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.
This typical Kyoto recipe is a simple way to make fresh, home-made pickles (what we call “otsukemono” – 漬物 – in Japanese) in as little as 12 hours. It’s great as a “chopstick vacation” – a tiny side dish to contrast with the flavor of the main dishes.
As my mom is from Kyushu, this isn’t something she would normally make at home. However, I remember Senmai-zuke very well from growing up near Kyoto, and I always liked it. The image of Senmai-zuke displayed in front of the pickles stores is something which always reminds me of Kyoto.
In Japan, New Year is not just a party, it’s a very important festival of purification, renewal and ritual. In fact, New Year’s day (not eve) is one of the most important holidays in the festival calendar. It’s called Shogatsu and it heralds a week-long bacchanalia when lots of traditional banquet foods are served.
The traditional shogatsu dinner is called Osechi: it’s a huge amount of work which basically requires the whole family pitch in. In my house in Japan, my mother used to prepare it every year, with my two sisters and I as assistants. Traditionally, osechi must be served in three- or five-story lacquerware Bento boxes. The banner you see on the top of this blog is, in fact, of one of the osechi we prepared at my house in Japan a few years ago.
Not having lacquerware for Osechi and having a Venezuelan husband, this year we decided to do something East-West for our first shogatsu meal. We had Hallacas, the traditional Venezuelan Christmas food, which is similar to Mexican tamales and we made with his family a couple of weeks ago, and I made small but special little side dishes: Umaki (Japanese omelet with eel), Nuta (spring onions with sweet miso souce), and Ikura Mizore-ae (salmon roe with grated daikon). Mizore literally means sleet in Japanese.
Mizore-ae is very simple but it turns a beautiful dish for a special occasion.
Nuta is an ancient Japanese side dish: the first recipes for it appear in documents from the end of the Muromachi Era – some 450 years ago.
When I was a young girl, I can remember my grandmother making this for guests. But my feeling is that, in Japan, nuta has fallen out of favor over the years. You rarely see it on restaurant menus anymore, and few younger people seem to cook it at home these days.
I have no idea why that should be. Healthy, flavorful and extremely easy to make, nuta is poised for a come back if you ask me. In fact, over the years, I’ve discovered that people outside Japan love nuta. I always make it for my non-Japanese friends and it’s always a big hit.
Here, I share the vegetarian version of the dish, which is especially easy to make. But if you wanted to go further, you’d add squid to it for a show-stopper of a side dish. Just fantastic!
Literal translations have a way of sounding ridiculous, and none more so than Sunomono’s: it comes out as “vinegarable thing” or “that which you put vinegar on.” This concept covers a whole family of dainty Japanese salads flavored with a subtle, vinegar-based marinade and sometimes (but not necessarily) topped with seafood.
Ancient documents show that Japanese people have been making sunomono-style dishes at least since writing was first introduced to our country. That’s over 1300 years ago!
Now, sunomono is not exactly a side dish: instead, it’s what we call a “hashi-yasume” (箸休め) which – and here comes another of those crazy literal translations – means “chopstick vacation”. Less poetically – but more helpfully – my dictionary glosses it as a “palate-cleansing side dish.”
You know how sometimes, in a fancy French restaurant, they will serve a tiny dish of sorbet between courses to refresh your palate? Hashi-yasume is a little bit like that: a tiny, refreshing dish that contrasts with and accentuate the experience of eating the main dishes in the meal. That’s why sunomono is always served in very small portions: it’s not really a dish, it’s a holiday for your chopsticks!
One last thing about this recipe: in Japan, you would make sunomono with rice vinegar. Now, if you’re a purist with money to burn, you can certainly find rice vinegar in Europe and North America, too. But we realized a long time ago that good apple cider vinegar works just as well for these kinds of recipes, and costs much less, so that’s what we use here in Montreal.