Japanese Food and Sake Dictionary

Ingredients, dishes and drinks from Japan by Ad Blankestijn

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Karei

Righteye flounder. Pleuronectes. カレイ、鰈。

Flounders are a species of flatfish, with both eyes on the same side of the head, one or the other migrating around the head during development. Righteye flounders are so called because they have both eyes on the right side and lie on the sea bottom on their left side. (There are also lefteye flounders, but these are a different family, Paralichthyides). Flounders are found on the bottoms of oceans around the world and are, together with other flatfish, popular as food fishes. Most flounders are between 40-50 cm in length.

Righteye flounders are caught in large quantities in seas off Chiba, Ibaraki, Tottori, Shimane and Oita Prefectures. There are several varieties: ma-garei (littlemouth flounder; the most common among the 11 species found in Japan, taken on the Hokkaido and Japan Sea coast), mako-garei (marbled flounder; also very common, taken from southern Hokkaido to southern Japan), ishi-garei (stone flounder; found in seas around Japan, can get as long as 70 cm), meita-garei (ridged-eye flounder; found in seas south of Hokkaido, has a ridge between the eyes) and baba-garei (slime flounder; found in seas near central Japan and farther north).

Karei resemble hirame, another type of flatfish - the best way to tell them apart is not so much that hirame have the eyes on the left side (as some flounders also do), but that flounders usually have a very small mouth.

Flounders are available almost around the year - the season for most of them is from autumn to winter, but the mako-garei is in season from May to July. When mako-garei is caught in the Bay of Beppu in Oita, it is called "shiroshita-garei," "the flounder beneath the castle," as it is rumored to feed in the fresh waters beneath Hiji Castle. This is an especially tasty variety that is also eminently suitable as a sushi topping.

Righteye flounder is often prepared as follows:

  • kara-age, dusted in flour and deep-fried (the bones of the fish are also eaten here)
  • nitsuke, simmered in soy sauce
  • shio-yaki, dusted with salt and fried, as in the photo below
  • sashimi and sushi topping if the fish is fresh enough - the mako-garei, which is in season during the summer is best, as it has translucent meat and a delicate sweetness. A prime sushi ingredient is also the engawa, the sinew along the flounder's fin, which has a tough texture but also a fatty portion and which contains much collagen.
  • konbujime, a sort of marination where the fish is wrapped in kelp (konbu), which adds a subtle depth of flavor.
  • à la meunière, as sole meunière, dredged in milk and flour, fried in butter and served with the resulting brown butter sauce and lemon.


Karei ni shioyaki
[Karei no shioyaki]

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Buri

Yellowtail, Japanese amberjack. Seriola Quinqueradiata. ぶり、鰤。

Large fish about 15 kilos in weight and reaching a length of 1.3 meters. It is a migrating, fast swimming, predatory fish, found in the north-western Pacific, and belonging to the family of the Carangidae. It is an important fish in the Japanese cuisine.

Buri is extensively cultivated artificially (about 120,000 tonnes per year) in cages in the sea. In May, small wild fry (mojako), which can be found under floating seaweed, are caught for that purpose.

In Japan, buri is called "shusse-uo," literally a "fish that makes career," which is indicated by the different names by which it is called at different stages of growth. In other words, buri is not always called buri! On top of that, there are many regional differences in naming - I give here those from the Kanto and Kansai which are most common, but note that for example in the Hokuriku area again totally different names are used! The system is basically as follows:

Kanto (Eastern Japan): wakashi (less than 35 cm) → inada (35-60 cm) → warasa (60-80 cm) → buri (more than 80 cm)

Kansai (Western Japan): tsubasu (less than 40 cm) → hamachi (40-60 cm) → mejiro (60-80 cm) → buri (more than 80 cm)

To make things more complicated, "hamachi" is used in the Kanto area to designate cultivated buri.

The largest number of wild buri is caught in Shimane Prefecturre, followed by Tottori, Nagasaki, and Ishikawa. Cultivated buri mainly come from Kagoshima Prefecture, Ehime, Nagasaki and Oita.

Buri no teriyaki
[Buri no teriyaki}

Among the wild buri, the most delicious is the so-called "kan-buri," or "buri from the cold season." This fish has the highest fat content, as it puts on fat in winter before producing eggs in spring. This type of buri, caught in the wild, is a typical delicacy of the Hokuriku area such as Toyama. As also the Sinograph with which buri is written (alluding to "shiwase," the poetical name for the month of December) indicates, buri indeed is a typical winterfish, best from December to February. In Western Japan, the fact that its is a "career fish" gives it an auspicious quality, and therefore it is often used in the meal eaten at the New Year (osechi).

The small fish called inada (hamachi in the Kansai) is in contrast to the full-grown buri a summer fish. The use in the Japanese cuisine is also different:

inada: sashimi, zuke (pickled in soy sauce), marinated.

buri: teriyaki (grilled with a glaze of soy sauce and mirin - see the photo above), shioyaki (grilled with salt), buri-daikon (a form of aradaki, the head and body with the bones still on it simmered in stock flavored with soy sauce, sake and mirin).


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Goma

Sesame. Sesamum indicum.  ゴマ、胡麻。

Sesame is an annual, flowering plant which is cultivated for its seeds, which grow in pods. Sesame has been long known to mankind as an oilseed: it was first cultivated about 5,000 years ago in Egypt and the Sahara area. It was already know in Japan in the middle or later Jomon-period (2,500-300 BCE) and there are records of its cultivation for lamp oil in the Nara-period (710-784). In the ensuing Heian-period (794-1185) it was also used for medicinal purposes.

Nowadays, 99.9% of all sesame used in Japan is imported. Only a small amount is produced on Kikaijima, one of the Amami Islands belonging to Kagoshima prefecture. The highest production of sesame comes from Burma, India and China.

Sesame has a nutty flavor and is rich in oil. It comes in three forms: white, black and golden (this last one is said to have the best aroma, but is not readily available). White sesame seeds contain more oil than black ones, but black sesame has a somewhat stronger, nuttier flavor.

Sesame seeds are sold in four forms: (1) untoasted, (2) toasted, (3) toasted and roughly ground as well as (4) toasted and ground into a smooth paste.

One can toast sesame seeds oneself by heating a dry frying pan over low to medium heat, then put in the seeds and toast them in 1-2 minutes. Shake the pan occasionally so that all the seeds get heated through. Be careful not to overroast the sesame.

For grinding, in Japan a suribachi is used, a bowl-shaped ceramic mortar which has small grooves on the inside. For the grinding, a wooden pestle (surikogi) is necessary, so that the bowl is not damaged. Grind the seeds until they are flaky and aromatic. Ground sesame is only good fresh, so use it soon after grinding.

Goma (sesame seed) with mortar (suribachi) and pestle (surikogi)
[Sesame seeds (goma) with mortar (suribachi) and wooden pestle (surikogi)]

Sesame is used in Japan in the following ways:
  • Toasted but not ground (irigoma): black sesame seeds are sprinkled over rice or other dishes to add a color accent (furikake). Sesame seed is also an important ingredient in prepackaged furikake. Both black and white sesame seeds can be used on the outside of uramaki (inside-outside rolls, like the California roll).
  • Toasted and ground sesame is called surigoma in Japanese. Used in many recipes in the Japanese cuisine, starting with adding it to shira-ae (cooked vegetables dressed with tofu). As on the picture above, surigoma can also be used in the sauce for tonkatsu.
  • Sesame dressing (gomadare) is one of the most popular dressings for salads in Japan and can be found in all supermarkets.
  • Sesame paste (nerigoma) is also sold in supermarkets and can be used as a spread on bread, like peanut butter (but much more tasty!). 
  • Sesame oil (goma-abura). The best oil for cooking, thanks to its flavor, often blended as it is rather thick. It is indispensable in the oil mixture used for deep-frying tempura.
Sesame is high in proteins and since olden times, various health benefits have been ascribed to it.

"Goma" has also found its way into general culture. As grinding sesame seeds in a suribachi is hard work, the expression "goma-suri" was born to indicate "flattery," especially flattery of one's superior.



Thursday, March 27, 2014

Komatsuna

Japanese mustard spinach. Brassica rapa var. perviridis, コマツナ、小松菜。

A variety of Brassica rapa, the plant that also has given us the turnip and Mizuna. Although it resembles spinach somewhat, the plant is more like a leafy turnip.

A pure Japanese vegetable, komatsuna has been cultivated in Japan since olden times. It gets it name from Komatsu-gawa in Tokyo, where it was originally harvested in the Edo-period. Komatsuna was offered to the Shogun Yoshimune when he was on a falcon hunt in the area.

Komatsuna is originally a favorite winter vegetable (although now harvested throughout the year). The glossy leaves are rich in calcium. The leaves can be harvested at any stage of growth; the flavor grows stronger the more the leaves mature. Major growth areas are around the big cities: Tokyo, Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa; Osaka and Hyogo; and Aichi and Fukuoka.

There are many ways to use this versatile vegetable: in nabemono (one-pot dishes), in soups, in ohitashi (soused greens), stir-fried (as itamemono), boiled and even pickled. It can also be used in salads. In fact it can be used in any way spinach is used. In the Kanto area, komatsuna is also used in the New Year's dish of zoni.


[Komatsuna]

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Tachiuo

Largehead hairtail, Japanese cutlass fish. Trichiurus lepturus. 太刀魚、タチウオ。

The Japanese name "tachiuo" literally means "swordfish." The largehead hairtail is a member of the cutlass fish family. It is a long, slender fish (like an eel) which can grow to about 1.5 meter in length. The body has a shiny silvery color and the tail ends in a hairlike thread. The head looks rather mean, with sharp teeth like the pike conger (hamo). It lives in shallow coastal waters, rising to eat planktonic crustaceans during the day and returning to the sea bed at night.

Tachiuo is suitable for sashimi, and can be grilled or eaten as kara-age - shioyaki is probably the most delicious. It has a deliciously light taste and little fat. The season is autumn to winter.

Tachiuo no shioyaki
[Tachiuo no Shioyaki]

Friday, March 14, 2014

Sawara

Japanese Spanish mackerel. (Scomberomorus niphonius) サワラ、鰆。

A fish much consumed in Japan, as well as in Korea and China, this is one of the larger fishes in the mackerel family, with lengths to one meter and a weight of 4.5 kilograms.

Sawara is prevalent in waters around Japan and is tastiest in winter, when it has the largest fat content; it is also caught from April to June when it enters the Inland Sea (Setonaikai) to spawn. It is mainly caught by trawling, but can also be caught by line. Mackerel matures fairly quickly and produces large numbers of offspring.

Not suitable for sashimi (raw fish) due to parasites, but delicious as shioyaki (grilled with salt) or teriyaki. The white flesh is quite succulent and not for nothing is sawara regarded as the best mackerel species in Japan.

[Sawara no shioyaki - salt-grilled Japanese Spanish mackerel]

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Nanohana

Rape shoots, turnip rape.Brassica napus). 菜の花。

Rape shoots are the immature stems and buds of the rape plant. It is a vegetable representative of early spring, when you can see whole fields of the typical yellow nanohana flowers swaying in the breeze. This is a sight that has often been celebrated in haiku, for example this one by Buson:

rape flowers -
the moon in the east
the sun in the west

Nanohana ya | tsuki wa higashi ni | hi wa nishi

Buson here describes a vast expanse of rape flowers: between the moon rising in the darkening sky in the east and the sun sinking in the still bright west, there is nothing but a great field of yellow flowers (for this and other nanohana haiku, see R.H. Blyth, Haiku: Spring, p. 592-6). Nanohana is a kigo (season word) indicating "early spring."

Nanohana
[Nanohana]

Nanohana is one of the oldest vegetables cultivated in Japan. It is closely related (but not identical) to the rapeseed in Europe and America, but as a member of the Brassica family, it has also links to broccoli - in fact, the florets of nanohana resemble tiny broccoli. In contrast to the West, where rapeseed is only grown for its seeds from which oil is extracted, in Japan the spring shoots of the plant are used on the table. This is our nanohana, which literately means "flower of vegetable." The mature plant is called aburana, and this is used for oil as in the West (natane abura - see my post on cooking oils).

The entire vegetable of nanohana is consumable, not only the young buds which are just about to blossom, but also the stem and leaves and even the yellow flowers. Nanohana has a slightly bitter taste.

Nanohana is sold in Japan in February and March.

Nutritionally, it is high in vitamin C and also contains various minerals.

When keeping nanohana, it should be boiled and then put in the refrigerator. It cooks rather quickly, so be careful not to overcook.

Common cooking methods include stir-frying, steaming, boiling, and deep frying (as tempura). It can also be used in soups. Nanohana doesn't need any special pre-treatment.

A typical side dish is nanahana no karashi-ae (cooked salad dressed with mustard), as on the picture below. Nanohana is also used in tsukemono (pickles).


[Nanohana no karashi-ae]

Friday, March 7, 2014

Uguisu-mame

Green peas boiled down with sugar. 鶯豆。

It is a beautiful name: "uguisu-mame" literally means "bush warbler beans" and the bush warbler is the bird that in Japanese poetry announces the spring - but reality is more prosaic: ordinary peas are boiled down with some salt, and lots of sugar or mizu-ame (glucose syrup).

[The Japanese Bush Warbler - Photo Wikipedia]

Even less than prosaic is the reason why these boiled down peas are called "bush warbler peas:" it is because they resemble the droppings of the bush warbler! Bon appetit!

The "uguisu" or bush warbler is a bird which appears frequently in Japanese poetry. Its distinctive breeding call ("Hooo-hokekyo") can be heard throughout much of Japan from the start of spring. In poetry the bird is associated with plum blossoms, although in fact its distinctive song is usually not heard until well after the plum blossoms have scattered.

The beauty of its song led to the alternative English name "Japanese Nightingale," although the Japanese Bush Warbler does not sing at night as the European nightingale does.

In addition, as squeaking wooden floorboards reminded the Japanese of the low chirping of the bush warbler, these floors were called "uguisubari" - such floors were on purpose designed to squeak, as one often reads in order to warn of the approach of ninja, but I believe it was more for aesthetic effect. Examples can be seen in many old temples in Kyoto as Chion-in, as well as in Nijo Castle. In English such floors are usually called "nightingale floors."

Those bush warbler droppings were, by the way, in the past used as a cosmetic, as they seem to contain an enzyme that works as an agent that whitens the skin and helps remove wrinkles. And therefore the association with something dirty did not exist, so that even boiled green peas could be compared with such cosmetic droppings.



Back to the peas! These sweet, boiled peas are used as such, as a side dish, but they also form an ingredient in Japanese sweets (wagashi) or even in bread. There is, in fact, a great variety of uses. Often the link with spring is stressed, or in other words, only in spring green peas are sold as "uguisu-mame."


Thursday, September 26, 2013

Horenso

Spinach. ホウレンソウ、ほうれん草, 菠薐草 (Spinacia oleracea).

Spinach is an edible flowering plant, with a high nutritional value and rich in iron. Spinach originated in central and southwestern Asia, perhaps ancient Persia, and was brought to East Asia via the Silk Road. It reached China already in the 7th century, where it was called "Persian vegetable," but Japan had to wait for spinach until the 17th c. It is said that the famous warlike daimyo Date Masamune loved spinach.

Spinach today is a favorite vegetable in Japan (Japan is the top third spinach producing country in the world, after China and the U.S.), although the way it is used differs greatly from Western cuisine. It is most popular in a cooked salad (aemono) called horenso no goma-ae, that is: cooked spinach dressed with sesame seed. It is also excellent in o-hitashi, parboiled and soused in dashi with soy sauce and mirin, and served chilled. Besides that, spinach is used in soups.

Horenso no goma-ae (Spinach with sesame dressing)
[Horenso no goma-ae, Cooked spinach salad dressed with sesame]


Thursday, September 5, 2013

Mizu-Yokan

Red-Bean Jelly. 水羊羹、みずようかん。

Sweet jelly made of ground red beans. Mizu-Yokan is a firm yet delicate confection that is usually eaten in summer and should be served chilled. It is a variety of Yokan, a traditional tea sweet or wagashi that belongs to the category of namagashi, uncooked sugar confections. Yokan is made with an (sweet red bean (azuki) paste), sugar and kanten (agar-agar). To Mizu-Yokan more water is added than to ordinary Yokan (hence the name) so that it becomes lighter. Various flavorings, such as green tea powder, but also persimmons or chestnuts, can be added.

The Chinese characters used for Yokan are interesting 羊羹: yanggeng means "soup with sheep (meat)," i.e. probably gelatine made from sheep. Presumably that was the ingredient for a Chinese confection that was brought to Japan by Zen monks in the late 12th c. In Japan, the animal gelatin was substituted by azuki beans and wheat flour. The Yokan were initially steamed, but that changed after agar-agar started being used around 1800.

As a refined form of wagashi, Yokan and Mizu-Yokan are popular gift items in Japan. Mizu-Yokan are often sold in aluminium or plastic cups, but one also finds the traditional packaging of inserting it in a piece of hollow bamboo, as in the photo below.

The author Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) wrote about Yokan in his novel Kusamakura ("A Pillow of Grass"): "I saw that the sweets-plate contained some beautiful Yokan. Of all wagashi, Yokan are my favorite. It is not that I especially enjoy eating them, but I consider that their smooth fine texture, and the way in which they become semi-transparent when the light falls on them, makes them indisputably a piece of art."

Mizu Yokan