Jason Truesdell : Pursuing My Passions
A life in flux. Soon to be immigrant to Japan. Recently migrated this blog from another platform after many years of neglect (about March 6, 2017). Sorry for the styling and functionality potholes; I am working on cleaning things up and making it usable again.

Hiromi slaved over osechi

I’m usually more involved in our nightly dinners, but I don’t deserve any credit for tonight’s New Year’s Day dinner. I put my best effort into photography and lighting, but I didn’t contribute much to preparation.

Hiromi wanted to make a vegetarian version of the classic osechi New Year’s meal, and I’m not nearly as competent in this area as I’ve only spent New Year’s Day in Japan once, and it was at the very early stage of my development of passable Japanese cooking skills. Traditionally, these dishes are made a day or two before New Year’s day, because nobody wants to cook on New Year’s day. It’s supposed to be a restful day, so people historically spent way more time than normal making foods a few days before the New Year, finishing on New Year’s Eve. Accordingly, vinegared dishes such as sunomono are common, and other dishes with a fairly high salt content, especially fish, make frequent appearances. Now, of course, both the common dishes and the pattern of preparation have changed, because so many fancy options for osechi meals can be purchased at department stores in Japan and even at local souzai-ya-san, a growing industry of neighborhood pay-by-weight side dish vending shops.

Actually most people in Japan wouldn’t go through as much trouble as Hiromi did. But the standard Uwajimaya osechi wouldn’t have been much fun for me as a vegetarian, and the quality would not be that impressive for her. So instead, she made a seriously labor-intensive meal.

This rolled konbu or konbumaki contains blanched green beans, carrots, and daikon. Usually it would have a bit of cured or salt-seasoned bits of fish, but we ate it with some pickles instead.

Kobumaki

This is one of the sunomono I make on a regular basis, though usually less elegantly presented than Hiromi did tonight. We don’t have fresh yuzu available, so we substituted Meyer lemon for the shell, which has a passable aroma and contributes the right overall shape. Hiromi splashed the daikon and carrot with a bit of yuzu juice to give it the desired aroma. My one significant contribution was running the daikon and carrots through the mandoline…

Kouhaku namasu

Hiromi prepared koyadoufu (freeze-dried tofu), carrot, shiitake and mizuna for this year’s ozouni, and I nearly set my Silpat mat on fire trying to toast them with the oven’s broiler set to “low” toasting the frozen mochi. In substitution for the usual katsuo-based broth, a dried konbu and dried porcini based dashi contributed a nice body. I stumbled upon the porcini alternative to dried fish a few years ago, and now Hiromi swears by it for any dish where the soup stock needs to have the kind of fullness usually provided by katsuobushi or niboshi.

Ozouni

My only experience with tamago-yaki tends to be the saltier types served at izakaya as a drink accompaniment, or that made by sushi chefs, but this version, a classic New Year’s dish called datemaki tamago, is substantially sweeter. Datemaki tamago is typically made with a fish cake called hanpen, Hiromi substituted rehydrated koyadoufu. I provided the token contribution of beating the rehydrated koyadoufu into submission, chopping it into extra tiny bits. Hiromi sweetened beaten eggs and incorporate the koyadoufu, and made a thick omelet in a tamagoyaki pan, rolled up using the same kind of mat that can be used for sushi.

Datemakitamago

The egg was plated together with this dried-persimmon based side dish. The custard-like filling is made with steamed yamaimo (mountain yam), a starchy tuber, which Hiromi combined with egg yolks while the yamaimo was still hot, and a fair amount of sugar. The dried Hachiya persimmons were stuffed with this custard, and eventually sliced. Hiromi says this is essentially a Kyoto-style osechi dish.

Yamaimo-custard in dried persimmon

Hiromi blanched renkon (lotus root) for a few minutes, just enough to retain a nice crispness, and added vinegar, sugar, a bit of salt and some shredded Korean chilies to make another kind of sunomono.

Renkon no sunomono

I’m not usually terribly fussy about how my vegetables are cut, even for Japanese food; I use mostly rustic style rolling cuts for carrots. But osechi is as special occasion, so Hiromi slaved away cutting and faceting red and orange carrots for this nimono, or simmered vegetable dish. Our shape cutters, even the smallest ones, are too big for the scrawny American carrots typical in U.S. supermarkets. The nimono also features takenoko (bamboo shoots), renkon, satoimo, gobo (burdock) and shiitake.

Osechinonimono

Hiromi opted not to buy off-the-shelf kuromame, or sweetened boiled black beans, as most Japanese would do. For some reason, they didn’t quite stay black, but they tasted nice. She boiled them with yakimyouban (alum) and salt, then later added a serious dose of sugar. They would typically be boiled in a cast-iron pot, but my cast-iron pan doesn’t have a cover, so it was cast aside. It’s possible that the iron in the pot would make the beans shinier and blacker… we’ll try again next year.

Arguably kuromame

A couple of months ago I made my second or third attempt at making kurikinton, sweet potato paste with chestnuts. It might have been a bit early in the season, because they had a slightly whiter color than Hiromi’s. These are thankfully less sweet than most of the commercial kuri-kinton available in Japan, so they make a nice side dish even among savory things.

Kurikintonosechi

Hiromi spent more than a day on this elaborate meal… Here was the reward:

Hiromi no osechi

After all that work, I suspect I’ll be doing most of the cooking for the rest of the week…

Farewell to Aomori

Finding washoku in Hirosaki for lunch was actually suprisingly tough... the streets perpendicular to Hirosaki park were mostly full of meaty youshouku-ya-san and kissaten. Finally we settled into an unremarkable department store restaurant floor, which had three choices.

We both had some sort of soba dish. Mine was a sansai soba, or mountain vegetable topped soba. Usually sansai soba in Kanto is a slightly more elegant looking dish with just a few vegetables on top, but this place used a surprisingly generous amount of vegetables.

Sansai soba

Sansai soba

It wasn't the nicest version of this dish I've ever seen. The vegetables probably came in foodservice packs and the soba was a little overcooked. But we were hungry and tired, and this was comforting and warm.

Driven by sunnier weather, we had done our second day of hanami, but we didn't do enough snacking at yatai to feel full. So a couple of orders of noodles helped fill us up.

I also did a little bit of shopping, making my first serious investment in urushi. I really like nurimono, or lacquerware, but I've never really been brave enough to commit to anything beyond some cheap wooden misoshiru bowls and chopsticks. Aomori's style of urushi is very distinctive, and appeals to Hiromi's love for visual drama and my own quirky tastes. I actually have some older chopsticks from Aomori given to me many years ago by a friend, but I bought my first lacquer serving ware and two really nice sake cups... I promise they'll make an appearance on my blog in the future, but I didn't take any photos in the shop.

We headed off to the mountains...

Sublimating valley

Sublimating valley

Dirty snow pocks

Dirty pockmarked snow surrounding trees

Somehow trees absorb just enough heat from the spring sun to help melt away small circles of the old snow.

We made our way to a tough ski destination... you have to trek your own gear up the slope, as there are no mechanical lifts. Our purpose for making this trek was to go to a hyakunin-buro, 100 person bath, with a highly sulfurous composition. Unlike most onsen in Japan, this hot spring spot has only konyoku buro (gender mixed baths) and has been that way for a very long time.

And unlike most konyoku buro I've been to in Japan, it was also very crowded.

You just pay a a small fee for entry... I think about 600 yen per person ($5-6)... if you're smart, you will come with a couple of towels; we neglected this and had to buy some tiny ones.

Hiromi scoped out the other women to decide whether she'd be brave enough to go with just the small towel as cover... After a demographic analysis, she caved in and bought this sort of bathing suit that loosely covers her body. Most of the women in their 20s or 30s, at least the ones without children, wore something similar; older women and women who came with children in tow concerned themselves less with such modesty, though most draped themselves with a large towel when entering or exiting the baths.

The men, for the most part, used their small towels when moving in and out of the bathing area, and some covered themselves when outside of the baths. It's a strangely communal experience, but I think the experience was so unfamiliar to most contemporary Japanese that I'm sure most people were fairly self-conscious most of the time.

In theory, the baths typically had a male and a female side, but the dividing line wasn't strictly enforced; I think it was just to give people some semblence of separation to create a small suggestion of privacy.

On our way out, we had some warm soba manjuu (buckwheat cake stuffed with sweet red bean paste) and some surprisingly decent sumibi-yaki coffee from the onsen gift shop.

We started heading toward Hachinohe again, where we wanted to get a quick dinner in before taking the long train ride back to Tokyo. In the mountains, plows had dug through several meters of old snow, but the roads were clear... as we headed down toward the base of the mountain again, I snapped a couple of photos, though the snow wasn't nearly as high down below.

Layers of old snow

Layers of old snow

I was probably too sleepy to remember to take pictures up higher, where thick layers of old snow were piled up even higher.

When we got back, we had a slightly rushed meal at a little train station robata-ya. I had packed away my camera in my luggage in the rental car, but we had a few memorable things... Hiromi had senbe-jiru, a soup made with puffed grain senbei and chicken, if I understood correctly; it's a regional specialty. I've kind of lost track of everything we ordered, but it was pleasing... I had a glass of a surprisingly whiskey-like aged shochu made with buckwheat. We also had some good tamago-yaki served like nigiri-zushi, grilled shiitake, and some really nice miso grilled yaki-onigiri. I'm such a sucker for charcoal grilled rice balls, because I can never get them quite right when making them at home on an electric appliance.

Everything was shutting down early that night, including gas stations, but somehow we managed to refuel and return the rental car just in time to make our train back to Tokyo.

 

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Eki-ben on the way to Aomori

May 1st we had an early start... By this time, my jetlagged habit of waking up at 6 am without the aid of an alarm gave way to a more ordinary pattern of begrudgingly getting out of bed around 7:30 or 8. We had to use multiple cell-phone alarms to make sure we woke up in time... We had departed the football game after-party around 11, just in time to get home around midnight to bemusedly consider packing for our short trip to Aomori....

I think most of the serious packing waited until morning, but we had to wake up around 5:30 to make sure we could get to Tokyo station in time to grab breakfast and to make the shinkansen train.

JAL Sky Time Yuzu Original Citrus Drink

JAL Sky Time Yuzu Original Citrus Drink

I grabbed an overly-sweet yuzu drink from a vending machine to take on the train... I tend to make one that's closer to 4-5% yuzu at home, but mass production has certain cost constraints... the stronger-tasting yuzu drinks in Japan I've found tend to be about 200-300 yen for a small glass bottle... this was a bit more generous in size, but is only 2% fruit juice.

Balance Ekiben

Balance Ekiben box

Hiromi picked some reasonably vegetable-heavy bento... There's no such thing as a vegetarian ekiben (train station bento) anywhere in Japan that I've seen.

Balance ekiben inside

This one has a little shrimp, so Hiromi ate that part... Perhaps throwing this Balance Bento out of balance? Ah well. I was also a little sad that the takenoko gohan, which I usually love, was filled with tiny bits of chicken or pork...

Yasai Tappuri Haru-Yasai Bento

Haruyasai bento, box

This one, true to its description, was full of vegetables, but also had its fair share of animal bits.

Haruyasai bento, inside

These would have to do...

The two bento sustained us for the three hour train ride north. At our destination, Hiromi picked up our rental car and took us the rest of the way to our destination, on very little sleep, while I crashed in the passenger seat, mostly oblivious to the length of our trek across Aomori prefecture.

 

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Kitchen survivalism

Working in a minimally-stocked kitchen that's completely different than your own is pretty tricky.

Our weekly apartment was equipped with a rice cooker, a saucepan and a frying pan. We had a few plates and bowls, but nothing close to what I'm used to at home.

But after a bunch of elaborate, not to mention expensive, restaurant meals, we wanted to make something on our own.

Haru kyabetsu to nerimiso

We have spring cabbage made with a quick homemade sweetened miso... this is sort of a typical izakaya dish nowadays. We soon discovered that the lighter colored leaves from inside the cabbage were much more tender, and decided to reserve the dark outer leaves for an itamemono on another day.

Three nice side dishes made ugly

We didn't really have all the fundamentals... just mirin, soy sauce, salt, pepper and instant dashi. We had no vinegar, and we had only a small amount of miso. We didn't actually have any cooking oil; just some butter, meant for toast for breakfast.

I normally don't use instant dashi since it's not vegetarian, but when I'm on the road and only cooking a few meals on my own, it's a bit harder to stock a bunch of konbu and dried mushrooms, so we relied a bit on a few granules of that dashi for a few things. Although I'm not really a fan of the flavor of instant dashi, some dishes just don't taste right if you only use water. Since I already have to relax my vegetarian habits when eating out in Japan, I elected to make another small concession to reality, and I used small amounts of it in one or two dishes.

Since we only had a few plates, elegant platings had to be sacrificed, but we found some sort of solution.

Our side dishes included, from left to right: An egg scramble with some cheap maitake mushrooms and leeks, an ohitashi made with sakura no shiozuke, or salted cherry blossoms, and grilled bamboo shoots with butter and soy sauce. They may not look like much, but everything turned out slightly better than I expected.

Yuba and myouga

We love myouga, sometimes explained as ginger shoots in English, and it's hard to get in the US. Myōga looks a bit like the bulb of a shallot but has a gently spicy mild ginger flavor. I sliced some with the scary, flimsy knife supplied by our weekly apartment and scattered the slices inelegantly atop pieces of cut yuba, and carelessly drizzled some soy sauce over the yuba.

I miss fresh yuba when I'm in the US. The best I can do is dried or, on rare occasions, previously-frozen... unless I'm willing to commit to sitting in front of a nabe for an hour or two as I slowly peel off pieces of yuba from simmering soymilk. I don't do that so often.

Our dinner

Hiromi prepared a miso soup, which I nearly ruined by adding too much instant dashi. Since I never have any instant dashi at home, I didn't know how much is "normal" for soup. It turns out that the answer is very little.

She also blended some more salted cherry blossoms into the rice to make sakura-gohan, and whipped out the kuromame nattou (black bean nattō) before I could blink.

After a really fancy lunch in Omotesandō, this more humble dinner helped us balance our extravagance without feeling like much of a sacrifice.

Hwayo Soju

I had bought an "expensive" bottle of soju while in Korea at about KRW 11,000, or $11-12. The mass-produced stuff like Jinro and Chamiseul goes for less than $2 a bottle at your average convenience store, so this would be considered a bit extravagant. Anyway, tonight we cracked open this bottle and each had a glass of Korean shochu on the rocks with our dinner.

It's smoother and cleaner-tasting than the mass-produced brands, but not quite as nice as the better Japanese varieties of shochu. The flavor is relatively neutral  but still has a hint of complexity. I'd buy it again if I were in Korea.

Aki-nasu and nagaimo-dango

I sent Hiromi these photos from tonight’s dinner and she called it “obaachan no ryouri” or grandma food.

The results were nice, but not flawless..

I was experimenting with making nagaimo dango in soup, and I overruled my initial impulse of making the dango using only wheat flour, nagaimo and a pinch of salt. I thought the texture might be more interesting if I added some katakuriko. This seemed to make the dough very sticky and my experience making gnocchi didn’t provide useful sensory reference points to judge the consistency, so when I boiled the dango, they got a bit chewy.

Nagadan

On previous occasions, I’ve used katakuriko and blends of katakuriko and kuzuko in dango recipes, but I was generally following a recipe that wasn’t terribly temperamental. In this case, I added two unknowns: the nagaimo, and the katakuriko. I think it will take a few experiments to get the ideal texture.

I made one of my favorite variations of hiya-yakko, made with yuzu-kosho, which is a paste made from the ground rind of yuzu and ground chilies, and a splash of Japanese soy sauce. A few years ago I served a very potent yuzu-kosho with some godoufu or another similarly mild side dish, and a knife-tip portion of yuzu kosho. I guess my plating needed some work; in Japan, I have seen similar presentation, and I knew the flavor was quite powerful. But one my guests thought I had mistakenly dropped something on the plate. When I explained the flavoring, they realized that it was the perfect amount for the dish in question, but it was a bit surprising to them. This time, I used a fairly substantial amount; roughly a third to half a teaspon. Actually, my yuzu-kosho has lost a bit of its aroma over time and I only had small amount left. So this amount was just about right, and not overwhelming.

Hiyayakko-yuzukoshou

I also made some quickly fried Japanese eggplant, dressed with nothing more than grated ginger, some sesame seeds, and a little Japanese soy sauce. This is one of my absolute favorite ways to serve eggplant, because it is so incredibly simple and flavorful. For this preparation, I usually slice the eggplant for this quarter lengthwise, then halfed crosswise, but I thought this might be a bit too visually repetitive, since I planned to serve another eggplant dish sliced lengthwise. I chose instead to use a rolling cut (mawashi-giri).

Nasushouga

I also made some dengaku-nasu, which I nearly lost to neglect. I roasted lengthwise-sliced halves of eggplant, then added a mirin-sugar-miso paste which is a classic topping for broiled tofu, called “dengaku-miso” or “neri-miso.” My dengaku-miso is usually smoother and thicker than it was tonight, so I was a little frustrated that it wanted to slide off of my eggplant. My broiler also cooked a little faster than I expected so I almost over-caramelized the topping.

Nasudinner

This was dinner… I added some tsukemono after I set everything out.

I prepared a small delivery to the Women of Color luncheon organized every 3 months or so by Assunta Ng. When I can, I have been providing some promotional giveaways and coupons for a gift bag that they offer to attendees.

Part of the day I was also trying to debug some stored procedures intended to help me quickly add multiple similar items to my online store. Due to various quirky little bugs, it turned out to be more distracting than immediately productive, but I know I need to do this work to simplify my life. I am not quite finished, but I’ve done enough work that it speeds up adding the metadata for the photos I’m putting up right now. Actually, though, I’m kind of debugging the code one addition at a time, so this particular batch may not be finished very quickly.

Food-related taboos in Japan

On eGullet an innocent inquiry by a restaurant-savvy Manhattan denizen about disposable chopsticks turned into a lively discussion about Japanese food-related taboos.

Namely, Japanese seem to be resistant to reusing chopsticks, and people are far more comfortable with disposable chopsticks than reusable alternatives (unless they are using their own pair). Chopsticks become strongly associated with the person that uses them. On the eGullet thread, I suggested that the origin of this is in old taboos about touching other peoples’ belongings, and also tied to Shinto rituals related to chopsticks.

Actually, although Japan has a reputation for elaborate ritual, it’s not so difficult to learn basic Japanese dining etiquette. Most of the rules about how to behave when eating are just related to chopstick usage.

You don’t need to worry about the order of utensils to use since there’s usually only one to choose from. You don’t really need to worry about where your left hand is. You don’t even need to worry about the order of what to eat, although it’s more delicate to take a bite of rice, when present, between tastes of different side dishes.

I think you need to worry more about whether you have holes in your socks than the way you eat.

Gourmets may argue about the preferred order to eat certain foods, but it’s not necessary to follow such rules to be polite; it’s sort of like knowing the preferred order to eat cheese in the U.S. or Europe. It might reflect on your sophistication or lack thereof, but doesn’t make you a barbarian.

I have sometimes tended toward nervousness when eating with unfamiliar people in Japan, perhaps from some anxiety that I may do something inappropriate. This is perhaps slightly amusing or occasionally endearing but completely unnecessary. Except for some easy-to-follow rules about manipulating chopsticks, you don’t need to worry much.

Wakayama umeboshi: pickled apricots

Umeboshi and homemade kyuuri no sunomono

Umeboshi and kyuuri no sunomono

Umeboshi (pickled Japanese apricots*) are an acquired taste, perhaps, but I grew to love them early on in my encounters with Japanese food.

They are the olives of Japanese cuisine.

They range from very salty and sour, to slightly sweet and sour. Some are tiny and some are huge.

I'm very fond of the flavor of sweeter, generally medium-sized varieties, but one look at the ingredient list of most hachimitsu umeboshi (honey umeboshi) or usu-jio (lightly salted) varieties makes my head spin. I appreciate receiving the better-tasting of those additive-heavy variants as gifts, because I can enjoy them as a gesture of kindness, but when my pocketbook is involved, I prefer to buy all-natural umeboshi with short ingredient lists.

Ume (Japanese apricots*) themselves are greenish, firm and incredibly tart when fresh. Thanks to the magic of red shiso, they transform into something very red as they cure. If you find very red umeboshi made without shiso, they likely have added food coloring. I usually like to umeboshi that come packed with pickled shiso leaves, because I'm as big a fan of shiso as I am of umeboshi.

Umeboshi larger than life

Umeboshi larger than life

The beautiful umeboshi featured above is made with very good Wakayama ume, salt, and red shiso, along with some additional shiso just used in the brine. Wakayama is one of the most famous locations for ume, and I recall the ume trees all around Wakayama castle when I visited a friend in the capital city several years ago. Further west, I remember standing under blooming ume trees in Dazaifu, eating a candied strawberry, thinking that ume blossoms surely give cherry blossoms some serious competition.

Since this is an all-natural umeboshi, it's fairly salty... you'll generally want to eat one or two with rice and several nice side dishes. The other dishes can be assari (lightly seasoned), as the intense ume flavor will brighten up the whole meal if you nibble a little bit at a time.

* Ume are not plums. I promise. When you see them fresh, you can clearly see the telltale fuzz. Anzu-zake (apricot liqueur) has much of the flavor of umeshu (usually mistranslated as plum wine) with less acidity.

 

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Matchstick cut nagaimo with wasabi-nori

Yamaimo to wasabi-nori

Raw nagaimo, or "long potato," is a starchy tuber similar to African yams, and is appreciated in Japan for its neba-neba qualities. There's no fair translation for this onomatopoeia, but it refers to a magical kind of slippery stickiness... if there were a nice-sounding word for slimy, it would be neba-neba.

In the US, such foods are often treated with suspicion, but it wouldn't be fair to dismiss this texture outright; Japanese cuisine is more about experiencing contrasting textural experiences than, say, complex seasoning or elaborate technique.

Other neba-neba foods include cooked okra and nattō, and, to a lesser extent, the sea vegetable mozuku. I will never be as big a fan of nattō as Hiromi is, but that's thanks more to the aroma than the texture. I love okra, especially cooked with onions and tomatoes. And mozuku is a favorite treat of mine, served as a simple side dish with a chilled, almost soupy, lightly acidic dressing.

Nagaimo is a kind of mountain potato, or yamaimo. If you grate it with a daikon-oroshi grater, you'll get a madly viscous mass called tororo-imo which can be mixed with a raw quail egg, simply seasoned with soy sauce and chopped scallions, and poured over rice at breakfast. Tororo-imo is also indispensible for making good okonomiyaki.

Fresh nagaimo also makes a nice side dish when cut into matchstick slivers (sengiri), as seen above. This brings out the neba-neba qualities while retaining a pleasantly crisp texture. I now typically use a mandoline to make this task easier; however, in a pinch, a good chef's knife will do. Just expect the cutting board—and your hands—to get slippery. You can avoid that by wearing latex gloves while preparing the dish. You may want to wear gloves while peeling the skin anyway, since some people suffer from a mild itchiness on skin contact with yamaimo skin... I'm lucky enough not to have that problem.

Once cut, place the nagaimo in small serving bowls and splash on a little soy sauce. For the flavor garnish, sometimes I add some chopped umeboshi and kizami-nori, or thin strips of nori. This time I used chopped scallions and a wasabi-seasoned nori, cut into strips with kitchen shears. The goal is to have a little saltiness, a little crunchiness, and some clean but sharp contrasting flavor. This version would be called sengiri nagaimo to wasabi-nori.

For an even more sticky experience, the nagaimo could be mixed with mekabu (wakame sprouts)... but that would be a lot of neba-neba for one night...

Dorayaki

For some reason I get wistful whenever I think of the various ningyo-yaki (shaped waffles typically stuffed with sweet bean paste) and dora-yaki I have eaten on my many trips to Japan. From a highway service area or a department store basement, fresh, warm ningyo-yaki are impossible to resist.

Maybe they speak to my inner child.

Maybe it's just the sugar rush.

Well, I don't have a taiyaki (fish shaped) waffle pan in my otherwise well-stocked kitchen, so at home I have to settle for dorayaki, the pancake-like equivalent. These are often served cold, but they're even better just a few minutes off the stove. You can make a batch of them and keep them in the refrigerator as an afternoon indulgence for up to 3 or 4 days.

I also don't have pancake rings or an electric griddle, so my dorayaki end up being the size of my smallest nonstick omelet pan. That means mine need to be cut up into quarters for individual servings, or perhaps folded, if i used a thinner batter.

Dorayaki, Japanese stuffed pancakes

Dorayaki aren't exactly the same thing as the pancakes you'd slather with syrup. The American pancake is, by itself, not distinctly sweet; it typically only has enough sugar to make the pancakes brown nicely. Every dorayaki recipe I've seen, on the other hand, is full of sugar or honey, and distinctly heavier-handed with eggs. That's partially because the fillings are a bit less sweet than the typical syrup topping, and partially because this is a snack rather than a breakfast item.

Mine are sweeter than normal American pancakes, but not as sugary as the typical afternoon snack version that Japanese dorayaki vendors tend to produce. The key is to eat them in much smaller quantities than you might eat pancakes... they're heavier than they look.

Measuring things precisely is still sort of anathema to me, but I used about 3 egg yolks, one whole egg, 2/3 cup buttermilk, a shy teaspoon of baking soda, about 5 ounces (by weight) of all-purpose flour, maybe a tad less than 1 cup. Cake flour might be better, but I never keep it around.  You'll also need two tablespoons vegetable oil, a few tablespoons of honey, and a generous pinch of salt. The batter needs to be mixed until lumpy, like regular pancakes; it's easiest if you mix all the liquid ingredients first.

Recipes in Japanese vary widely. Some use all sugar, some use sugar and honey, some are all honey, and some incorporate mirin. Some are lighter and fluffier, some are thinner and aspire to be a little mochi-mochi (chewy, but not tough). Almost none use buttermilk; if you only have regular milk, use that, but switch to baking powder instead of baking soda.

The pancakes need to be cooked on medium-low heat with the slightest brushing of oil in the pan.

Take two pancakes and make a sandwich with them using any kind of anko, anko cream, or maybe a thick custard. I used koshi-an (finely sieved sweetened red bean paste) bought at Uwajimaya this time, but this is also good with ogura-an (coarse red bean paste), uguisu-an (mung bean paste), and probably even zunda (sweet edamame paste). If strawberries are already good where you are, consider putting a halved strawberry in there.

If you make the pancakes bigger than 3" or so in diameter, cut them into halves or quarters before serving.

 

Pirikara no kimpira renkon

Kimpira (alternately kinpira) is a small category of side dishes in Japan typically involving finely sliced or shaved root vegetables. I don't think there's a strict definition, but you sort of know it when you see it. It typically involves sesame seeds or sesame oil, soy sauce, sugar or mirin, and often but not always includes some kinds of chilies. The technique is similar to braising. It might be compared to chorim in Korean cuisine, though the foods typically used for this technique differ between Korea and Japan.

Kimpira renkon

Kimpira renkon (金平れんこん) 

Kimpira gobou, made with burdock root (gobo) and carrot, has made an appearance here. It's the most typical preparation of burdock root in Japan.

For this kimpira, I heated up a bit of sesame oil in a nonstick pan and added sliced renkon. Renkon, known as lotus root in English, is crispy and juicy when cooked briefly. Typically, for kimpira, it would be a good idea to blanch the renkon for a minute or two and then ice shock it. This time, I just used some packaged renkon, which has been boiled in the packing process.

The sesame oil adds a lot of flavor, but it would burn at high temperatures... While I usually prefer to sauté things at high temperatures, that doesn't really work for sesame oil; however, it actually quite matches the goal for kimpira, where the oil is being used more for flavoring than to aid cooking. The oil certainly sizzles and bubbles, but it's not a true "sauté". I'm just kind of heating the renkon and tossing it around occasionally to help it cook evenly.

I season the kimpira with Korean dried chili flakes, because they're handy; other chilies work too. It's not meant to be incredibly spicy, but a little capricious heat is a good thing. Mirin, sugar, soy sauce and occasionally some vinegar are added to taste, and many people would put additional sesame seeds into the dish. It's very forgiving... I can't remember making the dish exactly the same way twice.

The sesame flavor, the nice little crunch, and moderate heat all work together to add a little "stamina" to meals that might primarily feature mild flavors. In small quantities, it will help balance out the rest of the flavors in your meal.

 

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