid, but do so sparingly, as it has a strong flavor.) Simmer the daikon along with the carrots in dashi flavored with salt, sugar, sake and soy sauce for 10 minutes, or until the carrots are tender. Add mushrooms and simmer for 5 more minutes. Add snow peas at the very end for 1 minute, or until they puff up.

Remove snow peas (chopsticks are perfect for this) and quickly rinse them under cold running water to stop the cooking process and to preserve the bright green color. Let the other vegetables cool in the simmering liquid to room temperature. Return the snow peas to the rest of the vegetables, transfer them to a covered container and place in the fridge until chilled.

Arrange the daikon at the base of a medium-sized shallow bowl. Prop up remaining vegetables against the daikon as shown. Spoon the simmering liquid over all.

Serves 4

Hiyashi Chuka: Chinese-style Japanese Cold Noodles

Hiyashi chuka: cold Chinese-style Japanese noodlesWe’ve had a heat wave across the U.S., and the past few days have been particularly hot and humid in Chicago. When I don’t feel like eating a heavy meal, hiyashi chuka (Chinese-style cold noodles) really hit the spot. This dish is served in ramen shops across Japan, but is only available during warm weather. In preparation for an article for the August issue of Kyoto Visitors Guide, I prepared a BIG platter (enough for two, on a late Edo blue & white imari charger) of this light but flavorful dish; a perfect combination of noodles, egg, vegetables and meat. (In this case, deli-sliced chicken & imitation crab legs, but ham or shredded chicken is the norm). As you can see, the noodles are hidden under the mound of toppings, which is the way I like to prepare it. The sauce is a combination of savory, sweet, sour and hot, with the heat provided by a generous dollop of neri karashi (hot yellow mustard). I’m not sure if such a dish exists in Chinese cuisine, and if it IS served in China today, I wonder if it’s called “Japanese noodles”?

Check out the noodles page for more information. The article will be on Savory Kyoto on August 1.

For your convenience, and because of the blog’s search capabilities, I’m posting all new recipes here, as well as on the site.

2 packages of ramen

1 chicken breast, shredded, or 4 slices of ham or chicken
1/2 cucumber
1 carrot
thin omelete

Juice of 1/2 lime
1 inch knob of ginger, peeled and grated
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sugar
½ tsp sesame oil

Sesame seeds, gari and neri karashi

Although there are several brands of Japanese ready-made hiyashi chuka packaged noodles, complete with sauce and either dried, refrigerated or frozen, it is the sauce that gives this dish its flavor, and home made is better. You can use whatever vegetables and meat that you have on hand, although cucumber lends a nice crunch. I personally like to prepare this dish with ample vegetables so the ratio of toppings to noodles is 1 to 1. Shredded romaine lettuce is also good in this dish.

Make thin omelette. Slice meat, cucumber and other vegetables into sengiri (fine julienne). Set aside in the fridge while making the noodles.

Make sauce by simply mixing all ingredients. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Prepare the ramen according the the package directions, drain and quickly cool with ample running water. Drain thoroughly.

Arrange ramen noodles and toppings on a large serving platter, or on individual plates. Top with a dollop of neri-karashi (Chinese-style yellow mustard). If desired, also top with gari (pickled sliced ginger.) Sprinkle with sesame seeds.

For a vegetarian version, try sliced mushrooms such as shiitake. You can also just skip the meat altogether.

Serves 2

April: Hanami Bento and Kinmata’s Tableware

The April features for Savory Japan are now online. In honor of Cherry Blossom season, we show you how to create your own hanami (flower viewing) bento so you can celebrate spring under any flowering tree in your country. Some new recipes are included.

And, we profile Kinmata Ryokan’s fine tableware collection, once again illustrating the important relationship between food and tableware. This traditional Japanese inn in Kyoto has a long history and an excellent collection of ceramic and lacquer ware which is used to great effect.

There’s also a link to an article written during a prevuous stay, along with a slide show that shows Kinmata’s spring dishes and the marvelous table settings, complete with sakura blossoms, from that memorable dinner.

A selection of Kinmata Ryokan's fine tableware
A selection of Kinmata Ryokan's fine tableware

Oshogatsu Osechi-ryori, Part II: Cooking

It’s 7:00pm on New Year’s eve, and while I suspect many of you are out partying the night away,  I’m finally ready to sit down for toshikoshi (span the year) soba. Long noodles represent long life in Japanese culture, and eating soba on New Years is considered auspicious. It’s also light and healthy, and the perfect way to end a long hard day of cooking.

OK, so back to my comment yesterday, about cooking each ingredient for iridori separately. Iridori is one of the staples of osechi-ryori. It’s a substantial, stick-to-your-ribs type of dish that happens to be less expensive than the other osechi dishes such as kazunoko, tai, and so forth. It’s also a savory dish that is only made during Oshogatsu, and therefore, people tend to eat alot of it.


Iridori consists of simmered root vegetables such as daikon, sato-imo, renkon (lotus root), takenoko (bamboo shoots), as well as konnyaku (devil’s tongue) and a little bit of chicken. Most published recipes call for cooking all the ingredients together in one big pot. While this is certainly easy, it’s not practical, nor does it result in the most flavorful dish.

I really like each ingredient to have its own flavor, color and texture. For instance; the subtle natural sweetness of carrot would be quickly overtaken by the musky richness and dark color of shiitake mushrooms when cooked together. Daikon takes alot longer to cook than, say, bamboo shoots, and konnyaku has virtually no taste of its own and requires a strong simmering sauce.

Thus, I’ve developed a method of cooking the lighter vegetables first, in dashi, sake and just a bit of mirin and salt (or soy sauce) and then using the resulting liquid to simmer other ingredients, moving to progessively heavier and/or bland ingredients. The result? Even though everything is mixed together at the end, each morsel is perfectly cooked and has its’ own unique flavor.

The iridori takes the most time, but other dishes, such as kuromame, are tricky and require careful attention, which is hard when so many pots are simmering away. Other dishes require careful knife techniques, but are really not as difficult as they seem, such as creating beautiful kiku (chrysanthemum) blossoms from kabu (turnips), or slicing razor-thin disks of renkon for sunomono.

Tomorrow is the big day, and I’ll get to my favorite part of the celebration: My reward, if you will: the art of moriawase (plating). I’ll get to use some newly purchases jubako (lacquer boxes) and antique ceramic plates, including a fantastic Kenzan dish!

Stay tuned!

Sachiyo Imai, Obanzai Savior


After the lesson, we sat down to taste our creations.
Our obanzai lunch included simmered saba and fuki.

I’ve finished the story on Sachiyo Imai, and it’s now up on Savory Japan as one of the lead articles for September. It’s rather lengthy article, as there was so much to cover in describing my encounter with this amazing woman, and yet, it only gives a taste of the deep wellspring of knowledge that is obanzai. There’s also a link to a slide show, so you can see Mrs. Imai’s kitchen, as well as some of the delicious dishes we made that day. And, despite her insistence that obanzai has no recipes, I experimented with her okara recipe so that you can try it at home, keeping the measurements imprecise as a nod to her method.

I wish to thank Mrs. Imai and her students for letting me share this wonderful experience.