On April 15, there would have been 100 days until the start of the Olympics in Tokyo.
In the lead-up to this now-postponed event, I found myself wondering what the Japanese athletes would be eating … and what would everyone else be eating? Japan has such a unique food culture that has somehow managed to remain impervious to the vagaries of food fashions. Tokyo, on the other hand, is one of the great food capitals of the world with more than 140,000 restaurants and more Michelin starred restaurants than any other city.
Japanese food is perhaps best known for its exquisite balance, impeccable technique, a focus on aesthetic and thoughtful restraint. It's always amazing to see how Japanese cooks and chefs use flavours such as miso, shoyu, mirin and rice vinegar, to bring a unique complexity to simple preparations of rice, seafood and vegetables.
In recognition of centuries of cooking practices in Japan, "washoku", traditional Japanese cuisine, was designated a Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013. At its heart, washoku is simple preparations of rice and side dishes made with a variety of seasonal ingredients. In Japanese, the word for food is the same as the one for rice. Without it, a meal is not a meal.
The structure of a washoku meal relies on the principle of "ichi ju, san sai" — "one soup, three side dishes". This is meant to accompany a bowl of steamed rice. These dishes provide a variety of flavours, textures and colours as well forming a well-balanced, nutritious meal.
The dishes served in washoku reflect Japan's four distinct seasons. In the spring there will be tender young buds and baby leaves. Summer brings lightly pickled vegetables. Chestnuts form a focus of autumnal cooking and root vegetables take the stage in the winter. SA-SHI-SU-SE-SO is the acronym for the fundamental flavourings of Japanese food. Sa for sato — sugar; shi for shio —salt; su is vinegar; se for seiyul — shoyu or soy sauce; and so is for miso.
As an island nation, seafood and seaweed greens have always been central to the traditional Japanese diet. For centuries, eating meat was forbidden due to Buddhist traditions; and tofu and seafood formed the main sources of protein. However, for the past 100 odd years, beef and pork have also become integrated into everyday eating.
One of the most delicious home-cooked Japanese meals I have ever enjoyed was a simple dish of short-grain Japanese rice, soaked with soy sauce and mirin, then layered with shitake mushrooms, pumpkin and peeled boiled chestnuts. A little stock was poured over, and the pot covered tightly and simmered for about 15 minutes until the rice was tender and all the liquid absorbed. It was deceptively simple and yet so accomplished, the perfect harmony of texture and flavours — sweet mealy chestnuts, perfectly al dente rice, creamy pumpkin and silky mushrooms revealing the philosophy of "less is more" that is integral to Japan's overall cultural approach to food.
We may not be able to head to Japan enjoy the Olympic action this year but bringing the flavours of Japan into your home kitchen is a wonderful way to open a door to explore this fascinating culture.
Ready in 20 minutes, plus marinating
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This Japanese-inspired salad is also good with avocado instead of tofu. Just skip the marinating and frying step and add the chopped avocado with the edamame beans. The dressing is useful for any kind of Asian bowl or rice dish or as a drizzle over grilled fish or baked chicken. It can be made in bulk.
Soy Sesame Dressing
1 Tbsp lime or lemon juice
½ Tbsp white miso
½ Tbsp soy sauce
½ long red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
1 Tbsp neutral oil
½ Tbsp rice vinegar
1 tsp black sesame seeds
½ tsp sesame oil
1 tsp finely grated fresh ginger
100g firm tofu, cut or torn into bite-size chunks
1 tsp tamari or soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1 Tbsp neutral oil
2-3 cups cooked brown rice or barley
1 cup cooked edamame beans
1 head bok choy
A generous handful of kale or spinach leaves, stems removed
¼ cup coriander leaves (optional)
Place all ingredients for the dressing in a small jar and shake to combine (it will keep in the fridge for up to a week).
Toss tofu in tamari or soy sauce and leave to marinate for at least 5 minutes or up to 24 hours in the fridge. Heat sesame oil and neutral oil in a frying pan and fry tofu until golden. Set aside to cool. Spoon dressing into the base of a medium-large jar or bowl or, if serving 2, divide between 2 medium jars or bowls. Layer in rice or barley then edamame and tofu.
Shred bok choy (including stalk) and kale or spinach finely and, if using kale, work it between your fingers a little to break up the fibres and soften. Add to salad along with coriander if using. If serving in bowls, toss gently before serving. If making in jars, screw on lids and, when ready to eat, invert into bowls and toss gently.
Ready in 30 minutes
Serves 4-6 as a starter
Feathery-light tempura batter makes a great coating for fish and vegetables. The trick is to barely mix the batter, otherwise it will be tough.
1 egg yolk
1 cup cold water
1 cup plain flour or gluten-free flour
½ teaspoon salt
A selection of vegetables, e.g:
2-3 zucchini, thinly angle-sliced
12-16 very thin slices pumpkin
12-16 thin slices eggplant, halved
12 oyster mushrooms
Plain flour to coat
¼ cup Japanese soy sauce or tamari
¼ cup mirin
1 tsp instant dashi or bonito flakes
2cm piece of ginger
Place egg yolk in a mixing bowl. Use a knife or chopsticks to break yolk, add water and mix with just 2-3 strokes. Combine flour and salt and add to egg all at once. Pass knife or chopsticks through the mixture once each way. The batter won't look at all smooth; it will be lumpy with loose bits of unmixed flour. The batter can rest for up at an hour before using. While it rests, make the dipping sauce and slice up the vegetables.
To make the sauce, place soy sauce or tamari in a small pot with mirin and instant dashi or bonito flakes. Grate the ginger and squeeze to extract juice. Add ginger juice to pot and discard solids. Bring mixture to a simmer, then remove from heat and allow to cool before serving. Recipe can easily be doubled and keeps for weeks in the fridge.
To cook tempura, in a large, deep pot, wok or deep-fryer, heat 7-10cm oil to 170C (test temperature by adding a small drop of batter. It should start to sink then immediately rise to the surface, gently bubbling around the edges. If oil is too hot and batter burns add a little more oil to cool it down). When ready to fry, coat vegetable slices in flour then into batter and slide straight into the hot oil. Drip extra batter through your fingers to coat tops of vegetables with a little more as they cook if desired. Cook for 2-3 minutes, turning as needed, until golden and crispy. Don't overcrowd the pot; fry in stages and add more oil as necessary.
Drain the cooked vegetables well and place on paper towels to remove excess oil. Serve hot. accompanied with dipping sauce.
Yvonne's pick: Takahiro Koyama was always destined for great things. He aced wine science at Lincoln Uni, worked at Mountford Vineyard with the legendary CP Lin and successfully bought the business in 2017. While focused on pinot noir and riesling, his gorgeous Koyama Waipara Valley Methode Traditionelle Blanc de Noir 2016 ($45) proves that Takahiro more than cuts it in the sparkles stakes as well. Meticulously crafted, patiently matured in bottle for two years and then disgorged in November 2018, this ultra-elegant methode exhibits delicate characters of rising dough, toasted croissant, and cashew butter alongside citrus-stacked length of flavour that works tantalisingly well with tempura'd anything! greatlittlevineyards.com
Ready in 15 minutes
One or two oily fish meals each week will meet your needs for long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Salmon makes a brilliant mid-week meal because it cooks in a matter of minutes.
4 boneless, skinless salmon fillet pieces, cut from the thick end
2 tsp black and/or toasted white sesame seeds
Chopped chives, to garnish (optional)
2 Tbsp mirin
1 Tbsp miso, preferably white miso or instant sachets
1 Tbsp sugar
2 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp finely grated fresh ginger
To make the glaze, mix together all ingredients until the miso is evenly incorporated.
Preheat oven to 220C fanbake and line a large, shallow oven dish with baking paper for easy clean-up. Arrange salmon pieces in a single layer in the prepared oven dish and spread glaze over the top. Roast until salmon is just cooked through and glaze is just starting to caramelise (about 8-9 minutes). It should give when gently pressed.
Serve immediately, garnished with sesame seeds and chives, if using. Accompany with rice and lightly cooked greens.
Yvonne's pick: Taizo Osawa, (a Japanese civil engineer, IT expert and wine fan) fell in love with New Zealand, bought land in Maraekakaho in the early 2000s, snaffled local hero Rod McDonald to be his winemaker and now, thanks to impeccable attention to detail and an obsession with perfection, his wines are winning awards all over the world. His Flying Sheep Hawke's Bay Gewurztraminer 2015 ($28) is a wickedly good little wine that delivers a face-punch of quince, guava, lanolin, lychee and ginger that will well and truly wet your whistle and shiver your timbers with its freshness and spicy sauciness. What does one pair with such a sip? I'd suggest rolling up your sleeves and attacking it with Annabel's miso-glazed salmon. osawawines.co.nz