Last weekend, my wife and I used up the last bit of vegetables and mushrooms we bought at an international market in the Twin Cities. Although we enjoyed the meal, it was sad to see the ingredients disappear from our refrigerator. It’s very hard to find items like mochi, enoki mushrooms, and udon noodles in this part of the world.
I spent three years living and working in Japan, and some days I really miss Japanese cuisine. I even spent much of Sunday afternoon making udon noodles from scratch. Let me tell you, it took quite a bit of muscle to roll out the thick, rubbery dough. The noodles ended up a bit salty, but they did the trick, and I chalked it up to a learning experience.
In December, I wrote about a local meat market and discovered they were happy to cut meat thin the way they do in countries like Japan or South Korea. I’m happy to say I’m now able to replicate yaki niku (Japanese barbeque) at home. It got me thinking about other Japanese food I’ve been missing this winter.
Yakitori is a simple dish. It’s skewered pieces of chicken grilled over charcoal. I used to pick up a few sticks on the way home from work because they were delicious and dirt cheap. I could choose from skewers with any part of the chicken imaginable. I preferred the simple skewers of chicken breast with onions or garlic, but I would sometimes pick up something more interesting, such as skewers of liver (reba) or cartilage (nankotsu).
Oden is translated as fish cake stew, but it’s very difficult to describe. It’s a winter comfort dish cooked in a large pot with an assortment of fish balls, fish cakes, deep-fried tofu, hard-boiled eggs, konnyaku (a rubbery gelatin), and vegetables simmered in soy sauce-based dashi broth. The fish cakes are made from minced fish and combined with a starch and fried until it’s chewy and golden brown. Fish cakes come in different shapes and sizes, and although they were completely alien to me, I always looked forward to a pot of simmering oden on a cold day.
Shabu Shabu is a hot pot-style meal where thinly-sliced meat and vegetables are cooked in a broth called kombu dashi. Everyone at the table takes part in the cooking as the ingredients are raw before they’re placed in the heated broth. To start, you take your desired vegetable or slice of raw meat and drop it in the broth. It only takes a minute or so to cook the food and once it’s ready, grab it with your chopsticks and dip it in your desired sauce before eating it. My favorite sauce is called ponzu, which is similar to soy sauce, but it has a slight citrus flavor.
I often took trips to a historical city called Nikko in the Tochigi prefecture. I always went to a traditional restaurant that served a sweet river fish called Ayu. The restaurant harvested the fish straight from the river by building a ramp aimed upstream into the river. The fish would swim straight onto the ramp where they could be collected by staff and customers. From there, the fish were skewered, grilled over coals, and served whole with mountain vegetables, rice, pickles, and miso soup. There’s a proper technique for eating the fish. Some old-timers eat the bones and all, but I preferred to bite carefully.
If you like raw fish, this one’s for you. It’s a bowl with rice on the bottom with whatever fish you like thrown on top. I used to buy it at a dirty restaurant located in a popular street market in Ueno, Tokyo. If you saw the kitchen, you probably wouldn’t want to eat there, but I did anyway. Locals and tourists frequented the place and you could order any type of fish in the ocean. I usually ordered the salmon bowl, which included raw salmon, lightly grilled salmon, and salmon eggs. I’ll be honest, I sometimes got sick after eating there, but it didn’t stop me from going back.
I’d encourage you to branch out and try cooking a Japanese recipe this year. Some dishes are easier than you’d expect. Tonkatsu is a deep-fried pork cutlet and can easily be made at home. Other Japanese dishes, such as octopus sushi, might not be possible due to the lack of proper ingredients. Do some research and give a new recipe a shot. You might find your new Monday night family favorite.