Ingredients, dishes and drinks from Japan by Ad Blankestijn

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Sweet potato. さつまいも、薩摩芋。Ipomoea batatas. Other names are "kansho," "Kara-imo" and "Ryukyu-imo."

Sweet potatoes originated in Central and South America. The Spanish brought the starchy root tuber to the Philippines, from whence it reached China (Fujian) - and from there is was in 1605 brought to the Ryukyu Islands (now Okinawa). In the seventeenth century (from 1611) it spread throughout southern Kyushu - the tuber fitted very well in the volcanic soil where other plants had difficulty growing. As that was the domain of the Satsuma clan, the potato became known as Satsumo-imo, "Satsuma potato."

According to another theory, by the way, Satsuma-imo were brought directly to Nagasaki and Hirado, without following the route via Okinawa (there is a record that the British brought sweet potatoes to Hirado in 1615 - multiple routes are indeed likely).

Although the sweet potato reached Japan a little later than the ordinary potato (jagaimo), it became more popular thanks to its sweetness. After the 1730s, Satsuma-imo reached the Kansai and after that also the Kanto area. They are easy to cultivate and as they provide a lot of carbon hydrates, they were very welcome in times when the rice harvest failed. They were promoted by agricultural scientist Aoki Konyo (1698 - 1769) and instrumental in warding off large-scale starvation.

Over the centuries, the Satsuma-imo potato has been improved in Japan to become very sweet and soft. The skin is a bright, reddish purple. The inside is white when raw, creamy yellow when cooked.


Sweet potatoes can be simmered (as in the picture above, where they have been simmered in a sweet sauce containing dashi, soy sauce and mirin or sugar - this is the most common way to use them in the home), baked and fried. In that last case, they are sliced thin, and used as a popular ingredient in  tempura. Baked sweet potatoes are a popular snack in winter (yaki-imo). Daigaku-imo is a snack made from baked and candied sweet potato. Puree from sweet potatoes is used in imo-kinton and in other wagashi, Japanese sweets.

Satsuma-imo also form one of the ingredients from which shochu, Japanese distilled, can be made (imo-jochu).

Preservation: store in a cool dark place outside the refrigerator. Keeps for about five days. Look for firm potatoes without brown spots.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Taro, dasheen. さといも、里芋。Colocasia esculenta.

Sato-imo (lit. "village potato," so named in contrast to another type that was found in the mountains) is the corm of a perennial plant found all-over tropical Asia in many varieties. It is believed to be one of the earliest cultivated plants in the world. It probably originated in the eastern Indian peninsula and then spread both eastwards and westwards. According to the Tabemono no Kigen Jiten, it came to Japan from China in the Nara-period (8th c.) - it is mentioned in the Manyoshu poetry collection -, but there are also people who conjecture that taro was already a staple food of the Japanese in the Jomon-period (10,000 BCE - 300 BCE).

Taro is characterized by a soft, waxy, almost glutinous texture. At the same time, there is no distinctive flavor. Taro has a high liquidity content (84%). relatively little sugar (13%) and is a good source of starch and potassium. In Japan it is considered a propitious food as the corms (oya-imo) have "children" (ko-imo) and even "grandchildren" (mago-imo).

In traditional preparations, taro is simmered for a long time in flavored broth (for example, dashi and soy sauce with optional extra katsuo flakes; this preparation is called nimono). In this form it can be eaten as a side dish called sato-imo-ni, but the sato-imo is also often individually used in kaiseki, the Japanese haute-cuisine. Sato-imo can also be stewed together with meat or fowl, or added to soups. In these cases it is a useful ingredient as it absorbs the flavor of the broth.

[Sato-imo-ni, taro's simmered in a broth of dashi, soy sauce and katsuo flakes]

When using taro, they are first washed to remove soil residue, wiped dry, peeled with a knife (they have a hard skin) and parboiled. The cut surface shows a snowy-white flesh. When this flesh comes in contact with water, it will develop a slightly slimy texture. 

Preservation: never put fresh taro in the refrigerator, as they are weak for cold. Just store in a dry and dark place, wrapped in a newspaper. When buying, look for hard ones with the soil still attached; don't buy washed ones as contact with water impairs the taste.

Friday, April 13, 2012


Bamboo leaf-shaped kamaboko笹かまぼこ。

Cake made of fish paste and shaped as a bamboo leaf. A local product of Sendai. Developed in 1935 by the Abe Kamaboko shop in Sendai, based on the emblem of the Date clan that had ruled Sendai from 1600 to 1871. This emblem consisted of bamboo leaves with sparrows, and the bamboo leaf shape was used to form the kamaboko.


The fish paste is shaped before grilling with the use of a wooden or iron form.

Kamaboko is an important industry in Miyagi Prefecture thanks to the presence of three major fishing ports: Kesennuma, Ishinomaki and Shiogama (all hit hard by the 2011 tsunami).

Sasakamoboko is eaten as a snack, for example with sake or beer.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Sake (fish)

Salmon. サケ、鮭。Oncorhyncus keta. Also known as "chum salmon."

Pacific salmon is silvery in color, the length is usually 60-70 cm, and weight about 3 kg. The fish can be found in the seas around Japan, and travels upstream of rivers for spawning in Tohoku and Hokkaido. This occurs between September and January. For food, however, the salmon from the high seas is preferred, and these are best in May and June.


Despite the Japanese predilection for sashimi, fresh salmon is not part of the traditional Japanese diet - sushi with salmon are a recent innovation. Most salmon is salted after it has been caught (shiozake) and then grilled. In this form it is a perennial breakfast  favorite. It is also used in nabemono (one pot dishes eaten in winter as Ishikari-nabe), and can be steamed with sake (rice wine) as sakamushi.

The salted roe of the salmon is considered a delicacy and is marketed under the name ikura.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Grilled meat, Japanese BBQ. 焼肉、やきにく。

Barbecuing meat - grilling on a griddle over a direct fire - is a way of cooking based on Korean cuisine (bulgogi and galbi). After WWII, Koreans living in Japan (first in Osaka, than gradually via Nagoya also in Tokyo) set up restaurants called "Horumon-yaki" based on this way of cooking. "Horumon" means "horu mono" or "things thrown away." In other words, meat was used that was normally thrown away - offal. These restaurants became popular from the mid-fifties, especially among salarymen.  Although today horumon-yaki restaurants can still occasionally be found, generally they have morphed into the more upscale yakiniku restaurants, where mostly "normal" meat is used instead of offal.

The fire can be a charcoal fire, but gas and electric grills are also common. The ingredients are cooked by the diners and dipped in various sauces based on soy sauce or miso. Kimchi is often served on the side.

Yakiniku teishoku

[Yakiniku teishoku. The meat is beef and has been cooked with bean sprouts (moyashi). The tare-sauce has been poured over the meat]

Monday, April 9, 2012



"Oak leaf rice cake." 柏餅、かしわもち。

Round-shaped mochi filled with sweet bean paste (an) and wrapped in an oak leaf (from the Kashiwa or Daimyo Oak, Quercus Dentata,  which is native to Japan). As an, both tsubuan (rough type with parts of beans left), koshian (fine type) and misoan (flavored with miso) can be used. The mochi can be plain or flavored, for example with yomogi (mugwort) as on the picture.

Popular sweet on Boys Day (Tango no Sekku, May 5) because of the symbolism that the old oak leaves do not fall off until the new shoots have grown. Is nowadays available the whole year.


The origin of kashiwa-mochi goes back to mid 18th c. Edo. They were popularized over the whole country by the system of alternate attendance of daimyo in Edo. In the Kansai and Western japan, where the oak does not occur naturally, originally on Boys Day chimaki (mochi made of glutinous rice and wrapped in a bamboo leaf) were eaten. Instead of oak leaves, here also sometimes leaves of greenbrier-type trees are used (Sarutoriibara, Smilacaceae).

In contrast to sakura-mochi, where the cherry leaf has been pickled, the oak leaf is not meant to be eaten.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Soup made from sakekasu. 粕汁。

Made by adding sakekasu to dashi. As other ingredients pieces of boiled daikon, boiled carrot, aburage, ito-konnyaku, gobo, aonegi etc. are used. Fish is also often added, for example salmon. The ingredients are not fixed, sometimes pork is added instead of fish.

Sakekasu is very nutritious and warms the body. It contains vitamins, carbohydrates and amino acids. The sakekasu balances the various ingredients and gives the whole a round taste. A dish that is often  enjoyed at winter festivities. But be careful not to eat too much when driving a car for sakekasu may contain alcohol!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


Daikon (radish) pickled with koji. べったら漬.

Tsukemono (pickled or preserved vegetables) popular in Tokyo. This type of pickle can be rather sticky or "bettara" and that is how it got its name. The taste is crisp and sweet.

The main difference with takuan, another pickle made from daikon (with the nukazuke method), is that the radishes used for bettarazuke are not dried. Therefore the liquid content of the pickle may be as high as 80%. It does not keep very well and should be consumed soon after opening.


Monday, April 2, 2012



"Cherry blossom rice cake." 桜餅.

Japanese sweet (wagashi) based on a cherry blossom theme: the color is pink and the sweet is wrapped in the salted leaf of a cherry tree. The wagashi itself consists of a ball of sticky rice (mochigome) with sweet, red bean paste (an) inside.


The leaf, which has been pickled in salt (shiozuke) adds unexpected saltiness to the overall sweetness. It is also the leaf that carries the faint smell and taste of cherry blossoms.

This is a popular sweet, delicious with a bowl of green tea, that is available the year around.

By the way, this is the Kansai type - in Tokyo (near Chomeiji Temple on the banks of the River Sumida, a famous cherry blossom viewing spot in Edo times) a different type was developed where the dough is drier and forms a wrapper around the bean paste.