An Acquired Taste of Japan – Monjayaki!

Cold weather. Short days. The perfect time for delicious warm foods and drinks, especially when they include monjayaki, our Acquired Taste selection for November.

Monjayaki, or monja for short, is a regional dish, primarily found in Tokyo. At its heart, monjayaki is a slightly ugly pancake made with a few simple ingredients. But when it comes to good food, it really hits the spot, especially when you eat it with an ice-cold beer!

Monjayaki has a long history in Japan. It is thought to have originated in the area now known as Tokyo during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) as a snack called mojiyaki. Mojiyaki, made with a simple water and flour batter, was sold at snack shops called dagashiya, which specialized in candy and snacks for children. When children would come to buy their treat, they would practice their letters in the gooey mojiyaki batter that was cooked on a griddle in front of the shop, leading to the name mojiyaki which means “grilled letters”. Around the time of World War II, the dish evolved into its modern form, monjayaki, which is similar to okonomiyaki in many ways. The base batter for monjayaki is made with dashi and wheat flour, to which is added any combination of cabbage, meat, seafood, cheese, mochi and green onions. But the way monjayaki is prepared and eaten is unique and wonderful, all on its own!

The flour and dashi are combined into a smooth, liquidy batter, and served in a large bowl. Drier toppings are layered into the bowl, starting with shredded green cabbage. Various ingredients are then added on top of the cabbage, depending on the diner’s preference. Mochimentai, a combination of mochi and spicy cod roe, is popular, as are combinations of curry powder and cheese, seafood and green onions and fatty pork and kimchi. All of the layers from the cabbage up are cooked first, usually on an oiled pan, and when eaten at a monjayaki restaurant, at a tableside teppan grill. The dry ingredients are chopped and sautéed, chopped and sautéed, chopped and sautéed, using large, sharp-edged metal spatulas, until they are cut up into very fine pieces. The cooked dry ingredients are then formed into a large donut shape on the grill, with the cooked ingredients forming a “wall” for the goodness to come. The flour and dashi batter is then poured into the empty center and allowed to boil and thicken. Once the bubbling starts, all of the ingredients are mixed together on the grill and cooked until the bottom of the monja starts to brown.

Turn down the heat, and the monja is ready to eat! RIGHT. OFF. THE. GRILL. While it’s hot and delicious. Monjayaki is eaten with tiny spatulas called hagashi, which are used to scoop up bites right off the griddle. As the monja is being eaten, the bottom level crisps up while the top remains so gooey it melts in your mouth. The okoge, or the crisped-up bottom part, is even great to crunch on while drinking beer.

So beloved is monjayaki that there is an entire street in Tokyo dedicated to monjayaki restaurants! Tsukishima Monjadori is packed with monjayaki specialty restaurants, and each restaurant carries unique menus and different variations of monjayaki so you can discover your favorite.

Have you tried it? Is it one of your favorite winter dishes? Let us know what you think in the comments below!

An Acquired Taste of Japan – Shirasu!

In Japanese cuisine, sometimes the simplest dishes, like perfectly cooked white rice, are the most elegant and beloved.

Our unique food this month is one such dish.

Shirasu is a simple seafood dish, consisting of either raw or boiled, salted and dried juvenile white fish, usually anchovies (katakuchi-iwashi), sardines (ma-iwashi) or round herring (urume-iwashi). These tiny fish are abundant in the waters of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Japan and are predominantly harvested in spring and fall. They are a rich food source, full of calcium and Vitamin D and beneficial oils like DHA.

Kanagawa Prefecture is famous for shirasu-don, a simple dish of white rice, shirasu and grated daikon radish. In Kanagawa Prefecture, coastal towns like Kamakura, Shonan and Enoshima are culinary destinations, where those who love this dish swear by the sublime experience of eating it just after it’s been caught. Shirasu-don is available at roadside stalls and fancy restaurants, eaten as a single, solitary dish or with loads of fresh appetizers and side dishes. No matter how it’s enjoyed, it’s delectable!

Shirasu don

When the fish are raw, they are called shirasu, and when they are boiled they are called kamaage shirasu. Boiled, salted and dried fish yield a dish called chirimen jako or shirasuboshi. Each incarnation has its own flavor and texture. Raw shirasu is delicately chewy and is scented with the ocean especially when it’s just caught before coming to your plate. Kamaage shirasu is fluffier and saltier, and chirimen jako or shirasuboshi is savory and has jerky-like texture.

While you can enjoy shirasu very simply with grated ginger, chopped scallions and a dash of soy sauce, Japanese cooks have come up with lovely variations. When combined with drained and crumbled tofu, it makes a lovely tofu hamburg steak. And when sautéed with tomatoes and garlic, it creates a light and savory pasta sauce. Shirasu can also be combined with garlic used to infuse olive oil, which makes an umami-filled dressing for vegetables and bread. Stir-fry chirimen jako with takuan (Japanese pickled radish) for a wonderful accompaniment to rice.

No matter how you enjoy it, we hope you try out this wonderful traditional Japanese food! Let us know what you think in the comments below!

An Acquired Taste of Japan – Nukazuke!

Pickles, pickles, pickles.

They’re a quintessential part of Japanese cuisine, and along with rice it’s always served as a part of the traditional Japanese ichiju sansai meals, which roughly translates “one soup, three dishes.” They’re the sour-tart-sweet-savory tsukemono to accompany a meal. They’re the crunchy side for soft rice, savory fish and warm soup.

The variety of produce used for pickling and the methods for pickling them is astounding! Vegetables like daikon radish, carrots, cucumbers, cabbage and many others are perfectly pickled in soy sauce, vinegar, sake and uniquely, rice bran.

Rice bran pickled vegetables, called nukazuke, are richly flavored pickles that are made using a cultured and fermented rice bran pickling starter called nukadoko. Rice bran pickling is said to have been developed during the 17th century, when machine-milled white rice became the standard. Since milling rice also stripped it of some of its vitamin B content, deficiencies were found among the population often associated with an illness called beriberi. Rice bran pickling was introduced to prevent beriberi and reintroduce thiamine (or Vitamin B1) back into the Japanese diet. Vegetables pickled in a nukadoko absorb thiamine from the rice bran. Today, nukazuke pickles are well-known as providing both thiamine and gut-friendly probiotics. Pickling in this style is similar to making sauerkraut and yogurt, where bacteria ferments the vegetables over the long term.

Nukadoko

The nukadoko pickling bed is the most important element to making nukazake pickles. Nukadoko, at its most essential, is a combination of rice bran, salt, kombu, chili peppers, water and vegetable scraps.

Each component of the nukadoko bed serves a purpose. The rice bran serves as the base of the nukadoko. Using fresh, unprocessed rice bran–traditionally obtained at a rice mill–makes the best nukadoko, but in modern kitchens, high-quality rice bran purchased from a grocery store can be an equally good base. Between 13%-15% of high-quality salt, such as sea salt or kosher salt, is added to the rice bran. Kombu seaweed is added to incorporate umami flavors into the mix, and chili peppers are added to prevent molding. Fresh, distilled or filtered water, with any chemicals used to clean the water removed, is added to keep everything moist and alive.  Finally, vegetable scraps such as cabbage wedges are added to the mixture to begin the growth of beneficial yeast and lactobacillus bacteria, which then ferments the pickles. The resulting mix resembles wet sand with a few lumps in it!

Once the basic mixture is created, it is cultured in a non-reactive container made of enameled metal, glass or wood between 68°F and 77°F. The pickling starter is aerated by mixing it with clean hands one to two times a day, until it smells clean and slightly sour. At this point, the vegetable scraps are removed and the nukadoko is ready to use for pickling vegetables!

Finished and prepared nukazuke pickles

Nukadoko are highly prized and cared for. Some starters are passed down for generations, over decades. Pickling fanatics even take their nukadoko with them when they travel in order to maintain the freshness of the beds! The more cultivated the nukadoko is, the more complex the flavor of the resulting nukazuke pickles. As vegetables are pickled and removed from the nukadoko, the pickling bed is replenished with rice bran, salt, water and seasonings.

Apple and yuzu peels are sometimes added to the nukadoko to infuse sweet and fruity aromas into the pickles. Vegetables such as radishes, carrots, cucumbers and eggplant are delicious when pickled in the nukadoko!

Have you ever tasted nukazuke pickles? What did you think? Be sure to share your favorites with us below!

 

An Acquired Taste of Japan – Nameko!

We want nameko!

What are they, you ask?

Mushrooms!

Specifically, the small, amber-brown fungi that have a thin, gelatinous layer on their caps. Technically named Pholiota Nameko, these mushrooms are typically used in miso soup, nabemono or Japanese style hot pot and stir fries and the viscous coating on the caps form a lustrous glaze when they’re cooked. And considering how slippery they are, it makes perfect sense that the name literally means “slippery child” in Japanese!

These mushrooms grow on the sides of trees, in clusters that look like small woodland creatures wearing helmets. (In Japan, there’s even a smart phone game inspired by how cute nameko are!) Mushrooms are a type of fungus, characterized by stems, caps and gills on the underside of the caps. They also have an inner structure unique among fungi, allowing them to gather nutrients from their host, such as a tree, soil or other plants. Nameko, and other Japanese mushrooms, certainly benefit from that!

Nameko mushrooms can be foraged in the wild, but most often are cultivated on dead deciduous trees. The trees are brought to the ideal temperature and moisture level and are then inoculated with nameko spores. These dead trees, called bed logs, are laid out in a crisscross pattern so that they form a field that has proper aeration for the mushrooms to grow on. The spores are encouraged to grow, first extending the stems of the mushrooms and then maturing with well-formed caps.

Nameko have a nutty taste and impart a great deal of umami, or deliciousness, to foods. Along with using it in miso soup to impart a savory flavor and a creamy texture, nameko is cooked fresh with grated radish, stir fried with vegetables and meats, and added to soba noodles as a delicious topping.

This mushroom, while not widely known outside of Japan, is lovely and delicate and we hope you try it during your next adventures with Japanese food. Be sure to leave us a comment with your experience!

An Acquired Taste of Japan – Narezushi!

Nigiri or maki?

Your choice or omakase?

Sushi is a favorite Japanese food the world over, but where does it really come from?

Narezushi, or fermented fish sushi, is considered by many to be the progenitor of modern-day sushi. According to historians, narezushi was a dish that was brought to Western Japan from Southeast and South Asia in the 4th Century BC. These regions experienced heavy monsoons and intense heat, and the people of these regions devised a way to ferment and preserve local fish, supplying necessary food and nutrients during harsh seasons. By the 8th Century (Nara Period), artefacts indicate that narezushi was being made in Chikuzen, present-day Fukuoka Prefecture.

So, what is narezushi?

Narezushi is made of three components—fish, salt and rice.  Various fish can be used for narezushi including fish from the carp family—such as dace, loach and three-lips—as well as sweetfish and salmon. Today, narezushi is not as commonly made as it used to be, but in Shiga Prefecture, a type of narezushi called funazushi can still be found. Funazushi is made using nigorobuna, a type of carp native to nearby Lake Biwa. The fish is caught in spring, just as lake waters warm up from winter. Upon catching, the fish are descaled and gutted, and their gills are removed. The gill cavity is then stuffed with large amounts of high-quality salt. The salted fish are placed into containers, typically wooden barrels, and then weighted with tsukemonoishi, or pickling stones. The salted fish are left for about six months, during which time the salt destroys harmful bacteria, softens the fish bones and causes excess water to be released. Once the fish has gone through the salt preservation, it is rigorously rinsed, dried and then put back into a container along with cooked rice for at least a year to ferment. Some funazushi artisans further ferment the fish by pickling it with a second batch of fresh cooked rice. The double fermentation is said to remove any pickling odors from the fish and augment its flavor. Once finished, the rice used to ferment the fish is discarded and the narezushi is served simply, without cooked rice or condiments.

The process for making narezushi hasn’t materially changed since ancient times. Because of the intense effort it took to produce narezushi, it became custom in the Muromachi Period (1333-1568 AD) to give it as a gift to samurai and the aristocracy. Narezushi was also offered to the gods during older Japanese times in the hopes of good harvests. In Shiga Prefecture, you can still attend festivals where funazushi are ceremonially sliced in a ritual called Sushikiri Jinji.

Narezushi isn’t as commonly eaten today as it used to be. Lack of a bountiful carp harvest and palettes that prefer the modern-Edo Period-version of sushi have limited its popularity. But as a traditional food, it is still enjoyed widely throughout Japan.

If you get a chance to try narezushi, be sure to savor it and don’t forget to share your experience of narezushi with us!