7月 July in Kanbayashi

After the monsoon rains the humidity and heat soars, the cicadas shrill during the day while the frogs chorus through the night. Dragonflies dart through the rice fields which have grown tall and green.

Summer evenings are filled with festivals: spectacular fireworks or thousands of lanterns floating down the river. Here in Kanbayashi shrines and temples hold smaller festivals with local food and taiko drumming. Children don their yukatta, summer kimono, and light fireworks.

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Tanabata – Star Festival

The 7th day of the 7th month is Tanabata in Japan. The one night in the year that  the two lovers, Orihime and Hikoboshsi, separated by the milky way are permitted to meet. People mark the day by writing wishes on colourful paper, tanzaku. When in Japan, my two daughters spent the days leading up to Tanabata making paper decorations and writing wishes to hang on bamboo.

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On that night we would have star themed meals,  star carrots in chirashi-zushi (scattered sushi) or last year the farm shop in Ayabe Tokusankan was selling star and heart shaped cucumbers! We created a huge salad with a grated carrot milky way, and lots of cucumber stars.

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This year being back in the UK, I didn’t have the usual reminder of hanging tanzaku leading up to the entrance of the kindergarten. It was my daughter who happen to ask the day before “wasn’t Tanabata coming up soon?”.

We are still not back in our house nor unpacked our belongings so we had a make-do celebration that evening. When she came home from school we wrote down our wishes and she strung them up on a nearby tree. We had chirashi-zushi for supper, unfortunately without any stars or hearts, but still a Japanese meal to mark the day.

Miso, Ginger and Garlic Dressing

 

I started making this when running Ayabe Yoshimizu Guesthouse where there were several vats of rich dark miso in the basement that the owner had locally made. The guests could not get enough of this robust zesty, salty-sweet dressing, which works equally well over a green salad or as for a dip for small crunchy Japanese cucumbers. My son, however, likes to simply pour it over rice

The rich dark hatcho miso works best but it can be made with any kind of miso. The shoyu is optional but seems to add an additional savoury note. The dressing is rather thick so you can thin with water if preferred.

Makes 1 jar

Ingredients

  • 3 tbsp hatcho miso
  • 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 1 tsp soy sauce (optional)
  • 1 garlic clove, finely minced
  • 3cm knob of ginger, finely grated

Method

  • Whisk all ingredients in a jar, thinning with water if necessary.

 

5月 May in Kanbayashi

May is the month we arrived in Japan and, two years later, the month we left. The landscape is transformed as rice fields are flooded and rice seedlings planted resulting in a soft green that lines the plains.

Most definitely my favourite month in Japan, it is for a short time as if we are surrounded by lakes. Watching the sunrise over the water is special; the moonrise between the mountains reflected in the rice fields is something else.

 

Takenoko Gohan & Taki Komi Gohan

Fresh, local takenoko, bamboo shoots, can only be enjoyed in spring, much like asparagus in the UK. Bamboo shoots impart a sweet, subtle flavour when steamed with rice and is much loved by Japanese. Here are two recipes to cook in a rice cooker, but can easily be cooked in a pan. Vacuum packed bamboo shoots could be substituted, as I will have to use next spring…..

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Takenoko Gohan, Bamboo Shoot Rice

Ingredients

  • 2 cups of rice
  • 5 cm piece of takenoko,prepared fresh bamboo shoot, cut into bite sized pieces (or use canned if not available)
  • 2 Tbsp light soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine)
  • Dashi, konbu and katsuboshi stock
  • Kinome, fresh sansho leaves, to garnish

Method

  • Wash the rice and add to the rice cooker
  • Add the takenoko
  • Add enough dashi to reach the indicator for 2 cups of rice, add the soy sauce and mirin
  • Steam as usual
  • When finish mix the rice to evenly distribute the takenoko
  • Add the kinome to garnish

Takikomi Gohan Rice Steamed with Mixed Vegetables

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This usually contains chicken, but I only use vegetables. Any seafood or vegetables of your choice could be added.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups (rice measuring cup) short grain rice
  • 5 cm piece of takenoko,prepared fresh bamboo shoot, cut into bite sized pieces (or use canned if not available)
  • 1/3 slice aburage (deep fried fried tofu skin), cut into strips, place in strainer and pour hot water over it and gently squeeze to drain excess oil
  • 1/3 carrot
  • 2 tbs hijiki seaweed, reconstitued in water for 20 minutes, then rinsed and drained
  • 2 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in water for 30 minutes to an hour to reconstitute then sliced (reserve the soaking water as stock)
  • 2 Tbsp light soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine)
  • Dashi

Method

  • Wash the rice and add to the rice cooker
  • Add the takenoko, aburage, hijiki, shiitake and carrot
  • Add enough dashi to reach the indicator for 2 cups of rice, add the soy sauce and mirin
  • Steam as usual
  • When finish mix the rice to evenly distribute the vegetables

Takenoko – Fresh Bamboo Shoots

 

April and May hail the arrival of fresh bamboo shoots in Japan, a seasonal delicacy synonymous with the arrival of spring. Just like asparagus or forced rhubarb they appear during a short period of time when little else is available. Of course today takenoko is available  vacuum-packed in supermarkets all year round, just like asparagus that is flown in from all corners of the world. Yet harvesting fresh local takenoko is still very much revered and enjoyed.

DSC_2120The timing is important, the shoots have to be harvested before they get longer than about 30cm, the takenoko above looked beautiful with the smooth brown leaves but the green tips had emerged and the edible parts were smaller and more bitter. These shorter, stumpier shoots were perfect.

While busy packing in the last few weeks we had several neighbours pop round asking if we wanted takenoko from the bamboo grove at the back of our hamlet. Despite being up to our eyebrows and deciding to cook only the simplest of meals (and no photos) I couldn’t resist….

Raw bamboo contain toxins which needs to be removed by boiling. Japanese typically boil with nuka, rice bran, or the water used to rinse rice to remove the aku or bitterness. I boiled them for about 15 minutes then simmered for over an hour. The outer leaves are then easy to peel to reveal the crisp, edible centre. Some people seem to peel before boiling or make a vertical slit in the leaves from top to bottom but boiling whole worked fine for me.

The flavour is mild and sweet so it suits being paired with strong flavours and dressings. Takenoko is used in many different seasonal dishes: steamed with rice in takenoko gohan or taki komi gohan, or simmered in soy sauce, nimono, or added to salads.

At one sayonora party for us our hosts had prepared five different simmered takenoko dishes, take komi gohan  as well as wild vegetable tempura, a truly local and seasonal feast that I will never forget.

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Gateau Chocolat

I ran my last Anna’s Kitchen cooking class a few days ago, I’ve taught over 100 participants since I started  and it has really been a joy. The last session was no exception, and was attended by a lovely group of people.

We made Gateau Chocolat, a recipe shared by a French visitor at the guesthouse last year. I have amended it slightly and cut the sugar content in half.  It is an incredibly dense and rich dessert cake to be enjoyed in small slices. My students thought it went well with matcha, powdered green tea. It is gluten free as well.

 

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Ingredients  

  • 200g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
  • 200g butter
  • 100g sugar
  • 100g corn flour
  • 4 eggs

Method

  • Heat the oven to 160°C
  • Gently melt the butter and chocolate in a bowl over a pan of barely simmering water
  • Add the sugar and mix well
  • Beat the eggs in a small bowl
  • Add to the chocolate and mix
  • Sift the corn flour into the bowl and mix so that it is incorporated into the mixture
  • Pour the mixture into a lined cake tin and bake for 30-35 minutes
  • The cake should be lightly cooked on top but still a little loose (it will harden when cool)
  • Leave to cool completely before cutting, it is best left overnight

 

Hanami – cherry blossom viewing


DSC_1013Hanami 
here in Kanbayashi means sitting with your picnic under the cherry blossom and enjoying the scenery and food – with the place to yourself.

My previous experience of hanami in Akita and Aomori was quite different. It involved sitting on a tiny square of blue sheet, eating what I call ‘festival food’ (yakisoba, takoyaki, fried chicken, frankfurters…), drinking beer or sake well into the night, surrounded by many others doing the same. It is noisy, boisterous and lots of fun.

It was a spur of the moment thing when we decided to head down to Kyoto city and join the merriment in Maruyama park, the most well known spot for hanami. It was all that I remembered (except driving meant no sake…), full of university students and workers (and now tourists) all jostling for space under a canopy of sakura.

We had to negotiate space on reserved matting just near the famous illuminated weeping cherry. The students allowed us a small area and we got to observe them and their strange drinking games. (At one point they all stood in a circle and one by one had to shout out ‘camembert cheese’-?! Japanese students still appear far more innocent and naive than those back home).

The atmosphere was lively, the food pretty awful and it was fantastic to experience once more.