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Inspired by Tokyo

Japanese home cooking is full of flavour, light on ingredients, good for you and surprisingly quick to make

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Inspired by Tokyo
Inspired by Tokyo

Leave the pristine sushi to the restaurants. Japanese home cooking is full of flavour, light on ingredients, good for you and surprisingly quick to make – in other words, the holy grail of weeknight meals.

1. Donabe (Above)

Every culture has a tradition of one-pot meals. Japan’s donabe just happens to be the tastiest and most elegant one on the planet. The word refers both to warming combinations of simmered-together ingredients and to the beautiful earthenware pot it’s traditionally cooked in. While most one-pots are long-cooked, our favourite donabes are ready in minutes. A donabe vessel is the equivalent of a cast-iron casserole. Try the Signature 24cm round cast-iron cocotte, from Le Creuset.

Know your Donabe

This is one of countless riffable hot-pot recipes. Whatever goes in your pot, remember these rules:

1. Mix up seafood proportions; use shrimp or white fish; just don’t omit chicken – the fish-fowl combo is key.
2. Cut whatever vegetables you have into pieces that will cook quickly – think slices rather than big chunks.
3. No matter what ends up in your pot, make sure that it fills it snugly. You want the whole arrangement to stay put while the liquid simmers.

Anything-goes Donabe
Serves 4

25g bean thread noodles
4 cups dashi (see recipe below)
125ml mirin
125ml light soy sauce
4 spring onions, 2 thinly sliced on the diagonal, 2 sliced into 3cm pieces
1/4 head of cabbage, sliced into 3cm pieces
4 clams
4 tiger prawns, preferably with head on
500g kingklip or hake, sliced crosswise to 2cm thickness
1 large skinless, boneless chicken thigh, cut into 1cm pieces
200g firm tofu, sliced 1cm thick
125g oyster mushrooms, torn into bite-size pieces
85g enoki mushrooms
1 small carrot, peeled, halved crosswise and sliced lengthwise

1. Place the noodles in a large bowl and add cold water to cover. Let them soak for 15 minutes, then drain.
2. Combine the dashi, mirin and soy sauce in a medium bowl.
3. Place the spring onion in a small bowl and add cold water to cover. Soak for 8 to 10 minutes until the onion slices begin to curl. Drain and squeeze to remove excess water. Set aside.
4. Lay the cabbage in a large donabe or cast-iron casserole pot. Arrange the clams, prawns, kingklip, chicken, tofu, mushrooms, carrot and noodles on top. Add the dashi mixture.
5. Cover the donabe and heat over medium-high heat until the liquid is just simmering. Uncover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the clams open and the chicken and fish are cooked through.
6. Serve topped with the drained spring onion.

2. Miso

How do you turn that motley assortment of things in your fridge into a satisfying meal in less time than it takes to fry an egg? Make miso soup with it. (Like the kind you get for free before your sushi arrives, but far better.) Thinly slice whatever you have, simmer it in some dashi until tender, and dissolve a spoonful or two of flavour-rich miso paste into it. Dinner: solved.

Hot tip: wait for it
Don’t add the miso paste to your soup until the add-ins have finished cooking and the pot is off the heat. Miso is alive (like yoghurt), and boiling will kill those good-for-you organisms.

Elemental Miso Soup
Serves 4

1. Combine 1T dried wakame seaweed and 2T water in a small bowl. Let sit, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes until softened.

2. Bring 3 cups of dashi (see recipe overleaf) to a simmer in a saucepan. Add 1/2 cup of 2cm pieces of silken tofu and the wakame and simmer very gently. Remove from the heat. Add 1/4 cup miso paste to the liquid and stir until dissolved. Serve the soup topped with sliced spring onion.

3. Dashi

Properly made stock is the backbone of French cooking. That’s what dashi is to Japanese food. Smoky and sultry, it’s the umami-loaded base layer in hundreds of dishes. Instead of piles of bones and hours of simmering, all you need to make dashi are 45 minutes and two powerhouse ingredients – kombu (kelp) and bonito flakes (tuna that’s been dried, fermented and smoked).

Dashi
Serves 4

1. Place two 12x10cm pieces of dried kombu and 8 cups of water in a large saucepan. Leave the kombu to soften, about 35 minutes. Bring it to the boil, then immediately take it off the heat. Remove the kombu and discard.
2. Add a splash of water to the liquid to cool it slightly. Add 3 cups bonito flakes, stirring once. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook, skimming off any foam, for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat; allow the dashi to steep for 15 minutes.
3. Strain the dashi through a cheesecloth-lined colander or fine-mesh sieve. Do not press down on the solids.
Note: Dashi can be made two days ahead. Allow to cool, cover and chill.

Hot tip: take it easy
Dashi is more like a delicate tea than a stock. You want to extract the flavour of kombu through gentle heating, and then of the bonito through steeping.

Spinach Ohitashi
Serves 4

1. Stir 1 cup of room-temperature dashi (see recipe, left), 1/4 cup of soy sauce and 2T mirin in a small bowl.
2. Cook 1 trimmed bunch of mature spinach (or watercress, mizuna or broccoli florets) in a large pot of boiling, salted water until just tender and bright green. Drain and transfer to a large bowl of lightly salted ice water, then allow to cool. Drain and squeeze out any excess liquid from the greens.
3. Pack into a cylinder shape. Cut in half crosswise or into bite-size lengths.
4. Place in a bowl and spoon the broth over. Top with bonito flakes.

4. Teriyaki

If there’s one Japanese dish that everybody can agree on, it’s teriyaki. Why? Because when the salt-sugar-umami stars align, the result is a flavour sensation that no mortal can possibly resist. And if the only teriyaki you’ve ever had is the stuff from the bottle, well, you haven’t had the real thing. The genuine version requires only three staple ingredients (soy sauce, mirin and sake), comes together in minutes, and is worlds healthier — and tastier — than the supermarket stuff.

Hot tip: thicken up
Unlike the food-court version we’re used to, proper teriyaki shouldn’t be served in a puddle. As you finish cooking the salmon, allow the sauce to reduce to a thick, intense glaze.

Salmon Teriyaki
Serves 4

1. To make the teriyaki sauce, combine 1/2 cup sake, 1/4 cup mirin and 1/4 cup soy sauce in a small bowl. Set the teriyaki aside.
2. Heat 1T vegetable oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Slice a 750g piece of skin-on, boneless salmon crosswise into four 3cm-thick portions and lightly season them. Cook, skin-side down, for about 4 minutes, until skin is crisp. Turn and cook until the other side is just beginning to brown. Transfer to a plate.
3. Pour off the fat from the saucepan. Add the teriyaki and bring it to a boil over medium heat. Cook until reduced by two-thirds. Add salmon, skin-side up, and cook, spooning sauce over, until sauce is syrupy and salmon is just cooked through.
4. Sprinkle with sansho powder, if desired.

5. Rice

In Japanese, the word for food is the same as the one for rice. Without it, a meal is not a meal. The real genius of rice is revealed when you think about it in reverse: add just about anything to a bowl of it and — voilà! — you have dinner. But don’t think of it as a fill-you-up starch. Properly cooked short-grain white rice is a craveable study in subtlety and texture, to be mixed and matched at will.

Hot tip: seek balance
Why is Japanese food so highly seasoned? It’s meant to be served with rice. Building a meal around it is all about setting bold flavours against its magical blank canvas.

Steamed Japanese rice

1. Place 2 cups of Japanese short-grain white rice in a large pot, add water to cover and swirl the rice with your hand (the water will become cloudy). Drain, then return the rice to the pot. Repeat the process until the water is clear when mixed with rice (3 or 4 times). Drain the rice again and cover the sieve with a kitchen towel. Leave it to rest for 15 minutes.
2. Return the rice to the pot and add 2 cups water. Partially cover the pot and bring the rice to a boil. Stir once, cover, then reduce the heat. Simmer until the water is mostly absorbed and the rice is tender (about 12 minutes). Remove the pot from the heat and set aside, covered, for 10 minutes. Fluff the rice with a spoon, re-cover the pot, and leave it for 5 minutes before serving.

6. Steaming

Steamed food tends to make us think of a bland, joyless cuisine usually prescribed to someone who’s unwell. But to the Japanese, steaming is about delicacy, not deprivation. It’s a means of cooking food gently, with less manipulation (and no added fat), so that flavours flourish. Is it healthy? Yes. Easy? Yep. And when it’s done with care, it is incredibly delicious. Try the Scanpan Impact Multi Steamer, yuppiechef.com.

Hot tip: cook gently
The secret to juicy, tender, delicately steamed white-meat chicken and squash? Going slowly.

Sake-steamed chicken and Squash
Serves 4

2 dried chillies, seeded and crushed, or 1/2t crushed red-pepper flakes
1 cup sake
1 piece (3cm) ginger, peeled, cut into matchsticks
2 (250g) skin-on or skinless, boneless chicken breasts
1/4 small red kuri squash, seeded and sliced into 3cm-thick half-moons, then sliced in half again
2 spring onions, sliced on the diagonal, plus more for serving

1. Combine the chillies, sake and 1 cup water in a pot. Fit with a steamer basket and arrange the ginger inside. Season the chicken and place in the steamer basket, skin-side up. Add the squash and spring onions. Cover the pot and steam over a medium heat, adding more water, 1/4 cup at a time, if needed, until the squash is tender and the chicken is just cooked through.
2. Remove the basket and set aside. Bring the liquid in the pot to a boil. Cook for about 6 to 8 minutes, until the liquid thickens (there should be about 3T).
3. Slice the chicken and arrange on plates with the squash. Pour liquid over and top with additional spring onion.

Photography Okawa Hisashi Words Amiel Stanek Recipes Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat