Cooking Japanese at Home
Since moving to Japan, I have been trying to achieve a reasonable balance of familiar western-style cooking and exciting new Japanese recipes. I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you about some of our more successful attempts at cooking and eating Japanese food.
Okonomiyaki basically means “everything you like, fried”, which seems a pretty good start to a recipe as far as I’m concerned. I first had it at a small local restaurant where the tables have flat grill pans in the centre, and it was so simple and delicious that we decided to try it at home.
Okonomiyaki is like a large thick pancake, stuffed with cabbage and anything else you like: beansprouts, pork, prawns, octopus, mushrooms; the list goes on. I suppose it’s a bit like a cross between bubble and squeak and Spanish omelette.
(image from the fantastic Little Japan Mama:
In order to help make the batter correctly, we bought a (sort of) packet mix, and followed the instructions adding egg, milk and water until we had quite a runny consistency. We then mixed in half a shredded white cabbage and some beansprouts. Then we just fried it in a pan like you would any thick American-style pancake. Once the pancake had started to cook, we laid pieces of thinly sliced pork on the base of the pan and flipped the okonomiyaki onto the pork to cook altogether. If you like, you can serve a fried egg on top of your okonomiyaki.
The main difficulty of cooking this dish was getting the consistency of the batter correct. Too runny and it doesn’t hold together, too thick and it doesn’t cook through properly. Still, after a few practices, we managed to get it just about right.
We made a big round one each and served it with special okonomiyaki sauce. Delicious!
Yakitori is another food idea which we stole from small local bars. It is even more simple than okonomiyaki. In fact, it’s basically just Japanese kebabs on skewers. We bought some chicken marinated in chilli and peppercorns, and some thinly sliced pork. We split the pork into two and marinated half in yuzu-salt dressing and the other half in ponzu sauce. Both of these we were lucky enough to have picked up fresh on a weekend trip to Nasu in Tochigi prefecture.
Image from: http://www.justonecookbook.com/yakitori/
Once the meat had marinated for a while, we cut up negi (giant spring onions) and baby tomatoes and put everything on skewers. Then we simply cooked them in the oven.
We served the skewers with rice from the rice cooker, and washed it all down with a beer. Easy and delicious!
Although a lot of Japanese food is flavoured very simply, you can find a kind of curry particular to Japan that has a bit more flavour. It doesn’t have another name as far as I can gather, other than “curry”. If a restaurant does serve different kinds of curry, they are usually distinguished only by the type of meat: beef curry, chicken curry etc. Curry is served either with rice and meat, with tonkatsu (breaded, fried pork cutlet) or with udon.
At home, we made the curry sauce first by heating small dry blocks of curry paste in a pan with water until it turns into a nice thick sauce. We cut up onions, carrots and pork or beef to add to the curry and cook everything together. Udon noodles are cooked much like spaghetti, by simply adding them to boiling water for a few minutes (they don’t need long) and draining them when they’re ready. Once the udon is ready, we just add it to the curry and dish it up into bowls.
Used as we are to Chinese/Indian/UK curries, we made the curry sauce quite thick, but it’s probably easier to eat with noodles if you make the sauce a bit thinner. We ate ours using chopsticks and the deep spoons commonly used for eating noodles in Japan.
Marinated mackerel with rice and tempura
As I have mentioned in previous posts, rice and fish is overwhelmingly the staple here. Our favourite way to have this at home is to buy a couple of ready-marinated pieces of mackerel (saba) from the supermarket, wrap them in tin foil and bake them in the oven until they go melt-in-the-mouth soft and juicy and delicious. We usually just have the fish with plain rice from the rice cooker, and some nice easy veggies, like steamed cabbage or carrots and peas. To make things a bit more interesting, I also often buy one or two pieces of ready-made tempura veg from the supermarket, which we crisp up in the oven before eating. My favourites are tempura pumpkin, aubergine and shiso (a herby Japanese leaf).
Sometimes, we have cooked plain fish in a pan with soy, mirin and sugar, and sometimes ginger, which all reduces to an incredibly savoury, sticky glaze for the fish. It’s super easy, although I do prefer to cook fish in the oven rather than a pan; I just think the smell is so much harder to get rid of when you pan cook fish!
Home-made (sort of) Ramen
On evenings when we both go out after work for our various hobbies, we usually want something quick to cook when we get back. So far, we haven’t found anything as easy, quick or satisfying as ramen. Ramen is another type of noodles, a little thinner and softer than soba noodles, and made from wheat flour rather than buckwheat. In fact, ramen is considered a Chinese dish rather than Japanese, but it was here that I first had it, so I think it qualifies for this blog post!
To make things super easy, we start with a pack of instant ramen noodles, but usually discard the flavour pack. The noodles cook in about two minutes in boiling water. We add miso paste to flavour the broth, but I’ve also considered adding a chicken stock cube for a change. If we want the ramen spicy, we usually add a teaspoon of a red spicy paste called rayu, which is basically chillis in oil.
Once the noodles and broth are ready, we add various toppings. You can put anything you like on top of ramen, which is probably partly why it’s so popular. Our favourites are: soft boiled egg, cut in to two halves, sliced ham or thick bacon slices (sometimes grilled to crisp up the fat), beansprouts, sweetcorn, sliced spring onions, and cabbage. More conventional toppings include nori (dark green sheets of dried seaweed) and menma (fermented bamboo shoots), but honestly I’ve not yet been able to develop a liking for either of these, so I still leave them off.
So there you have it; five of our favourite easy ways to get Japanese food into our week night meal repertoire.