Ingredients, dishes and drinks from Japan by Ad Blankestijn

Thursday, March 27, 2014



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.

Komatsuna, Japanese mustard spinach

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.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


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


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


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 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


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."