Trying to explain Konnyaku to somebody who has never tried it is a little bit like trying to describe the feeling of walking on sand to somebody who has never been to the beach: you can say all the right words and still fail to convey the experience.
Konnyaku really is a unique substance. When you handle it, it’s easy to imagine you are dealing with some exotic product of food science: this kind of texture just doesn’t seem that “natural” at first glance. And yet there’s nothing artificial about konnyaku, nor is it particularly intensively processed: it’s just a gel made from konjac corm flour, water, and a bit of limewater. In fact, the recipe is essentially unchanged over the last 1450 years.
The gray, glutinous, jelly-like substance that results has only the faintest of tastes, so in the end konnyaku tastes like whatever sauce you add to it. And attention dieters: konnyaku is, essentially, calorie-free. Basically, all you’re eating is dietary fiber suspended in a water-based gel. Not surprisingly, nutritionists are enamored with this stuff.
As for that texture, well, the one thing I can say for sure is that it strikes foreigners as deeply weird. Imagine what would happen if jell-o grew a backbone! Konyaku is much firmer than gelatin, but still soft, slippery and delicious. It’s the kind of thing everybody should try at least once.
In this recipe, we suspend it in some very lightly seasoned scrambled eggs, to produce a delicate side dish you can make in just a few minutes. Serve it to guests and dare them to guess what they’re eating!
Udon is a traditional thick wheat noodle, extremely popular in my home region of Kansai. There are any number of ways to make Udon: recipes change from region to region and from season to season. The Japanese version of Wikipedia lists no fewer than 29 regional variations – some dryer, some wetter, some wider, some narrower, some cooked soft, others almost “al dente”.
In Shikoku – the spiritual home of udon – they eat it without any dashi, just soy sauce and, sometimes, with a raw egg on top. That doesn’t appeal to me very much, but I’ll tell you what does: Tsukimi Udon. Literally “watching-the-moon udon”, this is a seasonal automn recipe my husband loves, a noodle soup with poached eggs.
As with many udon dishes, you could also make this with soba – buckwheat noodles. You could, but I wouldn’t: as far as I’m concerned, soba is “northern” food. Where I’m from, it’s udon or bust.
Before we start, please be aware – Udon is not Italian pasta. The “common sense rules” you learned cooking spaghetti will not work here. And, whatever you do, do not cook the noodles in the broth! You really do need to cook them separately, drain them, cool them, rub them with your fingers, and only then add them to the soup. Trust me, it makes a big difference.
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.
Wait, what on earth is Chijimi doing in a Japanese food blog!? Everybody knows chijimi are Korean pancakes! True enough, though it turns out, they don’t even call them “chijimi” in (most of) Korea. At least the name is ours.
I would argue that, while Chijimi is admittedly not from Japan, it is Japanese by now. It’s so popular, so common, so often made, it’s impossible for me to think of it as “foreign” – in the same way that nobody having a taco in California feels he’s eating “foreign” food.
Don’t let the word “pancake” throw you, by the way: Chijimi is a savory dish you can eat for lunch or dinner, not at all breakfast or desert food. Chijimi are glossed as “pancakes” simply because they are flat, more or less round and made with batter, even though you only really use the batter to hold the vegetables together.
You may want to print out the characters for when you go shopping, as this vegetable can be confusing to locate in the west. It’s sold under a wide variety of names, including “Chinese leek”, “garlic chives” and “Chinese chives”. Nira is basically a type of grass. It looks like chives, but it has a very distinctive, deep, slightly spicy flavor that makes chijimi taste like chijimi.
In Montreal, you can always find the Nira in Épicerie Coréene et Japonaise on Ste. Catherine. Elsewhere, look for for places where Koreans shop – or go poke around Chinatown. And note that, while chijimi isn’t hard to make, it does take a little planning because you need to make the batter a few hours ahead of time.
In fact, this is one of these dishes that seeped into Japanese cuisine from the West over many decades. Ton=pork, and the “katsu” comes from “katsuretsu”, which is a corruption of “cutlet”! Wherever it came from, ton-katsu is now firmly established in the Japanese repertoir.
Granted, nobody would confuse this for a simple recipe. There are a lot of ingredients and a lot of steps, and it makes a big mess in your kitchen. Trust me, though, it’s worth it. And I’ve made sure this recipe is full of little kitchen secrets that will allow you to make “real Japanese ton-katsu”.
Historians will tell you that tempura was introduced to Japan in the 16th century, by Portuguese traders. These days, nobody in Japan would dream of calling tempura foreign food, though: we think of it as quintessentially Japanese.
Deep fried bits of meat, shrimp or vegetables are not, of course, the first thing that pops into foreign people’s minds when they think of Japanese cooking. But tempura is a much loved treat throughout Japan: after all, even the healthiest diet should have some fried things in it once in a while!
Goya (ゴーヤ – bitter melon) is among the bitterest of all vegetables. This delicious stir-fried main course marries the goya’s lovely bitterness with the texture of eggs and pork. You could add tofu, but here I prefer onions.
Goya champuru is a mainstay of the famous Okinawa Diet, arguably the healthiest traditional diet on earth.
In Montreal, you can usually find goya at the inimatable Sami Fruit.