Ingredients, dishes and drinks from Japan by Ad Blankestijn

Sunday, July 31, 2011


A brown seaweed with a finer leaf structure than konbu and wakame. ひじき。Hizikia fusiforme.

Hijiki is cultivated and sold cut and dried. When boiled before drying the color becomes a rich black. Despite its spiky looks, it is quite soft.

[Hijiki no nimono. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Hijiki is very nutritious. Contains lots of iron, calcium and dietary fibers (40%).

  • Hijiki-mame, soybeans with hijiki sauteed in oil with soy and suga
  • Hijiki no nimono, simmered seaweed with vegetables (for example, carrot, konnyaku and aburage)
  • Hijiki salad
  • Hijiki-gohan, rice mixed with hijiki and some vegetables

Goya chanpuru

Stir fry dish containing bitter gourd. ゴーヤーチャンプルー

Chanpuru (the last "u" is long) is a form of popular Okinawan stir fry dish, generally containing vegetables, tofu, and some kind of meat or fish. Chanpuru is Okinawan for "something mixed."

Goya Champuru
[Goya Champuru. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Champuru now has spread to mainland Japan as well - and not only in the numerous Okinawan restaurants.

Goya champuru is the quintessential chanpuru, a mixture of bitter gourd (goya), other vegetables, tofu, and thinly sliced pork.


Bitter melon or bitter gourd. (Momordica charantia) ゴーヤー.

My favorite Okinawan vegetable is the goya, a very bitter gourd that looks like a grotesque, extra knobbly cucumber.

[Sliced goya. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Goya can be eaten in salads, made into tempura, but the most common way is to use it in a stir-fried dish called goya-champuru. What is bitter, is good for you, so goya is thought to be the secret behind the Okinawans’ famous longevity.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Hata (Striped grouper)

Hata. Striped grouper (Epinephelus septemfasciatus). ハタ、羽太。

Size varies from 15 cm to more than 2 meters. Groupers have a stout body and large mouth and are not made for long-distance swimming.

[Picture from Fishbase]

Likes to suck in its prey and swallow it whole instead of biting pieces off it. Feeds on other fish, crabs, octopus and lobster. Occurs near shore, such as rocky reefs in shallow waters. Commercially cultured in Japan. Best in early summer. Ma-hata grows to 90 cm and is eaten as sashimi and grilled with salt. Even more tasty is kiji-hata, which only grows to 40 cm - the meat of this fish is pinkish and highly prized.


Matsutake fungus. (Tricholoma matsutake, "pine mushroom"). Also called "mattake." 松茸.

The "King of Mushrooms," both fragrant and delicious... if you can afford it, because this gourmet mushroom really breaks the bank. One mushroom can sell for hundreds of dollars. It is popular as a corporate gift.

[Photo from Wikipedia]

Matsutake has the fragrance of the red pine woods where it grows - only in the wild as commercial cultivation is still impossible. Its season is limited to a few weeks in autumn. It has a thick, meaty stem and is best before the caps opens. Its color is dark brown.

In Japan itself, native supply is insufficient and most matsutake now come from China, Korea, the U.S. or Canada or other countries.

Matsutake is one of the most sought after delicacies. It seems to be prized in the first place for its fragrance.

It is often served in a dobin, a small teapot in which the mushroom has been steamed (dobinmushi). You enjoy the aroma, drink the juice from a small cup and finally eat the mushroom. Matsutake can also be grilled or eaten in rice as matsutake gohan (understandably, if you buy this in the supermarket the slices of matsutake or so minimal that there is no fragrance or taste at all).


Tea over rice. 茶漬け.

Bowl of rice topped with ingredients over which green tea (o-cha) has been poured. Depending on the ingredients, there are many varieties:
  • Sake chazuke, with salted salmon
  • Tai chazuke, with sea bream
  • Nori chazuke, with dried seaweed
  • Umeboshi chazuke, with a pickled plum
  • Maguro chazuke, with tuna
  • Mentaiko chazuke, with spicy pollock roe.
A dab of green horseradish will be served on the side to mix into the broth of you like. Also served with pickles.

Light dish eaten after drinking or as late night supper. Also popular in izakaya.

[Chazuke with umeboshi and shredded shiso leaves. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Tempura Teishoku

Set of deep fried foods served with a bowl of rice, miso soup and pickles. 天ぷら定食.

Some of the following types of tempura are usually included:

  • shrimp or prawns
  • piece of white fish
  • piece of squid
  • eggpant
  • Nori square
  • leaf of beefsteak plant
  • green pepper
[Photo Wikipedia]

On the side a thin dip sauce is served, to which grated radish can be added. Eat the tempura after dipping in this sauce.


Bowl of rice topped with tempura. 天丼。

"Tempura donburi." Donburi is a large bowl of rice with various ingredients served on top.

Here that is the popular tempura, deep-fried pieces of battered seafood or vegetables. As tempura, usually two large shrimps are selected, possibly with the addition of some smaller items as nori or peppers. The shrimps have been dipped in soy sauce and are not as fresh as in the case of Tempura Teishoku.

Some of the broth is poured over the rice. Pickles are served on the side.

[Photo by Ad Blankestijn]

For further reading:
Kyoto Foodie and a tendon experience at Tenshu, Kyoto

Kare-udon (Curry udon)

Udon noodles in curry sauce. カレーうどん。

An interesting and delicious "fusion" dish where Japanese udon noodles are served in a curry soup. The curry soup can be made with curry roux or from left-over curry.

Curry udon
[Photo Ad Blankestijn]

It is a good idea to add some dashi to make it thinner in that case. Another way is to use curry powder and add flour or starch to make the soup thicker.

As regards which ingredients to add, there is a lot of freedom here: onions and green spring onions are staples, meat in the form of small slices of beef or chicken is optional. In the example here, Chinese cabbage and "gobo-maki" have been added. Gobo-maki are rolls of fish paste with a piece of burdock in the center. Curry udon is an excellent example of a combination of two popular dishes!

Umeboshi (pickled plum)

Pickled Plum. 梅干、うめぼし

"An umeboshi a day keeps the doctor away."

Although generally called "plums", ume (Prunus Mume) are in fact something between a plum and an apricot (but we will keep up the plum tradition). The bets name would in fact be "ume."

The plums are plucked before they are completely ripe.

While still green, ume are harvested and cured with sea salt for several months. The result: an extremely sour mouthful!

[Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Umeboshi are usually colored red with red shiso leaves, a natural method. The best (and largest) plums come from Nanko in Wakayama Prefecture. Nowadays, you find umeboshi with various additional flavorings as honey or even wine or mango.

Umeboshi are eaten as pickles on rice. A bento consisting only of rice and a red plum was called "Hinomaru (Japanese flag) Bento."

Kayu (rice gruel) is also usual served with a pickled plum.

My start of the day consists of a cup of bitter green tea with one or two umeboshi on the side - I eat them with chopsticks, but other people put them in the tea. This is an excellent way to wake up, and also considered as healthy as the umeboshi cleans the body.


Fried noodles. やきそば。

Despite the name, these are not soba or buckwheat noodles, but ramen-style noodles, made from wheat flour, salt, water and kansui (alkaline mineral water).

The noodles are stir-fried on an iron plate with slivers of pork or seafood and vegetables (usually cabbage, carrots and onions, but there is a lot of variation possible). The yakisoba can be flavored with yakisoba sauce, and in that case it is called sosu yakisoba. Garnishes are usually aonori (green seaweed powder), beni-shoga (pickled ginger) and sometimes also katsuobushi (bonito flakes).

Yakisoba is a very popular dish, often made at home, but also available in canteens, okonomiyaki restaurants, izakaya and street stalls during festivals.

Due the its popularity, yakisoba is also sold in instant form in Japanese supermarkets and convenience stores, such as long time favorite Sapporo Ichiban. You have to add vegetables and meat yourself. A complete instant meal is offered by Nisshin's UFO, sold in a container to which only hot water has to be added.

Surprisingly, yakisoba is also eaten on buns as yakisoba-pan - these are again available in convenience stores. And, I hasten to add, they are surprisingly delicious as well. Yakisoba is also added to okonomiyaki "Hiroshima-style" and to Osaka's variant of these, modan-yaki.

[Yakisoba by Ad Blankestijn]

Yakisoba recipes

Hayashi Raisu

Hashed-beef on rice. ハヤシライス

A variation on "hashed beef," from which the name probably also derives. Popular Yoshoku rice dish, eaten with a spoon from a plate.

A stew containing thin slices of beef, sliced onions and carrots is poured over rice, as is the case with curry rice. The gravy is a thick demi-glace sauce consisting of Japanese Worcester sauce, soy sauce and tomato ketchup.

Other theories about the name suggest that it was named after its inventor Mr Hayashi, the first president of Maruzen, which also operated an early Yoshoku restaurant and still has hayashi rice on the menu today.

Now a common dish, also in home cooking, just like curry rice.

Hayashi Rice
[Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Usuta Sosu

Japanese Worcester(shire) Sauce. ウスターソース

Often simply known as sosu or "sauce." Made from apple and tomato puree, with the addition of sugar, salt, spices and caramel.

Goes back to the original Worcestershire sauce first made by Lea and Perrins in 1837, which was brought to Japan in the second half of the 19th c. Despite that, usuta sosu bears only moderate resemblance to authentic Worcestershire sauce - the major difference being that the Japanese sauce is much milder.
Staple table sauce since the 1950s.

There are many different flavors and thickness of the sauce also varies. Variants have been developed for special foods as tonkatsu and okonomiyaki. Other uses are for croquette (korokke), takoyaki, yakisoba, monja-yaki and yaki-udon.
There are more than 25 manufacturers, including Kikkoman, Bulldog Sauce, Union Sauce, Kagome and Oliver Sauce.

Kushikatsu sauce
[Photo Ad Blankestijn]


Shiitake mushroom (Lentinus edodes). しいたけ、椎茸.

The best known of Japanese fungi. Can easily be preserved by drying. Extensively cultivated.

Named after a tree called "shii," the chestnut-oak (Pasania cuspidata), plus "take," "mushroom; shiitake are cultivated in spring and autumn by inoculating the logs of this tree.

Native to China and Japan. The second most cultivated mushroom in the world. Packed with health-promoting qualities.

Fresh shiitake are dark brown. The mushroom is best when the velvety caps are still a bit curled under. Shiitake have a distinctive, "woodsy" flavor. They are full of amino acids and thus, umami. Shiitake add depth and flavor to every dish.

Inner meat is beige. When the caps are used whole, often a decorative cross is carved into them. Large caps can also be cut in half. Chopped into small pieces for use in soups.

Fresh shiitake is eaten as tempura, in hotpot dishes, but also as-is, just lightly salted or brushed with oil and then grilled. The dried ones are in the first place used for making stock - vegetarian stock can be made by adding them to kelp instead of katsuobushi. Usually, only the caps are eaten - the stems are used for stews or stock.

[Photo Ad Blankestijn]


Spaghetti Napolitan

Spaghetti "Napolitan". スパゲティナポリタン。

Spaghetti Napolitan is a purely Japanese dish, despite the exotic name. It is one of the most popular Japanese-Western dishes in Japan and an old-timer on canteen menus as well. Napolitan was invented in the years after WWII by the chef of a hotel in Yokohama after seeing the spaghetti eaten by the American occupation army. Ingredients are ketchup or a tomato-based sauce, onion, mushrooms, ham or bacon, Wiener sausages and green peppers. The dish on the photo has been sprinkled with seaweed flakes (aonori) to make it even more Japanese, but cheese is often used as well!

Spaghetti Napolitan
[Photo Ad Blankestijn]

The dish is called "Napolitan" as tomato sauce is rumored to come from that city. The dish is also easy to make at home. Soft spaghetti with tomato ketchup would give an Italian a big shock, but even though there are now many authentic Italian restaurants in Japan, the Japanese keep eating their Napolitan - it is sold as bento in all convenience stores all over the country!

More information:
Just Hungry

Takoyaki (Octopus balls)

Octopus balls. たこ焼き。

Litrally "Fried Octopus." Balls of batter, about 3 cm in diameter, with a small piece of boiled octopus inside. Sometimes tempura scraps, pickled ginger and green onion are also used. As toppings okonomiyaki sauce, bonito flakes and shredded green seaweed are used.

Takoyaki are baked on a hot iron plate with indentations in the form of the balls. When the underside has been fried, they are quickly turned around. Eaten with a tooth pick.

Takoyaki originated in Osaka with Aizuya in 1935. Now, they are not only eaten in Osaka but all over Japan. They are sold from street stalls, but there are also specialist shops. They can also be made at home with a takoyaki pan.

[Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Excellent Japan Times article
Osaka foods
Osaka's Food Culture


Bite-sized, battered and deep-fried foods served on bamboo skewers (a sort of Japanese kebap). 串かつ。

 A popular Osaka dish. Reputedly developed there as an easier way to eat deep-fried pork cutlets. But now as ingredients anything that can be skewered can in fact be used. Popular are chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, squid, fried fish, shiitake, eggplant, asparagus, potato, sweet potato, lotus root and so on.

[Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Before eating the skewer can be dipped in a thick sauce (based on Japanese Worcester cause). As other people use the same dip sauce, you are only allowed to dip once, before taking the first bite from your skewer. Sometimes cabbage leaves are eaten with the skewers.

There are special kushikatsu restaurants, but the dish is also available in izakaya and sometimes sold from street stalls.

[Photo Ad Blankestijn]


Japanese mandarin (Citrus unshiu). みかん、蜜柑。

Officially called Onshu mikan ("Honey citrus of Wenzhou") or Satsuma (after one of the main production areas in southern Kyushu). Different from "our" mandarin oranges (clementines, tangerines), which in Japan are called ponkan (Citrus reticulata). Wenzhou in China was famous for its mikan, but the name seems to have been added in the Meiji-period more for literary reasons to the Japanese mikan than to indicate a real link with Wenzhou.

There was, however, a link with China. The mikan orginates in S.E. Asia and came to Japan via China. In the 16th c. we find the Kishu mikan in Wakayama, an area which had trade relations with China. This type contains seeds and has since been superseded by the Onshu mikan. The Onshu mikan was found in the early 17th c. in Nagashima in Kagoshima Prefecture ("Satsuma"), a domain which had trade relations with China via the Ryukyu islands (Okinawa). Samurai were not interested in mikan growing so it lasted until the late 19th century until mikan started to be grown in earnest - and then it took off with a vengeance.

[Photo by Ad Blankestijn]

Mikan are seedless and easy to peel as skin is lightly attached. Flesh is delicate and sweet. The fruit is soft and therefore easily bruised. It is the archetypal winter fruit (the first mikan appear in early October). Reminds Japanese of the kotatsu! Consumed in vast quantities. Three or four mikan a day provide all the necessary Vitamin C. Keep in a cool place but not in the refrigerator.

The mikan is very cold-tolerant and it is interesting when hiking through the fields in winter in Japan to see trees loaded with these small oranges!

Most important production centers: Wakayama (185,400 tonnes, 17% of total); Ehime (168,300 tonnes, 16% of total); and Shizuoka (146,200 tonnes, 14% of total). The mikan used to be Japan's most popular (and most consumed) fruit, but has in recent years sadly been superseded by the banana.

Japanese Wikipedia

Saba sushi (Mackerel sushi)

Sushi topped with mackerel. さば寿司。

Saba sushi are delicious and these days available in all the better supermarkets. They belong to the category of bo-zushi or "stick sushi" where the ingredients are wrapped around the sushi rice (although in the case of mackerel, the fish stays more on top than being wrapped). In that sense they are the antithesis of maki-zushi or "roll sushi" where ingredients are rolled inside the sushi rice.

The mackerel is vinegared and usually a strip of kelp is added. Mackerel is available from September until January.

Saba sushi
[Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Saba-zushi is a typical Kyoto dish. Kyoto lies inland, but mackerel was brought here over the so-called Saba Kaido, the "Mackerel Highway" between Kyoto and the fishing port of Obama in Fukui.

The mackerel was transported at night over the 75-kilometer long road, in order to arrive in Kyoto in the morning. The Saba Kaido ended in Kyoto's Demachiyanagi.


Big bowl of rice with pork cutlet. カツどん。

One of the popular “donburi” dishes. The main ingredient in katsudon is “tonkatsu,” a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet. This is sliced and the slices are simmered for a short time with onions in a special sauce, after which an egg is beaten over it and the whole is poured over the rice. The sauce is made from soy sauce with the addition of dashi, sake and mirin. A very popular dish in Japan. It was invented in 1923 by a Japanese high-school student (or so it is rumored).

[Photo by Ad Blankestijn]


Stir-fried Chinese thin rice noodles. ビーフン。

Also known as "rice vermicelli" or "rice pasta."

Originated in Fujian Province in southern China. Made from rice flour. Usually sold in dried form.

In Japan eaten as fried noodles mixed with vegetables and small pieces of meat. Popular izakaya food.

[Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Momo (peaches)

Peach. もも.

Momo or peaches come from China but have been known in Japan since olden times. In japanese mythology Izanagi, when fleeing from the Underworld and persecuted by his dead wife and various monsters, throws peaches at his persecutors. Peaches were believed to work against bad influences and ward off evil. And then we of course also have the cute Peach Boy from Japanese legend, who drives away the monsters from their island.

Peaches (Momo)
[Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Although peaches were long known in Japan, modern cultivation started in the late Edo period. Now the most active prefectures are Fukushima, Yamanashi, Nagano, Okayama (the home of Peach Boy) and Yamagata. Peaches are for sale in July and August and form a welcome refreshment in the hot summer.

Suika (watermelon)

Watermelon すいか。

The no. 1 summer fruit and symbol of summer itself is the suika, the watermelon. Watermelon is said to be good against summer fatigue and is full of refreshing juices. The rugby ball-sized fruit arrived around 1640 in Japan, via China, from Africa where it originates.

Food & sake
[Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Cultivation started in earnest around 1920 and although it can be grown from Okinawa to Hokkaido, major "suika" prefectures are Kumamoto, Chiba, Ibaraki and Yamagata. You will find it in shops from late June through August. Greengrocers sell whole watermelons, but supermarkets offer them in quarters or even smaller sizes.

Budo (Japanese grapes)

Grapes. ぶどう

Japanese grapes are a true summer treat. Japanese table grapes are seedless and have thin skins, as elsewhere in the world, but their major characteristics are the small size (usually, table grapes are rather large) and pleasant sweetness.

Budo, Japanese grapes

These are of the type called Delaware in Japan. The grapes are almost bright red and perfectly round in form. In Japan, grapes are mainly grown in Yamanashi, Okayama, Yamagata and Nagano. August and September are the best months to buy them.

Kanitama (Chinese omelet)

Omelet filled with crab, leek slices, bamboo shoot slices and mushroom slices. かに玉。

The omelet is sometimes covered with a thick sauce seasoned with sugar and soy sauce. This is the Japanese (Chuka) version of Egg Fu Yong, the Chinese dish where any leftovers from fish or meat can be added to the omelette.

Real crab is, however, rare. You usually find crabstick (imitation "crab" made from fishcake).

[Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Nashi, Japanese pear

Japanese pears are great - they look like apples and have all the crispness of that fruit (not the unpleasant softness of Western pears - which by the are called yonashi), but when you bite in it the surprise is that you get the taste and juiciness of a pear!

Nashi, Japanese pear
[Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Japanese pears can be brown or green or of the variety called nijisseiki. Pears are grown in Chiba, Tottori, Nagano, Ibaraki and Fukushima. Available from mid-summer through autumn, they provide refreshment in the hot weather.

Katsuo no tataki, seared bonito fillets

Seared bonito filets. かつおのたたき。

Katsuo is the large fish (bonito or skipjack) that is dried, smoked and mold-cured to become as hard as a piece of wood so that its shavings can grace your soup, hiyayakko and other dishes.
But the fish is also delicious on its own. It is caught in summer near Hokkaido and in autumn in the waters off southern Japan, so it is now in season.

[Katsuo no tataki, without the garnishing to show the meatiness of this fish]

Although it is also good as teriyaki, one of the most common uses is tataki ("Katsuo no tataki"), which means that the sashimi fillets of the fish are briefly grilled, leaving the inside raw. This searing is done in the direct manner to bring out the flavor of the fat under the skin. In the past this was even done by placing the fillet into burning straw, says Shizuo Tsuji in Japanese Cooking, A Simple Art. Now, of course, more modern methods are used. Afterward, the fillets are dipped in ice to cool off.

Anyway, the katsuo fillets combine a smoky flavor with the surprising tenderness of the rare center.

It is garnished with onions and shiso, and eaten with a dip sauce of soy sauce, ponzu and grated ginger.

Hosking, the author of A Dictionary of Japanese Food, rightly remarks that the taste is very similar to beef.

The sake to go with this dish? I had a cold unpasteurized junmai sake by Kozutsumi (Hyogo Prefecture) which fit like a glove. In general I would advise junmai sake as this offsets the oiliness of the katsuo meat. And as the dish is eaten cold, I would also drink cold sake, so an unpasteurized junmai of not too light a character should generally fit the bill.


Fukujinzuke, a pickle (tsukemono) of seven kinds of vegetables (as there are “Seven Deites of Good Fortune,” fukujin), the fixed companion of curry dishes. Pickled in soy sauce and mirin. Has a crunchy texture. Vegetables used are daikon, eggplant, cucumber, etc. The number seven is more symbolical than real. One of the most populat pickles in the Japanese cuisine.


Invented in 1672 by Ryo-o Dokaku, a priest of the Obaku Zen-sect, who put this on the menu of students living in Kaneiji in Edo and who originally used the leftovers of vegetables as daikon, cucumber etc., drying them and cutting them very small.

In the Meiji-period the dish was picked up by a popular tsukemono shop near Shinobazu Pond in Ueno. As this was a lucky place thanks to the Benten Hall, and as you needed no other vegetables with your rice anymore so that you could save money, the pickles were called "Seven Deities of Good Fortune," as they would make you rich - or so goes one explanation.

At the end of or just after the Meiji-period, NYK started serving the pickle together with curry on its European passenger lines, and so the fixed combination with curry was born.


Maitake ("dancing mushroom") is one of the major culinary mushrooms in Japan (Grifola frondosa). Its Japanese name goes back to the fact that people who found this precious mushroom used to dance for joy. In English it is also known as "Hen of the Woods" because a clump of maitake looks a bit like the fluffed-up feathers of a hen. 

[Maitake. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

An autumn fungus, maitake grows in clusters on the base of oak, beech or chestnut trees. It is a parasite of the tree, from which it gets its nutrients, but it does not harm the tree and tends to grow every year in the same spot. Maitake have characteristic gray-brown, wavy caps, which form large clusters of rosettes. The caps are 2 to 10 cm, the clusters can be 15 to 60 cm broad. It is not unusual for the whole maitake to weigh 4 or 5 kilos.

The flesh of maitake is firm and white and has a mild taste. In Japan it is used in rice dishes (maitake gohan, rice with maitake), soups and simmered dishes.

Maitake was originally harvested from the wild, but since in 1979 cultivation techniques were developed, it is now grown by inoculating the mycelium into plastic bags filled with sawdust. After the mycelium runs out of food an opening is made in the bag so that the fruiting body can form.

Maitake has been an ingredient in Chinese and Japanese medicine for centuries and is said to have many health benefits.

Grifola frondosa, the Hen of the Woods.

Anko (Anglerfish)

Anko. Blackmouth anglerfish (Lophiomus setigerus).

Grows from 1 to 1.5 meter. One of the most fearsomely looking and ugly fishes in existence. Called "anglerfish" because the first ray of its spinous dorsal sticks out of the head like a line and bait, a device for attracting prey to the wide mouth. Head extremely big, mouth filled with large and sharp teeth. As the body is very soft, anko is not cut on a cutting board, but hanging down.
Found on sandy mud bottom. Feeds on other fishes, octopus and squid.

[Photo Wikipedia]

From Hokkaido to Japan's southern prefectures.

Best in winter. Despite its appearance, this fish tastes excellent!

Anko is best in winter when it is often eaten as anko nabe (hotpot) after simmering in a sauce of soy and mirin. The liver (an-kimo) is especially sought after (it is one of the chinmi, special delicacies of Japan) and many people think it tastes even better than foie gras. Mito in Ibaraki is known for its anko cuisine.

Anago (Conger Eel)

Conger eel (Conger myriaster). アナゴ、穴子。

Also called "Japanese conger." Usually 35-50 cm, but can grow up to 1 meter in length. Looks like an ordinary eel. Has conspicuous white dots along its body.

The name means "child of the hole," because these eels like to bury themselves in the sandy sea bottom with only their heads jutting out, or hide in dark crevices. Found in waters around Japan, Korea and in the East China Sea. Best from June to August ("Rainy Season delicacy").

Delicious as a topping on sushi (often after being boiled in seasoned stock, but anago is also eaten raw) or as tempura. Melts in the mouth with a savory sweetness. One of the favorite ingredients of sushi chefs. Conger eel is less oily than unagi. Kuro-anago, a black variety, grows up to one meter and is mainly used in kamaboko fish paste. Now that unagi (eel) is getting scarce and very expensive, anago is a good replacement.

Tempura of Anago, Conger eel

[Tempura of Conger eel]

Aji (Japanese Horse Mackerel)

Aji or Ma-aji. Japanese horse mackerel (Trachurus japonicus). Also called "Japanese jack mackerel."

Can grow to 40 cm, but usually smaller, 13-17 cm. Large eyes, projecting lower jaw, curved lateral line of hard scales. Tail in V-form. Fast swimmer. Lives both near bottom, in midwaters and near the surface. Feeds on crustaceans, shrimps and small fishes.

Found in waters around Japan, Korea and in the East and South China Seas.

May to September, best in summer, when the fat content is highest thanks to the spawning season.

A favorite on Japanese menus since the Nara Period and still going strong - aji is popular and inexpensive. Not for nothing is the name "aji" a homonym for "taste." The character with which it is written combines the formal character for "three" with "fish," indicating that it was traditionally caught in the third month (May in the modern calendar). Aji has delicious, oily flesh with lots of DHA and amino acids. Can be served in a wide variety of ways: on sushi (either fresh or marinated in vinegar and salt), as sashimi, tataki, grilled, deep fried, or (the smaller fish) marinated.

Friday, July 29, 2011


Grilled eel (kabayaki) on a bowl of rice. うな丼。

Unadon (Unagi donburi)
[Unadon. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

The rich terayaki sauce in which the eel has been broiled, is poured over the rice, giving a delicious taste to the whole dish. One of the most popular donburi dishes. Usually eaten with a clear soup on the side.


Eel. うなぎ、鰻。(Anguilla japonica)

Japanese eel is born in the sea (somewhere around the Philippines) and then migrates to rivers and lakes throughout Japan. It grows to about 50 cm in length. It is also extensively cultivated, a well-known center is Lake Hamanoko in Shizuoka. Nowadays, most eel is cultivated in China.

Unagi is a popular food in Japan and it never sells so well as during the hottest period of summer, as it is believed to give lots of stamina to bodies freaked out by the heat. Eel has a high-energy nutritional value. In the traditional calendar, that hottest period is called doyo, meaning the eighteen days before Risshu, the start of autumn. In this period, the day of the Ox (ushi no hi, also a designation from the traditional calendar) forms the peak of eel consumption, as it starts with an U sound, just like Unagi. That smacks of superstition, but in fact was a clever commercial trick: the Edo-period physicist Hiraga Gennai apparently started this custom to help a particular eel restaurant boost its flagging sales.But he was working well within the Japanese tradition: already the 8th c. Manyoshu poetry collection contains praise of the eel as wholesome summer food.

[Unagi (kabayaki). This eel is from Shimantogawa, Kochi, in Japan. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

In the past, eel was grilled on skewers. Nowadays, the charcoal grill is the most popular. The eel is filleted, skewered, grilled and dipped in a heavy sweet terayaki sauce. This way of grilling is called kabayaki. The thick sauce becomes a sort of aromatic, brown glaze, and the eel, dripping with fat, is tender and succulent. It is eaten with a dash of sansho, Japanese aromatic pepper.

There are two differences in eel cooking between East Japan (Kanto) and West Japan (Kansai). In the Kanto the eel is sliced down the back (the belly reminded people in the samurai town of Edo too much of harakiri) and down the belly in Kansai (Osaka was a merchant town). In the Kanto, the broiled fillets are steamed to make the meat more tender, and then returned to the grill, but in the Kansai the steaming process is skipped resulting in a richer taste.

Here are some unagi terms:

  • kabayaki: broiled eel
  • unadon: kabayaki served on a bowl of rice, with sauce
  • unaju: kabayaki on a bed of rice (often in a lacquered box)
  • kimosui: clear soup containing the liver (kimo) of the eel
  • kimoyaki: appetizer of the grilled liver of the eel
  • yawatamaki: eel wrapped around burdock (gobo) and broiled
  • unazushi: unagi used as a topping for sushi. In the past, the leaner anago (conger eel) was more popular

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Yaki Anagozushi

Sushi with a topping of grilled conger eel. 焼きあなご寿司。

Anago is the conger eel, a replacement of unagi now that ordinary eel is getting scarce (and expensive). Anago reaches its peak from June and is a delicacy of the rainy season.

Yaki-anago Oshizushi
[Yaki Anagozushi. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Simmered anago as a sushi topping is a staple of Edomae sushi. But here we have lightly fried anago (yaki-anago) and the sushi is typical for the Osaka region: "oshizushi" or sushi pressed in a wooden box.

Anago is less fat than unagi, but when simmered, the savory fatty elements float to the surface. It is topped with the hearty sweet sauce in which it was simmered. No soy sauce dip is needed.


Pouches of abura-age (fried tofu) boiled in a sweet sauce stuffed with seasoned rice. いなりずし。

In folklore, the Fox Deity loves abura-age, therefore these sushi are called "Inari" or "Fox Deity."  (You will find this deity's most famous shrine in Fushimi in Kyoto). The rice is usually plain sushi rice, but can also be another type of seasoned rice. The result is simple, but surprisingly moist and hearty. Inarizushi were first made in the middle of the 19th c.

[Inarizushi. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Inarizushi are not available in a sushi shop, but plentiful in supermarkets and convenience stores. They are also often a side dish in soba and udon restaurants. Inarizushi are also easy to make at home - you can buy the abura-age pouches in the supermarket.

Inarizushi are good as a snack in-between meals, but also easy to combine with other foods. They help the appetite and are easy to digest.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Buta no Shogayaki

Sauteed ginger pork. ぶたのしょうが焼き。

Pork (buta) slices marinated in a sauce containing ginger (shoga) and then fried. The ginger helps remove the oil and any unpleasant smell. Shoga also improves the appetite. This pork dish is typical Japanese home cooking. It is usually accompanied by rice and miso soup as in the picture. In the picture you also see some macaroni salad with egg and sauteed moyashi. The pork is covered by sauteed onion slices as well.

Shogayaki Buta
[Buta no Shogayaki. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Here is a recipe. Outside of japan, it is often difficult to find the right thinly sliced pork.

Monday, July 25, 2011


Cold soba served on a colander.  ざるそば、笊そば

A "zaru"  is a colander, originally made from bamboo, but nowadays more often plastic. The soba (buckwheat) noodles are boiled a la dente and then served cold on a draining mat on such a colander.


The dipping sauce (tsukejiru) is based on kaeshi (a mixture of soy sauce, tamari and sugar, that is matured for a week in the refrigerator) with the addition of ichiban dashi (first stock) and katsuobushi (dried bonito fish flakes).  Negi (finely chopped welsh onions) are also added, always at the table. One can also add daikon-oroshi (as in the picture). In the picture shredded nori and goma (sesame seed) have been sprinkled over the soba.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


Arame, a species of kelp (Eisenia bicyclis). アラメ。

A sea vegetable that grows in deep waters. Milder tasting than hijiki, which it resembles. Can be cooked with vegetables or added to salads.

[Image from Wikipedia]

Usually purchased in a dried state, it is reconstituted quickly. Arame comes in dark brown strands, has a mild, semi-sweet flavor, and a firm texture.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


mioga (Zingiber mioga). "Japanese ginger." Small young bud of a mountain plant, a member if the ginger family.

In contrast to ginger, only the buds and stem are used. Mioga has a delicate fragrance and is not hot like ginger. The buds are thinly sliced and used as a garnish in soups (miso for example), sunomono, sashimi and certain dishes. Buds and stems can also be made into vinegar pickles.

[Myoga. Photo Ad Blankestijn}

Myoga is grown in Gunma, Kochi and Akita.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Dried, smoked and fermented bonito (also called skipjack tuna, katsuwonus pelamis; in Japanese: katsuo). 鰹節.

Shaved katsuobushi (kezuribushi) and dried kelp (konbu) are the main ingredients of dashi, the stock that forms the basis of the Japanese cuisine and enhances the umami of all soups, sauces and dishes in which it is used. The distinct umami flavor of katsuobushi comes from its high inosinic acid content. Katsuobushi is rich in vitamins, minerals and proteins and has been used as a stock base in Japan since the 8th c.

[Block of katsuobushi, hard as wood. Photo from Wikipedia]

The traditional production process is as follows:
  1. Namakiri (Cutting the raw fish, 生切り). The fish is cleaned by removing the innards and head and filleted into three pieces.
  2. Kamatate (Boiling, 釜立て). The fish are put into a basket and simmered (if the water boils to hard, the fish will be damaged) for about 100 minutes in a cauldron. The broth of this process can be used as a condiment.
  3. Honenuki (Removing the bones, 骨抜き). After cooling down, the bones are removed and the fins shaved off. Excess fat may also be removed. After this stage, the fillets are called namaribushi 生利節 (or namabushi 生節) and can be used as ingredients - but they are not yet katsuobushi!
  4. Baikan (Smoking and drying, 焙乾). Only the undamaged fillets are used (the rest is used for surimi production). The fillets are smoked and dried. Oak or pasania wood is used. Six-hour smoking sessions alternate with day-long rest periods to allow the fillets to dry, and this cycle may be repeated up to fifteen times. The tar from the smoke is carefully cleaned off the surface of the fillets. When this process has been half completed, the fillets are called satsumabushi さつま節. After this process of smoking and drying has been completed, they are called arabushi 荒節. In fact, as the next process is time-consuming and expensive, the hanakatsuo 花かつお shavings (also called katsuokezuribushi 鰹削り節) sold in bags in supermarkets are all of arabushi quality. In other words, this means that most katsuobushi used today is of arabushi quality - the real thing that in addition has undergone the treatment described at point 5 below is only used in top quality restaurants. Arabushi is however seen as a good value substitute. Producing satsumabushi requires about one week and arabushi about one month. 
  5. Tenpiboshi / kabitsuke (Sun drying and injection with mold, 天日干し・カビ付け). After cleaning the fillets, they are sun dried, and after that sprayed with the mold Aspergillus glaucus and left for two weeks in a closed cultivation room. In the warm environment the mold grows. Thanks to the mold, the proteins in the fillets are  broken down and the umami element inosinic acid and vitamins are formed. The mold is continually scraped off and the cycle is repeated. After this has been done five to six times, the fillets loose all their moisture and become as hard as pieces of wood. They now retain only 20% of their original weight. Only fillets that have been treated in this manner may officially be referred to as katsuobushi. After repeating the process of mold growth and sun-drying at least twice, the end product is called karebushi (枯節, "dried fillet"); and after this process has been repeated at least thrice the exclusive end product is called honkarebushi (本枯節, "true dried fillet"). When tapped together lightly, the fillets make a metallic sound; and when broken open they are a deep ruby color inside. Producing karebushi takes several months, and producing the rare and very high-end honkarebushi may take over two years. Karebushi and honkarebushi are not only very expensive, but also difficult to find even in Japan - you have to go to a specialty shop, such as the ones around the Tsukiji market. 
Something close to the above production method was already established in the 15th c., and further refined in various regions of Japan in the following centuries. Traditionally, the main production areas are all on the Pacific coast where bonitos are caught: Tosa (Kochi Pref.), Satsuma (Kagoshima Pref.), Awa (Tokushima Pref.), Kii (Wakayama Pref.) and Izu (Shizuoka Pref.).

[Katsuobushi kezuriki, to shave off the flakes from the block of katsuobushi. Photo Wikipedia]

Traditionally, a sort of carpenter's plane (katsubushi kezuriki) is used to shave flakes from the hard katsuobushi fillets. This is still done daily in top-class restaurants, for the shavings soon lose their flavor and fragrance and nothing is better than fresh shavings.

But as stated above, in our present-day convenience culture, katsuobushi is typically sold as shavings in airtight plastic bags rather than the traditional blocks - and this is of arabushi rather than of karebushi or honkarebushi quality. On top of that, these products are usually a mixture of katsuobushi with the shavings of other dried fish as mackerel, tuna or sardines.

There are two types of shavings: large and thick (kezurikatsuo) to make dashi stock and small, thin shavings (hanakatsuo) used as flavoring and topping of dishes on the table.

[Fine katsuobushi shavings (hanakatsuo) used as a garnish. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

    Tuesday, July 19, 2011


    "Long onion." Longer and thicker variety of negi (welsh onion). Also called shironegi, "white onion." Has a larger amount of white stem (lengthened by heaping soil around the stem when growing it).

    The white part is used in yakimono (for example, negima, the yakitori of chicken with onion), agemono (for example, kushikatsu) etc.

    The white part has a strong onion taste, but becomes sweeter when boiling and is therefore used in nabemono.

    The green tubular blades are used in the same way as negi, by finely chopping them and using them in soups, dips, as a garnish etc.

    [Naganegi. Photo Ad Blankestijn]


    Welsh onion (allium fistulosum). Also called scallion or green onion. ねぎ、葱。

    Comparable to the leek, but thinner and longer. Develops no bulb.

    Negi (Kizami-negi), finely chopped welsh onions
    [Finely chopped negi. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

    These green onions are always used finely chopped (sarashi-negi or kizami-negi):
    • Added to dips (for zaru-soba, zaru-udon, shabu-shabu etc) 
    • Added to (miso-) soups.
    • Also used as a garnish, for example for hiyayakko.
    [Negi in the field. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

    Monday, July 18, 2011


    Perilla leaves 紫蘇 (しそ). In English, also called "beefsteak plant" (Perilla frutescens). In Japan also called aoba ("green leaf") or ooba "big leaf").

    Shiso leaves
    [Shiso leaves. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

    The large leaves of this plant are used in Japanese cuisine. It is a member of the mint family (tasting somewhere between mint and basil) and has a refreshing taste. Shiso improves the appetite.

    There is a green and a red variety. The red variety (akajiso) is used for coloring umeboshi.

    The green type (aojiso) has a variety of uses.
    • It used as a garnish with sashimi and sushi. Good for its antibacterial properties.
    • Finely chopped, it can be added as a flavoring to hot rice and other dishes.
    • It can be deep-fried as tempura.

    Friday, July 15, 2011


    Condiments, food seasonings. 薬味。Some condiments were used both as medicine and as food seasoning, therefore the name "yakumi" or "medicine taste." As in other cuisines, condiments are used in small quantities to enhance the taste of the food.

    The most important condiments in the Japanese kitchen are:

    1. Vegetable based
    negi (finely chopped welsh onions), wakegi (autumn "spring" onion), asatsuki (chive), seri (water dropwort), mitsuba (trefoil), shiso (perilla leaves), myoga (Japanese ginger), kinome (young leaves of sansho), nira (Chinese chives), tade (water pepper), fukinoto (unopened bud of Japanese butterbur), tamanegi (onion), ninniku (garlic)

    2. Root vegetable based
    shoga (grated ginger), wasabi (Japanese horseradish), daikon-oroshi (grated radish), momiji-oroshi (grated radish and chili pepper)

    3. Seaweed based

    4. Spice based
    togarashi (red pepper), shichimi-togarashi (mix of seven spices), karashi (Japanese hot mustard), shansho (Japanese pepper), kosho (black pepper)

    5. Seed based
    goma (sesame

    6. Citrus fruit based
    yuzu, kabosu, sudachi, daidai, chinpi (skin of citrus fruits)

    7. Fish based
    katsuobushi (dried, smoked, mold-cures bonito), chirimenjako (small young sardines)

    [more detailed explanations will be coming via links]

    [Thanks to the Japanese Wikipedia article]

    Thursday, July 14, 2011


    Abalone (Nordotis). (From the Spanish abulón). Abalone are small to large-sized edible sea snails, marine gastropod molluscs in the family Haliotidae and the genus Haliotis. In other words, a slow-moving, algae-eating and very expensive snail which is eaten raw as sashimi.  It can also be steamed, boiled, cooked and grilled. Awabi is popular because of its chewiness.

    Abalone shells are round or oval with a dome towards one end. The shell has respiratory pores sitting in a row. The muscular foot has strong suction power permitting the abalone to hold on to rocky surfaces.

    [Raw awabi meat. From Wikipedia]

    Awabi is best in May and June.

    Live and raw abalone is used in awabi sushi or eaten as sashimi. In kaiseiki and kappo cuisines, one encounters awabi also served steamed, salted, boiled, chopped, or simmered in soy sauce.

    In all, this is a real delicacy and a luxury item. In central Honshu (the Bay of Ise) awabi used to be harvested by divers (ama) - it now still exists as a spectacle for tourists.

    Fresh Awabi
    [Fresh Awabi. Photo by Nagaremono]

    Seafood Network Information Center

    The Enduring Appeal of Abalone.

    Wednesday, July 13, 2011



    The word mame often just refers to the king of beans, the soy bean or daizu. The category "mame" includes peas as well.
    • Daizu, soy bean
    • Azuki, small red bean
    • Sora-mame, broad bean
    • Kintoki, large variety of azuki
    • Tora mame, tiger beans
    • Edamame, pod soybean
    • Sayamame, other term for Edamame
    • Endo, peas
    • Saya-endo, edible podded pea
    • Ingen-mame, kidney bean
    • Saya-ingen, young kidney bean


    Soy beans. Lit. "big bean." The bean of beans in Japan.

    Rich source of protein and minerals. Contains the same amount of protein by weight as meat, but without the fat. Called "the meat of the earth" (daichi no niku).

    In Japanese folk wisdom, said to help enhance your memory and avoid senility.

    • Raw material for miso, soy sauce, tofu, yuba, soy bean milk (and desserts) and natto.
    • Daizu no nimono, soy beans simmered with konbu and shiitake
    • Hijiki-mame, soybeans with hijiki sauteed in oil with soy and sugar
    • Eda-mame, fresh green soy beans eaten out of the pod.
    • Moyashi or soy bean sprouts are used in various grilled foods.
    • Soy beans can also be used in salads.
    • They can be used in tempura, resulting in a beer snack.


    Thick noodles made from wheat flour. うどん。

    Udon was transmitted from China sometime in the 8th c. The dough is cut into thick strips, which are then boiled and served in a hot broth consisting of soy sauce, mirin, sugar and dashi. Various ingredients can be added on top, such as tempura or deep-fried bean curd.

    The type of soup varies according to the region (darker and stronger in eastern Japan), and so do the noodles.

    An alternative is to eat udon cold with a dip sauce. An in-between form is kame-age udon, in which case noodles cooked in hot water are eaten after dipping in a cold dip sauce.

    Udon noodles are usually round, but Kishimen, for example, are wide, flat noodles from Nagoya. Sanuki Udon denotes the thick and rather stiff type from Kagawa prefecture on Shikoku. In the Kansai, the noodles are soft and of medium thickness.

    Interesting is hoto, a flat and wide type cooked with vegetables, particularly Japanese kabocha “pumpkin,” from Yamanashi Prefecture.

    [Homemade udon with abura-age, kamaboko, shiitake, fu and mitsuba]

    Hot udon is named after the sauce in which it is served:
    • Kake. Only in dashi with soy sauce, no other ingredients. The simplest form.
    • Tanuki. With crumbs of baked tempura flour. “Tanuki” is a badger.
    • Kitsune. With small pieces of aburage (deep-fried tofu). As the Fox Deity also loved aburage, this type of udon is called “kitsune,” “fox.”
    • Sansai. With mountain plants.
    • Tempura. With tempura, usually two large shrimps.
    • Tororo. With a thick paste made from yam potatoes.
    • Tsukimi. With egg yolk that in the bowl with udon looks like the moon appearing from the clouds (tsukimi = “moon viewing”).
    • Kare. In curry sauce (by adding curry powder to the soup of the udon).
    Udon is also often added to nabe, one pot dishes.

    July 2 has become Udon Day because in the Sanuki area they used to plant the wheat around this day.

    Udon is very popular in Japan and you will find udon-restaurants everywhere in the country, usually also offering a menu of soba, buckwheat noodles. There are countless restaurants even in the smaller towns so you will never have to miss this cheap and healthy dish.


    Giant white radish (lit. "large root"). Raphanus sativus. A large (20-35 cm long and 5-10 cm in diameter), white and very mild-flavored radish. The mild flavor surprises as smaller radishes are usually rather bitter or sharp. Important daily vegetable in Japan. The best time is from early autumn to early spring, when it looses its summer pungency.

    Daikon is very low in calories, but rich in Vitamin C and helps the digestion of starchy foods. It is thought to help in treating digestive problems.

    • Boiled with other ingredients in nimono
    • Furufuki daikon: daikon cut in rings, boiled and covered with neri-miso, a thick sweet miso sauce
    • Shredded and served raw in a small mound on which sashimi is placed
    • Grated, daikon-oroshi is mixed into the tentsuyu, the soy-based dip-sauce served with tempura
    • Daikon-oroshi is also mixed with tiny sardines to produce the dish jako-oroshi
    • Served as momiji oroshi: daikon oroshi mixed with grated red chili. Named of Momiji, maple leaves, which turn bright red in autumn.
    • Made into various types of pickles as Takuan-zuke
    There are also other types such as:
    • Kagoshima daikon, which is shaped like large turnip and used in stews.
    • Moriguchi daikon, long and slender and used to make kasu-zuke pickles
    • The sturdy Horyo daikon, used in stews
    • Nerima daikon, pickled to make takuan-zuke.
    Being able to peel a daikon in a single, unbroken strip serves no real practical purpose but is a test for the knife technique of cooks.