I returned recently from Japan, with renewed reverence for Japanese food. Everywhere you turn in Japan, there is wonderful and varied food. I had some of the best baked goods in my life at a bakery at the Kyoto Station. A typical breakfast at a Japanese hotel would include okayu (rice gruel or congee) with many types of seasonings, miso soup, two kinds of grilled fish, a braised tofu dish, several pickled vegetable dishes, tamago yaki (sweet egg omelet), PLUS the standard western breakfast items of scrambled eggs, French toast, fruit, sausage and bacon. My friend John B. was so thrilled with his first Japanese breakfast experience that he went back for third helpings!
The basement floors of major department stores are dedicated to food with hundreds of counters each offering specialty foods of incredible quality—green teas, pastries, bento boxes, candies, food gifts— along with produce, seafood and meats that make Whole Foods seem downright downscale.
It is truly amazing that there are not more really fat people in Japan.
Our single culinary disappointment was the breakfast at Tokyo hotel where we stayed, which served “hamburg” with fries for breakfast. I believe it was the only item on the restaurant menu morning, noon or night. It wasn’t bad, just strange.
The experience illustrated, however, how Japan has embraced food from other cultures and made it their own. You can hardly imagine going to a Japanese restaurant without seeing tempura on the menu, but like many foods that people think of as Japanese, it is really an adaptation of cooking technique adapted from the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries, who introduced the concept of deep-frying food during the 16th century. In fact, the word “tempura” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Latin word “tempora” which was used by the missionaries to refer the holy days (quattuor tempora) when Catholics were forbidden to eat red meat. Kasutera ( Castella) cake a renowned sponge cake was derived from Pao de Castela, which means “bread from Castile.”
And here is an interesting thing that I did not know—the term used for Western-influenced cooking is “yoshoku.” And those items are only written in katakana characters (phonetic alphabet), as opposed to traditional Japanese foods, which can be written in the more formal kanji (pictographs). Traditional Japanese food is known as “washoku.”
Fabulous restaurants in Japan are as common as coffee shops in Seattle. One of our eating highlights during our wanderings was a rustic okonomiyaki restaurant right at the entrance of the Path of Philosophers in Kyoto. Our hostess turned on a table top grill and after it was hot enough, proceeded to mix into a batter an array of seafood and lots of chopped cabbage to grill big fat pancakes that were then topped with a bacon and squirts of Kewpie (a brand Japanese-style mayonnaise, a sweet-sour okonomiyaki sauce, katsuoboshi (shredded bonito), tenkasu (little tempura crisps) and aonori (ground seaweed). IT WAS HEAVEN! And, it was beautiful. Once the katsuoboshi hits the pancake, it starts dancing around from the heat.
And here is some interesting history. As exotic as okonomiyaki sounds, it is a relatively modern invention, created after the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923 when it became necessary for people to find creative ways to cook their food. And it became a fad that spread throughout Japan. There are as many kinds of okonomiyaki as there are regions of Japanese cuisine. The kind I like to make is how they do it in Osaka, the birthplace of okonomiyaki.
It is actually pretty easy to make okonomiyaki at home, as long as you have access to ingredients like katsuoboshi and nori. It is pretty much an “anything goes” dish—“okono” means “whatever you like,” or something like that. So get on over to Uwajimaya or another Asian grocery store. You can even pick up a bag of “okonomiyaki mix,” which makes it really easy!
This whole thing takes less than 30 minutes, from raw ingredients to table-top service. I like to serve this along with chawan mushi (recipe to follow), pickled Japanese vegetables (otsukemono) and maybe a little grilled fish on the side.
Okonomiyaki for 8-12
Combine 1 bag of okonomiyaki flour with six eggs and the finely shredded head of one cabbage. I know that sounds like a lot, but just trust me. Add one bunch of chopped green onions, ¼ pickled red ginger, and any combination of the following:
- 1 pound of bay scallops
- ½ pound of shelled and deveined shrimp
- Chopped fishcake
- 2 chopped lap cheong sausages
- Chopped beni shoga (red pickled ginger)
This list of ingredients is what works for me, but you could really do anything—fish, cooked chicken, whatever. Some people put cheese in, but I can’t get my head around that.
Mix it all up and plop a ladle full of the mixture onto a hot griddle. This is perfect for tabletop cooking. Do not press down on the blobs. After a reasonable amount of time, flip your blobs over and place some half slices of bacon or thinly sliced pork belly on top of the cooked surface. Continue to resist the urge to press. When the bottom is good and brown, flip the pancake over again and give it another good grill to cook up the bacon/pork belly.
Now for the show. Flip the pancake onto a serving plate. Drizzle the okonomiyaki and mayonnaise over the surface of the pancake. Then sprinkle a generous amount of katsuboshi (about 1 T) over the top along with the tenkasu and about ¾ t of ao nori. If you don’t have ao nori, use another kind.
Serve it up while the katsuoboshi are still doing their lively little dance.
Chawan Mushi for 8
My friend Sarah loves this. It is a savory egg custard, steamed with seafood, chicken and mushrooms. I made it the other night with thinly sliced fresh matsutake, but you could also use shiitake, enoki or another type of wild mushroom.
Lightly beat 6 eggs in a large bowl. Mix in 4 cups cool dashi soup stock, 2 t soy sauce,1 t salt, 2 t sake, and 2 t sugar. Gently combine dashi mixture the egg mixture. Put a couple of mushrooms, a couple small pieces of raw chicken, and some slices fishcake into eight chawanmushi cups, or tea cups. Then fill each cup to third-fourths full with the egg mixture. Cover the cups and steam for about 10-15 minutes.