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August 17, 2012 9:37 pm
Among the many clouds that have characterised this damp British summer there has been at least one professional silver lining: I have come to appreciate and enjoy nimono dishes in Japanese restaurants. And I have even learnt how to cook some of them at home.
Nimono, according to Richard Hosking’s indispensable A Dictionary of Japanese Food, translates as “simmered food” and it appears at most meals in Japan other than breakfast.
It is a technique that can be used for cooking meat, fish and vegetables with a wide variety of seasonings – sake, soy sauce, egg yolk, ginger and miso – with mirin, rather than sugar, used as the sweetener. Because these ingredients are simmered – usually in a dashi stock, made from water and bonito flakes – the flavours are gentle, soothing and packed with savoury umami, which the Japanese consider the fifth basic taste. The only essential cooking utensil is a heavy, straight-sided pan with a lid.
In an email exchange, Hosking, now retired and living back in London, explained why this style of Japanese cooking is so under-appreciated. “In Japan, nimono dishes are everyday home cooking, whereas sushi and sashimi are luxuries,” he said, “hence the difference in price and the fact that the latter two styles are far more widely available in Japanese restaurants.”
In fact, after my taste buds had been excited by my first nimono at Asakusa restaurant in Camden, London, I went on a mission to study Japanese restaurant menus in search of these dishes. They appeared to be available principally on the dinner menus rather than at lunchtime, and in the less expensive and less glamorous restaurants.
Indeed, the food and warmth of service at Asakusa are in stark contrast to its location, just next to a bus stop, and its decor. The interior seems untouched for many years, comprising a mass of posters, photos and the odd small blackboard covered in Japanese. Walking into Asakusa, as into Aburiya Kinnosuke, the atmospheric Japanese restaurant by New York’s Grand Central Station, is comforting and reassuring, like slipping on a well-worn pair of shoes.
Except this meal began with a shock. No sooner had we all been handed our menus than my fellow diners closed them and said, “We’ll leave the choice to you, Nick.”
This was understandable given their specialisms were maths, wine and international diplomacy, but it did put me in a difficult position. No mention had been made of price, and bills in Japanese restaurants can quickly mount. Nothing had been mentioned about likes and dislikes, and Japanese chefs do like to turn every edible item to good use (turbot fin muscle sashimi would not be to everyone’s taste, I assumed).
And this menu, encased in a less-than-attractive plastic cover, is incredibly long, with well over 100 dishes. I floundered but, fortified by some green tea, began to point to a few dishes that I knew that I at least would enjoy: deep-fried soft-shell crab; grilled aubergine with miso; a plate of sushi; and some vegetable tempura, the most delicate style of Japanese cooking.
Then my eye was caught by the separate heading of “simmered dishes”, a category that contained two of my favourite ingredients, mackerel and pork belly, each priced at less than £6. On Japanese menus the nimono dishes can be spotted, Hosking explained, by the “ni” ending – these two were saba no misoni and butakakuni. I ordered both, little realising how this would raise my standing around the table as an expert on Japanese food. The dishes were so good they went a long way towards leading my guests to think I knew far more about this cuisine than is the case. The mackerel, simmered in miso, was excellent, the two fillets happily divided into two, although there was a bit of jostling as to who would finish off the delicious stock that remained. Dinner for four with a bottle of Beaujolais was £67.
Another excellent exponent of nimono dishes is the even more compact Jin Kichi in Hampstead, London. As well as a tasty rendition of the pork belly dish, the Jin Kichi kitchen shows its dexterity with two simmered vegetable dishes: horentamago, spinach, shiitake and eggs in fish stock; and atsuage, slices of thick tofu fried and then simmered with lots of diced ginger and spring onion.
My version at home of squash simmered in dashi was good, if not yet comparable, though I comfort myself that I am but a recent convert.
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