This braised dish is one way my mother solved that perennial “so, what’s for dinner?” problem: unbelievably delicious, made from ingredients that cost next to nothing, healthy and ready in just a few minutes.
When you find you’ve bought a bit too much Napa Cabbage (hakusai) and you’re not sure how to finish it all, this is the solution.
This is one of the most popular Japanese home cooked side-dishes. It’s not a complicated recipe, but you do need some tips and experience to make a really good one that blends the squash’s natural sweetness with just the right amount of salty soy sauce and umami dashi. In fact, this is one of those recipes where it really pays to measure things carefully before tossing them in!
Squash arrived in Japan in the middle of 16th century from Cambodia through the Portuguese. Originally, we got a kind of butternut squash, but today the green-on-the-outside variety, known as kabocha squash or Japanese pumpkin, is the most common in Japan.
Kabocha Nimono is the kind of old kitchen stand-by recipe most Japanese moms can make with their eyes closed. Cooked this way, you don’t even have to peel the squash: the skin becomes very soft through simmering. The big pitfall to watch out for here is using too much moisture and letting the pumpkin get all soggy. The goal is to get the squash soft and buttery, almost like a chestnut. You don’t want it waterlogged.
The concept of Konbu Tsukudani is a little hard to explain, since it’s a food category that doesn’t really exist in the West: a topping for white rice. As you may know, in Japan rice is usually cooked entirely plain, without even salt. Instead of flavoring rice as you cook it, as is done in the West, we usually add flavor to plain white rice by topping it with something intensely flavorful (or, if we’re making Onigiri, by stuffing it inside).
Intense certainly describes the taste of Konbu Tsukudani – a powerful mix of sweet, salty and umami. Usually I buy the ready-made kind in Japan and bring it, but I recently ran out. So, I decided to make some from scratch. Turns out, if you can get dried sea kelp, it’s easy.
In fact, Konbu Tsukudani is delicious even without rice. Probably the simplest way to enjoy tsukudani is to just eat it on its own, as an accompaniment to green tea: something intensely sweet and salty to heighten the flavor of the tea.
I have a vivid memory of the instant I realized that Nanohana Ohitashi – a dish made by seasoning the young green shoots of the plant we get Canola oil from – is one of the most delicious and refined side dishes in the Japanese repertoire. I was still a university student. That day, I went to a restaurant in Kyoto with my parents, but without my sisters. I remember it clearly, perhaps because it was rare for us to go out without them. It was a classic Japanese restaurant: very sober, very refined.
The Nanohana Ohitashi was served to us in a big bowl to be shared. We were a little taken a back, at first, by the size of the portion. It was really a lot; actually, it seemed a little bit too much for three people. But as we started in on it, we quickly understood that finishing it wouldn’t be a problem: it was just so fragrant, so elegant, so stylish. Slightly piquant due to the mustard, and bitter but also sweet thanks to the contribution of the rapini. It was perfection in a side dish.
By the end, there was none left.
There’s a reason you usually don’t see aubergine recipes here: sadly, I have a pretty nasty food allergy to them. It’s terrible, because I was a huge fan until they started to make me ill, about three years ago. Today, though, I’ve decided that Yakinasu is worth blogging even if I can’t have any of it for myself. So here’s a recipe I made for some dinner guests last night.
As the name suggests (Yaki=grill, Nasu=aubergine), this recipe is really simple: basically just aubergines you’ve grilled and peeled. That’s it! Simple as it is, the results will definitely surprise you: grilling eggplants this way gives them a deep, smoky, earthy taste you’re going to love.
This recipe is not difficult at all, but it does call for patience and finesse. Part of what’s challenging about it is that you need to keep those eggplants on the grill long past the point where they look basically ruined: it’s by letting the skin char completely that you get that deep, smoky flavor. The result is so delicate and delicious, I think it’s an excellent choice for guests.
First some etymology: “renkon” is what we call the root of the lotus flower plant, while manju, less poetically, means something like “round bun”. What we have here, in fact, is a shrimp-infused dumpling made with a dough of grated lotus root. Place one of these in a bowl under sauce and you’ve made a blockbuster side-dish. Put two of them in a bowl and what you have is a deeply satisfying main.
When we lived in Europe, we had a really hard time sourcing fresh lotus roots, but here in Montreal it’s no problem: they always seem to have them at Kim Phat. That means we’re able to make lotus root tempura, which is a particular favorite of mine, as well as braised lotus root (kimpira), which is also very good. But renkon manju is in a league of its own: a truly special delicacy.
Don’t let this recipe intimidate you, though: after you’ve done it once or twice you’ll find it’s much easier than you imagine.
“Okra?! What’s that?” It’s a fair question. If you live in Europe, Latin America, the US North or Canada, you may have never seen this odd-looking plant. It has certainly spread unevenly around the globe: by now its fleshy pods are a staple in East Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, the American South and in Japan, but for some odd reason hardly used in China!
This recipe makes for a quick, very healthy and flavourful side dish.
It’s particularly tasty mixed together with natto (fermented soybeans) and served as a topping for white rice. But if like many people (including many Japanese) you are not a big fan of natto, you can serve Okra Aemono on its own over rice. Delish.