Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Miso soup, my way

Miso soup: comforting; warm; and importantly - cheap.

A simple cup of miso soup and a conbini onigiri is probably the cheapest (and perhaps healthiest) lunch you can grab on the run in Japan. Miso soup is usually made with dashi (fish stock), miso, and something else - maybe a bit of wakame (seaweed) or negi (Japanese leek - my favourite), or sometimes tofu or clams. In Washoku, the author gives a recipe for dark miso soup with sweet potatoes. Two weeks ago or so, I bought an admirably large specimen - sweet potatoes in Japan can feed a family of four, if need be. Then I did some stuff, and some other stuff happened, and I got a bad cold, and I didn't cook much, I just lay around the apartment and survived on chocolate chip melonpans. (Colds respond nicely to chocolate chip melonpans - they don't cure you, but they make you feel better about things) And the sweet potato waited patiently for me, in the bottom of my cupboard. When I finally felt better, I opened up my cupboard, and took it out, with every intention of following the recipe in Washoku.

But all that non-cooking had gotten to me, and I felt the need to mess around with stuff, so I came up with my own recipe, inspired by that one. I call it "My Way Sweet Potato Miso Soup", because I'm sure if I fed this to a Japanese person, they'd be surprised. You don't want to mess around with miso soup on a Japanese person, it's upsetting to them. It's like, if you were making a peanut butter sandwich for a kid, and you went and added - I don't know - slices of chocolate cake. Or brownie chunks. You know, they'd eat it, and they'd definitely enjoy it. They might even ask for another one. But you'd be hard pressed to get that kid into agreeing it was a peanut butter sandwich.

So here it is. I had some small-batch miso (hatcho and aka) from a small soybean shop in Takayama that had a nice depth of flavour. But if you have regular miso on hand, that's fine too. Don't worry about it too much. I also had some chili oil made from Takayama chilis and some of the shichimi togarashi I got there, as well, that I used as a garnish.

My home-made chili oil:
My Way Sweet Potato Miso Soup

4 cups sweet potato, diced
4 cups dashi (or meat stock)
1 Japanese Leek (negi) thinly sliced, or three green onions
4 tbsp. miso (I used two hatcho; two aka)
3 tbsp. sesame oil
2 tbsp. mirin (or a few pinches of sugar at the end)
1 tbsp. soy sauce (use the good stuff, please - no V-1!)

Peel and cube your sweet potato. In Japan, they're yellow inside, and susceptible to discoloration, but the orange ones available in Canada should be fine. In a big soup-making pot, heat the sesame oil, then saute the negi in the oil until they go limp. Add the miso, and cook it stirring to prevent burning for another three minutes or so. Add the mirin and soy sauce, and a little sake if you have it on hand. Toss in the sweet potato, and stir it around to coat it in the miso mixture. Let this cook for a few minutes, just to get the miso flavour into the potato a little. Then add your dashi, and lower the heat. Cover the pot, and let the soup simmer until the potatoes are soft all the way through. Then blend it smooth with a food mill or immersion blender or similar. Or don't - just mash the potato up a bit with a fork to thicken the soup.

I garnished my soup with sprinkles of shichimi togarashi, shredded negi that had been soaked in cold water for 10 minutes to take out the harshness, and swirls of homemade chili oil. We ate our soup with bowls of rice mixed with sesame seeds (a la Soup Stock Tokyo) and tsukemono, but this would go well with fresh bread, too.

I have a lot more to say on the subject of sweet potatoes. I will post more about them later.

As for the miso, you might be looking at this recipe and thinking, "Wow, it looks good, but do I really need a tub of miso lurking at the back of my fridge for months and me with only one recipe for it?" Fear not, kids. I will post about more fun things to do with miso. Stay tuned.

(And for my friends in Korea - you can use Deonjang as a miso substitute. Not that you cook, or anything.)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Simple Potatoes, on the side

As I've mentioned before, one of my favourite things about going to a Korean restaurant was enjoying the side dishes, or panchan, included free of charge with the meal. These side dishes were made from whatever vegetables the kitchen decided to use, and varied seasonally, and with the moods of the staff. Part of the fun of going out to dinner was the anticipation for the side dishes - to paraphrase Cartman from South Park, wondering what side dishes we would be enjoying with the meal.

Somethings were quite common, and very Westerner-friendly - such as pan-fried spinach with sesame oil and garlic, or small boiled quail's eggs with salt and pepper for dipping. Barbecue restaurants often featured some sort of creamy salad, like pasta or potato salad. (And cheap places offered mounds of shredded cabbage with a mayo-ketchup dressing) Other panchan were more challenging, like raw crabs fermented in chili sauce, or raw-oyster studded kimchi.

I always enjoyed getting a potato panchan, because thanks to my North American upbringing, a meal never quite felt complete unless it involved some sort of potato. Normally, this craving could be satisfied with the aforementioned creamy salad. But other times there might be whole baby potatoes, simmered in soy sauce and malt syrup (better than they sound). One of my favourites was extremely simple, and I remembered it the other day, when I was staring crankily at two runty potatoes that were malingering in my kitchen.

In Korea, this panchan came with matchstick potatoes fried in sesame oil, garlic, salt, and green chili. Since I wanted to make this to fill out my bento, I made it without the garlic, as I always feel shy about using a lot of garlic in Japan. Instead, I cut the two potatoes into thin matchsticks, heated up a frypan, and added about two tablespoons of sesame oil. The potatoes go in for about five minutes - the key is to madly toss them about in the hot oil, getting them coated, and cooking them no more than until they're still a little firm when you bite them. (Try not to lose too many behind the stove; this really annoys the person tasked with cleaning up.) Then, I season them heavily with the shichimi togarashi I'd bought in Takayama. This is a a flavourful seasoning that isn't particularly spicy, and worth picking up if you're curious about it. If not, try using Montreal steak spice. This takes only minutes to make - most of the work is in cutting the potatoes. It's great for lunch the next day, or in a morning omelette.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Squash Salad

Okay, it's not really a salad.

In Japan, the most commonly available squash in the fall is the kabocha. It tastes a lot like the buttercup squash I grew up eating (Microwaved with brown sugar and butter in the middle where the seeds have been scooped out - try it; you'll like it.), but just a bit sweeter, with a faint marshmallowy taste.I like squash a lot, but the best squash I had in recent memory was an acorn squash dish my friend Canadian Bento made last winter while I was visiting her. She roasted it in the oven for a while, and then mashed it up with a secret ingredient - vanilla. She didn't tell us what was in it before she made it, but when I tried it and insisted on knowing what made it so incredible, she revealed the secret - which she's gotten at a Las Vegas buffet, of all places. Which I hear are pretty great these days.

Well, there isn't any acorn squash to be had around my parts, so I picked up an kabocha the other weekend, knowing that it would sit happily in my crisper until later in the week when it could be dealt with. Thursday night, I made shoga yaki - fried ginger pork on rice - so I knew we'd want some sort of creamy side dish to complement the sharp taste of the ginger. Out came the kabocha. I'd been thinking of it all week - I wanted to find a way to balance out the overly sweet taste of it. I chopped it up into cubes, peeled them, and stuck the lot in the microwave in a bowl covered in plastic wrap. Five minutes later, it was ready to be mashed, with a few secret ingredients of my own.

Erin's Kabocha Salad:

(You can use buttercup squash, if you like)


1/4 sweet squash, like kabocha or buttercup, peeled and cubed
1 tablespoon miso
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons fresh parmesan cheese, grated
Fresh ground black pepper

Microwave the cubes in a covered bowl for about five minutes. When they're soft, mash it together with the miso, butter, parmesan cheese, and pepper. Scoop onto a plate, and garnish with more cheese, if you like. You won't taste the miso so much, but the salty flavour will help balance the sweetness. Miso keeps happily in the fridge for a long time, and adds a really nice depth of flavour to savoury dishes like soups - I recommend keeping a small tub on hand.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Marcella's Aubergines

Well, you know how much I love eggplant.

The other week, I was browsing in a used bookstore in Tokyo, and picked up a copy of Marcella's Italian Kitchen. It was written by Marcella Hazan, an authority on Italian cooking in the US. The book was published in the 1980s, when people were starting to think about Italian food as something other than spaghetti and meatballs. (Some people. Not me. I was still eating spaghetti until well into the nineties. I think I discovered penne, which I proceeded to drown in bechamel sauce, in university. D'oh.)

I frequently get frustrated cooking in Japan, since in my small kitchen doesn't have an oven. That means that a lot of non-Asian cookbooks are virtually useless to me. I don't know how many times I've flipped through Nigella Lawson's books, sighed, and put them back on the shelf after noting that the majority of the recipes call for oven time. I could go out and buy a small convection oven, but there's simply nowhere to put it in the kitchen. So when I picked up Marcella's Italian Kitchen, flipped through, and noticed page after page of recipes requiring only a big pan and fresh fish and vegetables - I thought I could make it work.

When I got it home and gave it an in-depth reading, I was happy I picked it up. This book calls for fresh ingredients, used simply, without a lot of added ingredients, a philosophy I can get behind. I immediately got out my set of Muji cleartabs (how much do I love cleartabs?) and started colour-coding the recipes by season. Green tabs for summer products - tomatoes and eggplants; Red tabs for fall - mushrooms and kabocha squash. Gray tabs for dishes that can be made from right out of the pantry - dried mushroom risotto, for example. Peter has been begging lately for some non-rice oriented meals, so I decided to try and cook one recipe a week from the book for a year, or until we got sick of it - whatever happens first.

We're at the tail-end of eggplant season in Japan, but my local stand has only had the Japanese market standard - a smallish, thin eggplant around 15 cm long. When I saw the mini eggplants at the market in Takayama, I knew I had to have them. (Peter: "You're taking them to back Kanagawa ken - 400 km away? Think of the carbon footprint!") I'd seen these sized eggplants before, but they were always as a (rather bland, IMO) pickled side dish. I was interested to see what I might do with them. When I unwrapped them at home in the kitchen, rather than opening "Washoku", I decided to open "Italian Kitchen".

I was not let down. She has two recipes for pickled eggplants - one that calls for longish eggplants, and pickles them as wedges. The other calls for thin slices with mint, garlic, and chili; preserved with salt and vinegar. It sounded like a winner, since I had also picked up a pack of long chilis, virtually unseen in Kanagawa. Only I didn't have any mint. So my weedy, sad little basil plant that grows in a cut-off plastic water bottle in my window is now shorn bare, and looking more weedy than ever.

I sliced the eggplants thinly, and layered them with crushed garlic, sprinkles of salt, pieces of chili, and basil leaves, all in a pickle jar (Muji, of course). Then, following instructions, I put a bottle inside the jar, and turned the lot upside down in the sink, for the eggplants to drain for 24 hours. The whole thing looked a little dodgy, since the eggplant quickly went brown, and started to look shrivelled and dry. But I left them alone, and the next day, covered them in (rice; she calls for red wine) vinegar. The instructions then state to immediately tip the lot over again and let the vinegar drain off. It seemed counterintuitive to me, so I let them sit in the vinegar overnight, and drained it off 12 hours later. As soon as I took the bottle off, I was struck by the smell - it smelled so - Italian. The garlic and chili scent was overwhelming, and I sampled one right away, and then regretted it right away, thinking of my poor morning class. The eggplant was sour, peppery, spicy, and deeply, deeply garlicky. They are fabulous. I covered them with olive oil, as per instructions, and they'll purportedly keep in the fridge for up to six months, but I doubt they'll last that long. They're going to be insanely good on a sandwich, or with a glass of red wine before dinner.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Morning Markets: Takayama

This week, the dark lords of employment saw fit to give me a four-day weekend. So Peter and I, who have been planning a trip to Takayama, in the corners of our minds not preoccupied with other things, for a while now. Takayama is a small town in the central alps of Japan, about two hours outside of Nagoya. We took the Shinkansen down to Nagoya, and then a local train for another two hours or so into the mountains to reach this gem of a town. It's famous for a festival that's held there every spring and fall, where floats sponsored by various merchants are borne around the traditional streets of the town. Not since Kyoto have I seen such a collection of small, traditional Japanese streetscapes, and even despite the bus loads of tourists streaming through, the beauty of the place shone through. It's also famous for Hida beef, fabulously marbled beef grilled and served up in a variety of preparations at restaurants around town.

I have a full report on all the beef we ate there over on eGullet, but I wanted to talk about the gorgeous produce I saw in the morning markets. I go on a lot about the produce we pick up cheaply at Ofuna market, but what I get there is nothing on the gorgeous fruits, vegetables, and flowers I saw here in the mountains.

There are two morning markets: one in front of the jinya, a government building in the centre of town left over from the Edo period, and one along the banks of the river that flows through town.

The river market is larger, and features not only beautiful flowers and and handcrafts, but also spices, vegetables, fruit, delicious coffee, sweets, and grilled beef served with local microbrews. For breakfast? Why not?

Dango are another local specialty - balls of sticky rice, called mochi, are skewered, dipped in soy sauce, and then grilled for a chewy snack. The smell of rice grilling in this manner is an essential smell of Japan.

I couldn't resist picking up some beautiful little pickling eggplants (aubergines, dammit, I'm trying to retrain myself to say aubergines. aubergines. aubergines. Why do the British use a French word? Why?) no bigger than my thumb, and the vendor also had long ones, round ones, candy striped ones, and white ones, much to the amazement of the crowd. I never see diversity like that around town. Somebody call Slow Food! We need a chapter in Kanto!

I digress.

I got them home and decided they were too small to turn into grilled eggplant (aubergine) with miso (did I mention I bought a couple of bags of miso as well? From a soybean specialist? And some small-batch soy sauce? I'll admit it. I'm such a yuppie. I can hear my parents laughing at me from here.), so they're turning into Italian pickled eggplants (aubergine) from another project I'm working on.

There were also purple striped green beans, and I cannot resist a good green bean, quite frankly, so I bought a bag after sampling some of the vendor's home simmered beans, which she produced triumphantly from under the table when I expressed interest. She also had some gorgeous myoga and unwaxed cucumbers, but I resisted. I will be turning the green beans into Maki's fabulous ginger green beans, which keep great in the fridge for bentos.

There were all sorts of gorgeous flowers.

And beautiful fruit, which you could order by the boxful and have delivered to your home via Black Cat Delivery. Peter selected a nice pear for himself, and I chose an apple. At 100 yen each, that's all we could afford. The smell of cool air and apples made me think of home, and how much I love fall. Peter couldn't resist a bottle of fresh apple juice either, which had us thinking of fresh apple cider from Annapolis valley.

I bought some shichimi togarashi, which is a mix of seven spices, including chilis and sesame seeds, that the Japanese use to dip tempura into, or to sprinkle on ramen. It was so strange to see a spice vendor in Japan - I tend to associate spice mixes with South East Asian foods, and so the lady with her piles of dried spices and large mortar and pestle stopped me in my tracks.

Even this pigeon was curious.

My favourite thing to get in Japanese market is always tsukemono - pickled things. In Takayama, they specialize in pickled red radish/turnips. I struggled to understand the dialect of the granny that sold them to me, but she insisted I take a bag each of sweet and salty - and I wasn't going to argue for 500 yen for both bags. Tsukemono don't come cheap in Kanagawa ken.

Stay tuned to see what I make from everything.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


I spend a lot of time talking about the food I make, but like a lot of people in Japan, there are many days when I don't have the time to manage something homemade. However, the Japanese have addressed this situation with all the efficiency they're known for, creating a range and variety of snacks that is unrivalled across Asia.

The home of all snack foods in Japan is the combini, or convenience store. Every station, no matter how small, has at least one - my station has four 7-11s within walking distance. They're the perfect place to stop and get a cold beer for the walk home; an onigiri and instant miso soup for a quick lunch; or a melonpan and coffee milk for breakfast. Or all three, if you need to do your grocery shopping there. Which is fine, because they also have ATMs for getting out money, and the cheerful attendant is also happy to let you pay for your monthly bills at the counter. They are truly convenient. They lack the character and utility of Korean convenience stores - I still fondly remember the Ministop in Gyesan, where they let us sit at the stools all night; drink cheap beer and eat gimbap from the Chinese restaurant next door; and listen to the counter clerks's custom made CD mix of club music. But a Japanese combini has such a variety of interesting foods available that there's even a blog devoted to combini products. Did I mention the offerings are seasonal? So every few weeks or so, there's always a new little surprise waiting for you at the combini.

What's addictive about wandering through the aisles of a combini is the excellent, old-school graphics on a lot of the packaging. Glico products especially seem to offer bold packages that jump off the shelf and into my hand. Pretz is a great example. They're thin breadsticks with a light dusting of flavour powder - enough to give you the impression of the flavour, without coating your fingers. Like all snack products, there is a wide range of varieties available- tomato; basil; pumpkin; beer; green pea; salt - and pictured, cheese. It's Pocky's older brother, meant for a more refined (beer-drinking) palate. I like it because you can have a quick snack between classes, but still have plenty in the pack to offer around to random students and staff milling in the front office.

Another great Glico product is Bisco. Who could resist that face, that cheery red pack? Inside are mini biscuits, faintly lemon-flavoured cream sandwiches, that go perfectly with an afternoon cup of tea. The three-pack size ensures that you'll have plenty of biscuits to offer to co-workers who have been too busy to get out to the combini themselves.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Iced Coffee: Cafe Den Granita

This weekend, we were out and about it Tokyo, and Peter was craving pizza. There are all sorts of Italian chains all over the city, so we stopped into one of them in Ebisu - Pizza Mare Napoli, which specializes in Napoli style pizza. One of the great things about lunch in Japan is that restaurants often structure their menus so there are "lunch sets" available for reasonable prices. A starter, drink, main dish, and a bit of something sweet at the end (dessert being far too ambitious a word to use to describe the tiny dish of what you actually get) for a price somewhere around 1,000 yen. It's good value. We ordered pizza sets each, and the pizzas were up to the tasks of satisfying Peter's pizza craving - although not to his "pizza slice" standard, which is of course, set by the Costco food court. *sigh*

Anyway, at the end of the meal, for our sweet, we got a small glass of refreshing grapefruit granita. I hadn't thought of granita since university, when the coffee shop I used to work for sold "granita" as their iced coffee offering. The machine that made it was everyone's nightmare, with gaskets and seals that were a pain to clean, and always ended up rolling behind something really inconvenient.

Real granita is actually quite simple to make, and doesn't require a special machine - just some free time and a willingness to walk back and forth between the sofa and the refrigerator for a few hours - a skill at which I've devoted a significant portion of my life to honing. I read my first recipe for granita in "The Man who Ate Everything", a collection of food writing by Jeffery Steingarten. He wrote that in Sicily, people often have a bit of espresso granita for breakfast, into which they dip little bits of brioche as they go. I remember thinking, "What a civilized way to live."

While I was having my dessert in Ebisu, I remembered this, and thought regretfully that I had no espresso to make my own. But - in a brainwave, I remembered that I had a rather large bag of Vietnamese coffee, sweet and chocolatey tasting, sitting on my counter at home. The next day, I brewed some Vietnamese coffee, black and without sugar, and slipped it into a plastic container in the freezer. Over the next few hours, I poked at it and turned it around with a fork. It developed the perfect icy flavour shards that you would expect from a granita sometime around midnight - the absolute last time of day I want to be ingesting coffee. (Although I remember when I was working in that coffee house in university, I could drink free black coffee all night, and did. No wonder I always got my reading done!) I left it regretfully in the freezer. This morning, when I took it out, it was, of course, a giant coffee ice cube. I don't who these Sicilians are, and how early they're getting up to make granita, but after 20 minutes of hacking at the giant cube, (and spraying coffee shards all over the kitchen) I had enough granita to call it breakfast.

I was right in thinking the Vietnamese coffee would be nice - it gave a lovely caramelized flavour to the ice, and was sweet enough on its own, without added sugar. I thought, however, that a swirl of some condensed milk on top would have made it perfect.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


One of my favourite dishes to eat out in Japan is tonkatsu. It's a cutlet of pork, breaded with large breadcrumbs called panko, then deep fried and served with mountains of shaved cabbage and a thick sauce reminiscent of HP sauce.

There are all sorts of variations on tonkatsu - you can get it with hire or rosu cuts; tenderloin and loin, respectively; with a variety of fillings, such as cheese or garlic; and a variety of toppings, such as curry sauce or shredded leek. It's not exactly a healthy dish, and since I don't like to mess around deep-frying, it's not something I make at home. Last Sunday, however, Peter and I were on our way to the Japan Beer Fest in Yokohama, and wanted something greasy and filling to coat our stomachs before spending the afternoon tasting a variety of craft beers from around Japan.

We stopped at Yokohama station and went into Yokohama Mores, which is undergoing a dramatic renovation. The restaurant floor was already finished, but the shrouded and scaffolded building kept the crowds at bay, and we were able to walk right into a restaurant at lunchtime on a Sunday. Miracle! We chose Genkatsu, a place that specializes in tonkatsu made with thin sheets of pork folded over and stuffed with a variety of flavourings. I tried the garlic; and Peter chose black pepper, after a brief moment's hesitation over their cheese version.

Not exactly cheap at 2100 yen each; the lunch set does come with a choice of red or white miso soup; pickles; and all-you-can-eat cabbage and rice. We spent some time filling up on paper-thin shreds of cabbage drenched in ponzu dressing- a combination I heartily endorse. Ponzu itself is quite flavourful, and hardly needs any oil to mellow the flavour, as it's made from citrus and soy. Considering the rich nature of the main dish, it's important to fill up on something like this first.

The tonkatsu itself was delicious; rich and crispy without being excessively greasy. It was my first time trying a layered-pork version, and I'm not sure it was worth the price differential - regular tonkatsu can usually be found for around 1400 yen a person for a similar set. I probably won't be rushing back to this location any time soon. We did have a lovely view of the station from the 8th floor, however.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Ploughman's Pickles

A ploughman's lunch is a simple affair of bread, cheese, pickle, and perhaps some other vegetables or pate dressing things up. When I say pickle, I don't mean a pickled cucumber, I mean some sort of preserved vegetable. Pickled onions, I think, are popularly served with a Ploughman's, and I think Branston pickle is also a reliable contributor. It's a little known fact about me that when I was growing up, I loved cheddar cheese and dill pickle on white bread, which must have bemused my mother to no end. While other kids were unwrapping their PB&J, I was happily working through my cheese and pickle sandwiches.

These days, cheese is pretty rare in our house, as it's quite expensive in Japan. Every once in a while, though, Sous-chef Peter crumbles and comes home with a wedge of extra-old cheddar from the Seijo Iishi, an imported-foods store. This week, the stars aligned, and while Peter was in Yokohama, buying a wedge of cheese, I was in Chigasaki, picking up a bag of red onions for the ridiculously low price of 198 yen. When I got home and realized what I had on hand, I went to work making a quick sweet pickle from the onions.

I cut up about 5 smallish red onions, and tossed them in 2 tablespoons or so of salt. I use sea salt, since it's what I have on hand, but pickling salt is probably best for this sort of thing. When you make proper canned pickles, it's important to get the ratio of salt correct for food safety reasons, but since I don't have the proper equipment or storage space for canning, I go about this as if I were making a quick pickle. A jar of pickled onions doesn't stand a chance of last longer than a couple of days in my house, anyway. Once the onions are salted, I use a Japanese tsukemono-ki (pickle press) to press out the water. You could leave your onions in a non-reactive bowl, with another bowl, full of water to act as a weight on top. After 10 or 15 minutes of this (long enough for me to die trying to attempt world 1-1 in Super Mario Brothers) I drain off the liquid, and give the onions a quick rinse in water. I try to squeeze out any extra liquid with my hand. Then I put them into a glass jar - one I got at Muji, for just this purpose.

Once I crammed all the onions into the glass jar, I boiled 2/3 cup each of rice vinegar and sugar. No particular reason for this measurement, other than it seems to fill the jar I have on hand. If you have a smaller or larger batch you'd like to do, just use a 1:1 ratio of vinegar and sugar. You may find this yields quite a sweet pickle, especially if your onions are quite mild. In this case, you may want to reduce the sugar down to 1/2 cup. I've also heard of people using Splenda instead of sugar, and why not?

I left the onions in their bath overnight, and today I ate the marvellous sandwich pictured above for breakfast. A bit of rye bread, toasted, and spread sparingly with butter. Then, a heaping pile of onions for tang and crunch, topped off with a few shavings of cheddar (at 700 yen for 200g, you'd better believe a thin shaving!). If you wanted to make a killer, decadent sandwich, you could smother the onions with cheese and broil the whole lot of it, so that the molten cheese conceals a layer of sweet, tangy pickle. Not that I thought about doing that, though. I am a model of restraint.

Sunday, August 31, 2008


I love coffee.

A lot.

Iced coffee is something I came to much later in life. In Vietnam, you need it to get through the day. The heat saps the energy right out of you. The only way to deal with it is with long naps and the rocket fuel locals call coffee.

Vietnamese coffee tastes as if the dark layer of an Oreo cookie has been ground up and turned into a drink. Served straight or with heavy lashings of condensed milk, it's the perfect way to get an energy boost when it's 38 degrees plus, and the sun is beating down. Traditionally roasted with butter and cocoa powder, when brewed with a small amount of water it turns into black gold.

Want to try some? Your local Asian grocery may stock Trung Nguyen brand coffee - if they do, pick up a can. If not, find a dark roast coffee like an espresso or French roast. Brew the coffee double strength, so when you add ice, it doesn't get too diluted. I keep some cold in the fridge in a plastic bottle for morning pick-me-ups. Pour the chilled coffee over ice and add a tablespoon or two of condensed milk, if you like.

Toss it back in a few gulps, and be prepared to knock several items off your to-do list.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Best Spring Rolls Ever

It's a bold claim, I know.

But anyone who has travelled as extensively in Vietnam as I have has eaten a lot of spring rolls, so I feel like I have the credentials to judge this.

Now, when you think of spring rolls, your mind might cast to your local Asian food restaurant, where they're ordered by the giant frozen case, and chipped out to be fried as needed as a part of a combo plate for the daily lunch special. The spring roll you're thinking of is probably long and cigar-shaped, with a crispy golden brown wrapper that's almost impossible to negotiate with chopsticks.

You probably like to pour plum sauce on these spring rolls. (So do I.)

The spring rolls you know are filled with a motley assortment of odds and ends - anything from rice noodles to green peas. If it's a cheap "vegetable" spring roll, it probably only contains shredded cabbage, msg, and tiny flakes of carrot to maintain the illusion of vegetable diversity.

I am not talking about these spring rolls.

In Hanoi, an incredible array of things are wrapped and rolled in rice paper. They can be fried or fresh, filled with vegetables, herbs, fish, shrimp, pork, beef - pretty much anything that doesn't move fast enough to avoid being rolled. They're dipped in hoisin sauce or nuoc cham - a mix of fish sauce, lime juice, and other seasonings. And they're eaten anytime, as a part of a family meal, or as a convenient snack with a tall glass of draft beer, while looking out over one of Hanoi's many lakes. Any self-respecting Com restaurant will have a large tray of them for patrons to add to their take-away lunches. And I can well imagine, every family has their favourite version, and every housewife has her own recipe.

When I was in Hanoi this month, I had planned to travel to Sapa, in the northwest mountains of Vietnam, and to take a few days touring Halong Bay as well. The weather put a wrench into my plans, however, as a typhoon blew through cutting off a lot of the roads out of Hanoi. I found myself at loose ends for a day or two while I arranged alternate plans. A friend (and travel agent extraordinaire) hooked myself and Wendy up with an afternoon cooking class with Yen at Yen Cook House. This turned out to be divine luck, as it was here that I learned several killer Vietnamese dishes that I'll be writing about over the next few weeks. At Yen Cook House, I sampled some of the finest dishes I've ever tried in Hanoi - Yen's passion for cooking and Vietnamese food shone through the language barrier, and it was clear to see that his years spent working as a chef had given him a sense for how to season his dishes expertly. What impressed me the most, however, were his Hanoi-style nem - fried spring rolls. If you only ever cook spring rolls once in your life, (and you might only make them once; after all, it's a messy and tedious business, although the results are worth it) please make these.

If you've eaten a Hanoi-style nem before, you'll know that they differ from Saigon-style most obviously in their wrapper. I'm not quite sure what the difference is, but in the south, the wrapper is similar to those I often ate in Canada - I suspect it is somehow wheat-based. In the north, they use a pliable rice paper which fries up into light ethereally crispy layers that shatter into salty-sweet fragments when you bite into them. The nem are about an inch in length, to make them easy to eat in one or two bites using chopsticks. They're dipped in nuoc cham, a potent mixture of lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, chilis, and garlic, which nicely cuts the richness of the pork fat and frying oil.

Step 1: The filling

Now, I'm going to give approximates here. Close is good enough in horseshoes, hand grenades, and hand rolls. Above, you see pictured Yen's filling. I will attempt to list the items.

  • 4 or 5 dried chinese mushrooms, reconstituted and thinly sliced. (You want huong, or perfume mushrooms, if you have a Vietnamese grocery nearby)
  • 1/2 a carrot, peeled and julienned.
  • 50 g of bean sprouts, rinsed, drained, and cut into smallish pieces for mixing.
  • 50 g of rice noodles, cut into smallish lengths.
  • 200g of ground pork.
  • 4 or 5 green onions, finely chopped.
  • 2 tablespoon of fried shallots (available in pouches or jars in most asian food stores).
  • 1 tablespoon of chicken stock granules (Knorr or Maggi).
  • 1 teaspoon of ground pepper.
  • 1 teaspoon of chopped garlic.
Mix it all together. And let it sit for 10 minutes or so to let the flavours mingle.

Step 2: The Rolling

If you can find rice papers that are bendy like these, they're ideal, since they won't need to be dampened for rolling. Odds are you won't be able to, so regular stiff round rice papers are fine too. Keep a bowl of hot water in your prep space, and soak each paper until it becomes pliable enough for wrapping. Set it down on a cutting board or plate, ready to roll.

Now this is one of the tricks I learned from yen to help create the beautiful, brown crispy coating of a Hanoi nem. Mix up a bit of water, cornstarch and sugar in a bowl. When you put the wrapper down, before adding any filling, take a swipe of this mix and pass it over the rice paper lightly, enough to barely coat it. Then, in the bottom third of the wrapper, place a tablespoon or so of mix. Roll the paper over once, and pat eat side of the filling lump to firm up the filling into a solid style log. Fold the right side of the wrapper back over the filling log; then do one complete roll of the log. Fold the left side over so that you now have a completely wrapped log of filling. Continue to roll the log until all the wrapper is wound around the filling. You should end up with a plate of these:
They should be roughly the length of your thumb.

Step 3: The Frying

Fill a deep frypan with cooking oil, and heat it so that the tip of a wooden chopstick sizzles when inserted.

Pop the rolls into the oil all together, and fry for 5 or 6 minutes, turning them once or twice, until they look golden, like this:

The second trick I learned was to pull them out of the oil at this stage to let them rest. If you're making these for a party, you could make them up until this point and hold them for later; or freeze them for use at another time - maybe for a bento? Then, just before you're ready to eat them, put them back into the hot oil, and fry again until they reach a burnished brown colour. Of course, I know that double-frying yields a perfect french fry; but I had never extended this logic to frying other things.

The final product:

The tomato rose is optional, of course. These are usually served with a light dipping sauce called nuoc cham:

This nuoc cham has been garnished with seeded cucumber and thinly sliced carrot. Yen's recipe is:

3 tbsps of vinegar
4 tbsps of water
1-2 tbsps of fish sauce
2 tbsps sugar
1 tbsp of lemon or lime juice
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 small red chili, chopped (optional)
Fresh ground pepper

Mix everything together until the sugar dissolves. It will keep for a day or so in the fridge. You can buy bottles of this in most asian groceries, although I think that fresh happens to taste better.

Alternatively, you could serve them with bottled sweet chili sauce, sriracha, or even plum sauce.

If you put a platter of these out at a party, expect them to disappear immediately, and expect people to say it's the best spring roll they've ever eaten. You can smile and tell them it's a Hanoi thing.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Yakitori Izakaya

A final post before I take off to Hanoi for a couple of weeks for some sightseeing and serious eating.

Peter's parents arrived this week to join us for our holiday this year, so our first trip was to Tokyo, of course! Our first dinner, however, had to be in Fujisawa, at our favourite yakitori restaurant, Sui Sui.

Yakitori, simply, is chicken on a stick. Traditional yakitori places are easily found near train stations everywhere by looking for their trademark haze of chicken grease smoke. They serve up all parts of the chicken, from wings, to hearts, to bits of chicken cartilege, and cold draft beer to weary salarymen on their way home. The chicken sticks are grilled over hot charcoal, which gives them a smoky, fatty taste that goes perfect with beer.

Sui Sui, however, is a more of an izakaya-style bar which serves not only chicken on a stick, but a wide array of other snacks as well. When we arrived, we ordered a range of things for John and Wendy to enjoy.

When we sat down, the first thing up was an unordered dish - the house serves one automatically, as a kind of table charge, in case you weren't planning on eating much. This is annoying to a lot of foreigners, but at Sui Sui, it's always tasty, and since we don't have to tip, I don't mind it at all. This was some soy braised chicken tossed with onions, peppers, and mizuna leaf. I've got to figure out how to make this one at home.

Next, a traditional summer snack - edamame, or soy bean pods, boiled in salt water. Just the thing with cold beer! We also tried some pork belly with kimchi - I'm on the record as say that pork and kimchi are one of the world's finest flavour combinations, along with tomato and basil, and peanut butter and chocolate.

A more traditional take is chicken thigh and negi - a kind of Japanese leek, grilled simply with salt. Fantastic!

Not-so-traditional potato wedges - fried and then drenched in garlic butter. Don't knock it, 'til you've tried it! It's a good thing we spent the whole day walking, though.

A little more crazy - mochi (pounded sticky rice balls) wrapped in bacon, brushed with soy and mirin, topped with cheese and black pepper, and grilled. Un-%^&*ing-believably good.

Finally, a favourite of many foreigners in Japan - tsukune - chicken and green onion meatballs, grilled with more soy and mirin. They also do a ponzu citron sauce as well, which we always forget to order.

This is one of my favourite places to go and have a quick drink and a bite to eat. They also have a selection of awamori - Okinawan rice spirits, which John swore tasted like the potato moonshine he used to make in P.E.I. Wendy was happy with her ponzu and ume wine, and as for me, two cold Ebisu drafts were all I needed to rehydrate. A perfect night!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Pork and Myoga Salad

Like a lot of people living in the greater Kanto area, I face an hour commute on the train most days. When my train pulls in at my station each night at 10 pm, rather than walking alone down a quiet platform, I join hordes of shuffling suited salarymen and women on their way home. It sometimes takes as long as five minutes to get off the platform and out through the gates, especially if the throng, heads bent over mobile phones as they resignedly send their ETA to family members, gets thwarted by the odd Tokyo-bound passenger locking up a gate coming onto the platform. It's Japan, so no one grumbles - we just pull our bags to the side and pause our shuffle long enough for the straggler to crowd-surf his way to the train.

After being spit out of the gate, I follow the crowd past the bicycle lot and down the road. I can't bear to take a left turn into the 7/11 like so many others, because the thought of konbini egg-salad sandwich or floppy chicken karaage leaves me cold. When I finally get in the door, I'm hungry, but a heavy meal is out of the question. That's when a recipe like this saves the day - it's light; it's healthy; and it keeps well in the fridge to make up the next day's lunch. If I'm feeling like something more substantial, I have it with a bowl of steamed rice.

I found this recipe in the Japan forum at, which has been an invaluable resource to me as I've learned how to cook Japanese food. First, you need about 200 g of lean pork - I take thinly sliced Japanese pork and boil it quickly, which cooks it without any added fat. Really, though, any cooked pork would do - leftover grilled pork loin or chops would be fine, I think. Then, I thinly slice three Japanese cucumbers, which is about the equivalent of one English cucumber. To this, I add three shredded myoga bulbs, which are a sort of edible bulb of a ginger plant. It doesn't actually taste like ginger, though - more like a shallot or sweet red onion, either of which would make a lovely substitution. Three largeish shallots or half a smallish red onion would do. Then, for a dressing, mix 100 ml each of good quality soy sauce, mirin, and rice vinegar. The final touch is to add wasabi paste, which adds a lovely sharpness to the salad - add it to taste. There isn't any oil in this recipe, but I don't miss it in the dressing, because the salty soy, the sweet mirin, and the sharp wasabi all work together to make it well-balanced and satisfying.

This time of year, having a cool bowl of tangy salad - along with a cold Kirin beer - is just the way to relax after a sweaty and stressful commute.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Corn Jumble

I'm really on a vegetable kick, aren't I?

Well, it's summer, and I really don't want to waste a bit of it. With Sous-chef Peter bringing home piles of produce every weekend from the market, I'm having fun thinking of new ways to deal with it all. I know it's impossible to think that you could ever get sick of eating fresh, sweet corn on the cob, and I haven't yet. It's hard to resist five ears for 200 yen, but my fridge and bento box are just too small to hold full ears of corn, so as soon as they come in the door on Sunday, I get to work cutting them down into a more manageable size.

Right now, I'm making a sort of corn salsa/pickle out of them, which Canadian Bento christened "corn jumble". It's as good as name as any, and so I present to you: corn jumble.

This travels great as a side dish in a bento, or to the beach like it did this week as a trio of side dishes for a yakitori cookout on Enoshima beach.

I steamed five ears of fresh corn, and diced up half a red onion; a red pepper, and two Japanese cucumbers. I soaked the red pepper in cold water for ten minutes to take away the sharp onion-y taste - I find even red onions in Japan are stronger than I'm used to. I rubbed the cucumbers with salt, to take away any bitter taste in the peel. Since Japanese cucumbers are so small, they don't need seeding - I'd recommend using an English cucumber or a seeding a regular cucumber. You could add black beans to this to make it more substantial, but since I didn't have any hanging around - I didn't. I seasoned this with a half teaspoon of salt and several grinds of fresh pepper, and then made a dressing from 2/3 cup each white sugar dissolved over heat in rice vinegar. When the sugar is dissolved, I pour the dressing over the whole lot of vegetables; cool; and then leave in the fridge for an hour or so until the flavours mingle. Like most things, the longer you leave it; the better it tastes.

I don't recommend trying to eat it with chopsticks like I did, though. Exercise in frustration.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Ginger Eggplants

Eggplant, as you know, is one of my favourite vegetables. I love the way it slumps into velvety softness when you cook it properly. In Vietnam there was a restaurant that made eggplant stir-fried with garlic and honey that was breathtaking in its simplicity. Each piece was infused with garlicky oil, and was meltingly silky. I have always been frustrated in attempts to recreate this texture in my own kitchen, ending up with tough chunks of eggplant that burned in the wok, despite repeated lowering of the temperature, additions of more oil, tears, and desperate entreaties. Roasting an eggplant in an oven for a long time will eventually yield the texture that I'm looking for, but I'm still without an oven.

So when the summer's first eggplants appeared on our local vegetable stand this week, I turned to my copy of "Washoku" for guidance. The author gives several eggplant recipes, taking seasonality to a new level by calling for eggplants from different parts of summer. I chose a recipe for eggplants cooked with ginger, hoping to recapture some of the Hanoi magic.

I wasn't disappointed, as the recipe yielded a pile of sweetly tender eggplants with the exact right balance of sweet heat from the ginger and briny salt from the dashi. I made them one night after work, and left them in the fridge overnight to be served with sold somen noodles for the following evening's dinner. It was a great way to beat the heat.

I cleaned and scored the skins on five small Japanese eggplants. I'm sure you could use the fatter, bigger eggplants, if they were cut down into sixths. Then, I heated a teaspoon of oil in a frypan. I seared them, skin side down, for about a minute; then flipped them, and added 1 tsp of sake, 1/3 cup of dashi (made from a powdered mix), 1 tsp of sugar, and the peels from an inch stub of peeled ginger. I then covered and cooked them for another three minutes, until the sauce had reduced by half. After picking out the ginger peels, I thinly diced my peeled ginger and added that. The recipe actually calls for grated ginger juice, but since I keep forgetting to pick up a ginger grater every time I'm at the dollar store, I just chopped it up finely. I also added a small slosh of soy sauce and mirin, just to adjust the taste. According to the recipe, it's important to let the eggplants cool in the pan; covered; to allow the flavours to mingle and concentrate. Like everything I make from this book, they turned out perfectly. They can be garnished with white poppy seeds for contrast, but since my ginger chunks were still visible, I thought they provided colour contrast enough.

They had exactly the right texture; soft and yielding to the touch, and I was thrilled to have reached this texture without ridiculous amounts of oil. I'd like to try a Mediterranean spin on this dish using garlic and oregano as seasonings and chicken stock as the braising liquid. The daily piles of eggplants at the mujin show no time of stopping soon, so I'll have lots of raw materials on which to experiment.