Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The sea and the stars

Wow, it’s over a week since I brewed up a slimy batch of hijiki, so what can I remember of the process? Actually it was all rather memorable since cooking with seaweed does not have much of a place in even the most adventurous cook’s repertoire in Britain. Even shopping for it was something of a new experience: the seaweeds (of which I have purchased konbu and nori in various forms before) had an entire height of shelves to themselves and were all, as far as I could tell, dried. On pinpointing the particularly spindly, black variety that is hijiki I was confronted with options of normal and long hijiki plus a more expensive ‘made in Japan’ variety. I plumped for the latter as a scaremongering train-of-thought started in my mind about how the ones that didn’t come from Japan probably came from China, and then onto thinking about how China’s sea water might be doing on the pollution front…Actually I have no idea how people grow/make/farm/harvest (delete as appropriate) seaweeds: they might all emerge under UV lamps in salty hydroponic factories, congealing from some algae substrate for all I know (although I think they are probably just fished out of the sea). My hijiki was slightly alarmingly Tesco-branded, so it must have been mass-produced in some environmentally damaging immoral way.

First thing to do with it when you get it out of the bag is to rinse and soak for about half an hour. The brittle strands swell to Medusa-like glistening black tendrils and are particularly disgusting to handle at this stage. So straight into the pot they go, with carrot and fried tofu (age – the recipe called for pork instead but I’m not keen on they kind of fatty pork bits I can get in my first floor supermarket) and the usual mirin, soy sauce and sake combination.

The result tasted very much of the sea and general hardy healthiness. I can’t say it was delicious, but it certainly was edible and much helped by some unorthodox use of furikake (flavoured sprinkles for rice).

I made this dish at the beginning of Japan Fashion Week in which I was running around to shows and writing about them. To make something portable that could be eaten on the hoof, I decided to make hijiki onigiri (the rice triangles usually with a filling in and nori seaweed wrapped around). Again, my brown rice, which I stubbornly insist on using caused some problems in that it is not as sticky as the white variety, so the onigiri was rather crumbly. Luckily, I had some onigiri cases to hold the shape in place: you line one half of the triangular clam-shell box with cling film , and layer in the rice and filling, then click close. And they are decorated with my beloved Little Twinstars (who beat Hello Kitty any day) cooking! While Lala reads him the recipe, Kiki is stirring what seems to be a carrot, pink flower and sponge soup. Kiki and Lala always have the best food: I tried to get the caterers cut the sandwiches into star shapes for my wedding in homage, but they refused for some reason. They should have been thankful I didn’t ask for hijiki sandwiches.

Food, glorious food

OK. These dishes all look rather similar. All over (or, under-) whelmingly ... green. Well, I'm going vegan, at last, and this is my first foray. As it turns out, despite sushi and yakiniku, Japan is good place to do it. For me, fish and meat are fairly easy to renounce (especially after a stomach-turning look at PETA's slaughterhouse footage). I envision cheese to be somewhat more of a temptation... but perhaps not so much in Japan where good cheese is expensive and hard to get hold of (and perhaps after a few more PETA-like horror stories). So anyway, I did a bit of googling for an accompaniment to our hijiki dish and found this great page, VeganYumYum, whence came the salad (Avocado Wasabi Salad) and wheat gluten dishes (Seitan and Broccolini with Clementine Teriyaki). And they were amazingly delicious. Seitan (wheat gluten) was not to be found in my local stores (I am wondering if this is not used in Japan as I've never come across it), so I replaced it with loops of grilled fu (kizami shonaifu - also wheat gluten). The combination of avocado and wasabi as a dressing for the salad was absolutely mouthwatering, and for greens component, I prepared very lightly simmered rape leaves. I also added gingko nuts, cooked in a little olive oil.

This week, while Urban Mugwort has been at Tokyo Fashion Week, Rural Mugwort has been in the mountains, stomping about in the snow (hence the blog-absence) - and savouring more vegan food - a vegetable nabe with soy milk in it at the temple, Koya-dofu and goma (sesame) tofu,...walnut rice cakes and baked sweet potato at the cake shop Miroku no ishi (Maitreya's Stone). Back in Kyoto I serendipitously discovered a Zen cookery book on the shelf at the research center. So the vegan thing is all coming together from different directions.

For the hijiki, then, I had to find a replacement for the pork, and used kyo-dofu (sheets of tofu), grilled till it was a little crispy, and then sliced. Hijiki is black seaweed, reconstituted in cold water. it's really good for a vegan diet as it's high in calcium (which is a major concern) and iron. It's most often used in this dish, where it is fried in a little oil, and mixed with juilenned carrots, green beans, soy sauce, mirin, and sugar.

Must get back to revision - massage exam this weekend. But please don't think I'm getting all smug and health-conscious. I have a long- and lovingly-cultivated collection of extremely unhealthy habits, that I wouldn't be without (this could, of course, be read: "addictions"...).
Everything in moderation, I say...


1) hijiki, carrots, seaweed, beans, kyo-dofu
2) avocado wasabi salad
3) broccoli and fu with citrus teriyaki
4) Green overload

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mycophile phood

This week's recipe was takikomi-gohan (mixed, cooked rice) in which we used three types of Japanese mushroom: buna shimeji ("brown beech mushrooms"), enoki ("velvet foot") and shiitake (the best known outside Asia of the three but with the least evocative name: "mushroom of the shii tree"). These all grow on logs or trees (except when they are artificially cultivated) and are said to have properties that lower the risk of cancer or, at least, that boost the immune system. In addition to their reputed healing properties, they are a great food for vegetarians (if the savory taste of meat is craved) as they have the so-called "umami" savory taste and are so versatile.

In addition to the mushrooms, - or as alternatives - you can use meat, vegetables (carrot, burdock etc) or fish to mix with the rice. The point is to cook it all together in dashi-infused rice in the rice-cooker. The mushrooms give the takikomi-gohan a really soft, fragant and rich quality - great autumn or winter food, and perhaps not so suited to early spring, but never mind! The shoyu/mirin/sake that are mixed into the rice also give it this warmth and after a while sitting in the rice-cooker produce a nice kogeta edge - slightly scorched, that is. When you taste it you'll see why this is one occasion when (very) slight burning is good! I matched the rice with miso soup, and Koya-dofu (freeze-dried tofu associated with the Mount Koya temple community), simmered in dashi.

While I was looking up some info on Japanese mushrooms, I found this rather fascinating presentation: according to this guy, we humans are closer to fungi than to any other kingdom! In what way...? Have a look at this for a presentation of mycilium as a proto- internet Pandora-like world...I shan't look at shiitake in the same way again after seeing this. The mycophile mind boggles! Another document of interest, again less culinary based, is the report of a 1950s American banker who delved into the world of mushroom-induced visions in Mexico: The photo caption "Allen Richardson eats a mushroom in spite of his pledge to his wife" is adorable. And finally, for those more foodie than I evidently am, there's a nice guide to edible mushrooms here.

Pictures: Shiitake, buna-shimeji, enoki



Mushroom magic

Both us Ms. Mugworts have been rather busy recently with our studies. I am still procrastinating (partly via this recipe write-up) about an article about Japanese denim that I need to revise for publication by tomorrow. So, like last week, we chose a simple recipe in order for it not to intrude too much on our scholarly schedules. This week also saw us bunging a load of stuff (guu) on some rice, but this time our guu - mushrooms - were cooked together with the rice and then mixed in with it before serving, as opposed to being laid on top of cooked rice. Takikomi gohan (cooking-together rice) is a brilliant way of livening up which, lets admit, is a somewhat bland carbohydrate staple (I can never understand how simple white rice can be proclaimed ‘delicious’ as it frequently is! But there’s my unsophisticated palette for you).

I’m a great fan of putting ingredients in some magical shiny steel kitchen appliance box, pressing ‘go’ and sitting back to wait for the machine to do its job. This method has the added advantage of being able to blame this ‘black box’ for any culinary disasters that occur whilst you weren’t looking. (Of course looking always affects the process, although hopefully you don’t have a cat in there like Schroedinger). I regularly – nay always – make my bread and rice this way, and occasionally make jam in the bread machine and yoghurt in the rice cooker (it has a special setting). It’s like opening a present when the ‘peep peep’ sounds and you lift the lid. It is also very useful for dinner parties: I made Week 3’s Yellowtail Teriyaki and our trusty komatsuna-age while the rice cooker was taking care of the mushrooms and rice for me. Three types of mushroom – shiitake, shimeji and enoki - were fried with the usual seasoning suspects of soy sauce, mirin and sake until soft. These then went on top of the washed kome (uncooked rice; when cooked it is called gohan) all bathed in dashi and – ‘peep’ – press button and wait.

I used to be even more fussy with food than I am now, and I one point in my childhood I think all I ate was pickled onions and cheese. Mushrooms have taken me a long time to get used to, and this was, rather embarrassingly, one of the first times I’ve cooked with them. I was surprised that I still felt a little queasy at that squidgy, meaty, slimy texture of the shiitake during preparation, but they were soft and delicious in the finished dish.

Our friend N joined us for supper, bearing gifts of exquisite ginger and mango stilton, bread roll and dark fruit cake, the latter a gift for me for White Day. This is a day in which men give chocolates etc. to women in return for the reverse flow of gift-giving a month previously on Valentine’s Day. Before you get the idea that I am in some saucy threesome, these gifts are often exchanged between friends and colleagues, not just lovers. Having said that, the earth did move for us all during supper…courtesy of an earthquake. It was just strong enough to add some frisson to the thoroughly enjoyable evening, which ended with ice cream and caramelized apples (again) and the boys playing with Japanese swords.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Sushi for Dummies, or scatterbrains perhaps?

Chirashi zushi, literally ‘scattered sushi’, seems to be a dish of compromises. Don’t have enough time to mould your sushi rice into patties and lay a slice of something on it? Just put your toppings on a bowl of sushi rice instead. Got some cuts of fish that are not aesthetically pleasing enough to grace ‘sushi’? Lay them artistically on top of each other and next to other toppings in a bowl and hope nobody notices. Got some spare vegetables that need using up? Boil them lightly and add them too.

When researching this dish there were so many recipes: like Nabe (week 5), the constituent ingredients – or in this case, the guu (‘bits’ i.e. the toppings) – are infinitely variable. We were meant to do the Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival) version, but I had some veggies that needed using up and so went for the ‘whatever toppings you can find’ approach. I thought this dish was ‘Edomae chirashi zushi’ usually described as using raw toppings, but I cooked my egg, renkon (lotus root) and nanohana (rape blossom), so does that count?

There’s another thing that puzzles me about sushi in general (and it wasn't until today that I found out that ‘sushi’ refers to just the rice, I thought it was the rice and topping): the ubiquity of polished white rice is a relatively ‘modern’ condition, so did the Japanese use to eat brown rice, or genmai sushi? I thought I’d try it, since we don’t have any white rice in the house these days (I try to avoid white bread in England, and white rice is just the same – a processed grain stripped of nutrients and fibre…). It didn’t work so well, with the vinegar/sugar/water mixture merely soaking the rice rather than making it stick together, so I added less than was recommended. While I’m on rice, it is also funny how few people cook their rice on their hob, favouring the suihanki or electric rice cooker. We went to our friends’ flat last night for the most amazing wagyuu (Japanese beef) I’ve tasted, served with lovely steaming white rice. After one mouthful of rice, my husband asked ‘did you cook this with gas?’ ‘Yes’ was the answer. Not only does it taste better but it is far quicker than doing it in the rice cooker and not difficult.

I lightly boiled the renkon slices and nananoha, microwaved the egg in a special plastic star-shaped container (cutely shaped food is big bento box business in Japan) and bought a selection of sashimi from the supermarket for my topping guu. Decoration, apparently, is key in chirashi zushi, so I laid the ingredients on as prettily as I could without getting too impatient. Later I thought I could have been more creative, threading the nanohana through the renkon holes and sticking them in horizontally to make some sort of 3D chirashi zushi forest.

On the side, in dishes from my sister-in-law, was a little wasabi and soy sauce. Finally, in a nod to the Hina Matsuri, I bought a bottle of children’s amazake, literally ‘sweet sake’, a welcome non-alcoholic drink after the past few days of indulgence. It was, in the end, quick, healthy and delicious – not such a compromise perhaps after all!

Sushi fit for a princess

The sunshine seems to have realised it was too early to be out and about and has hidden itself behind a cloud. Cold, drizzly days passing along rather glumly one after the other. March 3rd in Japan is 'Girls' Day' (or Dolls' Festival - hina matsuri), a heteronormative ritual involving lots of dolls, much pink and red in general, and also, for some reason, a dish called chirashi-zushi, or 'scattered sushi'.

The white rice is prepared as it is for making any other sushi by being mixed lightly with rice-vinegar, sugar and salt. To this toasted white sesame seeds are added. One can also slice up shiitake mushrooms and carrots very finely and mix them into the rice but I put them on top, along with dashimaki tamago (rolled egg) cut into thin ribbons and fresh salmon. In England we don't eat nanohana (rape flowers), used in this dish (abroad they are mainly used for oil), but they are very tasty. They are also quite good lightly cooked and mixed with dashi-joyu (dashi stock plus soy sauce) and sugar. Chirashi-zushi is, like nabe, a rather casual dish in that to an extent one can mix and match ingredients according to one's likes and dislikes, or to utilise regional specialities. Unfortunately I couldn't find denbu sakura (ground cod coloured with red food colouring) and so my sushi was not as pink as might be appropriate for the annual girly festival, though we tried to jazz up the table a bit with some hina matsuri decorations a friend had given me. I served the chirashi-zushi with sliced avocado, soy sauce and wasabi on the side.

The March 3rd traditional celebrations - the dressing and display of a rather ostentatious stepped arrangement of princess-like dolls in Heian period court costumes - the composition of which portrays an aristocratic hierarchy - looks incredibly pretty, elegant and innocent. Japanese dolls are indeed beautiful, and I intend to see this exhibition of them next week at Hokyoji (also known as The Doll Temple, for its collection and the funerary services it offers for discarded dolls). But doll culture in Japan is, to me anyway, riddled with ideological strangeness (well, the gender-role institutionalisation is creepy enough). The idea that a doll is imbued with a living spirit is par for the course when you consider the strands of animistic beliefs in Japanese culture as a whole. But what is quite distinctive in the work of many modern doll-makers is the sexualization of female children. Throw in the animistic bit and it gets disturbing. I wish Girls' Day and Boys' Day would get together and make 'Persons' Day'... one day. In this futuristic gender-neutral world of mine we’ll keep the traditional dishes though - I was really pleased with my chirashi-zushi, and I love these photos I got of Yumika tucking in and looking so delighted.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Week 6: Daigaku imo

Again we both followed different recipes this week, and there are several variations on Daigaku imo as well.

This is a translation of a fairly simple one, from cookpad, a good resource for Japanese recipes.

2 sweet potatoes (about 800g)

Mizu-ame (sugar syrup) 150g

Water 2 tablespoons

Soy sauce 1/2 tablespoon

Black sesame seeds

Wash the potatoes well, chop them and put them in cold water.

Dry them with kitchen paper to remove excess moisture and deep fry them slowly in oil of about 125 C. Mix the sugar syrup, water and soy sauce in a pan, and heat up. Add the potatoes to this mixture and stir to coat. Sprinkle the sesame seeds on top and serve.