A life in flux. Soon to be immigrant to Japan. Recently migrated this blog from another platform after many years of neglect (about March 6, 2017). Sorry for the styling and functionality potholes; I am working on cleaning things up and making it usable again.
Although sautéed and stir-fried dishes do not figure prominently in Japanese cuisine, simple dishes in that category will appear on the tables of most Japanese homes.
The scale, however, is much more diminutive than most Chinese, and certainly most Americans, would expect.
Historically, oil was fairly expensive in Japan, and a typical farming family might have gotten away with a single modestly-sized bottle of vegetable oil over the course of an entire year, even in the era of cast-iron pots. A tiny bottle of toasted sesame oil, mostly used a few drops at a time, might provide a flavor boost to otherwise simple dishes.
Itamemono, or pan-sautéed dishes, generally have a fairly subtle flavor. Even soy sauce is used with a very light hand. Dishes do not acquire the "red" color of Chinese-style stir-fried dishes.
This type of dish is best with a short list of ingredients, prepared in small batches; I don't think I made this with much more than 1 to 1 1/2 cups of raw ingredients, and it was enough for two or three Japanese servings along with other dishes. My tiniest omelet pan did the trick. For a group of four or five people, you could get away with making a larger quantity in a 10" skillet.
I used some snow peas (sayaendō), carrots prepared with a simple rolling cut, and onions. I dunked some abura-age (tofu puffs, perhaps) in very hot water and squeezed the water out to prepare it for the pan. This helps the aburaage more readily absorb salt and seasonings, and coincidentally slightly reduces the oil content.
This kind of sauté is done with very little oil at a fairly high temperature. I add a small pinch of salt every time I put a new ingredient in the pan, then finish with some soy sauce, sake, and mirin.
Japan doesn't have the French convention of caramelizing onions, but if you bring the onions just past translucent they'll add a great aroma and natural complexity to the flavor of the dish. Add the carrots, cook for a minute or two longer, then add the snow peas and aburaage. Once these are a bit shiny, add a small splash of soy sauce, a good tablespoon of sake, and maybe even a little dashijiru, then perhaps one or two drops sesame oil. In some cases you may want to add a touch of sugar or mirin, but I think the onions and carrots are naturally sweet enough that additional sugar is usually unnecessary to achieve an ama-karai (sweet-salty) taste.
Simmer briefly, taste, adjust seasonings if needed, and serve in small bowls.
Another home-style dish with a Japanese approach to non-Japanese ingredients, this nopal dish, made with a couple of eggs, dashi, soy sauce and mirin, is really basic, but it's a great little side dish for two or three people.
Saboten no tamago toji
The eggs are set firmly enough that this probably doesn't seem much different than scrambled eggs, tamago toji tends to be a little bit more on the liquidy side, but I think mine is soft enough to qualify. Sometimes tamago toji refers to eggs poured into soup, over udon or similar noodles.
This is made with blanched and then briefly sauteed prickly pear cactus paddles. Shaped like a leaf, nopales have sharp, thorn-like spines need to be assiduously pared away with a knife before they are suitable for consumption.
Once I've prepared the nopales, I briefly blanch them in salted water to brings out the slightly tart flavor and okra-like texture of the nopales.
The nopales need only a short cooking time, but they're slightly time-consuming to trim. Even with the extra prep work, I think this would become popular in Japan if the vegetable were more widely available. The flavor and texture are quite compatible with Japanese cuisine, which is full of nebaneba (mucilaginous) foods.
Broccoli isn't particularly common in the Japanese kitchen, but it's gradually become somewhat popular in home cooking. To be honest, I can't think of many times I've actually eaten it when I've traveled to Japan, but I've certainly seen it at supermarkets and department stores.
The few broccoli dishes I've seen in American Japanese restaurants seem oddly unbalanced, overcooked, and out-of-place.
However, the ingredient can be very suitable for aemono or ohitashi. I might even be swayed to blanch it, mince it finely and use it in tamago-yaki.
Broccoli no toufu ae
This side dish, slightly strongly seasoned even for aemono, is made with a blend of soft tofu, toasted, crushed white sesame seeds, sugar, salt, and the tiniest splash of soy sauce.
The broccoli, blanched for about 90 seconds, yields, but still has bite. Once mixed with the ae components, it acquires a savory, juicy character. The flavors play very nicely together.
For a little color and slightly capricious flavor highlight, I also added a little sprinkling of yuzu-shichimi once the aemono was on the plate. Because I used only a tiny touch of this, each bite holds the potential of a little surprise, but the heat from the shichimi doesn't overwhelm the dish.
One of my favorite Japanese dishes, ever since I first started exploring Japanese cooking, was nasu no miso ni, a simple eggplant dish with miso. As I've mentioned before, there are probably as many variations on that dish as there are mothers in Japan.
This is one of mine. Pan-grilled deep-purple mini eggplant, cooked with a little tea seed oil, somehow became magically bright purple after a couple of minutes of heat
Normally I'd just add mirin, sugar, a bit of dashijiru and miso, but this time I also added a bit of mustard and a splash of vinegar. As the dish simmers, the sauce thickens up and some of it is absorbed by the eggplant.
I'd call this variation nasu no karashi miso ni.
I liked this style... It is a bit like serving konnyaku or tofu with sumiso (also a mustard and vinegar seasoned miso), except warm. It's a surprisingly delightful way to bring the flavor out of the eggplant.
Like most versions of nasu no miso ni, it looks best on right after cooking, but the leftovers taste even better after they've rested for a night or so in the refrigerator.
After over four weeks of relative physical inactivity, I haven't been feeling particularly healthy, and I'm starting to feel like what little weight I lost on my vacation to Japan and Korea has come back. I thought it would be a good idea to eat a little less oily food for a while, so I went to buy some oborodoufu at a local tofu manufacturer. Of course I went home with that, but then I saw a beautiful block of deep-fried tofu, and couldn't help but take it home. (Is that weird? I go out and I pick up pretty... groceries. I am not a normal guy).
Of course, that might well have undermined my intention to reduce the fat in my diet this week, but big atsuage aren't all that bad... since they're fairly large, most of the oil is in the outer layer, and there's not nearly as much surface area on a large block of tofu as, say, the smaller cubes more likely for agedashi-doufu.
Contrary to popular belief, tofu doesn't really absorb flavors very much; unless it's freeze-dried or frozen, it's just not that porous, which is why it's important to get very fresh tofu. You really want the tofu to taste good on its own. However, fried tofu does have little nooks and crannies on the surface that make it easier for flavors to attach to the tofu.
Even so, Japanese cuisine is more about tasting the ingredients, not covering them up. Accordingly, this dish really highlights the tofu and the fresh ingredients it's made with.
This dish is pretty simple, but it looks elegant and has some nice fresh ingredients. It just requires a little attention to detail.
I slice the tofu block in half, make a hidden incision parallel to the white tofu near the bottom of the block, and cut a rectangle in the interior. It's important to have a fairly substantial border of flesh to keep the block from collapsing... probably in the 3/8-1/2 inch range (1.5cm) I gently work the inner cube out of the block.
I season some dashijiru with mirin, Japanese soy sauce, salt and sugar to nimono strength, neither very salty nor incredibly bland. I cook shimeji (a kind of mushroom) for a few minutes in the seasoned dashi, and I blanch some matchstick-cut carrots and some snow peas. Once those have been shocked with cold water, I give them a little time with the dashi, as well as the tofu itself. The tofu can only handle a few minutes before it wants to disintegrate, so I pull it out with a slotted spoon and stuff it with the seasoned shimeji, the carrots, and some kaiware-daikon, or radish sprouts.
The snow peas are placed in the serving dish, I plate the atsuage, and I pour enough of the seasoned broth into the bowl.
It's just one of several side dishes, and like most Japanese dishes, it's assari, or just lightly seasoned. It's mostly about having very fresh tofu, very fresh vegetables, and good quality mushrooms. It can be assembled before everything else is plated, because this type of dish can be presented lukewarm.
It could be served with a little fresh ginger, but that kind of intensity isn't really necessary for this kind of dish. The kaiware provide just a hint of sharpness that balances out the relatively muted flavors of the dish. The contrast between this and other dishes in the same meal make having really big, bold flavors here unnecessary: my umeboshi, sunomono, an aemono, and a spicy nagaimo dish I served with it provide balance.
Since it looks a bit like a forest in the middle of the tofu, we could call it atsuage no mori, or tofu forest.
Umeboshi (pickled Japanese apricots*) are an acquired taste, perhaps, but I grew to love them early on in my encounters with Japanese food.
They are the olives of Japanese cuisine.
They range from very salty and sour, to slightly sweet and sour. Some are tiny and some are huge.
I'm very fond of the flavor of sweeter, generally medium-sized varieties, but one look at the ingredient list of most hachimitsu umeboshi (honey umeboshi) or usu-jio (lightly salted) varieties makes my head spin. I appreciate receiving the better-tasting of those additive-heavy variants as gifts, because I can enjoy them as a gesture of kindness, but when my pocketbook is involved, I prefer to buy all-natural umeboshi with short ingredient lists.
Ume (Japanese apricots*) themselves are greenish, firm and incredibly tart when fresh. Thanks to the magic of red shiso, they transform into something very red as they cure. If you find very red umeboshi made without shiso, they likely have added food coloring. I usually like to umeboshi that come packed with pickled shiso leaves, because I'm as big a fan of shiso as I am of umeboshi.
Umeboshi larger than life
The beautiful umeboshi featured above is made with very good Wakayama ume, salt, and red shiso, along with some additional shiso just used in the brine. Wakayama is one of the most famous locations for ume, and I recall the ume trees all around Wakayama castle when I visited a friend in the capital city several years ago. Further west, I remember standing under blooming ume trees in Dazaifu, eating a candied strawberry, thinking that ume blossoms surely give cherry blossoms some serious competition.
Since this is an all-natural umeboshi, it's fairly salty... you'll generally want to eat one or two with rice and several nice side dishes. The other dishes can be assari (lightly seasoned), as the intense ume flavor will brighten up the whole meal if you nibble a little bit at a time.
* Ume are not plums. I promise. When you see them fresh, you can clearly see the telltale fuzz. Anzu-zake (apricot liqueur) has much of the flavor of umeshu (usually mistranslated as plum wine) with less acidity.
Yakinasu (grilled eggplant) is one of those incredibly simple but irresistible dishes... I can't help but order it whenever I see it on an izakaya menu. Sometimes we've even bought it at department stores to take home, as when Hiromi and I ate at her parents' home during my last trip to Japan.
Ideally grilled over Japanese charcoal with a shichirin, yakinasu can also be prepared on an ordinary grill or with a small flame on a gas konro. I used to rely on the broiler feature of my stove, but that requires very careful monitoring to pull off successfully.
You can use either the long, skinny 5-6" nasubi (Japanese eggplant) for this, or the 2-3" roundish ones reminiscent of kyō-nasu (Kyoto eggplant), sometimes called Indian eggplant here in the U.S. The larger European-style eggplants common in the U.S. are probably too big for this.
The one important question to ask when preparing this: Skin on or skin off? I tend to prefer the variations which keep the skin, mostly because it looks more appealing, but you can get a slightly smokier flavor if you're willing to sacrifice it. If you do that, you grill or broil the eggplant on all sides until the skin is more or less blackened, then wrap up the eggplant in aluminum foil, or place it in an airtight container to steam the skin until it becomes easy to remove.
When you remove the skin, you might dress the eggplant with some katsuobushi and soy sauce, or some nerimiso (sweetened miso sauce). Since I'm vegetarian, I make the latter.
For the skin-on version, I typically score the skin on either side, first lengthwise, then about 30 degrees off axis. I've chosen to cut the eggplants in half before grilling, and I rubbed the flesh with a little salt. Each side is grilled gently until the flesh slightly softens. After a few minutes of rest, the eggplant becomes a bit more tender thanks to residual heat, so it's better not to overcook it.
This version is ideal with some freshly-grated ginger, chopped scallions and a little splash of Japanese soy sauce.
Tamago-don is a homely thing. It's the stuff of busy, frugal mothers trying to throw something together for lunch on a Sunday afternoon. It's the kind of thing a salaryman trying to save a couple hundred yen on lunch might choose during a particularly rough month. It's comfort food.
Little more than sautéed onions with eggs, seasoned with a heavily mirin-sweetened, soy-sauce based dashi base, cooked to a soft curd, the prospect of tamago-don won't trigger a lot of enthusiasm in most Japanese, but perhaps you'll catch a hint of wistful nostalgia.
On the other hand, if you offered to cook such a thing when the weather is bad and spirits are low, your efforts would probably be appreciated.
And if, for example, you happened to have a huge supply of local morels that you really needed to make use of, and some just-picked mizuna greens, and perhaps a little chopped negi, you might be able to enliven this dish just enough to make it interesting.
If you happened to use a heavy hand with said morels, and sauteed them until almost, but not quite charred, along with the softened onions, then added a little seasoned dashi, folded this into an omelet pan full of your seasoned egg mixture, stirred the curds, and poured the just-barely-set eggs over rice, you might have something else entirely.
You might consider how much the shape of morels, more properly translated as amigasatake, resembles the tops of tsukushinbo, or horsetail shoots.
In that case, you might call this variation of tamago-dontsukushinbo-don.
Up way too close
Well, it's still tamago-don. It's not life a life-altering transformation, but it's certainly a worthy use of an excess of morels. I'll probably continue to cook my morels with lots of butter or olive oil, but when I'm looking for a more assari taste, this is a good alternative.
But umeboshi and cheese were always meant for each other. Grilled is even better.
Camembert is probably a more natural fit, but I had some very respectable raw milk farmhouse-style cheddar from a Washington dairy farm snagged at last weekend's cheese festival. I was eating some pieces of the cheddar when a craving for umeboshi struck, and ate at least one pitted umeboshi on top of a cube of cheese, and it occurred to me: this needs to be grilled.
Where do such crazy ideas come from? Perhaps I owe the initial thought to some "yaki ume" I tasted at the Wakayama specialty shop in to Yūrakuchō... As far as I understood it, those premium umeboshi were at some point briefly cooked over charcoal, though the taste was barely noticeable, if present at all. I settled for some nice $16 umeboshi instead of the more than twice as extravagant "grilled" ones.
How do you make them?
Start by carefully pitting the umeboshi, taking care to pierce only one side; I suppose an olive or cherry pitter might work on some types of umeboshi. Medium-firm umeboshi probably work best; mine were already incredibly soft and I ruined a few while stuffing them.
I did the pitting by hand; I could feel the sharp side of the pit through the skin of the umeboshi, and squeezed the pit out through that pointy side.
Gently insert a small cube of cheese into the umeboshi. Carefully thread the stuffed umeboshi one-by-one onto the skewer.
Ideally, you should grill them over a shichirin grill, but I cheated and used my little gas konro, which I usually use for nabe; I fitted it with a little protective grating to keep the umeboshi from falling into the flame and disintegrating.
No need to use your best umeboshi on this, but please use umeboshi with a short ingredient list: Ideally, ume, salt, shiso, maybe shochu for initial curing. Use a creamy, rather than salty cheese.
Plate, then gently brush with a little olive oil.
Like umeboshi, they're tart. Like cheese, they're creamy. Like anything salty, they would go great with a little shochu, though on this occasion, they served as a little afternoon snack and I remained a teetotaler.
They're a little tricky to pull off, but worth it.
May 8... I had a relatively quiet last day in Japan, and met a friend for a quick lunch while Hiromi started the first day of work after Golden Week. After lunch, I made my way to Yūrakuchō to look for some additional self-indulgent snacks and treats to bring back to Seattle. I made my way back to my usual favorite spots (Hokkaidō Dosanko Plaza, Mura-Kara-Machi-Kara-Kan) and discovered, downstairs in the same building, a shop selling Wakayama specialties and another focused on Toyama products. I ended up taking home some umeboshi, some yuzu yubeshi, and some high-powered umeshu, and a few other treasures.
I met up with Hiromi mid-afternoon, because she had a medical appointment and had to leave the office a bit early anyway. After she finished with that, we met in Ginza and went to Printemps, where we both ordered a really nice, this-month-only, Matcha Mont Blanc. We then slowly headed back home, rested for a few minutes, and made our way to a restaurant we'd been planning to try all week.
Wai Wai, or 和伊・和伊, is a Japanese-Italian Izakaya that cutely uses country-appropriate Kanji (Japan and Italy) as ateji for a word that usually means something like "noisy" or "noisily".
The space looks tiny if you peek inside... There's only a U-shaped bar adjacent the kitchen, and maybe a small table or two. But it turns out that they have a half dozen or so tables upstairs, and that's where we were seated. The booths have small noren hanging to create some semblence of privacy.
This was fascinating. In fact, seeing this dish on the menuboard outside Wai Wai may have been what triggered us to try this restaurant.
They transformed a typical izakaya dish of fried tofu in a seasoned dashijiru into a clever, but not over-the-top, fusion dish. Deep-fried basil, mozzarella, and tomato make an appearance, along with the typical agedashi accompaniments of ginger, oroshi-daikon (grated daikon), and negi.
While the flavor isn't much a surprise, and any crispness quickly faded as the dish made its way to our table, the combination was quite successful. It's hard to go wrong with basil-tomato-mozzarella, and the mild broth added the same kind of complexity you'd get from parmesan or a more Italian style soup stock.
This was the most Japanese of the things we ordered. It's an elegant presentation of a simple dish: fresh yuba, made from skimming the surface of slowly simmering heavy soymilk, served with soy sauce, ginger, wasabi, and chopped scallions, which you add to the yuba to your own taste.
I ate most of this, as Hiromi ordered for herself some chicken thighs, grilled with something like sansho.
Caeser Salad and Crepe
This salad replaces the typical crouton with a sculptural crispy crepe, which you're encouraged to break up and scatter over the salad.
Marinated vegetables, or short-term pickles, featuring Western vegetables, including red bell peppers.
Quattro Formaggi to Hachimitsu
Four cheese pizza drizzled with honey. Like most pizza in Japan, it has an impossibly-thin, cracker-like crust. With the honey it would have served as a great final cheese course, but we weren't quite done yet...
Yakionigiri no ochazuke with an Italian accent
Ochazuke is a popular way of finishing a meal at an izakaya... there are two main tracks of ochazuke, one of which is the near-literal interpretation of tea poured over rice, with some pickles and furikake as accompaniments. Another is with a soup broth, and this version clearly is in the latter school.
As accompaniments, some chopped basil, parmesan, and anchovies are provided; they've been served separately to accommodate my vegetarian habit.
I'm wasn't quite sure which herb was used, but I think the rice has been mixed with a chiffonade of parsley along with some toasted sesame. Because the ball of rice is grilled before being incorporated into the ochazuke, the rice ball is called yaki-onigiri. Topping the yaki-onigiri is an earlobe of wasabi.
Any number of variations of ochazuke exist. I've made a yaki-onigiri ochazuke before, myself, though with a decidedly more Japanese flavor profile.
This dish was really smart. Well balanced and comforting, it avoids most of the cliches found in American "fusion" cuisine while still playing with foreign (to Japanese) flavors. I think it's successful because it's firmly grounded in one culinary tradition, while judiciously adapting ingredients found in another... So many fusion dishes in the US seem to have a poor understanding of all of the source cuisines they are borrowing from.
I think I haven't had a chance to have kuriimu anmitsu for quite a while. We had a small dish of anmitsu served with a quick set meal at a kissaten in Mashiko, but for some reason, Hiromi and I haven't found our way to any place featuring anmitsu for quite a while.
The ice cream version of anmitsu, called cream anmitsu, can be found at old-school kissaten around Japan, but it seems not as easy to find as it was even six or seven years ago.
Not your obaachan's anmitsu
Usually anmitsu comes with fruit, anko (sweet red been paste), and wasanbon (blonde cane sugar syrup), kuromitsu (black sugar syrup) or occasionally a simple sugar syrup. Occasionally the concept is combined with kakigouri, the shaved ice dessert; a few years back I ate that in a little shop in Takayama in Gifu prefecture.
Since we were in a slightly quirkier restaurant, the dish had been altered a bit further... in place of a more common syrup, it was served with tapioca that had been simmered in sweetened coconut milk. That transformed this treat into a Japanese-by-way-of-Southeast-Asia treat, and it worked suprisingly well. Since cream anmitsu is sometimes made with green tea ice cream, perhaps Chockylit's coconut matcha tapioca topping would be equally suitable...
We meandered the few dozen meters to our weekly apartment and started halfheartedly attacking our luggage.
You'd think that we couldn't possibly have room to eat more.
However, to think so, you must be oblivious to the concept of betsubara... literally, separate stomach, the idea is expressed rather verbosely in English as "there's always room for dessert."
Toraya Cafe is a contemporary-style wagashi shop... Much like Tsujiri Cafe, from Uji, they reference traditional wagashi (Japanese confectionary) but playfully reimagine flavors and presentations. Toraya, though, is a very old confectionary company, and their parent company is equally adept at old-school and contemporary wagashi.
Most of us ordered some sort of beverage, generally some kind of tea. Kristin ordered a "matcha glacé", a sort of sweet matcha drink that doubles as a dessert.
Tōnyū Pudding with Matcha Sauce
I ordered some azuki-cha (roasted azuki mean tea) served cold, with optional wasanbon syrup, a lightly processed sugar cane syrup, as a sweetener.
One of the things I love about soy-based foods in Japan, including desserts, is that, for the most part, little effort is made to conceal the soy flavor. In fact, the aroma of the soybean is often intentionally highlighted. Soy is not some sort health food or a second-class milk or meat substitute, but, when suitably fresh, a remarkable flavor all its own.
This tounyuu purin, or soy milk pudding, has a pronounced soy flavor and is pleasingly creamy.
A thick matcha-based crème anglaise adds a bittersweet touch and contrasts nicely with the soy pudding.
Dark azuki beans, slightly sweet, garnish the dessert in the same way you might expect to see in a coffee-based dessert.
Oshiruko With Pu-erh infusion
This remarkable variation of oshiruko, sweet azuki soup, is relatively traditional except for one subtle base note: The azuki are simmered with earthy Chinese pu-erh tea. Since azuki already has a somewhat earthy flavor, the flavor doesn't dominate, but provides a pleasant underlying accent that adds a subtle complexity to a dish that normally has a very straightforward, sweet flavor.
A few shiratama, also slightly tweaked for this dish, had, I believe, a little accent from white sesame seeds.
Although Toraya is a fairly large company, their cafe is, for me, one of the pleasant things that can happen when someone with vision and firm roots in a culinary tradition smartly reinterprets their palette of flavors and techniques with a creative eye. It's not hit-you-over-the-head culinary drama, but it's pleasingly innovative, and worth seeking out.
If you're a suitably fortunate madamu, you wouldn't be caught dead in your husband's favorite, smelly neighborhood robata-ya restaurant. However, that doesn't mean you would completely eschew the idea of charcoal-grilled altogether. You just want it to be a little more elegant... and perhaps a little less heavy on the smoke.
For those well-heeled women, there is Yasaiya Mei, a high-drama robata-ya in the sparkly, mine-like structure known as Omotesandō Hills.
Hiromi and I had eyed this spot after our previous outing to Omotesandō, and put it on our list of places to come back to. The dinner menu was out when we first walked by in the late afternoon, and it was fairly tempting, so we tried to find an excuse to come back.
We made plans for lunch with Kristin of eGullet and some of Hiromi's friends for a weekend lunch, and ended up choosing this spot since absolutely none of us would be able to make it there for lunch on a normal workday. For most of us it was a bit of a splurge, certainly for lunch, though some people got away with a slightly less expensive set. Lunch goes for JPY 2400-4000 ($22~40).
Two people, including me, ordered a spring vegetable set meal with some partial vegetarian accommodations. A British software developer in our group also prefers to eat vegetarian, so we ordered the same menu option. However, in just a couple months in Japan he's resigned himself to eating fish, preferring just to avoid chunks of pork and chicken and the like because it adds so much complexity to dining out, so he
On this trip I've found that restaurants we've visited have been surprisingly accommodating for my vegetarian quirk. It's not customary in Japan to accept special requests (or, more importantly, to make them) at restaurants, so that hasn't always been the case. I don't know if it's because we tended to eat in fairly high-end spots, if we just happened to stumble on places with excellent service standards, or if things are gradually changing.
Hiromi and Kristen ordered a special-of-the-day lunch, and one person ordered a simple curry set meal. Grilled items weren't terribly prominent, but were featured in most of our meals.
First course, vegetable set
Five little vegetable-highlighting dishes... as usual, practicing a vegetarian diet in Japan requires a sense of humor and a tolerance for fish-as-garnish, as in the case of the typical katsuo-bushi (shaved bonito) dressed ohitashi (blanched vegetable dish, center) and the sakura-ebi (tiny shrimp) garnished sunomono (sweet vinegar dressed dish, left).
Our server noticed that one of the dishes in this starter course was made with crab, and without me asking, quickly swapped that dish out for an elegant and refreshing aloe ohitashi, which was meant for today's special lunchbox. A few years ago, aloe as a vegetable became all the rage throughout Asia, and this simple dish is reflective of that. It's reminiscent of mozuku, thanks to the neba-neba (sticky) qualities of the aloe and the slightly acidic sauce.
Ume gelee-dressed vegetables
This ume-gelee dressed vegetable dish was surprisingly sappari. I guess I'm a sucker for Japanese apricot, but I was almost expecting this to be either strangely sweet or intensely sour; instead, it was well-balanced and full of pleasing contrasts.
Potato and green bean salad in bamboo "bark"
This simple bamboo shoot and green bean aemono gets a dramatic treatment with a garnish from the outer layer of a bamboo shoot.
Vegetable curry rice set
One of Hiromi's friends ordered an elegant Japanese-style curry rice with an unusual presentation... the rice comes adorned with goya (bitter melon), takenoko (bamboo shoot) and other vegetables, and the curry itself is served in a gravy boat, which the guest uses to pours the hot curry over the rice herself... some pickles and another small side dish accompany this.
I was too distracted to remember all of the things that come in the day's special two-tiered lunchbox, but the list was so long on the menu that I stopped reading carefully. It includes some agemono (fried foods), a rice dish with ikura (seasoned salmon roe) and bamboo shoots, a few yakimono (grilled fish, vegetables and meat). I think the confetti-puff-rice covered ball is a kind of meatball.
The starter tier
The upper tier includes an aloe dish (as above), a kind of nagaimo pudding (I think), renkon (lotus root) chips, and a little maguro.
Vegetable set second course
My order comes in two stages, and this second course features a rice dish, a grilled dish, a poached glutinous rice ball, and miso soup.
Steamed rice with fava beans
Soramame (fava beens), maybe some nanohana (rapeseed greens), and some kind of ingen (green beans), along with some mushrooms and an herb garnish top my steamed rice.
Nimono, perhaps, with glutinous rice
This glutinous rice ball is poached a bit in seasoned soup stock and served with shiitake slices. It was hard to resist.
This was my set of robata-grilled dishes... the always-tempting spring takenoko, grilled bamboo shoots; grilled asparagus, shiitake, a cherry tomato, and a little nut that I'm forgetting the name of.
The bowl makes the miso soup
Spring greens in a strong miso soup.
Most of us got this surprisingly tasty pickled hyōtan, or gourd. I can't recall actually eating hyoutan anywhere else before. I wouldn't hesitate to eat it again... I was surprised. It was fairly ordinary, as pickles go, but I just haven't seen it before.
To finish the meal, everyone received a little tea (low-end matcha), and two kinds of wagashi. One is similar to warabi-mochi (right), and the other is a flavored rice cake.
We weren't quite finished... After our big lunch, we wandered off to chat more and to have some contemporary, reimagined wagashi at Toraya just a few floors below...
Working in a minimally-stocked kitchen that's completely different than your own is pretty tricky.
Our weekly apartment was equipped with a rice cooker, a saucepan and a frying pan. We had a few plates and bowls, but nothing close to what I'm used to at home.
But after a bunch of elaborate, not to mention expensive, restaurant meals, we wanted to make something on our own.
Haru kyabetsu to nerimiso
We have spring cabbage made with a quick homemade sweetened miso... this is sort of a typical izakaya dish nowadays. We soon discovered that the lighter colored leaves from inside the cabbage were much more tender, and decided to reserve the dark outer leaves for an itamemono on another day.
Three nice side dishes made ugly
We didn't really have all the fundamentals... just mirin, soy sauce, salt, pepper and instant dashi. We had no vinegar, and we had only a small amount of miso. We didn't actually have any cooking oil; just some butter, meant for toast for breakfast.
I normally don't use instant dashi since it's not vegetarian, but when I'm on the road and only cooking a few meals on my own, it's a bit harder to stock a bunch of konbu and dried mushrooms, so we relied a bit on a few granules of that dashi for a few things. Although I'm not really a fan of the flavor of instant dashi, some dishes just don't taste right if you only use water. Since I already have to relax my vegetarian habits when eating out in Japan, I elected to make another small concession to reality, and I used small amounts of it in one or two dishes.
Since we only had a few plates, elegant platings had to be sacrificed, but we found some sort of solution.
Our side dishes included, from left to right: An egg scramble with some cheap maitake mushrooms and leeks, an ohitashi made with sakura no shiozuke,or salted cherry blossoms, and grilled bamboo shoots with butter and soy sauce. They may not look like much, but everything turned out slightly better than I expected.
Yuba and myouga
We love myouga, sometimes explained as ginger shoots in English, and it's hard to get in the US. Myōga looks a bit like the bulb of a shallot but has a gently spicy mild ginger flavor. I sliced some with the scary, flimsy knife supplied by our weekly apartment and scattered the slices inelegantly atop pieces of cut yuba, and carelessly drizzled some soy sauce over the yuba.
I miss fresh yuba when I'm in the US. The best I can do is dried or, on rare occasions, previously-frozen... unless I'm willing to commit to sitting in front of a nabe for an hour or two as I slowly peel off pieces of yuba from simmering soymilk. I don't do that so often.
Hiromi prepared a miso soup, which I nearly ruined by adding too much instant dashi. Since I never have any instant dashi at home, I didn't know how much is "normal" for soup. It turns out that the answer is very little.
She also blended some more salted cherry blossoms into the rice to make sakura-gohan, and whipped out the kuromame nattou (black bean nattō) before I could blink.
After a really fancy lunch in Omotesandō, this more humble dinner helped us balance our extravagance without feeling like much of a sacrifice.
I had bought an "expensive" bottle of soju while in Korea at about KRW 11,000, or $11-12. The mass-produced stuff like Jinro and Chamiseul goes for less than $2 a bottle at your average convenience store, so this would be considered a bit extravagant. Anyway, tonight we cracked open this bottle and each had a glass of Korean shochu on the rocks with our dinner.
It's smoother and cleaner-tasting than the mass-produced brands, but not quite as nice as the better Japanese varieties of shochu. The flavor is relatively neutral but still has a hint of complexity. I'd buy it again if I were in Korea.
Finding washoku in Hirosaki for lunch was actually suprisingly tough... the streets perpendicular to Hirosaki park were mostly full of meaty youshouku-ya-san and kissaten. Finally we settled into an unremarkable department store restaurant floor, which had three choices.
We both had some sort of soba dish. Mine was a sansai soba, or mountain vegetable topped soba. Usually sansai soba in Kanto is a slightly more elegant looking dish with just a few vegetables on top, but this place used a surprisingly generous amount of vegetables.
It wasn't the nicest version of this dish I've ever seen. The vegetables probably came in foodservice packs and the soba was a little overcooked. But we were hungry and tired, and this was comforting and warm.
Driven by sunnier weather, we had done our second day of hanami, but we didn't do enough snacking at yatai to feel full. So a couple of orders of noodles helped fill us up.
I also did a little bit of shopping, making my first serious investment in urushi. I really like nurimono, or lacquerware, but I've never really been brave enough to commit to anything beyond some cheap wooden misoshiru bowls and chopsticks. Aomori's style of urushi is very distinctive, and appeals to Hiromi's love for visual drama and my own quirky tastes. I actually have some older chopsticks from Aomori given to me many years ago by a friend, but I bought my first lacquer serving ware and two really nice sake cups... I promise they'll make an appearance on my blog in the future, but I didn't take any photos in the shop.
We headed off to the mountains...
Dirty snow pocks
Somehow trees absorb just enough heat from the spring sun to help melt away small circles of the old snow.
We made our way to a tough ski destination... you have to trek your own gear up the slope, as there are no mechanical lifts. Our purpose for making this trek was to go to a hyakunin-buro, 100 person bath, with a highly sulfurous composition. Unlike most onsen in Japan, this hot spring spot has only konyoku buro (gender mixed baths) and has been that way for a very long time.
And unlike most konyoku buro I've been to in Japan, it was also very crowded.
You just pay a a small fee for entry... I think about 600 yen per person ($5-6)... if you're smart, you will come with a couple of towels; we neglected this and had to buy some tiny ones.
Hiromi scoped out the other women to decide whether she'd be brave enough to go with just the small towel as cover... After a demographic analysis, she caved in and bought this sort of bathing suit that loosely covers her body. Most of the women in their 20s or 30s, at least the ones without children, wore something similar; older women and women who came with children in tow concerned themselves less with such modesty, though most draped themselves with a large towel when entering or exiting the baths.
The men, for the most part, used their small towels when moving in and out of the bathing area, and some covered themselves when outside of the baths. It's a strangely communal experience, but I think the experience was so unfamiliar to most contemporary Japanese that I'm sure most people were fairly self-conscious most of the time.
In theory, the baths typically had a male and a female side, but the dividing line wasn't strictly enforced; I think it was just to give people some semblence of separation to create a small suggestion of privacy.
On our way out, we had some warm soba manjuu (buckwheat cake stuffed with sweet red bean paste) and some surprisingly decent sumibi-yaki coffee from the onsen gift shop.
We started heading toward Hachinohe again, where we wanted to get a quick dinner in before taking the long train ride back to Tokyo. In the mountains, plows had dug through several meters of old snow, but the roads were clear... as we headed down toward the base of the mountain again, I snapped a couple of photos, though the snow wasn't nearly as high down below.
Layers of old snow
I was probably too sleepy to remember to take pictures up higher, where thick layers of old snow were piled up even higher.
When we got back, we had a slightly rushed meal at a little train station robata-ya. I had packed away my camera in my luggage in the rental car, but we had a few memorable things... Hiromi had senbe-jiru, a soup made with puffed grain senbei and chicken, if I understood correctly; it's a regional specialty. I've kind of lost track of everything we ordered, but it was pleasing... I had a glass of a surprisingly whiskey-like aged shochu made with buckwheat. We also had some good tamago-yaki served like nigiri-zushi, grilled shiitake, and some really nice miso grilled yaki-onigiri. I'm such a sucker for charcoal grilled rice balls, because I can never get them quite right when making them at home on an electric appliance.
Everything was shutting down early that night, including gas stations, but somehow we managed to refuel and return the rental car just in time to make our train back to Tokyo.
After our cherry blossom viewing, we retired to Oowani Onsen to rest a bit, with the overly ambitious intention of returning to Hirosaki for night time cherry blossom viewing.
Fujiya Hotel has insanely roomy washitsu, or Japanese style rooms. The washitsu, which features tatami flooring, consists of a large dual-purpose room and a smaller one that might sleep a couple of children. But wait, there was more! For those who don't love Japanese-style bedding, or for particularly large parties, two twin beds are available in another chamber off the hallway.
We felt like we could live there... it was probably slightly larger than the weekly apartment where we were staying in Tokyo, and that was one of the roomiest places I've ever rented in Tokyo.
We chose to have a late dinner after a long bath. Both the men's and women's bath offer rotenburo, but the water wasn't especially warm, and it was more comfortable to bathe inside. They also had a sauna room, which I stepped into briefly before realizing I should have taken off my glasses first... I popped into the cold water for a bit and started turning my attention to dinner.
We ate in the hotel's dining room, which meant dinner was a little less intimate, but close to the kitchen, allowing for some surprisingly fresh, well-made food.
This menu reflects Hiromi's meal, and closely parallels my pleasingly customized one. Although
Grilled bamboo shoots
It's springtime, and I had a lot of fantastic grilled bamboo shoot dishes on this trip. But this was far and away the most visually dramatic, and one of the best tasting. I think it's seasoned with little more than salt and soy sauce and perhaps a hint of butter. I really enjoyed it and will be longing for this simple, elegant dish until I can find my way to Japan in springtime again.
The bamboo sprout's skin also decorated a dish made with soramame (fava beans) and potatoes.
Mango puree with shrimp
This was Hiromi's, and at first I was a little bit jealous, but eventually my own version served with shibazuke instead of shrimp came. I can't say I've ever seen mango on the menu at a Japanese inn...
Apparently this sake's name, joppari, means stubborn, which fascinated Hiromi so much that she had to try it. It also happens to have a pleasingly complex flavor, even as it drinks rather smoothly.
Yakimono on urushi
This fish-like fillet for Hiromi is actually kabocha atop ham and cheese, with a few pine nuts. I believe it was served with a grilled scallop and a carved vegetable.
Blanched and dressed with gomadare, sesame sauce.
More mountain vegetables, in a simple but pretty ohitashi.
Another example of Aomori-ken's fascinnation with Western food, this salad featured mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, cheese, and a fairly intense vinaigrette.
Hiromi's featured youshoku dish, featuring cooked and cured ham and mint, koku no mi (the red berry sometimes put on top of okayu) or capers.
Hiromi also has a grilled wagyuu dish featuring local beef, cooked on a ceramic plate over a small flame.
In place of the beef, I have another variation of that northern Japanese specialty, kiri-tampo. This is a simple kiritampo nabe, or hot pot dish. Since I can't have this in the US very easily, I'm pleased to have another chance to taste it.
Oh, and a very nice chawan-mushi, or savory egg custard, arrived at just about the same time as this was ready... Alas, it didn't photograph very nicely, but I'm a sucker for a vegetarian interpretation for chawan-mushi. It seemed to take advantage of some seasonal vegetables as well.
Kinoko no foil-yaki
A simple grilled foil parcel of various mushrooms...
Ringo to sansai to shiitake no tempura
Ryokan tempura is often a little bit dreary, as it tends to be made quite far ahead of service... However, this one was served close to the end of our meal and was still mostly fairly warm. It featured tara no me (one of many Japanese mountain vegetables), fuki (butterbur) sprouts, shiitake, and, most interesting of all, a slice of apple. I've had heavy American fast-food fried apples before, and I have to admit having a soft spot for them, but this was surprising. The fruit was unprocessed, and fried just a short time, so it remained crisp and gently tart, and had the same light crispness that the rest of the tempura featured.
Kamameshi and Suimono
Rice is cooked at our table... Hiromi's is a seasoned kamameshi with bamboo shoots and I think some pork. Mine was plain, but rice cooked in this kind of pot always tastes better. We also receive a simple clear soup with thin slices of mushrooms and salt-cured cherry blossoms.
Apple sorbet, in apple
This was a very good apple sorbet inside an apple shell... It's Aomori, after all, and apples are a big deal here.
Before dinner, Hiromi had thought we'd go back to Hirosaki, but I think we fell asleep no later than 9 pm. We somehow woke up again, but it was already approaching midnight... too late to seriously consider the 25 minute trip back to HirosakiPark, but not too late to head to the outdoor ceramic onsen tub on the same floor as our room.
May 2nd, at Asamushi Onsen, on the way to Hirosaki. We wake up early and have another bath, then breakfast, and we head off. But first we looked out the window, and decided to make a quick trip to the beach...
Our ryokan wasn't quite on the waterfront, but it's just a short hop across a busy road to the beach...
Yu no Kabuto Iwa
A big rock, a little island, just across the bay.
A view of the left side of the island reveals a dramatic-looking pine.
There's a gate and a long stairway to a temple starting at the waterfront.
We made our way toward Aomori city, and discovered this odd looking building called Asupamu, to which Hiromi made a beeline in our rental car. It turns out that it did its job very well: the ground floor is full of gift shops peddling various Aomori specialties, and an impressive observation deck about 13 floors up. (We didn't feel any need to spend 600 yen each for that, even after buying so much stuff that we were good for up to two hours of free parking).
We gave in and bought a lot of them, some of them destined to be our gomen nasai present for coworkers when we return to the office, and some treats for friends, family, teammates, and fellow Meetup members. Oh, and some "gifts" for purely self-indulgent purposes. We need those. Self-indulgence is good.
After sampling the delights of the many Asupamu gift shops, we had pie from an Asupamu apple shop. We likepie. This one has some cream cheese in it. Aomori is famous for apples, so that makes this local food.
I chose this chausson (lady slipper?) for myself, but Hiromi thought it was boring compared to two of the other nifty options and I could sense her disappointment. Until she proceeded to eat at least half of mine. (I got my fair share of the cream cheese one though... I'm just making fun of her for visibly, if quietly, doubting my judgment).
Of course, no coastal tourist shop would be complete without some sort of rotating squidmobile.
So my low-protein dinner transitioned into the extreme opposite in the morning... not only did everyone have a pot of tofu, made right at the table in bunrai nabe style, but we also had this surprisingly nice egg dish.
Where's the egg, you ask?
Well, it's on the side. There's a little negi, soup stock, and miso, and we mix the egg in using waribashi... Within a couple of minutes, the flame underneath the seashell cooks up the egg.
Hiromi's version of the egg dish also featured some dried scallops. Dekitate toufu
Fresh and creamy tofu, served with a little negi and shouyu for dipping.
Of course there's a fair assortment of tsukemono (pickled vegetables), some yamaimo, a little hijiki... a very complete, very substantial breakfast.
Our breakfast is served with a little houjicha, roasted green tea, which somehow seemed a very homey way to start the day.
We stayed at an onsen ryokan (hot springs resort) called Asamushi in Aomori city.
Most Japanese ryokan, given sufficient advance warning, are reasonably accommodating of vegetarian needs, though they don't always quite understand them. Usually things work out, with occasional use of non-vegetarian soup stock or a garnish of katsuobushi. In some cases, the food ends up being a bit ascetic.
Ryokan also tend to veer toward the fairly esoteric, so some of these dishes I've never seen before.
I was mostly happy with the taste of the food at our first ryokan this trip, but the meal ended up being surprisingly devoid of protein... usually there's at least a bit of tofu or some egg dish, or sometimes some yuba. This time, though, there wasn't even a hint of that. Even my nabe dish was little more than a suimono, though I think Hiromi's had a little tofu. The actual dishes were actually quite nice, but I felt a bit low in energy after the meal, which rarely happens when I eat at ryokan.
Hiromi's had a bit more seafood, of course.
A few side dishes
These were some of Hiromi's side dishes.
Apparently Aomori has a fondness for youshoku, or Western food, as we discovered later in Hirosaki. I think this presentation, offered to Hiromi, was meant to be a kind of cute deconstructed pasta dish. My version had some grilled bamboo shoots with a miso sauce.
One of Hiromi's dishes, this features fu (the cute cherry blossom shaped wheat gluten item), kagomi, shrimp, and takenoko (bamboo shoots).
Itadouri no ohitashi
Itadouri, Japanese rhubarb or knotweed, one of many spring sansai (mountain vegetables). While not technically rhubarb, it has a slightly acidic bite to it. When lightly dressed, it's slightly vegetal and gently bitter.
Fuki no tou
Fuki no tou, the sprouts of butterbur. This is particularly common in spring in northern Japan, but it's also found, and eaten, frequently in other parts of Japan.
I always seem to end up with tempura at ryokan... even if they aren't serving it to everyone else... It seems to be a typical substitution for a sashimi course. This one features some mountain vegetables, mostly kagomi.
Some more vegetables with sakura
I think this is was a mustard-flavored aemono, but my memory is failing...
Daikon to negi no suimono
A light clear soup with daikon and negi.
As a special treat for Hiromi, the ryokan brought a small dish to our room featuring these nama-shirasu, which were still alive and kicking.
I've seen Hiromi refuse to taste something only twice. The first was bundaeggi, and she pretty much says all bugs are off limits. The second was this. I'm not sure the taste or aroma would be terribly shocking, but it seemed just a bit too disturbing for her. Actually, strangely, I think it bothers me less than it does her... and I don't eat any fish... Though I guess the point is moot.
Note the splashes of soy sauce along the side of the bowl are the work of the fish, not of sloppy plating.
(Video Link, in case video embedding doesn't work for you)
After dinner, I ate some kurogoma ice cream to get at least a little hint of protein, and Hiromi ate a really nice apple sorbet.
A specialty of northern Japan, and particularly popular in Iwate and Akita prefectures,Kiri-tampo are usually made with uruchi-gome, which falls into the category of everday rice. The other two categories of rice are mochi-gome, the pearly glutinous rice, and saka-mai, which is riced used for brewing sake.
We stopped at a small lake-front gift shop while between cities in Aomori. We weren't in any hurry to do any actual shopping, but we started looking at the types of things offered as fancy Aomori omiyage so that we could be suitably jaded by the time we were actually ready to buy.
I was sucked in by a little storefront window where a woman was busy grilling kiritampo over hot sumi, Japanese oak charcoal.
We had to have one. Each.
Although breakfast was heavy, we hadn't really eaten a real lunch, so this was a nice light snack, and very reasonably priced. We placed our order and the obachan handling the grill suggested we head upstairs to sit down, where we could sit in relative comfort facing the lake.
Middle of nowhere, Aomori
Five or ten minutes later, our kiritampo arrived, dressed with a sweet-salty miso flavored tare (sauce). It was far more than we ever hoped it to be.
We found, but did not make use of, this helpful device...
For just 100-yen, you could use this old-school tabletop device to obtain an all-knowing omikuji, complete with horoscope.
May 1st we had an early start... By this time, my jetlagged habit of waking up at 6 am without the aid of an alarm gave way to a more ordinary pattern of begrudgingly getting out of bed around 7:30 or 8. We had to use multiple cell-phone alarms to make sure we woke up in time... We had departed the football game after-party around 11, just in time to get home around midnight to bemusedly consider packing for our short trip to Aomori....
I think most of the serious packing waited until morning, but we had to wake up around 5:30 to make sure we could get to Tokyo station in time to grab breakfast and to make the shinkansen train.
JAL Sky Time Yuzu Original Citrus Drink
I grabbed an overly-sweet yuzu drink from a vending machine to take on the train... I tend to make one that's closer to 4-5% yuzu at home, but mass production has certain cost constraints... the stronger-tasting yuzu drinks in Japan I've found tend to be about 200-300 yen for a small glass bottle... this was a bit more generous in size, but is only 2% fruit juice.
Hiromi picked some reasonably vegetable-heavy bento... There's no such thing as a vegetarian ekiben (train station bento) anywhere in Japan that I've seen.
This one has a little shrimp, so Hiromi ate that part... Perhaps throwing this Balance Bento out of balance? Ah well. I was also a little sad that the takenoko gohan, which I usually love, was filled with tiny bits of chicken or pork...
Yasai Tappuri Haru-Yasai Bento
This one, true to its description, was full of vegetables, but also had its fair share of animal bits.
These would have to do...
The two bento sustained us for the three hour train ride north. At our destination, Hiromi picked up our rental car and took us the rest of the way to our destination, on very little sleep, while I crashed in the passenger seat, mostly oblivious to the length of our trek across Aomori prefecture.