Just looking at them on a plate, you could easily mistake taro for potatoes, but one taste will be enough to clear up any confusion. Sweet, soft and unctuous in a way a potato could only dream to be, this ancient root has earned a place in most Asian and even African cuisines, and Japan is no exception.
These days we’re eating Taro at home really often, partly because my husband loves it, but also because the autumn is the peak of taro season. There are a number of ways of cooking taro. “Taro nimono” is the path of least resistance: just boiling them with a bit of sauce, (what we call “imo no nikkorogashi” in Japanese).
Don’t let its simplicity fool you, though: Taro nimono is really delicious. In fact, I think this is one of the most popular comfort foods in Japan, and a classic of mom-style cooking.
Butajiru is basically miso soup, but with one special ingredient: pork. The key thing here, though, is to go beyond just pork and add a lot of vegetables: enough to take it up a notch from the light broth you associate with Miso soup and turn it into the centerpiece of a meal.
What’s great about butajiru is that, once you chop all those vegetables, you don’t have to work a lot to make a really substantial meal. White rice, Butajiru and one small side dish (if you like) would make a perfect, well-balanced meal. So when cook is feeling a bit lazy, it’s a great solution: an easy warming dish for a cold winter day.
Because one thing I guarantee: Butajiru warms you up!
You want to talk about silly-sounding literal translations? Umani comes out as “delicious boiled thing”. Which pretty much tells the tale of this simple, unfussy dish which brings together several of Japan’s favorite vegetables with just a little bit of chicken for flavor. The vegetables – which include the delicious, potato-like taro roots – are chosen not just for their flavors but also for their colors: umani must have those orange carrots and bright green beans to keep it from looking like prison food.
One great thing about umani is that it scales up easily: you can just double or triple the portions below to feed more people. For this reason, it’s a typical choice when you have a lot of guests or in big family occasions.
As is usual with these kinds of recipes, there are any number of variations on umani. In a professional kitchen, you would cook each of the vegetables separately – but that’s far too much trouble for home cooking. It hardly needs pointing out that each family will vary the composition of the dish slightly to suit its taste.
This recipe is the version my mom used to make. It tastes like home.