Ingredients, dishes and drinks from Japan by Ad Blankestijn

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Tube-shaped, broiled fish cake. "Chikuwa." 竹輪

Ingredients are surimi, salt, sugar, starch and egg white. These are made into a paste, wrapped around a metal rod and broiled. Chikuwa, "bamboo ring," refers to the shape it has after slicing into smaller rings.

Chikuwa is eaten as follows:
  • As a side dish during lunch or dinner
  • As a snack. In that case the hollow center may also be stuffed with cheese, cucumber or other ingredients. It is delicious with beer or sake!
Chikuwa is a cheap and low-fat source of protein.

Other well-known surimi-based products are kamaboko and satsuma-age.

[Photo of Chikuwa from Wikipedia]

Monday, February 27, 2012

Tarako Supagettei

Spaghetti flavored with Alaska pollock roe. たらこスパゲッティ。

Tarako resembles mentaiko; the difference is that in the case of mentaiko the roe has been chili-flavored, while tarako is only salted. So tarako has a softer flavor.

It may seem extravagant to use fish eggs for spaghetti and from an Italian viewpoint it is certainly unorthodox. But foods like pizza and spaghetti, sandwiches, and of course now also sushi ("California rolls") have always been subject to fantasy arrangements when crossing cultural borders, and there is nothing wrong with that. Moreover, tarako spaghetti is in one word: delicious!

By the way, mentaiko spaghetti also exists.

Tarako is also used as a filling for a popular kind of onigiri (rice balls).

Tarako Spaghetti

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Nameko fungus. なめこ。Pholiota nameko. Sometimes called "butterscotch."

This mushroom is unique to Japan. It is golden-brown in color and has a slippery, gelatinous coating, a pleasant contrast. The sliminess may surprise some customers abroad, but nameko really are delicious! The taste is mildly nutty.

Nameko is used in miso soup, in hot-pot dishes (nabemono) and in aemono (cooked salads). They can also be added to the soup of soba or udon - popular is "nameko-soba," where the soba noodles are eaten cold but covered with a mixture of nameko and daikon-oroshi (plus some shredded spring onions or shiso).

Does not keep well, so usually sold canned or bottled; in Japan also fresh, in plastic pouches. Rinse before use.


Monday, February 20, 2012


Freshwater clam. シジミ。Cyrenoidea (Corbicula).

Mainly used as an ingredient in miso-soup (like asari, short-necked clams, but never mixed). Also used as an ingredient in tsukudani (small seafood simmered in soy sauce and mirin and eaten on top of the rice). The meat of shijimi is small.

Shijimi are dark-colored bivalve molluscs with two halves of the shell equally sized. They are found in both fresh and brackish waters. The largest are 2-3 cm.

In fact there are three types native to Japan: Yamato-shijimi (brackish water), Ma-shijimi and Seta-shijimi (both fresh water), The last type come exclusively from Lake Biwa near Otsu, the other two types can be found all over Japan. Yamato-shijimi are most common, the Seta-shijimi are said to be most tasteful. Most important production sites are: the Jusanko and Ogawarako lakes in Aomori, the Kitakami River in Miyagi, the Hinemagawa and Tonegawa rivers in Ibaraki and - perhaps most famous - Lake Shinji next to Matsue in Shimane.

Japanese waters have, however, been invaded by foreign species as the Taiwan-shijimi and it is often unclear which type one is buying. Also, the number of imported shijimi has risen considerably.

Folk wisdom says shijimi are good against a hangover, and after a night drinking, many Japanese would the next morning have miso soup with shijimi for breakfast. Also said to help against tiredness in summer (natsubate).


Friday, February 17, 2012


Mirin, the basic sweetener in the Japanese kitchen. みりん、味醂。

The term "mirin" is difficult to translate. It is, for example. often called "sweet cooking sake", but that is wrong. Mirin does not contain any sake and has not been fermented either.

Mirin is produced by mixing steamed glutinous rice (the type used for mochi rice cakes) on which the koji mold has been cultivated, with shochu (Japanese distilled liquor). Instead of shochu it is also possible to use brewer's alcohol. The koji transforms the starch in the rice into glucose and over a period of 40 to 60 days a delicious sweetness develops. When the mirin is ready, it contains 13.5 to 14.5% alcohol and 40 to 50% sugar. The alcohol will evaporate during cooking.

There are several cheap "chemical" replacements on the market, so to make clear we have to do with real mirin, it is usually called "hon-mirin." You can also recognize it by the alcohol percentage of around 14% that is always on the bottle, and the light brown color, as a thin, golden syrup. The chemical replacements are lighter colored and contain less than 1% alcohol.

Mirin possesses a refined sweet taste and a delicious aroma. It also contains lots of umami and is therefore a much more refined sweetener than ordinary sugar.

Mirin is also used as ingredient for all kinds of dip sauces for noodles, for sweetening simmered dishes, for marinades, and the sauces for kabayaki and teriyaki, as well as for glazing grilled foods. Mirin also helps to mask the strong aromas of meat or fish.

In the past, mirin was sometimes also consumed as an alcoholic drink, by adding more shochu. It is still used as ingredient in otoso, the New Year's sake that has been spiced up with a herb mixture.



Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Rice vinegar. Also called yonezu. 酢、米酢。

Worldwide, the production of vinegar is linked to that of alcoholic beverages. In France, the term "vinaigre" literally means vin aigre or "sour wine." In Japan, vinegar is made from fermented rice, just like sake. Also the lees of rice (sakekasu) pressed out of the sake after fermentation is completed, can be used for making vinegar. In both cases, acetic acid bacteria are added for a further fermentation process where ethanol is turned into acetic acid, which is the main component of vinegar. This takes one to two months after which the vinegar is filtered and pasteurized. Acidity is only just over 4% and the taste is mild. Rice vinegar also contains amino acids as well as citric acid, malic acid, lactic acid and succinic acid. Another type of rice vinegar with an even deeper taste is made from brown rice and popularly called kurozu, "black vinegar."

Rice vinegar is mixed with other ingredients to create condiments for specific purposes (the general name for these is awasezu, seasoned rice vinegar):
  • sushizu, or sushi vinegar used to make vinegared rice for sushi, by adding sugar, salt and (sometimes) mirin;
  • amazu, sweet vinegar, by adding sugar
  • nihaizu, by mixing vinegar and soy sauce in the proportion of 3:2
  • sanbaizu, by mixing vinegar, mirin (or sugar) and soy sauce in the proportion of 3:2:1
Vinegar is used to make sunomono, a popular side dish consisting of cut cucumber, seaweed and sometimes pieces of octopus; it is also used in simmered dishes (nimono) and to make one type of pickles (tsukemono). It also serves to mitigate the strong odors of fish and meats and is added to dipping sauces for sashimi, grilled fish and one pot dishes (nabemono).

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Steamed, savory custard. 茶碗蒸し、ちゃわんむし。

Literally, "steamed (mushi) in a tea cup (chawan)." Main ingredients are egg and dashi, items that can also be added are pieces of chicken, small prawns, pieces of crab (stick), gingko nuts, kamaboko, thin slices of yuzu and mitsuba. Usually served in special china cups with lids and eaten with a spoon. Normally served warm, in summer it has sometimes been cooled.



Monday, February 13, 2012


Cake of fish-paste. かまぼこ、蒲鉾。

Surimi, a paste of the flesh of different kinds of fish, is steamed on a small wooden board. It is usually molded in the form of a pillow. Originally white in color, but various colorings, especially pink, are popular.

It is sliced to serve. Can be eaten like it is, with a bit of soy sauce, for example as a snack with sake. Is added to soups (miso soup), noodle dishes (udon, soba), oden, and nabemono. Can also be grilled.



Sunday, February 12, 2012


Japanese mustard. からし、芥子。

Made from the crushed seeds of leaf mustard (Karashina, Brassica juncea). Came in the 10th c. from China to Japan, after which new types were developed.

Karashi is usually sold in powder form or paste form in tubes.

Karashi is used as a condiment with tonkatsu, oden, and shumai. These are all "new" dishes which entered Japanese cuisine in the 20th century, which again serves to show that in the case of traditional dishes no spices were used.

Karashi is also mixed with other condiments, for example with mayonnaise to make "karashi mayonnaise."

It is also used to make pickled Japanese eggplant, called karashi-nasu - a great side-dish with sake.

One of Kumamoto's regional dishes is karashi renkon - slices of lotus root of which the openings have been filled with karashi.


Saturday, February 11, 2012


Oden, hodgepodge. おでん。

Various ingredients are simmered for a long time in a broth of dashi. Popular items are: slices of daikon (white radish), konnyaku (devil's tongue jelly), shelled boiled eggs, ganmodoki (type of deep-fried beancurd), yakidofu (grilled beancurd), fresh tofu, atsu-age, satsumage, chikuwa (fish paste rolls), kamaboko (fish paste), hanpen,  cabbage rolls, potato, gobo rolls, tsukune, grilled pork, chicken, sausages, wakame (sea weed), etc.

Oden is eaten hot with a little stock in the bowl and a dab of karashi (Japanese mustard). It is a typical blue-collar yatai dish, but now also going more upscale.

The full name of oden is nikomi dengaku. In the Kansai it may also be called Kanto daki, in Nagoya Kanto ni. This points at the Kanto origin of the dish - it began as fish dumplings from Tokyo Bay eaten with miso. These dumplings were served on wooden skewers and became known as "dengaku" after an ancient dance where performers walked on stilts. "Dengaku" was later abbreviated to "den," which became oden with the honorific "o" in front.

Although you can easily buy the ingredients seperately and make an original combination, supermarkets also sell oden sets. Besides that, fresh oden is nowadays sold in most convenience stores in Japan. Most street stalls selling the dish have disappeared, but there are still some specialist restaurants. Where fresh oden is sold, it sits simmering in large steel containers divided into compartments for the various ingredients. New ingredients can be added all the time. Besides that, it is normally served in izakaya during winter. It is excellent with sake!


Friday, February 10, 2012


Salted, spicy Alaska pollock roe. 明太子。

The roe is salted and flavored with Japanese chili pepper (togarashi). Deep red in color. Also called Karashi-mentai(-ko).

[Karashi-mentaiko. Photo Wikipedia]

The normal Japanese name for the fish from which these eggs come, the Alaska pollock, is Sukotedara. So it is a type of tara, cod.  It is 60 cm long and lives in the cold northern waters. It is popular in stews and one-pot dishes (nabemono).

Sukotedara is also called mentai, from the Korean myonte. The custom to preserve the eggs of this fish with salt and add chili pepper for spiciness, in fact first appears in the 17th-18th c. in Korea, where such kimchi-type preservation methods were common (while Japan does not originally know any spicy foods). In the 20th c., traders from Hakata in Kyushu started to import this product to Japan. After the war, it was produced locally and became quite popular nationwide and now is considered as a "traditional"  specialty from Hakata. The spread nationwide was also helped by the opening of the Shinkansen line to Hakata/Fukuoka in 1975.

Mentaiko is eaten as it is as a side dish, although in that case it may also be lightly roasted. It is also used as the main ingredient in a popular type of chazuke. Finally, mentaiko is also a good accompaniment to sake. 

Mentaiko is also called loosely tarako, as after all it are cod's eggs. But in fact tarako in the first place refers to the cod eggs alone, without the chili flavoring that is typical of mentaiko.

[Plain tarako. Photo Wikipedia]

Interesting use is made of mentaiko by using it as a spread on baguettes which are then toasted (mentaiko-furansu). Mentaiko can also be used to create an interesting type of spaghetti (mentaiko-supagetti); even more common in that case is the non-spicy type of tarako-supagetti.



Toasted baguette with mentaiko (marinated pollock roe). 明太子フランス。A type of sozai-pan, buns with savory fillings ("sozai" is the term for the side dishes eaten with rice).

Bread with mentaiko is an unexpected, but excellent combination. The marinated pollock roe is made into a paste that is then spread inside on the bread. Finally, the bread is lightly toasted. For bread, usually a baguette is used. Like Yakisoba-pan, this is a great Japanese invention (mentaiko-furansu is more upscale).

By the way, mentaiko is also used as flavoring for a delicious spaghetti dish.

Available in bakery shops.

Mentaiko Furansu


Monday, February 6, 2012


Bun filled with yakisoba (fried noodles). 焼きそばパン。A type of Japanese-style savory bread.

Yakisoba are thick ramen-type noodles (not soba!) made from wheat flour. Usually they are stir-fried with bits of pork and vegetables and flavored with a thick sweet sauce. One of the favorite garnishes is benishoga, shredded pickled ginger, and you see that also often on the yakisoba buns.

The bun used is the same type as for hot dogs. The yakisoba is drier than usual, as otherwise the bun would soon be saturated with oil and sauce. This type of bun is generally available in convenience stores, but also in stalls at festivals. It is also popular among high-school students, because it pairs a low price with being quite filling.

The idea seems weird: baked noodles on bread... until you try it and see how delicious this is! One of the oldest, standard types of Japanese-style bread!



Friday, February 3, 2012



”Lucky Direction Roll." Thick uncut sushi roll eaten as seasonal food at Setsubun (Febr. 3). 恵方巻.

Other name is kaburizushi, ”Sushi where you bite off pieces" かぶり寿司 , (kaburu = kajiru, to bite off, gnaw, set your teeth into), pointing at the fact that these thick sushi rolls are uncut.

Ehomaki are traditionally from Osaka and people would take a bite off them while facing in the lucky direction of the year (i.e. the direction of the Zodiac animal) and making a silent wish.


The reason the rolls are not cut is in Japanese 「縁を切らない」- not to cut off good luck. And the reason it has to be a sushi roll (maki) is 「福を巻き込む」- to catch good fortune.

The ingredients of an Ehomaki are free as long as the whole is colorful; they also may include some things not normally used in sushi. Sometimes seven different colors are used to remind one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune.

Ehomaki are today popular nationwide, but this has not always been the case. It is in fact a quite recent phenomenon, brought about by... convenience stores. Seven Eleven and other convenience stores started selling and promoting Ehomaki from the mid-nineties on and they were so successful that now everyone knows them and more than half of all Japanese set their teeth in Ehomaki at Setsubun (or even several weeks before that date). Seven Eleven alone sold 5.2 million rolls in 2011.


Buns (or brioches) filled with custard. クリームパン。A type of kashi-pan, sweet buns or buns with sweet fillings ("kashi" means "confectionery"). 

The Japanese name may give rise to the expectation that this bread has been filled with whipped cream, but in fact, it is ordinary custard! This type of bread was "invented" in 1904 by the founder of Nakamuraya, Soma Aizo, on the basis of cream puffs (profiteroles). Nakamuraya was a bread shop standing in front of the Main gate (Red Gate) of Tokyo University. Later the shop moved to Shinjuku.

Comparable to buns filled with jam, and like those, available in convenience stores and supermarkets.

Custard bread