Mitarashi Dango

Staying with the theme of last Thursday, let’s introduce more Japanese food: mitarashi dango.

Dango are little Japanese dumplings made from rice flour. They are similar to mochi, but mochi are much softer and sweeter than the dango. Dango are usually boiled in water and then skewered in groups of three to five.

Except for the hanami dango that are sold during cherry blossom season and come in three flavours (cherry, green tea, and plain), the dango themselves are usually plain and don’t have much taste. The flavour comes by adding a sauce to the skewered dango, and you can have anything on top from a layer of anko (red bean paste), to a chestnut paste, kinako (roasted soy flour), or sesame seeds.

A set of three mitarashi dango skewersIf you first boil and then grill the dango over a fire and finally cover them with a sweet sauce made of sugar, water, rice vinegar, and soy sauce, you get mitarashi dango. Their origin goes back to the mitarashi festival of Shimogamo shrine, where a family offered the first skewered dango to the gods. Their round shape is meant to resemble the bubbles that form in the shrine’s Mitarashi pond, and that there are usually five to one skewer is explained by the fact that the top dango counts as the head, and the lower four as the arms and legs of a human.

Nowadays, mitarashi dango are sold all over Japan, and especially in summer they are very popular. However, there is a very old mitarashi dango shop nearby Shimogamo shrine, and it is said that the first mitarashi dango were made there. Whether this is true or not, it is certainly a nice story, and I think I might just go and visit that particular shop to try the original.

Gyoza

I am slowly trying to japanify myself, and a friend of mine helps me doing so by teaching me how to cook. Last Friday we spontaneously decided to make gyoza – Japanese meat dumplings.

Japanese GyozaYou need gyoza wrappers – thin, round wrappers made of noodle dough. I guess if you can’t find those, it would be possible to make them yourself. Those are filled with a mixture of cabbage and pork and a few other things and are relatively easy to make. See a full recipe at my washoku page. Still, I would recommend making a really large batch and freezing whatever you can’t eat. It is best to freeze the fresh gyoza before frying them.

Also, extra tip: the meat mixture described in the gyoza recipe is the same as for meat balls. Japanese tend not to fry those in a pan, but rather, they put them on a stick and grill them. Something I will also try out eventually.

Kyo Chaffle

Green tea is a wonderful discovery/invention. In Japan, some 90.000 tons of tea leaves are harvested each year. Most of this tea is consumed either as “raw” green tea or fermented or roasted (as black tea or hojicha, respectively). An interesting Japanese invention is matcha, green tea leaves that are finely ground to a powder and which can be used to make the famously bitter tea for tea ceremony, or as an ingredient for cooking.

Additionally, in Japan you can buy matcha flavoured anything: From candy to kitkat and chocolates, to ice-cream (with and without anko) for example. And all sorts of cakes and cookies.

Kyochaffle with packageA personal favourite of mine from the latter department are cookies called Kyo Chaffle. Those are thin, round cookies with an intensely green color and an even more intense taste. Their “mouthfeel” if you want so is like that of brownies: On the inside they have a slightly sticky consistency, while they are dry on the outside. They are very delicious indeed and are nice as a snack in between – provided you can manage to stop after a single one…

Kisen de Oden

Sorry for not writing on Sunday. First I was occupied and later incapacitated…

A friend of mine took me out to Otsu, some 30 minutes east of Kyoto. Otsu is the capital of Shiga prefecture and the largest city situated on Lake Biwa which in its turn is the largest freshwater lake of Japan. Both Otsu and Lake Biwa are popular day trip destinations from Kyoto, and there is even a path over the mountains from Kyoto to Lake Biwa, but it is probably not for the weak of limb…

Anyway, we went to Otsu on Sunday evening for a Kisen-de-Oden. Oden is a soup or rather a hot pot that is eaten throughout Japan during winter: in a light broth various types of fish cake are boiling, together with a whole egg, some daikon radish, and konyaku. It’s a bit like shabu-shabu with the difference that the ingredients are already pre-cooked and just heated in the hot pot.

Kisen means boat in Japanese, and Kisen-de-Oden thus means that you eat Oden while riding in a boat somewhere on the lake. Well, it didn’t work out like that exactly, but still: There was a short trip by boat from the main harbour of Otsu to the little landing at the old Biwako Otsukan hotel. This is a lovely building situated directly on the lake with a beautiful garden right next to it. Of course, when we arrived it was dark already and neither the building nor the garden could be seen. However, Otsu lies on the southern tip of Lake Biwa, and surrounds a good part of it, so there was a wonderful view of lit up Otsu from Otsu across the lake.

Old Otsu Hotel at Lake Biwa(photo by 663highland on Wikimedia commons)

The Oden was an interesting mix of French and Japanese cuisine. We had cooked beef in sauce, some hearty egg pudding, and foie gras as appetizers. Then the pot for the oden was heated on our table, and we were supposed to eat it – and top it off with the grated cheese that was provided. When the oden was finished we put a fried, plain onigiri rice ball into the remaining soup to make our own risotto. My overall impression was: interesting combination, but delicious.

With these sort of things I am never sure whether they are meant for the food or for the drinks. Together with the ticket, you got three coupons for free drinks (I chose three glasses of wine) plus an additional glass of hot wine on the trip plus another additional glass of wine upon arrival. That’s 5 glasses of wine – within 90 minutes, not for the weak of stamina… Of course, as usual in Japan, the whole evening was minutely planned, and executed as well, and while the waiters held themselves in the background, you still had the feeling of being rushed a little. 30 minutes more would not have been amiss.

After 75 minutes in the restaurant we had to leave and were taken by boat back to Otsu harbour again. My friend forgot to order dessert (which was a good thing because there wasn’t time enough for another course anyway), so we went to have pancakes in a Hawaiian restaurant (of all places) near the train station.

Altogether I had a nice evening in Otsu. The place looks peaceful in the night and worth examining further. I have been there before for Otsu matsuri (with the same friend) and this time we kinda sorta got invited to return for the Otsu fireworks in summer. But that’s still five months to go, and with a bit of luck I will go there earlier.

Baby Kasutera

One of the great things of Japanese festivals of a certain size is the fast food sold there. From very simple grilled meat – on sticks – and very elaborate pancakes with different toppings – rolled around sticks – to the all time favourites of yakisoba and okonomiyaki. Sweets are either caramelised fruit like apples or strawberries – on sticks – or bananas – on sticks – dipped in chocolate and sprinkles.

And then there are Kasutera. They are hard to describe, little oval balls made from simple pancake batter (I think) and baked in a special mold. They are not very sweet as there is no sugar added (although is there certainly some in the batter), and they are best when eaten fresh and really hot.

Making Baby KasuteraBaby Kasutera like this seem to be a speciality of matsuri, I have never seen them sold elsewhere. Also it seems that at least in Kyoto there is a monopoly on Kasutera. No matter what festival, and no matter how large, there is a single Kasutera booth only and it is always the same company. So, if you come visit a Kyoto festival, try to find the Kasutera booth, they are certainly worth it!

By the way, there is also a sponge-like cake called Kasutera, but the taste is a bit different. Don’t mistake those two, although the Kasutera cake is not usually sold at matsuri anyway.

Persimmon Leaf Sushi

There are many kinds of sushi, most of them with fish, a few with other things like avocado or eggs, and they come in a variety of forms: nigiri sushi (classic rice on bottom, fish on top), maki sushi rolls, temaki sushi wrapped in a piece of seaweed looking like an ice cream cone, chirashi sushi (rice in a bowl with raw fish sprinkled on top)… However, the one thing all sushi has in common is that it must be consumed fresh on the day it is made – it is raw fish, after all.

Well, there are exceptions to everything of course. In this case here, one of them is called kakinoha sushi, persimmon leaf sushi. It looks like a standard nigiri sushi wrapped in a green leaf, but there is a little more to it: To make kakinoha sushi, the cooked rice is placed in a wooden mold, the already cured fish is put on top of it, and the whole thing is pressed firmly. The finished pressed sushi is cut into bite sized pieces and only now individually wrapped in salted persimmon leaves. After that, the pieces are put back into the mold, topped with something heavy, and left to rest for a few days in a cool place.

Kakinoha sushiEating kakinoha sushi is easy: Simply unwrap and eat with your fingers (like all sushi, by the way). The persimmon leaf (which is not eaten although one probably could) can be used as a sort of natural napkin to touch the sushi, which are a bit more sticky than usual. Their distinct taste originates from the persimmon leaves – which are antibacterial, by the way – but it is not strong enough to overpower the fish. Most often, salmon, mackerel, and trout are used in kakinoha sushi.

kakinoha sushi ekibenThis type of sushi is a speciality of Nara, a landlocked little city southeast of Kyoto; this is interesting because one would expect a fish product like this to be made where fresh fish is easy to get… The dish was traditionally prepared for ceremonies like the summer festival, where it is important to have food that does not spoil easily. Today, kakinoha sushi can be bought in many places all over Kansai at least, and it is a popular ekiben – the kind of bento food box you eat when traveling by Shinkansen. But that’s a story for another weekend…

Nanakusa no Sekku

January 7th, also called jinjitsu, traditionally marks the last day of the New Year’s festivities, and of course the Japanese celebrate it with special food. In this case, they eat nanakusa gayu – seven herb soup – which gives an alternative name to this day: nanakusa no sekku, the Festival of Seven Herbs. Eating nanakusa gayu is supposed to promote health during winter, and give one a long life, of course. 

Besides that, after all the gluttony of New Year’s feasting, nanakusa gayu is also meant to rest the stomach a bit, and indeed, the soup is based on okayu, a simple, soft, and very bland rice porridge that people usually eat when they are sick. They then add the following seven herbs to the soup: water dropwort (seri), shepherd’s purse (nazuna), cudweed (hahagokusa), chickweed (hakobe), nipplewort (koonitabiraku), turnip (kabu), and radish (daikon).

Nanakusa gayuOf course, it is now in the middle of winter, and these herbs are not easy to be gathered outside; note that in ancient times however, the festival would have been on the seventh day of the first month according to the lunar calendar, that is, about two months later than today. In any case, the modern Japanese do not forage outside, but rather in their nearest supermarket, where nanakusa can be bought in conveniently sized packs – or even, as I found out, as a dried mixture or in reheatable plastic bags complete with the finished rice porridge.

Even though my cooking skills are not exemplary, I did not stoop that low, but indeed bought the smallest pack of fresh nanakusa I could find and made my own rice porridge. The result was rather bland to be honest, but the tastes of the different herbs did come out very well this way.

Below is the recipe I used to make the nanakusa gayu from scratch. I will not post it in my washoku category because the herbs are pretty much impossible to find outside of Japan. However, if you feel like trying it anyway, you can use other herbs that you like or can find. 

Recipe for nanakusa gayu, seven herbs rice porridge (for two people)

– 2 cups rice (Japanese or risotto rice)
– 8 cups water
– 1 piece of kelp (optional)
– salt
Boil the rice with the water and salt until it has a very soft texture. There should still be some water left at the end. (Optional: you can add a piece of kelp to add some flavour, but remove it when the water starts boiling so the taste will not get bitter.)

– 1 cup of nanakusa or seven other herbs (nanakusa are: Japanese water dropwort, shepherd’s purse, cudweed, chickweed,  nipplewort, turnip, and radish)
Clean the herbs and blanch them in boiling water, then drain, rinse, and cut in small pieces.

When the rice is finished, gently stir in the herbs and let them heat up for a minute or two. (*) That’s it! Enjoy!

(*) Alternatively, you can forgo the blanching if you add the herbs to the rice a bit earlier. I did it that way, and it tasted fine to me, which does not necessarily mean anything though…

Japanese New Year Traditions

A New Year has begun, and again, I have tried yet a few more of the hundreds of traditions that surround this time of the year in Japan.

Unfortunately, I have been rather sick since Christmas, so instead of going out for the joya-no-kane ringing of the temple bells, I stayed in bed. I could hear the bells from there, however, and even so, it gives a wonderfully spiritual feeling to the quiet night.

I tried two of the food related Japanese New Year traditions though: On New Year’s Eve, I ate what is called toshi-koshi-soba, year crossing soba. Soba are buckwheat noodles, and depending on who you ask, you will get a different version of their significance in the dish: The noodles are long and symbolise a long life; but they are also easy to cut, so they make you let go of the hardships of the past year; and since the buckwheat plant is very hardy, this is a representation of strength and resilience (something I can definitely use right now).

New Year's SweetsFor New Year’s Day, I had bought not a full Osechi menu, but only the sweets that come with it. The rooster is a symbol of this year, and the long flat thing is a paddle that’s used for hanetsuki, a type of old Japanese shuttlecock I have written about before. Interestingly, only half of the pieces had anko in it – I was very happy about that!

Ceramic statue of a RoosterBesides that, I bought a rooster for my home. Not a real one of course, but a small ceramic statue that is usually displayed near the entrance. Since I don’t have space there however, I put it in my living room – one of the few things that are decorative there at the moment. It is my first such zodiac animal and according to a friend, you should not reuse an old statue (the zodiac repeats itself every 12 years), but always buy a new one, to attract new good luck to your home, so to speak. Well, this is a nice tradition to start in my home I guess, and it’s neither expensive, nor does it take too much space, so…

Nihonshu

As mentioned a week or two ago, at the end of November I went to a sake tasting. The person who conducted it was an American, and to be honest, I was slightly disappointed in the beginning. However, he turned out to really know his stuff and he was good at explaining things, so I was very happy in the end.

For example, I learned why on each bottle of sake there are two percentages given: The larger percentage indicates the milling rate, that is, how much the rice used was polished. The idea is that the smaller that milling rate (50% and lower, indicating more polishing), the more smooth the alcohol should taste. I say “should” because it is not always that clear-cut, or maybe my taste buds are not that refined. The smaller percentage indicated the alcohol percentage. Anything between 15 and 20% is standard, but recently, very light sake with around 8% alcohol only are produced as well, mostly to attract female customers.

Also, I have learnt that sake consists of rice, water, mold, and yeast. That means that the usual translation of sake as “rice wine” is misleading, it would be more accurate to speak of “rice beer”. Mostly, special rice is used for brewing, different to the one that is eaten. Interestingly, there is red rice that can be used for making sake. The result is something that has a very interesting taste – like European liqueur with a hint of soy sauce. It also has a distinctive red colour, most normal sake is colourless or at most slightly yellow only.

There are many sake breweries all over Japan, but Hyogo prefecture with the capital Kobe has the most. In Kyoto city, there are a number of sake breweries in Fushimi, and people claim that the water from there is especially good. Unfortunately, there are not many sake breweries that allow visitors, but every now and then, guided tours are offered. I will definitely look for one of those!

Sake brewing season is in winter when the rice has been harvested, from October to March. Over summer, the sake rests, and is afterwards bottled. The year and month of doing this is always noted on the bottle, and sake is best consumed within a month after bottling. It does not seem to age well since even our guide said the taste becomes “different” without going into details. That probably means it is awful for all but the biggest aficionados…

The most interesting information for me was that there are no sake sommeliers – you just drink it as you like it, hot or cold, with food or without… The most popular food to go with sake are tsukemono, Japanese pickles, apparently the equivalent to wine and cheese, or, more appropriately: beer and chips.

By the way: sake as we call it in the west simply means “alcohol” in Japanese, so if you want to order it here, you’ll have to use the term nihon shu, Japanese alcohol.

Reporting

When I was about 15 years old, I wanted to become a journalist. Since I liked writing and listened to music virtually all day, I thought music journalist would be a good match for me. Obviously my life didn’t quite turn out that way, but still, about 25 years later, I had my first journalistic adventure today.

Sponsored by Kyotogram (thank you!) I went to the Kyo-ryori exhibition that is held today and tomorrow at the Miyako Messe. The theme is Kyoto cooking, that is: kaiseki: expensive dishes with nothing but the best and freshest ingredients, styled to absolute perfection. It is the haute cuisine of Japan, and prices for dinner start at 15.000 YEN for the cheapest meals, drinks not included.

Since it is December, many exhibits were centered around O-sechi ryori, the meals you eat on the three holidays of New Year’s. Kaiseki already means exquisite styling of the food, but in O-sechi, the bar is yet raised a bit higher. The main ingredient of both kaiseki and O-sechi is fish and seafood of all kinds, and I think I saw only a single dish with meat.

Besides the food exhibits, there were sellers of food related items like expensive ceramics, kitchen utensils, etc. as well as tea, sake, and beer. There was also a place where you could take part in a (simplified) tea ceremony and a food court where you could order some lunch, standard Japanese fare though. There was also extra entertainment: The portioning of a whole tunafish (I came to late for this one to get decent pictures, but I had seen it once before), an extremely interesting demonstration of the ritual cutting of fish without touching it (something religious I guess, I’ll have to look it up), and a maiko dance performance (can’t go without that in Kyoto).

I did not have time yet to sift through all the pictures I took, but here are two of the most striking ones: a seafood rooster for New Year since next year is the year of the Rooster, and below: a fugu phoenix… Mind you: this is not plastic, this is real fish! How can anybody eat this!

A rooster made of seafood. A phoenix made of fugu sashimi.