Foreign Foods in Japan –
Piroshiki!

So many of our Foreign Foods in Japan have come from Europe, the US and China, so this month we’re finally focusing on Japan’s neighbor to the north…Russia!

Piroshiki are hand-held dough pockets filled with various types of fillings. The original dish from Russia is spelled as pirozhki, piroshki or when plural, pirogi or pierogi. In Russia, pirozhki can be found all over the place, made at home, in restaurants and at street food stalls. The Russian version is commonly filled with meat, vegetables, cheese and infrequently fish, when savory, or with fruit and jam when sweet. The dough is typically a yeast dough, leavened and brushed with egg wash, and the entire pocket is baked in a hot oven…perfect for the cold Russian climate!

Pierogi

In Japan, pirozhki were adapted to Japanese taste and cooking methods. One account states that this dish was introduced to Japan after WWII, and the original Japanese piroshiki were filled with minced onions, boiled eggs and ground beef and deep-fried, instead of baked. Another states that Miyo Nagaya, a Japanese chef from Tokyo, became interested in the cuisine of Russia and Central Asia, and opened a restaurant in Tokyo in 1951, where she modified the Russian dish to Japanese tastes.

Piroshiki

Today, piroshiki can be found at bakeries and restaurants in Japan and frying is still the most common way of preparing the dish. Typical fillings range from ground meat, fish and vegetables such as onions, carrots and shiitake mushrooms. One delicious and unique Japanese-centric filling is cooked and chopped up harusame glass noodles, which add incredible texture and umami to the piroshiki. Some believe that piroshiki were the inspiration for kare-pan or curry pan, which is a beloved Japanese deep-fried dough pocket filled with curry flavored ingredients.

Kare-pan

No matter where you get your piroshiki in Japan, you’re sure to enjoy this hot pocket. Have you had it? Have you made it? Share your favorite recipe with us below!

Foreign Foods in Japan –
Doria!

Dorias are so quintessentially Japanese that we sometimes forget they were once a foreign food introduced into Japanese cuisine!

Many foreign foods were introduced to Japan during the Meiji Era, from 1868-1912, as Japan began its journey towards global modernization. After the First World War, even more foreign influence permeated the country, and foreign-born and trained chefs began introducing new dishes inspired by their homelands yet catering to Japanese tastes. One such dish is the doria. It is said that Saly Weil, a Swiss master chef at the New Grand Hotel in Yokohama, developed the dish in the 1930s. The dish was inspired by classic French gratins and baked Italian casseroles, with signature components including a creamy béchamel sauce and melted cheese.

Instead of being made with potatoes, similar to pommes de terre gratinees, the Japanese doria was made with the local staple: rice. And while European gratins often featured beef or ham, the Japanese version most commonly used seafood. Today, numerous variations exist among Japanese dorias, including ones with vegetables, chicken, mushrooms and a host of other ingredients!

The classic Japanese doria starts with cooked white rice. The rice is typically buttered, and depending on taste seasoned with aromatics such as garlic or herbs such as parsley. To the buttered rice is added seafood such as shrimp, scallops or fish, or chicken or vegetables, such as broccoli and mushrooms. And the entire mixture is then folded into a classic French béchamel sauce, made of butter, flour and milk. The combined ingredients are layered into a baking dish and topped with meltable, creamy cheese, such as parmesan or gruyere. The dish is then baked until the cheese is golden on top.

Dorias are served at Yoshoku restaurants throughout Japan but are also frequently prepared at home for lunch or dinner. Our classic recipe is the Green Peas and Asparagus Doria, which is made using rice cooked in our rice cookers.

Have you made this comforting dish? Try it out…it’ll be great for the coming winter months!

Japanese Bento – Kyaraben!

We’ve saved the best for our final post in our Japanese Bento series… kyaraben!

Character bento, or kyaraben, are famous for their style, originality, fun and creativity. Initially created to entice children to eat their lunch, kyaraben focus on the concept of “kawaii”, or cuteness, to present a well-balanced meal in a convenient, portable bento box.

Kyaraben come in an endless variety, all depending on the creativity and wherewithal of the maker. The simplest kyaraben showcase cars, trains, airplanes, stars, hearts and flowers. As the kyaraben artist makes more sophisticated bento, they add cute animal shapes to the bento, including grinning panda bear patties, smiling penguin rice balls, octopus-shaped sausages with flapping arms, porky pigs and small rabbit-eared eggs.

The most popular types of kyaraben, in Japan and internationally, are ones that showcase characters from Japanese anime and manga as well as from Western animated TV shows and movies. Imagine eating a nutritious lunch with Hello Kitty or Gudetama! And how about Doraemon and Pikachu, stacked with fried chicken and sausages! And let’s not forget Totoro and Anpanman on a bed of fried rice surrounded by colorful carrots and edamame! And for kids who love American cartoons, Disney’s Tsum Tsum characters and Winnie the Pooh are big favorites!

Kyaraben artists use both everyday kitchen tools along with special tools made for creating character bento. Plastic wrap is generally used to shape rice balls, but special shapes can also be made using rice molds. Vegetables can be julienned with a sharp knife and also cut into flowers, stars and clouds using miniature veggie cutters. And meats, poultry and seafood are served in bite-sized pieces. Rice and other items are decorated with cutouts of nori seaweed or with designed using powdered seaweed sprinkled through stencils. So elaborate are kyaraben designs that numerous books have been published and popular blogs such as Little Miss Bento are visited by foodies from all over the world!

Ready to try your hand at kyaraben? Check out our ideas for these beautifully-shaped fun bento. And as always, be sure to share your pictures with us!

Japanese Bento – Ekiben!

One of the most recognizable types of bento are ekiben… and this month, we’re excited to explore these boxed meals that are famously found at railway stations!

Ekiben are special types of bento, or boxed meals, and the name is a compilation of “eki” which means station and “ben” short for bento. They were originally only available at railway stations, to travelers looking for fresh food, and were designed to enhance the adventure of travel. Imagine being able to eat a wholesome, carefully prepared meal while watching the scenery go by!

The advent of ekiben coincides with the advent of the Japanese railway. In 1872, the first train began service in Japan, from Yokohama to Shimbashi in Tokyo. As the rail system grew, travelers’ needs grew, too, and ekiben made their debut in the late 1870’s to the early 1880’s. This first ekiben was essentially a rice ball. Realizing how large of a market there might be for fresh, boxed meals for travelers at railway stations, more and more vendors began selling ekiben, showcasing their wares by holding them in carriers around their necks and selling them to passengers through the open windows of trains. By 1910, ekiben had increased in popularity to such an extent that vendors began creating regional recipes and packaging to reflect the specialties available at their local train stations. One of the most famous specialized ekiben was introduced in 1941 by a local ekiben shop in Hakodate, Hokkaido, during a time when rice was not plentifully available because of World War II. They stuffed a small amount of rice into squid and simmered it in a savory sauce. This rice-stuffed squid is still popular today!

Ekiben design and ingredients were also influenced by popular culture. In the 1970’s, when popular television shows became a mainstream form of entertainment, vendors began selling ekiben that mimicked those found in TV. Travelers always recognized them! But soon after, many Japanese stopped traveling as much by train, as owning vehicles and traveling by plane became easier. Ekiben sales decreased by approximately 50% between 1987 and 2008! To counter this downward trend, ekiben vendors got even more creative and innovative, such that today travelers can find elaborate ekiben at stations.

The Shinkansen E7 Series Bento is a great ekiben to purchase when traveling by bullet train, especially for kids! The container looks like a shinkansen train and it can be used to hold small keepsakes after the food is gone. The Gyu-tan Bento, from the Sendai area, uses a self-heating container that heats the food inside when activated. The Feel Good Meal sold at Matsue Station comes with sake. Rustic ekiben evoke nostalgia, like the Toge No Kamameshi rice bowls. Sometimes the boxes seem ordinary, but the wrappers are works of art, commemorating modern and historical events, samurai, manga and famous people.

Ekiben are made by independent artisans and also in larger factories. Regardless of where the ekiben originate, freshness and quality are of utmost importance. Even department stores have gotten onto the ekiben train! They host multiweek festivals, showcasing ekiben from various regions of Japan and giving buyers a chance to experience the flavor of travel, without leaving home.

When you’re feeling the bug to travel but can’t manage a trip to Japan, try making some popular items found in ekiben. As always, white rice is a key ingredient in bento, and items like mini-hamburgers and aemono are great additions to a balanced bento. Try out these recipes and let us know what your favorite bento items are!

Japanese Bento – Get ‘Em At Your Local Store!

In case you can’t tell, we love bento! We’re continuing our Japanese Bento series this month with an entertaining look at where to find ready-made bento in Japan!

Bento are quite often made at home to take to school, the office or outdoor events, but delicious bento can easily be purchased at shops, railway stations, convenience stores and department stores across Japan, too.

During the late 19th century when Japan was going through the height of industrialization, travel by rail became commonplace and enterprising vendors began selling prepackaged bento at train stations. These bento were called ekiben, with “eki” standing for station and “ben” for bento. These types of bento made prepackaged, wholesome food available for workers and travelers outside of their homes, and the trend spread to vendors and shops throughout cities. Prepackaged bento became more and more popular, especially after World War II, and began to be sold in supermarkets. In the 1980’s, convenience stores started to sell bento boxes, and with soaring demand, dedicated bento shops opened, offering some of the most tasty and innovative combinations. These shops are sometimes open 24 hours a day!

An ekiben with a vast array of bento combinations in Shin-Osaka Station (photo by bryan…)

So where should you go for bento?

Konbini, or convenience stores, are ubiquitous and serve various combinations of premade bento, including hamburger patties, steak, karaage fried chicken and salmon, at an inexpensive price. In cold weather, tonjiru or miso soup with pork, and other soups are popular additions to a bento set. The nice part of getting bento from konbini is that customers can take the meal home or to the office and warm it up in a microwave.

Customers buy bento at a Hokka Hokka Tei location (photo by 山海风)

Bento shops serve freshly made bento along with prepackaged ones. Some of the most popular shops in Japan are Hotto Motto, Hokka Hokka Tei, Origin Bento and Honke Kamadoya. These dedicated bento shops often allow customers to create their own combinations by selecting mains, sides and salads from the restaurant menu. Nori seaweed sets with grilled salmon, savory breaded tonkatsu pork and fried karaage chicken are often the most popular items. Served with pickles, salad, vegetable sides and rice, these bento from dedicated shops are the best takeout–and can be purchased at around ¥500 (or $5 USD)—in Japan!

Supermarkets are onboard with bento as well. At the end of the aisles, in sozai (prepared side dish) corners, supermarkets in Japan also carry several bento that you can take home to eat. These bento often become easy dinners for many working people in cities.

Vendors selling an array of food in a depachika (photo by ayustety)

When looking for a fancier bento meal, depachika are the best places to go. Depachika are the basement levels of department stores, where groceries, delis, gourmet food stalls, sweet shops, chocolatiers, alcohol and bento vendors are located. The bento found in depachika range from the kinds found at konbini and bento shops to fancier ones with premium items such as Kobe beef or matsutake mushrooms. Depachika vendors are also constantly adding new and flavorful items to create innovative bento. While many customers pick up bento to go, some diners prefer to select their bento and enjoy the public eating areas, like small gardens or the store rooftops, for their meal. Some even call depachika a bento wonderland!

Bento are very popular in Japan and they can be found at train stations or airports. Stay tuned for our post next month where we talk about ekiben and the types of the wonderful items in them!