What is it that makes a food or a dish Japanese? In 2013, washoku, the traditional cuisine of Japan, was added to the United Nations’ cultural heritage list — only the second, after France’s, to have been so honoured. In its citation, Unesco observed that the rituals of washoku influence each step of the culinary process, from food sourcing and production — which must be of the highest quality possible — through to preparation, cooking and eating. The tradition is passed from generation to generation, at family mealtimes and at school.
The term is written using two Chinese characters: the first, 和 wa, refers to all things Japanese and the second, 食 shoku, means food. Coined at the time of the 1868 Meiji restoration, when Japan emerged from more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation and began to embrace the west, washoku is inextricably linked to Japan’s geography and climate, and to its history.
It is no coincidence that 和 also means peace, harmony, balance, mildness, to blend or to join together. The multiple meanings provide a good clue as to what Japanese food is all about. Cooks are praised for drawing out natural tastes and flavours rather than adding or imposing man-made ones; also for presenting ingredients in ways that reflect nature.
Despite its recognition as a healthy choice (Japan has one of the highest life expectancies in the world), the cuisine is still perceived as difficult. My aim is to dispel any fears you may have and to show you just how easy it is to cook Japanese food at home. After all, millions of ordinary Japanese do it every day. And, as you’ll discover, the culinary methods are not so very different from those you may be familiar with already. And Japanese ingredients have become much easier to find in supermarkets.
To begin with, I suggest you make just one Japanese dish to serve with your usual meals; perhaps a bowl of miso soup as a starter, plain boiled rice instead of potatoes or a green salad with a Japanese dressing. Then, as you gain more confidence, gradually expand your repertoire.
Buri no Teriyaki
Teriyaki, which literally means shiny grill, is a tasty, attractive way to cook any fish but is particularly suitable for meaty, oily fish such as salmon, tuna, yellowtail, swordfish or bonito.
- Mix all the sauce ingredients together in a shallow dish. Add the fish and set aside to marinate for 30 minutes, turning occasionally.
- Prepare the radishes. With a small knife, make 3-4 shallow incisions as if you are peeling the radishes. Transfer to soak in a bowl of cold water — the cuts will open like flower buds.
- Remove the fish from its marinade and pat dry, reserving the sauce. Heat 2 tsp of the oil in a large frying pan or skillet over a medium heat and quickly sear both sides of the fish then remove as much oil as possible using scrunched kitchen paper.
- Reduce the heat to low, pour in the reserved sauce and continue to cook until the sauce has reduced to about a tablespoonful, turning the fish over a few times.
- Meanwhile, in a separate frying pan, heat the remaining oil and cook the peppers for 2-3 minutes, season with salt and pepper. Drain the radishes.
- To serve, arrange the peppers on the top left-hand side of 4 individual plates, allowing 2 strips of yellow or orange and 2 strips of green each, and put 3 radish buds on the top right side. Place the fish below the vegetables, drizzle a few drops of the sauce over and serve.
- Variation: You can also add grated fresh ginger, garlic purée or chilli flakes to the teriyaki sauce.
Sea bream rice
This is one of the most celebrated rice dishes of all, which is not surprising as it combines two of Japan’s most popular ingredients — rice and sea bream. Traditionally, a whole handsome fish is cooked in a donabe, a lidded clay casserole, and brought to the table. In this version, the fish is grilled separately and added later for easier eating and serving.
- Wash and drain the rice, then place it in a heavy-based saucepan with the dashi, sake and soy sauce. Leave to stand for 10 minutes.
- Cut the fish into 5mm thick bite-size pieces by holding the knife at a 30-degree angle so that the blade is almost horizontal to the fillet. Transfer on to a flat bamboo basket or a paper-lined plate, then gently rub the salt on the skin side and stand for 5-8 minutes.
- Preheat the grill to high and grill the fish for 5 minutes on each side.
- Cook the rice over a medium heat; when it reaches the boil and steam begins to rise, reduce the heat to low and quickly place the fish, skin side up, on top of the rice, cover immediately and continue to cook until the steam stops. Turn off the heat and quickly scatter over the ginger, cover again and steam for a further 10 minutes before serving.
Instant cucumber pickle
Japanese people love pickles and there are literally countless types of pickles using a variety of preserving materials such as salt, rice bran, rice vinegar or soy sauce. Some pickles take days or even months to make, while others are quicker. Instant pickles, like this one, make ideal side dishes.
- Mix all the ingredients except the cucumbers in a large glass bowl and set aside.
- Cut and discard the ends of each cucumber. With a rolling pin, lightly beat and bruise the cucumbers, then break them into rough bite-sized pieces with your hands.
- Bring a saucepan of water to the boil and place the cucumbers in a heatproof sieve. Lower the sieve into the boiling water and blanch for 2-3 minutes in small batches. Drain and shake off excess water and immediately add into the bowl of pickling sauce and mix.
- The cucumbers are ready to eat after 30 minutes but the flavours will develop if left overnight. The cucumbers, left in the pickling sauce, will keep for up to 5 days refrigerated.
Quick-simmered pork belly
Buta no kakuni
The authentic recipe for this popular pork dish takes about two days to prepare, which isn’t realistic for busy home cooks. So here is a quick version — and the result is nearly as tender as the original. Patient, slow frying and rinsing ensures a rich but not greasy pork dish.
- Put the oil in a large frying pan (large enough for the pork to sit in one layer) and add the pork skin-side down.
- Turn on the heat to medium-low and slowly fry for 15-20 minutes, or until the fat begins to render and the pork starts to turn pale brown. Turn over and continue to cook on each side until pale brown all over.
- Transfer the pork to a sieve and rinse under hot running water to wash off all excess fat, then drain.
- Wipe the pan clean with scrunched kitchen paper, then return the pork to the pan, in one layer, and add the ginger, dashi, sake, sugar, mirin and soy sauce. Bring to the boil over a high heat, then reduce to low and simmer for 1-1½ hours. Cut a sheet of foil slightly smaller than the diameter of the pan and place loosely on the surface of the pork while simmering (or use a drop lid).
- When the cooking juices have reduced to about half, take the pork out with a slotted spoon. Increase the heat to high and further reduce the cooking juice without the foil lid until reduced by a quarter. Add the cornflour mixture to thicken. Then return the pork to the pan to coat it in the sauce.
- Divide the pork between 4 deep-sided dishes or bowls and garnish with a dab of mustard on top and serve.
Tonkatsu, deep-fried breaded pork cutlet, is one of the most popular meat dishes in Japan. Like tempura, another famous deep-fried dish, it was originally imported from the west but has been modified. In Japan, it is normally served with a generous amount of finely shredded raw cabbage. It is also accompanied by tonkatsu sauce, a thick brown sauce based on Worcestershire sauce, which is available ready-made in bottles, or you can make your own by following the recipe below.
- Start by making breadcrumbs (ready-made panko, Japanese breadcrumbs, are available but home-made are infinitely better and cheaper) by breaking each slice of bread into smaller pieces. Spread the pieces out on a baking tray and leave to dry for 10-15 minutes.
- When they are semi-dry, rub between your palms to crumble. Place the crumbs in a shallow dish.
- Meanwhile, prepare the tonkatsu sauce. Lightly toast the sesame seeds, transfer to a mortar and grind to form a coarse paste. Put the sesame paste in a mixing bowl, add the rest of the ingredients, mix well and set aside.
- Season the pork with salt and pepper. Make some incisions in the meat between the pink lean part and white fat — this is tendon which will tighten when cooked. Lightly dust the pork with flour.
- Put the egg in a shallow dish. Pierce the pork on one end with a bamboo skewer or fork and dip the slices in the egg, coating both sides of each piece. Transfer the pork to the breadcrumbs and coat on both sides.
- Heat the oil to 170C in a heavy-based saucepan or a deep-sided frying pan over a medium heat. You may want to preheat the oven at its lowest setting to keep the cooked pork warm.
- Carefully submerge one or two breaded pork slices into the oil to deep-fry for 6-8 minutes, or until the surface turns golden yellow, turning once or twice. Lift the pork out of the oil with cooking chopsticks or a pair of tongs, holding it almost vertically while keeping its fat-side in the oil for 10 seconds, giving the fat a slightly longer deep-frying while draining the rest. Place on a wire rack to drain and keep warm in the oven while you cook the remaining slices.
- To serve, divide and place the cabbage in large mounds between 4 individual plates. Cut the pork crosswise into bite-size slices if you plan on eating it with chopsticks. If you are using knives and forks, do not bother to cut it.
- Rest the pork against the cabbage, and serve with a wedge of lemon, rice and a dab of mustard on the side if you like. The sauce may be poured over the pork and cabbage or served in small dishes for dipping.
Seared beef salad with grated daikon dressing
The richness of the beef is counterbalanced perfectly by the refreshing daikon dressing.
- Start by thinly slicing the onion and soak in a bowl of cold water for 10-15 minutes to tone down the strong onion smell.
- Cut the fennel into quarters, remove and discard the core and cut into thin slices. Trim the watercress into manageable length pieces.
- Drain the grated daikon by putting it through a sieve and reduce to about half by pressing down with a spoon. Mix with the rest of the dressing ingredients.
- Heat a heavy-based frying pan or iron griddle over a high heat. Rub the beef with a few drops of the sesame oil and sprinkle over 1 teaspoon of salt just before placing in the pan. Sear on one side for 2 minutes, turn over and cook the other side for 1 minute. Transfer on to a chopping board, pour the vinegar over and press and rub the vinegar in. Leave to rest for 5 minutes.
- Drain the onion and mix with the fennel slices. Divide and arrange the vegetables between 4 individual serving plates. Cut the beef into 5mm thick slices and divide these into 4 portions. Arrange the meat slices neatly over the vegetables, pour the dressing on top and serve.
‘Cook Japanese at Home’ by Kimiko Barber is published by Kyle Books in the UK on May 26, £25, and will be published in the US in spring 2017
Photographs: Emma Lee
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