Okay. So. It’s time. I’ve been working up my courage to using Japanese ingredients for Japanese recipe purposes instead of using them in my previous fusion cooking recipes. As a cook, I’m proficient enough in Western style meal planning and trust myself not to burn the kitchen or apartment in the process. But when it comes to Asian cooking, particularly Japanese styled cooking, I feel so inadequate as a “chef” (actually I’m more of a baker by nature than a cook hence the quotation marks).
I used to make bentou all the time last time I was here: steamed vegetables, fried sausage, steamed rice, tamagoyaki, nasuyaki… you name it and if I could pack it in a box for lunch, I would and without a second thought. I even participated in Waseda’s Yataimura, a food festival the likes of which I have never seen since. The branch I chose with which to participate? The washoku theme that year (Sakamoto Ryoma was our spirit animal \O/). But when I returned to the States… first off, you can’t find the same level of freshness for ingredients, so already your taste is compromised. Secondly, I couldn’t always find the seasonings needed to pull off a dish. Even in California. Making home-made dashi was nearly impossible if my Asian supermarket didn’t happen to have a certain item or other on stock (I guess I could have bought pre-made dashi… but, yeah, I can be a bit of a foodie – I prefer to make it myself than out of a box). One culinary disaster after another and in the end, my wounded pride threw in the towel and hoisted the white flag of surrender. From there I devolved into a crippled shadow of my former self: the mere mention of anything -yaki would send me into an agitated sweat. Inevitably, over time it just became easier to eat out at a Japanese restaurant than to fuss over it at home.
Such is the life of a walking culinary disaster.
But now that I’m here again, or rather a bit further north and much closer to the food source, I plan on honing my skills once again… slowly but surely! Last night, I was planning on making miso glazed, fried tofu and either the Japanese cooking gods weren’t feeling like it was tofu night or else I may not have prepped it correctly. Tofu is surprisingly moist and does not fry well under those wet conditions. Thankfully, however, once I realized this wasn’t happening I was able to change gears entirely because my predecessor Michael had left me with what I believe to be a five year supply of noodles: entire boxes of soba, udon, and raamen.
Alrighty then! Soba night it would be!
Soba noodles are made of buckwheat and quite thin. In Japanese cuisine they can be served cold with the sauce apart or hot within their own broth, making them a natural choice as a summer- or winter-time favorite. Restaurants serve the cold variety on a little mat made of bamboo, called zaru, and is served with the dipping sauce (tsukejiru), green onion, fresh ginger and wasabi. It’s probably the cheapest kind you can find on the menu coming in at around ~500 to 550 yen but the varieties of soba are endless as flavorings can be added quite easily into the broth. My favorite kind is tensoba which is a combination of cold soba noodles on the zaru mat but with a bowl of tempura as well!
Note on noodle eating culture: one word… slurp! While impolite to slurp noodles in Western culture, it’s quite the opposite on this side of the pond. Slurping your noodles (be it raamen, udon, or soba) is considered good manners, which is one cultural norm I wish would take off in the States. Upon my return back in 2012, my first experience with culture shock (apart from the racial diversity) was eating at a restaurant and receiving many stares after slurping up my noodles. My mother was absolutely mortified and I never did it again… until now!
Anyone have a favorite cultural norm that might not go down very well in the States? Share in the comments below!
~COLD SOBA NOODLE RECIPE~
For the Traditional Soba:
1/2 of the packaged soba noodles
(Optional: Salt to taste)
1. Pour water into a pot and sprinkle with salt for light seasoning. Bring to a boil.
2. Add the soba noodles and boil for 5 minutes. Test the soba noodles; if not done, continue to boil until they soften.
3. Pour contents of pot through a colander and toss lightly to shake out excess water.
4. Serve on zaru mat for traditional look or just arrange nicely on a bowl like I did.
For the tsukejiru:
I followed this wonderful recipe by Makiko Itoh from Just Hungry and Just Bento. It calls for 1/2 cup of kaeshi and 1.5 cups dashi stock (either vegetarian or non-vegetarian). It will slow down your cooking process as you have to let it set for about an hour. The alternative is to purchase tsuyu or mentsuyu and water it down, which I’ve done as well and tastes just fine.
For the Non-Traditional Page One Adventures-styled nasuyaki:
This is non-traditional nasuyaki.
2-4 Japanese eggplants (the small and thin variety, not the bulbous European/American aubergine)
1/2 tbsp (or less as it is quite salty) of red miso paste (usually, please purchase the white miso, I bought red for soup and didn’t have white on hand for glaze)
1/2 tbsp of sesame or vegetable oil
1/4 cup of reduced sodium soy sauce (usukuchi)
1/4 cup of sugar
1 clove of garlic, coarsely chopped
Glaze prep: combine miso paste, soy sauce, oil, sugar, and garlic in a separate bowl
1. Wash and de-stem your selected amount of eggplants. Cut them lengthwise.
2. In a non-stick frying pan, heat the eggplants until they take on a somewhat roasted appearance (bruising but no complete browning).
3. At this point add the miso glaze sauce and continue to stir eggplants in frying pan. Heat to a boil (this will thicken the sauce). Make eggplants are well coated.
My glaze came out somewhat sweet with a salty after taste so red miso paste should definitely not be used (white is lower in sodium and has a better taste for glazing) but it’s all I had at the moment T.T
Normally the traditional method is to mix soy sauce, sugar, and mirin to make the sauce but as I didn’t want to waste the miso sauce I had originally made for my failed stir fry and I decided to use that. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how we learn from our mistakes!
For the Non-Traditional Page One Adventures-styled Roasted Kabocha:
Any desired amount of kabocha (Japanese Pumpkin, characterized by it’s sweet-tasting, orange flesh and vivid green outer shell)
Unsalted Butter for sauteing
Salt for very light seasoning
Prep: I bought the kabocha chunks from the supermarket, so all I had to do was wash them before use. If you purchase the entire kabocha, make sure to properly wash, cut lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds before continuing to chop into smaller squarish chunks.
1. Heat butter in frying pan. Once the pan has evenly heated, add the kabocha and season lightly as you saute them until just heated.
2. Place in oven, evenly spaced and check on them in five minutes.
3. Kabocha slices should look somewhat browned on the outside or test them with a toothpick. If the toothpick slides in and out easily that means they are done.