Kanako's Kitchen

Oyako-don: Chicken in Egg Sauce over Rice

Posted in Recipe, rice, today's meal by Kanako Noda on November 5, 2009

oyakodonHere’s a chicken-and-the-egg dish whose name is a bit of a play on words. Oya means parent and Ko = child. The don is short for donburi, a whole family of protein-in-sauce-over-a-rice-bowl dishes. So put it together and you get “parent-and-child-donburi”…get it?

Following much the same recipe you could also make Tanin-don, which uses pork instead of chicken. (Tanin means…wait for it…”strangers”). Or skip the meat and you end up with Tamago-don (tamago = “egg”). The sauce is the same in each: all of them are delicious.

A donburi is, by definition, nothing fancy. Yet, when it’s done well, oyako-don can be absolutely magnificent: a light, savory-sweet dream of chicken and egg over sticky rice.

This is the dish that first convinced my husband that Japanese food really is something special. On trips to Japan, he forces me to hunt around for the best Oyakodon, finally landing in a tiny restaurant in Kyoto famous for this dish. With a typical Kyoto taste, light and delicate, this dish transcends its junk food roots and comes very close to…well…a work of art.

This recipe is dedicated to our friend Juan who went to the Asian store in his home town and got confused – buying Japanese pepper (sanshyo) instead of Japanese peppers. He’s been wondering what to do with the pepper ever since. Well, Juan, oyako-don here is an excellent use for your sanshyo!


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Japanese Curry

Posted in main dish, Recipe, rice by Kanako Noda on November 4, 2009

curryIt’s probably not the first thing you think of, but if you ask me Japan’s true national dish is curry. Japanese people are crazy for the stuff: it’s served constantly, both at home and in restaurants. I think it has a good claim to be Japan’s best-loved dish.

Of course, curry isn’t from Japan. As everybody knows, curry is originally Indian, but the dish came to Japan in the late 19th century through the colonial route, via Britain. This may explain why compared to Indian curry, Japanese curry is usually quite mild, sweet even, and certainly never very spicy.

I’ve met some Canadians who are really into Japanese culture, and they all complained that whenever Japanese people invited them for dinner, they made curry! It’s easy to understand why they run into it so often at parties: this dish scales up very well, so it’s ideal for big gatherings, parties, and the like. And since everyone in Japan loves the stuff, it’s very often served to guests. (In honor of this, the recipe below is for 20 people!)

I’ll admit it: Westerners sometimes fail to see the point of Japanese curry. I can see why. If you’re used to Indian food, our way of making it could strike you as a little unexciting. I’ve come to the conclusion this is one of those dishes that divides cultures more than it brings them together: almost everyone in Japan loves Japanese style curry but reactions abroad are more mixed.


Kurigohan: Savory Rice with Chestnuts

Posted in Recipe, rice by Kanako Noda on October 27, 2009

kurigohanJapanese home cooking is seasonal cooking. Many of the dishes you’ll see in the blog now that the year is drawing to a close are things I wouldn’t think to make in spring or summer. Kurigohan is a case in point: a flavored rice dish that takes advantage of the bountiful chestnut harvest we get around this time of year, this is definitely my favorite way to eat chestnuts. It’s also a highly prized dish often served to honored guests.

It’s pretty easy to make kurigohan, but you do need to plan a little bit ahead: like all rice dishes, the rice needs to soak for a while before cooking. And to make the chestnuts keep a nice, vivid color, I recommend a little kitchen trick that, while not at all hard, does involve you starting to cook at least four hours ahead of serving time.


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Zousui: Watery Rice

Posted in Recipe, rice by Kanako Noda on October 20, 2009

zousuiThis is another mainstay of Japanese home cooking, but few foreigners know about it because it’s often considered too “humble” a food to serve to guests.

In fact, zousui isn’t even really “dish” so much as a clever way to use up leftover rice that’s gotten a little bit too dry to eat straight.

The basic idea couldn’t be more straight forward: 1-make a clear broth (like osuimono) 2-dump leftover rice in it. For really spectacular results, though, you want to use the left-over broth from making nabe: the richer the nabe was, the better the zousui is going to be.

Zousui is very easy to digest, so it’s the classic Japanese upset tummy food. And my husband swears it’s an excellent hangover cure. More than anything, though it’s real comfort food: a hearty winter dish to warm you from the inside out.


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Gohan: Standard White Rice

Posted in Ingredient Guide, Recipe, rice, today's meal by Kanako Noda on October 20, 2009

gohanIt’s a big stereotype, but it’s totally true: Japanese people are obsessed with rice.

The fixation is woven right into our language. The word for rice – “gohan”- also means “meal”. “Asa” means morning, so to say “breakfast” you have to say “asa-gohan”: literally, it’s our “morning rice”. “Hiru” means “midday”, so lunch becomes “hiru-gohan”. And evening is “ban”, so you can guess what “ban-gohan” means.

Now, lets not fool ourselves: to the western palate, Japanese rice comes across as terribly bland. The standard recipe is completely plain. No spices, no salt, no flavorings, nothing. Just rice, water, heat and time. It certainly takes time and practice to learn to discern the subtle differences in taste and texture that set apart exceptional white rice from the merely ordinary kind.

It’s hard to think of a simpler dish, yet we Japanese obsess about it endlessly. At top-end Japanese department stores, you can easily find rice cookers that cost $1,000 or more. All children learn exactly how to cook white rice in elementary school. Journalists get sent out to cover the first rice harvest of the season because everyone knows that the early-harvest rice is just better than the rest. Government scientists research the question of harvest timing extensively.

Even the Emperor has to ritually plant and later harvest some rice each year to offer to the Sun Goddess; in fact, some scholars hypothesize that, in Ancient Times, the emperors got their start as rice shamans, rising to political power thanks to the belief that they had magical powers over the rice harvest. As one author explains:

The symbolic importance of rice is deeply rooted in the Japanese cosmology: rice as soul, rice as pure money, and ultimately, rice as self. During Edo era (1603-1867), rice was circulated as an intermediate, as money.

Even though the Japanese had the custom of eating rice since ancient times, only after the nineteenth century did rice became the national food staple. Therefore, rice has been valued as a special food associated with rituals. Rice harvest rituals, both among the folk and at the imperial court, have been a major cultural institution. The Japanese emperor originally was the shaman who celebrated rice harvest in ancient times. Harvest ritual celebrate cosmic rejuvenation through an exchange of their souls, that is, selves, as objectified in rice.

People believed that rice had mysterious super-natural powers. One example can be seen in an ancient custom; people shook rice in bamboo and let the dying person hear the sound at his deathbed. On mountainsides, people called rice “the Buddhist saint (Bosastu).” The word “offering (to the God),” osonae, itself used to refer to the rice cake prepared for ritual services. It means that the rice had been used as main servings for the formal rituals to God.

Rice is not a mere grain, rather a personified thing that has soul. People perceived a rice cropping to be closely connected to the super-natural, religious behavior, rather than an economic activity. Rice farmers had a notion of “ina-dama,” the soul of rice, and personified rice. Therefore even today, people believe that the soul of rice, which is called the God of the rice paddy, dwells in the last rice stubble. The person who reaped the last rice would bring it back home and hold a service. This custom is still practiced at the rice harvest rituals.

So you’ve been warned: this dish may be exceedingly simple, but it is not to be trifled with. Simple white rice is the cornerstone not just of our diet, but of our whole way of life.

And, now that I think of it, it’s not just at harvest time that rice is suffused with ritual. Making rice at home is full of little ritual gestures as well. In this post, I try to share some of them.


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Takikomi-gohan: Savory Rice

Posted in Recipe, rice, today's meal by Kanako Noda on October 15, 2009

takikomi gohanLets be clear: standard Japanese rice is plain. No flavorings, no spices, no salt, no nothing. Just rice, water, heat and time. Older people in Japan – and even a good number of younger people – eat this kind of plain white rice three times a day. It’s like bread for Western people: there at every meal.

So that’s the standard thing. But once every great while mom gets frisky and decides to do something different with rice. Enter takikomi-gohan: a flavored rice that can serve as a main course. Takikomi-gohan can be eaten hot or cold, and it’s a popular lunch-box item. We don’t make this kind of rice every day. We don’t even make it often. But every once in a while, it really hits the spot.