Ingredients, dishes and drinks from Japan by Ad Blankestijn

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Sweet red-bean soup. しるこ、汁粉。

Toasted mochi are served in a sweet soup of an, made from azuki beans. The soup is made with the thin and pureed koshi-an, not with the thicker and chunkier tsubu-an. When tsubu-an is used, one speaks of zenzai instead of shiruko.

Like zenzai, delicious on cold winter days, but also an elegant dessert. Served in Japanese-style tearooms (kanmi-dokoro). Can also be bought ready-made in supermarkets.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Sweet red-bean soup. ぜんざい、善哉。

Toasted mochi are served in a sweet soup of an, a chunky paste made from azuki beans. In the case of zenzai, the rough tsubu-an is used, with still whole beans left in it. When using the thinner pureed version of the bean paste called koshi-an, the resulting dish is not called zenzai, but shiruko.

Delicious on cold winter days, but also an elegant dessert. Served in Japanese-style tearooms (kanmi-dokoro). Zenzai can also be bought ready-made in supermarkets.

[Photo from Japanese Wikipedia]

Monday, May 28, 2012


Nigiri Sushi. にぎり寿司。

Squeezed "fingers" of sushi rice with a topping ("nigiru" is "to squeeze"). When raw fish is used, between rice and topping a smear of wasabi is usually added. The old name is Edomaezushi, referring to the fact that initially all toppings were fished out of the Bay of Edo.

The right "squeeze" takes years and years to learn. After moistening the hands with "hand-vinegar" (part of the vinegar dressing for the sushi rice that is kept apart for the purpose), the rice is placed across the first joint of the fingers of the right hand and formed roughly by clenching that hand. With the index and middle fingers of the right hand the rice is pressed firmly but gently into a more defined shape, turning it around to bring equal pressure to bear on all sides. A slice of raw fish is picked up in the left hand and a dab of wasabi is smeared in the middle with the right hand (which still carries the sushi, now concealed) - note that no wasabi is used for sushi made with marinated fish, grilled fish, fish eggs or omelette. Finally the rice "finger" is placed on the fish slice and the two are pressed firmly together with index and middle fingers of the right hand. This whole process should be one flowing movement.

A variant of nigirizushi are gunkan-maki, literally "warship-rolls" (more friendly also called "boat sushi" in English), where nori is wrapped around the sides of the sushi to prevent loose ingredients as ikura (salmon eggs) from falling off.

The following types of toppings (neta) are used for nigirizushi:
  • fish with red meat (akami)
  • fish with white meat (shiromi)
  • silver-skinned fish (hikarumono) 
  • shellfish (kai)
  • roe (gyoran)
  • others (this includes anything from sea eel to squid, and prawn to octopus, plus omelet)
In all cases except perhaps the last one, freshness is of the utmost importance. The sushi chef must finish the ingredients he has bought early in the morning during the same day - if he keeps them for a night in the refrigerator, they are not fresh anymore.

Sweet pickled ginger (shoga amazu-zuke or gari) is served with nigirizushi to eat in between different types of toppings and so refresh the mouth. There is also a dip sauce of either soy sauce or thicker tamari sauce, and a dab of wasabi. Sushi shops often make their own special dip by reducing these over heat with sake, mirin, bonito flakes, etc. Use the wasabi sparingly, as in fact the sushi chef has already added wasabi to the sushi where necessary. The same goes for the dip, which should only be applied to the fish and not to the rice.

Nigirizushi are normally served in restaurants in pairs. They can be enjoyed in exclusive sushi bars where the bill is made up creatively in round figures and always comes to a couple of hundred dollars per person; or in kaitenzushi restaurants ("conveyor belt sushi"), where you only pay a dollar per plate - and everything in-between. There are also economical "take-out" sushi shops as Kyotaru and Chagetsu, and nigirizushi are always sold in department stores and supermarkets, made freshly on the premises.

When you eat in a sushi bar, you can either sit at the counter and order every sushi separately, or sit at a table and order a menu. These have fanciful names as Matsu (Pine tree), Take (Bamboo) and Ume (Apricot), which indicate certain grades, volumes and prices. At the counter you can also take an "omakase," leaving everything to the sushi chef. In that case you can be sure you get the best ingredients he has to offer that day, but the final price come as a shock. It is therefore wise to agree on a price in advance fro omakase, if that is possible.

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Red rice, eaten on festive occasions. 赤飯。

Obtained by steaming azuki beans with glutinous rice (mochigome). Often toasted black sesame seeds or gomashio (toasted sesame seeds with salt) are sprinkled lightly on top. Popular type of rice for weddings, birthdays and festivals as Shichigosan. Red is a symbol of happiness (as it is in China).

Sekihan is usually served in lunch boxes and eaten at room temperature. It is also used as an offer to the gods, by placing it in small bowls on the family shrine for the ancestors.

Technically, the rice is colored red by using the reddish water in which the azuki beans have been cooked. The beans are not cooked until they are soft, but just for 10 min. as they will later be steamed. So normally a lot of the cooking water is left for soaking the rice. The rice is soaked overnight or even longer, up to 24 hours. Finally, the rice which now has a pinkish color and the beans are mixed and steamed at high heat for about 40 min in metal or bamboo steamer.

The taste is quite sweet and that is why it is a good idea to add the salt gomashio.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Sushi. 寿司。

Sushi are so popular outside Japan that the word "sushi" has become English! Some people even think that "sushi equals Japanese food," but as this website shows, there is a lot more to the cuisine of the Rising Sun.

Interestingly, sushi started as a way to preserve cleaned fish by wrapping it in rice and keeping it for a year or longer in a hermetically closed pot. The rice would ferment and produce lactic acid and alcohol and this would keep the fish fresh - although it would become rather smelly. The all too sour rice would be thrown away when eating the fish. This method is called "narezushi," and it is still applied to making funazushi at Lake Biwa.

Gradually the fermentation period was shortened to a few months and then even a few days, so that the rice would stay fresh enough to be eaten as well (this process is called "namanare"). The custom of eating the combination of fish and sour rice was born!

The next great step was the invention of su, rice vinegar, somewhere around 1600. It was more delicious to add vinegar to the rice to get a pleasant sour taste (sushimeshi). But the vinegar would prevent fermentation, so instead of preserving fish, this became a new dish of fish and rice. It was called "hayazushi," "fast sushi." The rice was put in a wooden box, the fish on top and the whole would be pressed together with a weight, resulting in a sort of "fish on rice" cake that would be cut in one-bite parts. This way of making sushi is still popular (especially in Western Japan) and is called hakozushi ("box sushi") or oshizushi ("pressed sushi").

The final big invention was made in 1818 in Edo, at that time the largest city in the world where life ran along at a fast pace. Making box sushi was much too laborious for the impatient inhabitants of Edo, and a certain sushi maker started squeezing individual sushi with his hands... and so modern nigirizushi was born. This method of making sushi quickly became popular and sushi were sold from booths set up along Edo's roads. They were called Edomaezushi, as the ingredients came from the bay "in front of Edo" (Edomae).

There are today the following five main types of sushi:
  1. Nigirizushi or "finger sushi" (nigiri literally means "to squeeze"). Squeezed "fingers" of sushi rice topped with a slice of raw fish, etc. The basic type, often called just "sushi." The old name is Edomaezushi as we saw in the above. A variant of this type are gunkan-maki, literally "warship-rolls" (more friendly also called "boat sushi" in English), where nori is wrapped around the sides of a nigirizushi. This is done to prevent loose ingredients as ikura (salmon eggs) from falling off. 
  2. Makizushi or "sushi rolls." With the help of a thin bamboo mat (makisu) sushi rice is rolled together with various ingredients and then cut. Depending on the thickness there are various types such as hosomaki or "thin rolls," which include only one ingredient, or futomaki or "thick rolls," which feature a whole variety. And we also have uramaki or "inside-out rolls," where the nori is on the inside - these include "California rolls."
  3. Oshizushi or "pressed sushi." Sushi rice with a topping of fish is pressed into a cake form by using a wooden box with lid. We already met these in the above as the type that is older than nigirizushi. Served throughout Japan, although most popular in the Kansai.
  4. Chirashizushi or "tossed sushi." Fresh raw seafoods (cut in slices as for nigirizushi) are put as a topping over a bed of sushi rice. A variant in Western Japan is Gomokuzushi or "Five Item Sushi" (also called barazushi, "scattered sushi," or mazezushi, "mixed sushi"). The main differences between Chirashizushi and Gomokuzushi are that for the last type no raw seafood is used and that the ingredients are not put on top of the rice, but mixed through it. Moreover, they are finely cut or shredded. Temakizushi also belong in this category, as these are simple "hand rolled sushi," where the nori is folded into a cone and loosely filled with sushi rice and ingredients as one likes - a sort of "party sushi" that is easy to make by the guests themselves by picking their favorite ingredients.
  5. Sushi pockets. The vinegared rice is used as a stuffing and is usually mixed with some very finely cut vegetables or other ingredients. The main types are inarizushi, where the sushi rice is stuffed into pouches of abura-age (fried tofu) boiled in a sweet sauce; and fukusazushi (also called chakinzushi), where the pouch is made of paper-thin omelette. This is more a snack than a meal. 
There are also many regional types of sushi: sabazushi (Kyoto), battera (Osaka), kakinohazushi (Nara), meharizushi (Wakayama), etc. Often these are pressed sushi, sometimes also older types as narezushi.

All the above sushi are made with sushimeshi (vinegared sushi rice) - which is the determining factor whether to call a dish "sushi" or not.

All types of sushi are popular for lunches and picnics and are often sold in take-away restaurants and supermarkets to eat at home. The larger supermarkets and department stores make sushi fresh in their own kitchen.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


Sushi rice. すしめし。

All types of sushi are made with vinegared sushi rice - this forms in fact the criterion whether something can be called "sushi" or not.

In Japan, apprentice chefs spend a few years only learning how to make good sushi rice. Here are the rules of thumb. The rice should be firm, so not soaked after rinsing, and cooked with somewhat less water than normally - if the rice is too wet, it will not absorb the vinegar dressing after cooking. To add flavor, when cooking sushi rice chefs often add a strip of kelp (konbu) and a splash of sake. The dressing is made with rice vinegar (su), sugar and salt. The ratio of these three ingredients is a well-guarded secret of each sushi chef, and there are also regional differences: in Kyoto quite a lot of sugar is used, while some chefs in Tokyo almost use no sugar at all.

When cooking at home, a good ratio to start with (which later can be adjusted according to taste) would be: 6 table spoons of rice vinegar to 2 table spoons of sugar to 2.5 teaspoons of salt - this for an amount of rice of about 4 rice cooker cups. Dissolving the sugar and salt takes some time - if in a hurry do this faster over low heat, but afterwards cool down the mixture to room temperature. After cooking the rice, it is put into a wooden hangiri tub (or a wooden or even glass salad bowl, but never metal) and tossed with a rice paddle or wooden spoon. At the same time, sprinkle the dressing over the rice. Use it liberally, but not so much that the rice gets musty. Cool the rice with a hand fan while you keep tossing it. It should be at room temperature when you start making sushi. Sushi rice can never be kept longer than a day - to keep it for a few hours, cover the tub with a wet cloth. Never refrigerate.

Friday, May 18, 2012


Glutinous rice. もちごめ、もち米。Oryza satyva Japonica, glutinosa group.

Although all Japanese rice is "sticky," the regular food rice is not glutinous rice (as is often wrongly stated), but non-glutinous, regular rice (uruchimai). For those for whom ordinary stickiness is not enough, there exists, however, a glutinous variant of the regular rice called mochigome (also called mochimai)Mochigome has a slightly sweet flavour and a high starch content, which makes it stickier than normal rice. Traditionally, this type of rice was considered as more desirable - perhaps because it seems to contain in concentrated form the "power of rice." In fact, yields of mochigome are low and a lot of it is needed to make mochi, so this was truly a luxury food only eaten on festival days as the New Year.

Mochigome is not cooked in a pot, but steamed in a steamer (seiro). The common steamers in Japan today are made of metal and consist of a square pot over which fit one or more tiers with perforated bottoms; a cover keeps the steam inside. A traditional bamboo steamer can of course also be used and is in fact better, as the wooden hoop and domed lid are good insulators. You can also improvise a steamer by putting a sieve with mesh cloth in it on top of a pan (the sieve should not touch the water) and then cover that with a large enough lid.

Steaming is done at high heat for about 20 minutes. Then sprinkle the rice a few times with a small amount of uchimizu (a mix of sake and water) or salt water to puff it up. Continue steaming at high heat for another 15-20 minutes. Be sure that the water quantity in the pot is sufficient.

Steamed mochigome is used for the following dishes and products:
  • Sekihan, red rice, where azuki beans are used to color the mochigome. Sekihan is the fixed type of rice for weddings and other celebrations as red is the color of good luck.
  • Okowa or kowameshi, steamed glutinous rice mixed with other ingredients as salmon or chestnuts, often sold in depachika. Please note that sekihan can also be called okowa.
  • Mochi, rice cakes, obtained by pounding glutinous rice. Mochi also have a celebratory significance.
  • Certain types of okashi, traditional Japanese sweets, for example ohagi or sakura-mochi.
  • Certain types of senbei or rice crackers, for example arare.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


Rice. 米。

Kome is the word for harvested but uncooked rice - the ingredient "rice" you buy in the supermarket and store in your kitchen cabinet. The rice plants in the fields are called ine and cooked rice is gohan.

There are many varieties of rice in the world - it is the grain with the highest production for human consumption (if we include non-human consumption such as cattle feed, it would take second place after maize). The rice traditionally eaten in Japan (and the only one suitable for traditional Japanese meals) is called Oryza sativa Japonica. "Oryza sativa" is the rice grown in Asia (different from Oryza glaberrima, the rice grown in Africa). But even among Asian rice there are many varieties - the Indians for example, prefer rice that is dry and doesn't stick too much together ("like two brothers - close but not sticking too much together"), while the Japanese prefer a short-grained subspecies of which the grains stick together like they themselves in their full country.

The traditional method for cultivating rice is to flood the fields after planting the young seedlings, as this reduces the growth of weeds and deters vermin. This requires a high level of organization and cooperation among farmers - in early historical periods, this gave rise to Japanese social organization. In Japan, planting and harvesting is highly mechanized nowadays.

After harvesting, the grains are first treated with a rice huller to remove the chaff (the outer husks of the grain). The result is called "brown rice," genmai. Brown rice lacks the fragrance of hakumai and is mainly sold in organic restaurants and shops. Usually also the bran (the rest of the husk and the germ) is removed to obtain "white rice," hakumai.

A product in between brown rice and white rice is "sprouted brown rice," hatsuga genmai, which has a softer texture than brown rice, yet retains its health benefits. But this, too, is only sold in small quantities as white rice rules the day.

In Japan, the white rice meant for food is milled (also called "polished") which means that the outer layer of the grain is milled away, to obtain a finer taste. Food rice is milled down to an average of 92% of the grain. Rice as ingredient for other purposes, such as sake making, is milled much further, to 70%, 60%, 50% and even 35% of the original size - this to remove off-flavors in the sake and obtain a purer taste.

White rice is sold milled in supermarkets in plastic bags of 1, 2, 5 or 10 kilograms. In the countryside, one can find coin-operated rice polishing machines, where farmers can polish their own rice.

White rice keeps very long (it was not for nothing used as money and to pay taxes in traditional Japan), but lacks certain important nutrients. It must therefore be supplemented with other dishes such as pickles (tsukemono).

Rice bran, called nuka, is used for many purposes such as the white powder that coats Japanese sweets (wagashi) or for making one type of pickles (nukazuke).

There are two types of Japonica rice: non-glutinous (called uruchimai) and glutinous Japonica (called mochigome). The first one is used for normal cooking, the second one for special purposes such as making rice cakes (mochi), red rice (sekihan), steamed glutinous rice (okowa) and Japanese sweets.

In the last sixty years, many types of "rice brands" have been developed in Japan, just as there are different tasting brands of potatoes or grapes. Popular brands are Koshihikari, Akitakomachi, Sasanishiki, Hitomebore, etc. Most Japanese prefectures have developed their own brands. For the production of high-quality sake, there exist several brands of special "sake rice" which have larger grains and more starch - and these also are "branded," i.e. Yamada Nishiki or Gohyakumangoku, etc.

Friday, May 11, 2012


Pickled eggplant. なす漬。

Eggplant pickled whole in soy sauce (shoyuzuke). Togarashi (chili pepper) has been added for spiciness.  This type of pickle goes excellently with sake!


Thursday, May 10, 2012


Bamboo shoot. たけのこ、筍、竹の子。Usually from the variety Mosochiku (Phyllostachys heterocycla var pubescens) and sometimes Madake (Phyllostachys bambusoides).

Bamboo shoots or bamboo sprouts are the edible shoots of many bamboo species and in Japan are used as a vegetable. The season is spring - they are available from early April.

Although tender, bamboo shoots break with enormous energy through the soil - they can grow one foot high in one night -  and after that continue growing very fast. The fresh, young shoots are dug out of the soil when still between 15 and 25 centimeters and are sold whole, with the husk still attached. They must be cooked very quickly to prevent them becoming hard and bitter. So nowadays in supermarkets one finds more often than not parboiled shoots in plastic or even shoots that have been brought to taste by cooking them in a dashi-based sauce. These are sold with some of the liquid still attached and are a good "middle way" between the more difficult to handle fresh takenoko on the one hand and canned stuff on the other.

In taste, bamboo shoots  are sweet and juicy. There is indeed some "bambooish" flavor.

Fresh shoots from which the tips have just appeared from the soil can be eaten as they are, with soy sauce and a dash of wasabi. But you can find these fresh shoots only in pricey restaurants in bamboo growing areas, such as the Western Hills of Kyoto, as they should ideally be eaten within one hour after having been plucked from the soil.

Normally, the shoots sold in supermarkets are larger and one or two days old so that they are already tougher and have to be parboiled first for several hours.

A common way to serve takenoko is as a simmered side dish (nimono). The normal way to do this is in a sauce of dashi with katsuobushi (called Tosani). They can also be cooked with wakame (called wakatakeni).

Another way to use bamboo shoots is to cook them with rice as takenoko-gohan. Other ingredients, such as crab meat, may also be added.

Another popular dish is takenoko no kinome-ae. "Ae" are cooked vegetables which are served cold with a dressing. Here the dressing consists of "kinome," the leaves of the pepper tree (sansho), which produce a green, aromatic sauce. Like bamboo shoots, kinome are a sign of spring.

Finally, bamboo shoots are also used in Japanese style Chinese dishes (Chuka), such as Happosai. They are also made into menma, a lactate-fermented pickle which is used as a topping for ramen.

Preservation: fresh shoots should be used within a day. Bamboo shoots soon grow stiff and astringent. The astringency can be removed by boiling them in their husks for three hours in water to which rice bran and a few dried red chilli peppers (togarashi) have been added.

[Takenoko cooked with dashi and katsuobushi (Tosani)]

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


"Mozuku," dark brown seaweed. もずく. Nemacystis  decipiens.

This type of seaweed is found in Okinawa.

Eaten as a vinegared side dish (sunomono) at home. Preserved in salt, it can also be eaten as a snack (tsumamimono). Finally, mozuku is powdered and used in health supplements.

As sunomono, the sour taste can be rather overpowering. Various healthy properties are ascribed to this type of seaweed, so it is quite popular. Mozuku is sold "ready to eat" in supermarkets in small plastic containers, with the vinegar dressing already added.

[Mozuku as sunomono]

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


Chilled tofu. ひややっこ、冷奴。

Popular summer dish, both at home and in restaurants as izakaya. Usually kinugoshi tofu is used.

The cubes of chilled tofu are served with soy sauce and a topping of chopped green onions and katsuobushi.  Additional toppings may include grated ginger, etc.


Friday, May 4, 2012


Salad oil, cooking oil. サラダ油。Also briefly called "abura, " 油。

Cooking oil in Japan (for sauteing, deep-frying, etc) is always pure, cold-pressed vegetable oil. In the traditional kitchen, animal fats are not used at all. Also when frying meat, eggs etc. always salad oil is used, and not butter or margarine.

Rapeseed oil (aburana) is very popular. Other types one sees in Japanese supermarkets are: soy oil (daizu), safflower oil (benibana), sunflower oil (himawari), corn oil (tomorokoshi), and peanut oil (rakusei). Some oils are sold for specific purposes, such as "tenpura oil." Others are mixed oils carrying the name of the producer, such as "Nisshin salad oil." And of course nowadays there are many salad oils with less or no cholesterol.

The only type of vegetable oil never used in Japanese cooking is olive oil because the flavor is too dominating and it is too heavy.

Oil used for seasoning is mainly sesame seed oil (goma-abura). Sesame seed oil may also be added to tenpura oil to add fragrance (up to half of volume).

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


Konbu: Kelp. こんぶ、昆布。Laminaria japonica.

Konbu (also spelled as "kombu") is a tall leafy plant growing from the sea floor in cold, shallow waters off the coast of northern Japan, especially Hokkaido. The deep olive brown leaves become one to two meters long and vary in width from 5 to 30 centimeters. Konbu is partly cultivated and partly harvested from natural sources, from June to October. Konbu is washed with seawater and then cut into 1 m long sheets and dried in the sun. After drying it becomes stiff and dark green.

Konbu has been used as a food source since the beginning of Japanese civilization. It contains important minerals, including iodine, vitamins, protein and dietary fiber.

In fact, the Japanese cuisine could not exist without konbu, as it is the main ingredient for dashi, the stock that forms the pillar of the Japanese kitchen.

In 1908, the Japanese chemist Prof. Ikeda Kikunae studied stock made with kelp to determine the key chemical that provides a delicious flavor while also enhancing the flavors of other ingredients (umami). His research revealed the presence in kelp of natural glutamic acid as the major umami component.

Prominent types of konbu and their uses are:
  • Ma konbu (Saccharina japonica). From the Straits of Tsugaru and the Southwestern part of Hokkaido. The most popular, high-quality konbu. Has a refined sweetness. Used for making high-quality dashi, but also for shio konbu, oboro konbu and tororo konbu
  • Rausu konbu (Saccharina diabolica). From Rausu in Northeastern Hokkaido. Fragrant and soft. Used for making high-quality refined dashi. Also processed into kobu-cha (konbu tea) and su-konbu (pickled kelp).
  • Rishiri konbu (Saccharina ochotensis). From Rishiri, Rebun and the Wakkanai coast in Northwestern Hokkaido. A savory type used for making a clear dashi with a rich taste and tororo konbu
  • Hosome konbu (Saccharina religiosa). From the Oshima Peninsula (southernmost part of Hokkaido). Is thin and has a slippery texture so that it is best suited to make tororo konbu rather than dashi. Also used to make shio konbu or konbu for tsukudani.
  • Naga konbu (Saccharina longissima). From the Kushiro area in Northeastern Hokkaido. Can get 15 meters long. Soft and therefore used for konbu maki (fish etc. rolled in konbu), as well as for tsukudani, oden and as ni-konbu (boiled kelp).
  • Mitsuishi or Hidaka konbu (Saccharina angustata). From the Hidaka coast in Southeastern Hokkaido. Is very soft and therefore used many prepared dishes, for konbu rolls, or eaten as such. Also used for more common type of dashi. 
When using konbu, be careful not to wash it as you would end up washing off the umami components which stick to the surface of the leaves. If a white, salty powder sticks to the konbu, you can carefully wipe it with a dry cloth.

Uses of konbu:
  • As basic ingredient for dashi.
  • Tororo konbu, konbu that has been soaked in vinegar, dried and shaved. It can be used as a wrapping for sushi rolls (makizushi), or used in clear soups (suimono).
  • Oboro konbu, very similar to tororo konbu above. Used in wan-mono and in sunomono.
  • Konbu maki, fish as herring (nisshin) wrapped in konbu.
  • Kobu jime, a cooking technique whereby the ingredients (usually fish) are wedged between sheets of kelp and kept for a night in the refrigerator. 
  • Kobu cha, tea made from konbu
  • Shio konbu, salt konbu, a popular snack and in the past an alternative to chewing gum
  • Su konbu, pickled kelp, also a snack.

[Dried konbu sheets from Wikipedia]