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.
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.
Yes, you read that right, what we have here is stir-fried lettuce. I know it sounds strange, but just trust me on this one. Although the lettuce seems withered, you’ll see it remains surprisingly crunchy and delicious after cooking.
Simply seasoned with salt, pepper and fresh ginger, Ebi Lettuce Itame is a delightfully “assari” dish. This is one of those hard-to-translate terms: it means subtly flavored, delicately textured and light all around. Japanese culinary culture puts a big premium on this sort of thing – subtle, refreshing dishes that won’t leave you feeling weighed down or overstuffed. I guess this isn’t necessarily that fashionable in Western cooking, but in Japan calling a dish “assari” is high praise indeed.
So when you want something light but still more consistent than a salad, try some stir-fried shrimp with Lettuce.
Named after the golden red color of the autumn leaves by the Tatsuta River near Nara, as evoked in a famous poem dating from 9th century, Saba Tatsuta-age is a wonderful recipe to try when you manage to secure high quality mackerel (‘Saba’ in Japanese), whether fresh or frozen.
Though traditionally prized for the delicious taste you get when you seal in all of the fish fat, this method of cooking has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts as scientists have increasingly identified the health benefits of essential nutrients such as Omega-3, which are plentiful in mackerel and other blue-backed fish.
A secondary, but not inconsiderable, advantage is that this way of cooking mostly attenuates the strong, fishy-smell that’s typical of Blue-Backed fish. The result is a succulent fish dinner that’s nutritionally outstanding without the overpowering fishy taste you get from other ways of cooking mackarel.
Here’s another of those nice-food-if-you-can-get-it recipes, the “it” in this case being the tricky to find main ingredient: garlic sprouts.
Though, on second thought, there’s really no good reason these should be so hard to find in the West. They’re just the young green plants you get from a garlic bulb when you plant it in the ground.
Garlic sprouts seem to be a popular ingredient in Chinese cooking, and we also eat them in Japan, usually with beef. The taste is garlicky, but milder than the bulb’s and they have a unique sweetness that’s not weighed down by a strong smell. Their crunchy texture survives a fair amount of cooking.
Here in Montreal you can find Garlic Sprouts at the big Chinese/Vietnamese/Cambodian grocery superstore: Kim Phat.
A hotpot cooked at the dinner table, Nabe is the quintessential Japanese winter dining experience. With Nabe, you’re cooking and eating in “real time”, which imposes its own pace on a meal: it’s just not physically possible to eat a Nabe in a rush.
That probably helps explain why Nabe conjures up that special kind of conviviality you get when it’s cold outside and you’re huddled around a warm pot sharing a leisurely meal with friends, family or business associates.
Strictly speaking, “Nabe” refers not to the recipe but to the hardware: the clay pot itself. In Japan, everybody eats from a single Nabe, sort of like with a fondue.
All kinds of stuff can go into a nabe, from thin slices of meat (for “shabu shabu” and “sukiyaki”) to meatballs (“chanko-nabe”) to salmon and miso (“ishikari-nabe”) to poisonous blowfish (“te-chiri”).
There’s even a fun dinner party game you can play, called Yami-nabe, where you turn the lights off and each guest has to put a secret ingredient in the pot: the fun is in trying to guess what all the different ingredients are. I remember playing this one time when I was in college and a friend of mine put a McDonald’s McNugget in our yami-nabe: we never invited him again!
Out of the dozens of nabe variations out there, Yose-nabe is one of the simplest and most popular: a light broth flavored with sea kelp and starring, chicken, shrimp, tofu, mushrooms and vegetables. Readers in Quebec may think of it as “Fondue Chinoise Japonaise”, only with none of that weird curry mayonnaise. And with a lot more vegetables in it.
In Montreal, you can find Japanese Nabe clay pots starting at $25 in Chinatown, and we just use a simple portable electric burner to put on the table ($19.95 at Canadian Tire). But if you have an electric pot for Fondue Chinoise, or even a normal Fondue pot, those will work fine. You just need something to keep the ingredients simmering.
In Canada, autumn means Apples: they’re incredibly abundant at this time of the year. But in Japan, autunmn means Sanma, a fish so seasonal that its Japanese name brings together the character for autumn (秋) with the one for knife (刀 – because, of course, sanma kind of looks like a long blade) and the one for fish (魚), to make 秋刀魚, literally “Autumn Knife Fish”.
In the west, sanma is formally known as “pacific saury”, but more commonly referred to as “mackerel pike”. Personally, I’ll always call it sanma, and think of it as just another reason to look forward to the autumn. In season, sanma cost almost nothing, and grilling them always brings back memories of the big, back-to-school barbecue parties students at my university always organized at the start of the fall term.
Sanma is definitely best grilled over a charcoal fire and lightly seasoned with a bit of salt or with a light mixture of soy-sauce and grated daikon. It’s already too cold to barbecue here so, for tonight’s dinner, we did it on a stove-top grill.
In Montreal it’s very difficult to find fresh fish, but vacuum-packed frozen fish is also fine. I’m very proud of myself that I paid just $2.10 (for two of them!) for this spectacular fish at Angel Seafoods the other day.