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.

Sakura – Cherry Blossom

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DSC_2152Literally on 1st April we awoke to the mountains speckled with white yamazakura, mountain cherry blossom. I don’t know if it is just because we are leaving and I am more mindful of taking in my surroundings, but the sakura this year has been more lovelier and more voluptuous than ever and it has been a joy to experience. Our local temple is well knowDSC_2247n for its weeping cherry trees and we went up several times to walk amongst the blossoms.

Sakura is deeply rooted in Japanese culture and is the national flower. I am often asked if we have cherry blossom in England and of course we do, along with plum and apple, but we don’t pay as much attention or revere it as the Japanese do. There are so many more cherry trees here that have been extensively planted along river banks, in parks, outside schools and other public buildings. Then, there is hanami, or flower viewing parties.

The trees flower for no more than two weeks and their ephemeral beauty brings mono no aware to mind, an awareness of impermanence and the transient nature of life. This is particularly pertinent for us as we pack our belongings, attend leaving parties and prepare to close this chapter of our life

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Beginnings and Endings

Japan is a country of ceremony, form and ritual  – and beginnings and endings. Everything from meals to school lessons to meetings have a formal opening and closing.

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Starting and leaving school is no different. At the end of last term I went to the 6th Grade Okurikai (sending off ceremony) at my son’s school. All families were expected to attend, even if your child was in a different grade. With only 8 students in the class (and the largest year group in the school) I imagine the numbers needed to be made up but, more than that, the school has a strong sense of place in the community so many  locals attend.

The event was over 3 hours long; fellow students performed plays about them, the teachers followed by the parents sang songs and read personal messages to each child. The 6th graders then sang and played several tunes, ending with powerful taiko drumming .

They left the hall to a final round of applause through an arch of flowers festooned with party poppers. At times it was intense, the students were asked to face the audience and say thank you to the parents and locals who’d attended, virtually all were sobbing, parents and members of the audience were also in tears…

Then, of course, they had a graduation ceremony as well. I attended the graduation at one of the schools I worked at. It was another formal and emotional affair with messages from students to their parents and vice versa, then the remaining children thanked them for their help and the many shared experiences, again lots of tears.

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You might think this was too much. In some ways I do, but with so many aspects of Japanese life, milestones are marked with much care and attention.  I sometimes wonder if these formal ceremonies provide an acceptable space for the often reticent Japanese to express their feelings and be emotional, when finished it is back to normal.

Starting school is equally important, new pupils dress up and attend an opening ceremony with their parents. Traditionally women would wear kimonos, but today suits are more common.

My daughter had her elementary school entrance ceremony last week. She is one of just 3 pupils in the first grade, combined with the 7 students starting Junior High (the two schools are combined) the event was for just 10 children. I counted over 30 local dignitaries and heads of organisations in attendance including the mayor of Ayabe. There were even 10 or so representatives from the construction company that recently completed work at the school.

It went on for an hour and a half, with many speeches. My daughter was required to stand, bow and sit numerous times throughout. Needless to say she didn’t enjoy the actual ceremony that much. But she did love the preparation, the dressing up and donning her yellow school cap and landoseru , the iconic leather rucksack used by Japanese elementary children.

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Photo credit: F Tanaka

I remember bits of my first day of school but don’t really remember leaving primary school at all.  I bet, however, these kids will never forget the beginning and ending of their school.

Kinome Dressing

Kinome are the young soft leaves of the Japanese herb prickly ash. The flavour is a fragrant mix of citrus, pepper and mint and the leaves are used as a garnish or in simmered dishes. I like to use kinome to make a fresh, zesty dressing.

The early shoots are just leafing now, in a month or so they’ll be a little prickly and more defined. The seed pods, sansho no mi, appear soon after and once dried are one of the spices used in shichimi, Japanese seven spice.

 

Kinome Dressing

Ingredients

  • 4 tbs kinome, finely chopped
  • 5 tbs (70ml) olive oil
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • salt and pepper

Method

  • Mix the oil, lemon and chopped kinome thoroughly, season to taste

Keeps for about a week in the fridge, although loses its lovely vibrant colour after a day

Kinome, Tomato and Tofu Salad

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Ingredients

  • 2 tbs kinome dressing
  • 4 ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 blocks of silken tofu*
  • 1/4 lettuce, washed and ripped in bite size pieces
  • 1/2 red onion, sliced
  • salt and pepper

Method

  • Arrange the lettuce on a serving plate
  • Gently cut the tofu into quarters and place on the lettuce
  • Mix the tomatoes with the dressing and pour over the tofu
  • Garnish with red onion slices and fresh kinome leaves
  • Check and adjust seasoning if needed

*Tofu is best left on a chopping board that is placed at a slight angle on the draining board for 30 minutes or so to expel water, otherwise it will seep into the salad.