Seaweed, kelp and the many variations of sea vegetables are so common in Japanese cooking, I was pleasantly surprised to try this red kelp with a long history in European cooking. It’s savory, beaming with umami and a near certified super food. I sprinkled a little on my salad the other night, and it was delicious. It’s rich, savory taste makes it a versatile, flavor enhancer to many dishes. Go ahead. Do a little dulse.
Sanma is the Japanese name for the fish known as Pacific Suary as well as Mackerel Pike. The name written in Japanese literally translates to autumn sword fish. September is considered the peak season for sanma in Japan as this is the time when the fish are fattest. The northern stocks, being the fattest of them all, command the highest price. Sanma is, however, a relatively inexpensive fish.
Thanks to improvements in fishing and distribution, sanma is now sometimes served as sashimi or sushi. One typical method is to briefly pickle the sanma in vinegar and soy sauce and make pressed sushi.
Simple Fried Sanma served with Soy Sauce and Lime
Burdock is a root vegetable that is easily found in the wild and is a cultivated vegetable in Japan. Besides its culinary uses, it is also used in traditional Chinese medicine, and it’s sticky seeds became an inspiration for a new, breakthrough technology – Velcro.
The roots of young burdock plants are used in cooking , since it becomes overly fibrous when grown too large. Look for burdock roots that are firm and are between 18 – 24 inches in length and about 3/4 to 1 inch in diameter. The burdock pictured above was grown organically from a small producer, Harmony Valley, in Wisconsin.
Burdock has a crunchy texture and an earthy, nutty flavor. Its thin skin can be removed with a light scrubbing or scraping. It is rich in phenolic (anti-oxidants) compounds and will easily turn grayish-brown when sliced. To prevent this, place freshly cut burcok in cold water with a little vinegar or lemon juice.
Burdock is most famously used in Kinpira – a dish of sliced carrots and burdcok simmered in dashi, soy sauce and mirin. It also found in soups, braised dishes (e.g. chicken and vegetables) and mixed with rice.
Shiitake mushrooms are native to Asia, originally China, and are used extensively in Japanese cooking. They have a tough, fibrous stem that allows its cap to become large in diameter and thick. Most people do not use the stems for cooking but I have known people to use them in stocks or even in vegetarian burgers. Shiitake mushrooms are best when the caps are firm and not too dark. When freshly cooked, they have delicious meaty, earthy taste yet they nearly melt in your mouth.
As a result of modern cultivation practices, they can be purchased fresh in most good produce departments. However, they can get pricey, so shop around. If you are unable to find fresh mushrooms, they dry extremely well and can be purchased in dried form at almost any Asian grocery store.
To prepare fresh mushrooms, remove the stems and lightly wash right before cooking. If the caps are too large, it’s best to cut them into smaller pieces or slice them crosswise. Dried mushrooms must be softened in warm water prior to cooking and give the best results in simmered dishes.
Besides having great taste, shiitake mushrooms are believed to have medicinal beneifits as well; such as helping prevent cancer, boosting the immune system and fighting viruses.
Dried bonito flakes – the unsung hero of Japanese cooking. These light flakes are combined with kelp to make dashi, the clear soup stock that is essential to so many recipes.
Dried bonito flakes are made from the Skipjack tuna or Katsuo. These fast moving species of tuna are found around the coastal waters, mainly on the pacific side, of Japan.
Making dashi may only take about 30 minutes, but the essential ingredient, bonito, must first undergo a lengthy, multistage preservation process. In a nutshell:
- Fresh fish is gutted, trimmed and gently boiled in salt water to remove the skin.
- The fish are then hot smoked.
- Fermentation period.
- Sun dried.
The final result will infuse depth and complexity yielding smokey yet fragrant flavors into your stock. For special occasions you can buy whole, wood-like fillets and freshly shave them yourself. But more commonly, it is sold pre-shaved varying according to quality, thickness and cut (darker meat, lighter meat).
In addition to its use in dashi, shaved bonito flakes are also used as a garnish (e.g. cold tofu), mixed into furikake (a topping for rice) and is also mixed with soy sauce to make onigiri (rice balls).
You can purchase bonito flakes at most Asian food stores. I’ve even seen it at Whole Foods, but it’s quite pricey there.
For sushi, English cucumbers or hothouse cucumbers are normally used. They are the ones sold individually wrapped in a firm plastic. They are mild, have thin skin and are essentially seedless. What’s more, you can cut them to the exact size of a sheet of nori – so you can have a continuous strip of cucumber for your sushi rolls.
When buying English cucumbers make sure they are firm. Store them in your refrigerator, but be careful. They are very sensitive to temperature. If your refrigerator is too cold (say below 38), they may become soft.
1. Cut cucumber to the exact size of a sheet of nori – a little more than 4 inches. Gently remove the seeds from the center with a spoon.
2. Slice lengthwise into strips about 3/8″ thick.
Warning: Mixing wasabi and karashi paste may cause an explosion. Only a joke of course, but I’ve gotten a few laughs out of that.
Karashi is a mixture of ground mustard seeds and horseradish – like wasabi- a little goes a long way. So unlike European mustard, it’s not an emulsion based with vinegar. It’s normally sold in a dried powder form (just add water), or as a paste in a tube.
Karashi paste is served as a condiment with dishes such as tonkatsu, steak and oden. It is also used in sauces based with miso, mayonaise and sometimes in sunomono (things with vinegar) dressing.
If you are a gardener, check out the website for the Kitazawa Seed Company. The company was founded over 90 years ago by Japanese Americans. They carry roughly 22 varieties Asian herb and vegetable seeds.
If you really have the green thumb, I would suggest ordering one of their ‘Chef Specialty Gardens’. The Japanese heirloom garden specializes in traditional vegetables of the Kansai region. The ones mainly used in vegetarian cooking or shojin ryori. It includes:
- Nebuka onion
- Hinona kabu turnip
- Kamo eggplant
- Kyoto red carrot
- Katsura melon
Shiso is part of the mint family and is called “beefsteak plant” or perilla in English. I don’t know where the name beafsteak comes from, but I think shiso sounds much better. There are two varieties, red shiso and green shiso. Green shiso is often used as a garnish, but it is also used in sushi, onigiri and other dishes. Shiso has a distinct and pungent, but very refreshing flavor.
Perhaps the best thing about shiso – it’s really easy to grow. As with most greens, the early spring shiso is the best.
Most diners in the United States would be surprised to discover they’ve probably never tasted wasabi. That is the real stuff. Most of the wasabi served in sushi joints is made from reconstituted horseradish – with some green coloring. It turns out that it’s difficult to cultivate wasabi. It normally grows in pure, fresh flowing mountain streams.
I was recently in Japan and not only had the chance taste the real thing, but to also see it grow. This photo was taken in Yamanashi Prefecture at the base of a mountain spring. A beautiful site.
Freshly grated wasabi is more complex than powdered wasabi and is not as harsh. It is also very expensive.