Japanese food is probably my favorite food in the world – light, endlessly varied, and elegant. Eating in restaurants in Japan is often a two-for-one deal, offering dinner presented as a small work of art. As I read menus in restaurants, I often do not know what many of the items are, even if the menu is in Japanese. However, I am starting to get the general idea of what is available eating out, but I am (or should I say – was) completely ignorant of what Japanese people eat at home or the underlying fundamentals of Japanese cuisine.
I have learned from taking seven cooking classes in Asia that each Asian cuisine, and probably all, have a few flavors, textures, and techniques that characterize the cuisine, and almost all dishes are variations on those possible combinations. For Japanese food, soy sauce, mirin (sweet sake), seaweed / kelp, fish, and tofu seem to be the underlying ingredients.
I can say this thanks to Ta Ro, my incredibly kind, patient, and knowledgeable teacher. He and his wife teach classes in their beautiful, traditional Japanese home, of which he graciously gave us a tour – an interesting thing to do for its own sake. After being welcomed with tea, we started to cook.
The first thing we learned to make was dashi, Japanese broth. This is a fundamental dish in Japanese cooking, incorporated into almost every soup and many other dishes, including Japanese omelets and stir fries. Dashi is quick and easy, and it can be kept frozen in an ice cube tray for ease.
1. Place a generous amount of kombu (dried kelp – interestingly, in Japan there are about six kinds of dried kelp available) into one liter of water.
2. Let it sit for at least 30 minutes to overnight.
3. Heat it for 10 minutes – until it reaches a boil.
4. Add 10 grams of katsuobushi (dried fish flakes). Boil 10 seconds.
5. Turn off heat and allow the broth to sit for 10 minutes.
6. Use a strainer to remove kelp and fish flakes.
Dashi has a fresh, clean smell after it’s been made, a smell I recognize from Japanese food but have never known how to identify. If you don’t want to make dashi, powdered dashi is often available in Asian grocery stores in the USA. Dashi is the base for miso soup, which Ta Ro explained is a Japanese option for using up all the leftover bits of vegetables in the fridge – carrots, onions, mushrooms, etc — it can all go into miso soup. He says his family commonly has miso soup with assorted vegetables for breakfast.
We also learned to make tamago yaki, or Japanese omelet. This is much more elaborate method of making an omelet, yielding a fluffier and lighter texture. You can see Ta Ro uses a special pan.
Ta Ro taught us Nibitashi, a dish that reminds him of home when he is away — a characteristically Japanese home cooked dish. Hmmm…Tommy misses chicken fried steak, I miss bagels – he misses this. No wonder Americans are fatter than Japanese people (in general)!
100 ml dashi
1 tbsp sake
1/2 tsp soy sauce
1 small bunch enoki mushrooms
1 small handful yuba (tofu skin)
1. Add dashi, sake, soy sauce, and salt to small saucepan and bring to a boil.
2. Add mushrooms and cook for a few minutes until soft. Add yuba and allow to soften. Remove from heat and drain.
The most useful dish for me – as far as something I would make often at home – was goma-ae, a cooked spinach dish. It’s easy, delicious, and would keep in the fridge for all my spinach snacking needs.
1 small bunch spinach
3/4 tbsp roasted sesame seeds
1/2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp soy sauce
1. Boil spinach for 30 seconds.
2. Place spinach in ice water, then squeeze out excess water.
3. Chop spinach into 1 inch pieces.
4. Stir remaining ingredients together.
5. Toss cooked spinach with dressing.
Serve hot or cold.
Luckily for us, I had requested the vegetarian class, three people had requested the chicken class, and one person had requested the kobe beef class. The way Ta Ro does it – we make all three then each eat our own request. I was glad because I got to see all three prepared.
Prior to cooking our main dishes, he brought out the kobe beef certificate showing the cow’s name, birthdate, lineage (back to great grandparents), and nose print (like a fingerprint for a cow, I guess). Kobe beef is highly regulated and raised in a somewhat secretive manner, including classical music, daily massage, and beer (to stimulate the appetite). It’s funny to imagine this cow princess finishing her massage, drinking her beer while serenaded by classical music, then getting the muchies because she’s had so much beer….it’s so Japanese. Beef was introduced to Japan by the West, but of course the Japanese figured out a way to perfect the raising of cattle.
My main dish was tofu, which in Japan is not a replacement for meat, but something viewed as delicious for its own qualities. I enjoyed my shallow fried tofu with a light, gingery sauce. The chicken dish was stir fried chicken with ponzu sauce. But seeing the kobe beef was really interesting – a truly beautiful marbled piece of meat, unlike any other I’ve seen. The guy who had opted for the kobe beef was kind enough to let me try a bite, and it was amazingly good.
Our class finished with a beautiful meal, with all the hallmarks of Japanese food. I especially enjoyed being able to identify the basic components and flavors. We finished with more tea and some small sweets, including a piece of candied pumpkin, which was interesting and tasty. Seasonality is very important in Japanese food, and it shows in every little choice. I was relieved to know that the pressure to present beautiful food is alleviated at home with only your family – Ta Ro admitted that he sometimes eats from a tupperware! (just like me!)
And if you are going to Japan, take Ta Ro’s class — Kyoto Cooking Class. It was awesome!