gaijinfarmer

Organic farming, Japanese recipes


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More Japanese fermented foods: pickles, sake, miso

Stalking the wild yeast

Well happy new year dear readers! If you’ve been following, I’m sure you’ve noticed a marked slowing in posts. As you may have imagined, this comes with a change in life direction. It’s not a drastic change—I haven’t decided to manufacture pharmaceuticals or start a Newt-supporting website or anything—but it’s a change all the same. We needed something that’s ours, that we can control, grow, and be sure of. Autumn 2011 was a hard time, but we may have found it. I’m not going to jinx myself here, but I hope to have some good news in not too long.

In the meantime, let me talk about a topic I’ve been thinking about throughout the autumn and winter:

Capturing yeast, and moldy rice

Exciting, yes? Actually, capturing yeast is not that hard. There are a myriad of instructions for doing this for various purposes, some of which include a deep forest, a moldy rice ball, and stirring a solution for a month.  Not to disparage Gil Carandang—he’s a genius! But any breadmaker will tell you that all it takes is an open window. Put a doughball on your windowsill for a while, cover and keep warm and it will rise—this is natural yeast in action.

Of course there are more focused ways of cultivating particular strains and flavors: mixing fruit with sugar, setting rice or rice wash water out, or basically anything that creates a sugary solution with access to open air, then allow the strains to multiply.

Now, moldy rice. I always threw everything out that had even a spot of mold on it. All molds were the same—they ended up in the garbage can. If you start to play with yeasts, though, you start to realize that molds are not all created equal. The white ones are just a natural outgrowth, and should be stirred back in. Yellow is questionable, not good. Anything orange, green, blue, violet, brown, or black and your whole batch is bad.

There is also a completely different strain of molds called koji, which you have already eaten if you’ve ever had soy, miso, or sake, so don’t be grossed out. Koji convert starches in carb-heavy or protein-heavy foods into sugars, which can then be digested by yeasts  into acohol if you’re making sake.

So basically a lot of Japanese food involves leaving food out for yeasts, or making it moldy.

What you get is a complete reversal of how you’ve thought about the putrefaction process. Put a bunch of whole fruit in a bucket and let them sit there for ten days and what do you get? I bet you’re thinking you get a moldy stinking mess. But if you start stirring every couple of days after ten days, you get delicious vinegar in a few months.

How about if you put some raw and a little cooked rice in de-chlorinated water? It starts to smell after a couple days. Most people would throw it out. But let your nose do the work—it tells you that this funny-tasting stuff isn’t dangerous. What you’re making is a rice/yeast blend that forms the base for traditional homemade sake, and it smells different each day as different organisms multiply. If you look, you can see bubbles of CO2 in the picture–this is a little less than a week in.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making sake! Making anything over 1% alcohol is illegal in Japan. In fact, I got turned on to homemade sake, called doburoku, by a friend who served some at his house. I promptly called the police and had my friend incarcerated. So of course I’m not doing this myself! I’m just experimenting with yeasts.

If one were to attempt the illegal, though, they would add some koji-innoculated rice to the rice/yeast mixture and put it in a bottle with an airlock. I definitely do not have a bottle bubbling in the hallway right now.

Something else you can do with koji-innoculated rice is make shio-koji. Shio-koji is just 200 grams of koji rice, 60 grams of salt, and enough dechlorinated water to cover the mess. Let it sit for ten days (seven in the summer), and you have an extremely bioactive fermentation starter and seasoning. I’m just getting started on that one, so I hope to have some recipes in a few weeks…

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Winter fruit in Japan: drying persimmons

The first week of December has passed, and while they’re fighting snowstorms in Hokkaido, we are still harvesting tomatoes from our garden!  The fall this year has been unusually warm but the winter fruits are ripening right on schedule.  In America winter fruit meant a thinning of options in the produce section and a return to apples, oranges, and bananas—the apples from Washington state, if you’re lucky, the rest from further afield.

Here, winter fruit is mikan, or small oranges in various sizes and varieties, and persimmons.  Since mikan are a cash crop there is always an abundance, so as farmers harvest they always pass on extras to neighbors and friends.  Those neighbors and friends already got a bunch of mikan from other farmers, so they pass them along to their own neighbors and friends, who themselves are already overflowing.  It’s a big mikanfest, and by February everyone’s sick of them.  But it’s great to have free fresh fruit wherever you go.

Persimmons are slightly rarer since they’re not a cash crop, but there are many producing trees around so they’re quite easy to get, especially if you don’t mind asking.  They come in two varieties, fuyu-gaki (winter persimmons), and shibu-gaki (bitter persimmons); winter is the most popular variety because you can just peel and eat.  They start coming in November and are served crunchy, and by December you can find nice soft ones you can eat with a spoon.

Bitter persimmons are popular as dried fruit, called hoshi-gaki.  Their astringency disappears and they become very sweet as they dry.  But harvesting and drying them is becoming less common these days, and many people just buy them in packages for a new year’s treat.

There is a tree up the hill from us on a piece of land for sale that had lots of nice bitter persimmons that no one was picking.  We asked our hancho, or neighborhood leader (this is apparently where the word ‘honcho’ came from), who called the real estate company for us and got permission to pick them.  It wasn’t a very large tree but we got 32 kilograms from it!

The big ones we peeled and strung up to dry.  The ones you can see in the foreground have been drying for about a week.  The dark color is natural–any drying fruit will oxidize and change color.  If dried fruit still has a nice fresh color to it, that’s a giveaway that there is sulfur or some other preservative in there.  The fresh ones in back have been hanging for just one night.

You should massage them every day to loosen the fibers and release the sugars; if the conditions are right some sugar will form a white coating on the outside, and those are the most prized.  I’m thinking this year is too warm for that though.

We removed the stems from the smaller persimmons and piled into a pickling vat.  The microorganisms present on their skin should turn them into vinegar in a few months.

Oddly enough, most people I tell about this experiment aren’t even aware that you can do this, even though it was a traditional processed food.  We’ll see what happens.

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True Stories: Getting out of the yakuza

Living in the country, sometimes it seems like the same day just repeats itself.  But if you wait around long enough some interesting things happen.  I’d like to do an occasional piece on the true goings-on in our area.

Today’s story happened some time ago, and is told by a very good elderly friend of ours.  It actually happened, and I translate it here without embellishment.  The names have been changed.

The Yakuza Story

Oka: You want to hear that story?

Interviewer: Yes.

Oka: The thing that I did?

Interviewer: Yeah, we’re recording now.

Oka: It was someone right around here.  It was Sato, just down the street.

Interviewer: Wow, close! That was the one who got taken away by the yakuza?

Oka: No. He wanted to marry a woman … you know the circular train platforms where they turn a train around? They used to repair trains there, it usually took a couple days but sometimes it would take a week.  Well, there was one of those in the nearby town.  It looked like the sun, there were so many tracks coming out of it.  Those trains would go back to Osaka, well it was the daughter of one of the managers there.  Around Tennoji, it was the manager near Tennoji.  It was a good job, so he had enough money, if you look into it a bit.

Anyway, his daughter and Sato-san got serious but it turned out that he was involved with the XXX yakuza group in Osaka.  He had started as a chimpira (local area gangbanger) and went up from there.  Well the father obviously opposed it but they loved each other and eventually Sato told him that if he didn’t allow his daughter to marry him, Sato would kill her.  It’s a crazy thing to say, but…

Anyway, when your (interviewer’s) grandfather got sick, we took Sato to a religious center so he could get away for a while.  Your grandfather didn’t know he was in trouble.  I asked Sato, “Are you serious about marrying her?  If you’re serious I’ll help you.”

He said, “I’ll have her, and if I can’t have her, I’ll kill her.”

It sounded serious and I didn’t want him to become a criminal, so I told him to quit the yakuza so his father would accept the marriage.  He said he couldn’t quit, that he promised his brothers he’d be in forever.  I told him that if he couldn’t quit the yakuza, he’d have to give up the daughter.

Well, he wouldn’t give up on it, so I decided the only way was to take him to Osaka to tell the boss that he wanted to quit.

We arrived and met with a chimpira group in the boss’s house, and asked to let him wash his hands of the gang.  I didn’t know much about the yakuza system, so I just said it.  I told them they probably have some rules about this kind of thing, but I don’t really know anything about it and if they just told me what they needed we could do it.

Well the chimpira told me that we could settle it with ‘enko’, which means losing the three lower fingers off one of my hands.  “If you cut those off I’ll see how serious you are,” he told me.

“Anyway, who the hell are you?” another chimpira asked me.  “You’re a tiny little guy.”

“I’m nobody,” I said.  “But I’m a religious guy and I believe in god.  That’s why I came here and I’m not scared to ask.”

“There’s no such thing as god or buddha,” one of the chimpiras told me.  “There’s only money.  We’ll solve this with money, or we’ll solve it with enko,” he yelled at me.

“Let’s just do the enko!” another one yelled.

I told him, “I don’t have any money, so you better cut my fingers off.”

I guess he was surprised; he said, “You’re a small guy but you say pretty big things.”

They started mixing up some white paste.  I asked him what it was for.  He said, “It’s for the bleeding so you don’t die.  Shut up!” and kept mixing it.  The one who told me that wasn’t the boss, it was a higher-up chimpira who decided on his own to cut off my fingers.

Chimpiras are the scariest ones in the yakuza!  The godfathers aren’t so wild.

The chimpira said, “Oy, Sato, you brought this little guy but did you think that was going to solve your problem?  You don’t have any money, you don’t have anything.  We’re going to take your pinkie and this tiny guy’s enko, that’ll take care of it.”

They were bringing a platform and a sword, and finished preparing the paste.  This is the end of my normal life, I thought, since everyone could see that I was involved because of the missing fingers.  Once you look like that everyone assumes you’re dangerous.  Anyway, having one wing clipped might not be so bad, but what if I die of shock?

I told them I wanted to make a call before this happened.  The chimpira yelled, “You made your decision, are you trying to run away from it now?”  Well, I guess I wasn’t going to be making that call.

I said, “OK, let’s get on with it!”

“Oy, Sato,” I said, “when you get out of this family you can marry your girl, so you better go through with this too.  I already told your father that I was going to try to get you out and asked for his blessing, so get ready.  If you come this far and then back out, you’ve failed as a man.  Get rid of that finger!”

I asked the chimpira, “I’m not going to die if I use this paste, right?”

He said, “No, you’re not going to die.  We’ll take you to the hospital and you’ll be fine in a couple days, but after that you better get out of Osaka.”

Just then the godfather came out.

“I heard you say some interesting things,” he said to me.  Then to Sato, he said, “From today, I’m taking your name off our list.”

They had the block out and were deciding whose hand to cut first, so I had no idea we’d get off just like that.  The chimpiras were getting more and more excited for it; here’s a little guy who just knocks on their door and asks a favor so of course they wanted something in return.  But the godfather knew that if he cut us when we were just coming to talk, that his reputation would be harmed.

“You’re going to marry a beautiful woman, right?” the godfather said.  “So just get out of here;  you’re not in this family anymore.”

I tried to say thank you, but he cut me off.  “This conversation’s over, so quit talking and get out of my house!” and they literally pushed us out the door.

Three days later at our local shrine we had the wedding.  This all really happened!  Oy, when was that wedding?

(Oka’s wife) I have no idea—I had no idea what that guy was up to anyway.

It was a great wedding at the shrine.  The bride’s father never liked Sato, but he had made him the promise and had to go through with it.  He was rich and wanted to throw his daughter a big wedding, but that’s just how it goes sometimes.

And for a while, the new bride had to work at a food stand after she got married.  She got blisters on her hands, that beautiful princess.  But her husband had been a yakuza and had to get back into the real world (yakuza don’t work), so her father told her to go work with her husband.  He gave them some money and they opened that stand where they worked for two or three years.

In the end, though, she got tired and they got divorced.  She just couldn’t put up with the work.  But when those yakuza were about to cut my fingers off I was shaking!  Anyway, that was scary, but Sato still lives in this neighborhood.

(Wife) Yes, but he got remarried to a good wife.

Yes, I helped him find that one!  She was from Shimoayukawa.  He went to work at the gravel company in Ichinose; I went to ask the boss there to put him to work so he didn’t get mixed up with the yakuza again after his divorce.  He used to wear incredible clothes to work, shiny pointed shoes like chimipra wear.

Now his wife is working at a restaurant and I don’t know what he’s doing, but his son managed to marry a temple’s daughter; she had a child from a previous marriage, so he has a grandchild.

———————————————–

That’s the end of this story.  Like I said, it’s a true story told by the guy who actually did it, so I hope it was at least a little interesting!  Coming up: a magic book, and mistakenly building your house in the wrong place.

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Japanese chicken donburi recipe

Japanese chicken egg rice bowl recipe

The ever-popular oya-ko donburi can be translated directly as ‘parent-child rice bowl’–a little grotesque in English. But its balance of sweet and salty, its simplicity, and its healthy ingredients make it a perennial favorite in Japan. The skills you’ll learn in this recipe–making Japanese dashi broth from scratch, seasoning with soy sauce–will open many new recipes to you as well. Give it a try, and I bet you’ll end up making it over and over!

Makes 2 rice bowls

Water 1 cup
Kelp 1 piece
Dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi) 5 grams (small handful)
Chicken 150 grams
Sake 2 T
1 onion
Soy sauce 3 T
Mirin 2 t
Sugar 4 t
Mitsuba (2 bunches) or green onion (12 inches)
2 eggs
2 bowls of rice (use good rice for a better result)

Recipe for kelp/bonito (kombu/katsuobushi) broth

Put the kelp in cold water and turn on medium or high heat. Remove the kelp before the water boils. Bring the water to a boil, add the bonito flakes all at once, and turn off the heat. Do not stir or disturb the bonito flakes, even to push them underwater. They will sink naturally, and moving them around will release bitter flavor into the broth.  Let sit for 15 minutes.

Making the rest of the dish

Pour the sake over the chicken and season with black pepper if desired.  Slice the onion. Mix the soy, mirin, and sugar. Wash and slice the green onions or mitsuba into 1-inch lengths. Break the eggs into a bowl and whisk lightly.

Pour the broth through a sieve lined with a couple paper towels. Again, let it strain naturally; don’t touch it. In a few minutes when it’s all through, you can very lightly squeeze it, but doing so with any pressure will release unwanted flavors. (You can squeeze the excess water out in the sink and use the left over bonito to make an excellent rice topping called tsukudani.)

Pour your broth in a skillet or 10-inch pan and bring to a light boil. Reduce to medium heat, add the onion slices. In one minute add the chicken (with the seasoning sake), pour the soy sauce mix in, give it a quick stir, cover, and simmer until the chicken is cooked through.

Now add the mitsuba or green onion. If you’re using green onion, simmer a little until it’s done to your liking before continuing; if you’re using mitsuba, go to the next step immediately.

Add the egg using two chopsticks held against the side of the bowl to guide the egg as you pour.  Pour slowly–you should be able to make two full circles around your pan as you drizzle it in. Don’t stir! Turn off the heat when the egg is half cooked and let it sit for another minute.

Scoop onto a bowl of rice and enjoy! You can use ichimi or shichimi seasonings on top for spice. Spicy sesame oil or other hot sauces can also be used for Chinese or ‘fusion’ variations.

May I suggest doubling the broth recipe to make some miso soup?

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Wakayama neighborhood destroyed by typhoon to hold dissolution ceremony

This article appeared in the paper on Friday, October 14th. Here’s a rough translation.

http://www.agara.co.jp/modules/dailynews/article.php?storyid=219367

As a result of the severe damage inflicted by typhoon #12, Okubanchi-ku, part of Hongu in Wakayama Prefecture, will hold a dissolution ceremony at its last neighborhood festival on November 5th. The 10 residents of the Ku have restarted their lives in other parts of Hongu, and thus will draw an end to the neighborhood of Okubanchi.

Okubanchi is the furthest neighborhood toward the mountains from Fushiigami; after crossing the Mikoshi River it’s a five minute drive up. Eight households live quietly, as if they surrounded a temple. The pure river there is known for ayu and amago sweetfish, drawing fishermen from many parts of the country.

The heavy rains of typhoon #12 set off a landslide 300 meters tall and 200 meters wide in the southern part of the neighborhood. Cut off by the slide, the river changed course and cut through the neighborhood. When the river subsided, all that was left of the temple, community center, and two households was a new valley.

The residents spent a few days at Hongu Junior High School, the evacuation center, and then moved in with family members or into vacant homes in the area. Yoshinori Nomoto (84) and his wife Mikiko (75) are living in Mikiko’s parents’ vacant house. They fled without any belongings, so Yoshinori walked back over the blocked road, crossed the valley, and recovered some of his valuables, including his mother’s ring and the family altar, from his mostly-crushed house. Not long thereafter, his house was fully destroyed by the next typhoon, #15.

“I knew Okuban was finished” when the landslide happened, says Mikiko. When her children visited from a different prefecture, they were at a loss for words but knew their parents had to move out. From December Yoshinori and Mikiko will be living in an apartment near Mikiko’s oldest daughter in nearby Nara Prefecture.

November 3rd is the official date of the annual festival at the Okubanku shrine. Knowing it’s the last one, the neighborhood residents are planning a grand sendoff. The neighborhood address records were washed away in the flood, so residents must rely on word of mouth to inform each other of the plans. The ceremonies have been planned for the 5th, a weekend day.

“It’s a small neighborhood and everyone’s friends. If we had young people living here we could get things going again, but we don’t have the power,” says Yoshinori, covering his eyes. “Because of this typhoon damage I was reminded of the kindness of people of Hongu. People are very good to us where we are staying now, and I wish I could continue our relationship with them here.”

Under the only house left unscathed by the flood and landslides is a taro patch. Mikiko has been growing them. “When it gets close to the festival I’ll dig them up. We might have a hundred people come,” she says. She’s looking forward to serving stewed taro to all of the guests at the dissolution ceremony.

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How to make miso–Wakayama style

Tasting Kinzanji miso

The Kinzanji miso is a success! The rice fermented into a very soft paste that holds the whole thing together, the barley is soft but springy, and the soybeans are still nice and firm. It’s quite sweet but also tart and tangy, just right as a veggie or rice topping. Now the final trick will be giving it all away, because there’s no way we can eat 11 kilograms!

(Some pictures are in line; click on any picture in the gallery at the bottom to see the full set.)

Making Kinzanji miso

Making Kinzanji miso takes three days of work—not continual work, but work timed at intervals such that it’s hard to do too much more than just make miso. Luckily for us we were guests of the woman in charge, and she did all the off-hours tasks.

Prepping the grains

The first day we arrived early in the morning and built fires for steaming the grains. We had one portable gas stove and the stove in the kitchen, and we also built three fires in the bays of the traditional stove and one under the outdoor steamer. A hot business, that, in August! I had  my face close in to the fires until someone pointed out the length of bamboo with a hole poked in the distal end–a great way to blow on a fire from afar. It was a bit of a tap on the shoulder about our preconceptions, what we look for and what we overlook in going about our everyday affairs.

The rice had been soaking overnight, and was put on the steamer. While it was steaming for the first hour we hulled the soybeans in a hand mill, then separated the skins with a traditional tool—see videos of these steps below.

The barley and soybeans got mixed and were stacked on the steamers, so the rice was on for a total of two hours and the barley/soy for one.

Both were cooled to 37 degrees C and the special koji mold was mixed in.  The rice was mounded in large containers and loosely covered with a moist cloth to prevent drying; the barley/soy mix was spread out in wooden trays with only newspaper draped over to prevent bugs from getting in.

Here we took a break and a welcome shower. Five hours later, in the evening, we poured the barley/soy back into large containers and gave it and the rice a good mixing to make sure the mold culture was evenly spread. The mold was very apparent on both by this time.

Koji mold fermentation

Many people are probably thinking that moldy food = bad food. Really, the only difference between fermented foods and spoiled foods is the type of microorganisms that are present in them. If you’ve ever had yogurt, cheese, beer … you’ve benefited not only from lactobacillic organisms, but also from yeasts, molds, and much more. As most experienced fermenters know, white mold is usually a good sign, and can be scraped off before eating. Molds of any other color are bad, the darker the worse, and their presence means a good cleaning and starting the project from scratch.

One other note on molds, or any microorganisms really, is that culturing is as much a numbers game as anything else. The salt in sauerkraut and other lacto-fermented foods is there to inhibit the growth of baddies while the desired cultures increase. When a miso maker we know up in the mountains moved into an old elementary school, he first took handfuls of his mold culture and threw it all over the walls, ceiling, and in every cranny of the room that was to be his culturing room. As anyone who’s been in old school buildings here knows, they’re havens for mold and who knows what else—he had to make sure that his mold was the only one growing in his culturing room.

But I digress … we gave our moldy grains a good mix and put them down for the night.

Lacto-fermented vegetables prep

The next afternoon we arrived and started preparing the ginger, eggplant, and ‘uri’ white gourd for pickling. After putting them down with salt we took off until the evening, when we returned to process the shiso leaves and sesame seeds.

Late that night our hostess mixed some salt into the rice and barley mixtures, stopping the koji mold fermentation. When we arrived for our last morning the only thing left to do was to mix the rice, barley/soy mix, and all the vegetables together evenly. We divided it up into buckets, and that’s where it’s been sitting for a month.

What a process! I definitely see why you’d want to do a hundred pounds or more at a time, but would encourage anyone with an opportunity to make miso to give it a try. At the very least you’ll have twenty-some pounds of reminder of your labors!

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