Organic farming, Japanese recipes


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…

Enhanced by Zemanta


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?

Enhanced by Zemanta


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!

Enhanced by Zemanta


Kinzanji miso, Wakayama style

Over the hot, humid summer we made a huge batch of Kinzanji miso with a local grandmother who organized a group to make well over 100 pounds of the stuff. We took home our 25 pounds and it’s been sitting for a month. I think it’s time for a first tasting … tomorrow.

So to get ready for that, here’s a little backstory.

The difference between Kinzanji and regular miso

Kinzanji miso is a young miso that features its ingredients in the whole, rather than smashed or blended, as miso intended for soup does. Most miso is aged for at least 9 months and up to three years, which must include at least one full summer. Kinzanji is aged for one to 18 months maximum. Importantly, most miso for soup is based on one ingedient such as rice, barley, or soybeans; Kinzanji includes all three—and the koji mold fermentation of all three is stopped by massaging in salt after a few hours. However, the addition of lacto-fermented vegetables to Kinzanji before aging adds bacteria to the mix that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

A possible history of Kinzanji miso

Although miso generally means soup to all of us now, the chunky Kinzanji was actually the predecessor of the modern smooth version. It was supposedly brought back from China in the 1200s to a temple in Wakayama, where its preparation was taught and where the liquid that formed on the top of the aging mixture was first tasted and then produced as soy sauce. This is just one of the variations of the story, which can vary by almost a thousand years, but I’ll take it since it’s in Wakayama!

How to eat Kinzanji miso

The most popular way of enjoying this nameh-miso (lit. lickable; that is, to be eaten as-is) is to dip cucumber spears in it. That’s called moro-kyu, and is a great way to eat a light meal without cooking in the hot summer. Kinzanji is also a popular topping for rice and many other dishes.

Kinzanji is actually a ‘highly recommended local gift product’ (和歌山県推薦優良土産品) in Wakayama. It’s also produced in Chiba and Shizuoka and other places in Kansai but on the whole is a little unusual and rare. It’ll always be available in gift shops around here, but having a big crock we’ve made ourselves to enjoy and give away is an experience that fewer and fewer people have these days; maybe it’ll be us teaching the next generation how to do it in a few years.

Up soon — tasting and the production process!

Enhanced by Zemanta


Too hot? Japanese recipes to cool down with!

With the summer heat come wonderful veggies: cool cucumbers, tasty tomatoes — and the grotesque goya.   Called bitter melon in English (they should have found a better publicist!), goya is generally boiled for a short time or sauteed before using to take the edge off its bitterness, but can be used raw if you’re feeling adventurous.  Goya definitely adds a zing! to these Japanese recipes and is an extra-cooling addition when used in cold salads.

One of the best known recipes is goya chanpuru from Okinawa, in which it’s sauteed with tofu in a light soy-based sauce.  Recently we’ve eaten chanpuru, goya tempura rings with matcha green tea salt, hijiki kelp salad with goya and more.  Here are three more recipes that we’ve loved:

Recipe: Goya and bonito flake salad

Wash goya and cut into rounds.  Remove seed pith.  Boil for less than one minute, making sure that it’s still crunchy.  Toss with some bonito flakes and a dash of soy sauce.  Sprinkle with sesame seeds.  Serve immediately or chill.

Recipe: Korean-style vegetable donburi rice bowl (feeds 4)

Ingredients: vegetables of your choice–we used goya, green and red peppers, eggplant, mushrooms, okra.

Sauce ingredients:

  • 1 T sesame oil
  • 2 tsp grated ginger
  • 2 tsp grated garlic
  • 3 T soy sauce
  • 1.5 T brown sugar
  • 1.5 T rice vinegar
  • Water
  • 1 T sesame seeds
  • 3 T sliced green onion

In a frying pan, heat sesame oil over medium heat, sautee ginger and garlic until aromatic but be careful not to burn them.  Add soy sauce, vinegar, brown sugar, sesame seeds, and green onion.  After sugar dissolves add water until the sauce is runny but not weak–probably about 1-2 T.  Remove sauce to a dish.

Boil the okra and goya for one minute and drain.  Over med-hi heat, sautee the vegetables in regular oil one at a time until they’re just done.  Pour sauce over veggies while they’re hot.

Arrange vegetables on a bowl of rice.  Pour remaining sauce over the top to taste.

 Recipe: Goya and cucumber cold vinegared salad (feeds 4)

This is the perfect salad for cooling off on a hot day!


  • 1 cucumber, sliced thin
  • 1 goya, pith removed, sliced thin
  • Wakame seaweed, either reconstituted or fresh, 1/4 C
  • Meat from salted dried white fish, grilled and taken off bone, 1/4 C (optional)
  • Salt
  • Sesame seeds, 1 T
  • Chopped ginger, 1 T
  • Shiso leaves, 4


  • Rice vinegar, 2 T
  • Brown sugar, 2 tsp
  • Soy sauce, 2 tsp

Slice cucumber and massage in appx 2 t salt (should be significantly salty to the taste).  Set aside for 10 minutes, drain water, and squeeze to remove more.  Cucumber should be lightly salty at this point; if it’s too salty you can briefly rinse and squeeze again.

Remove seed pith and slice goya, boil for two minutes in salted water and drain.

Julienne shiso leaves.  Combine all ingredients, dress, and add salt or sugar to taste.  Chill and serve.

For other interesting recipes including goya, check out the National Bitter Melon Council’s website.

Enjoy, and stay cool!

Enhanced by Zemanta


Bamboo shoot recipe: Japanese style

Following up on my previous post on how to gather wild Japanese young bamboo shoots, here is how to prepare them.  Or, as we say in the local dialect, Let’s Cookingu! Please also check out KitchengardenJapan’s interesting post on ‘hatsumono’, or the first foods of the season.

Since you’re working with a plant that grows as much as 2 feet every day, you can be sure that it’s not going to wait around for you.  Bamboo shoots spoil more quickly than most foods, in raw or cooked form.  Get your shoots prepped and cooked as soon as you get home, and enjoy them within a few days.

If you have the sprout as it came out of the ground, hold it firmly in one hand and cut as shown.  You’ll cut 30-50% of the way through the sprout, or as far as the center at most.

Peel the layers back and remove the tough ones.  When you get to the soft core stop peeling, and cut the top off.  To cut the top, start at the tip with your knife–you’ll probably notice that it’s hard to cut through.  Don’t force it.  Continue toward the wide end until you can easily remove the tip.

If you got your shoots at Uwajimaya or another local store (Vietnamese and Thai groceries also often have raw shoots), then you’re at this point already.  Take your shoot and cut it into halves or quarters radially, depending on how big it is.

Add these to a pot of cold water, and add rice bran (what’s left after making brown rice into white rice) in an equal weight to the shoots to remove ‘aku’, or the natural bitterness.  Bring to a boil, simmer for 2 hours, and let cool to room temperature, covered.  Check the hardness of the shoots and boil longer if necessary.

Rinse and then soak in cold water for half a day or longer.  You can keep the shoots in this manner for up to a week, refrigerated, but you must change the water every day.

To flavor your bamboo shoots, use this recipe:

Add a kelp sheet to cold water and heat; just before it boils remove the sheet.  When it boils add a handful of dried bonito flakes and turn off the heat.  Remove the flakes or strain them out after they sink; don’t squeeze them or your broth will be bitter.  If you don’t have these ingredients you can buy ‘hondashi‘ powder and it will work just fine.

Add the bamboo shoots, and for every kilogram of shoots add 2 tablespoons each of sake, mirin, brown sugar, and soy sauce.  Salt to taste.  Simmer until the flavor is as rich as you like.  Before the bamboo gets too soft, add seaweed if you like and season to finish.

Enhanced by Zemanta


Japanese spring vegetables: wild bamboo shoots

Spring in Japan starts in the depth of winter. At least around where I live, they say that February is the coldest month. It’s a temperate zone so we don’t have to shovel snow off the roofs, but nights hover around freezing or just under, and the days don’t get much warmer than 40 F, if we’re that lucky.

But right in the coldest month, the plum trees bloom and a hazy pink shades hillsides that were brown or a dormant green before. The air is still freezing but the faint smell of the plum blossoms almost fools you into thinking of sunny, warm meadows. No matter how cold it is, we roll down all the windows when we drive by a big orchard in bloom.

The plums are just a tease—it’s cold for weeks longer—but soon the peaches bloom in their vibrant pink, mountain spring vegetables like tsukushi and taranome poke out of the ground, and our strawberry growing friends start talking about the end of the strawberry season. And suddenly take (tah-keh) no ko, bamboo shoots, show up on food trays and in the grocery stores and you think “Is it really that time already?”

But not this year! We haven’t heard a whisper about take no ko, but we went up to the bamboo forest yesterday and dug our first shoots. We beat the Joneses, we beat the grocery stores, and I hope to hear some comment from our customers about the surprising turn of the seasons when we serve it as a side on our lunch sets soon.

If you have a bamboo forest nearby, here’s how to dig your own. First, you need a pickaxe, or better, a takekuwa (bamboo hoe). In English we think of a hoe as something to turn dirt; in Japanese it means pretty much anything attached to a stick at something near 90 degrees that’s obviously not a rake. So the 3-pronged pick is a hoe, the crowbar for bamboo is a hoe, and everything in between is too. Check out this Google search for the range of tools falling under that category.
The takekuwa looks like half of a pickaxe but with a chisel for the head.

Then you’ll need some gloves. If you’re Japanese you’ll probably have ‘guntei’, or the white woven cotton gloves that actually do an OK job against dirt but get soaked by a bad weather report. If you’re smart you will have somehow gotten a pair of LL or XXLL leather gloves to fit your foreigner hands, and these you will use to sweep ground cover from the bamboo forest floor while feeling for bumps that feel like a shoot about to stick out—as they say, if it’s still underground it’s take no ko; if it’s above, it’s already take.   Many will disagree with me here and say that you’re really supposed to shuffle along with your feet to feel for the shoots, and I’d invite those people to try to shuffle up or down our mountain…

When you find the little shoot sticking out, you’ll use your crowbar of incredible power to somehow cut through the ground, which is not so much dirt as it is a carpet of bamboo roots, without hitting or otherwise breaking the shoot. When you get enough ground cleared away, a powerful stroke or four will separate the soft shoot from the incredibly tough roots, and if you’re really skillful, your shoot will come away unbroken. The pictures show that I failed at this most of the time.

Either way it tastes just as good.    Next: how to cook it.


Tempura, sashimi, kara-age from one small herring

I think it’s fair to say that my wife and I have breathed a little new life into the family restaurant. For nearly 40 years it’s been known for great handmade food, home-grown rice, and its relaxing atmosphere, but recently it’s also suffered from a lack of workers and slow ticket times.   Being young, foreign (one of us) and two extra sets of hands has earned us some fans from the customer base.

The other day one of our regular customers, the president of a local fishing company, brought a 2 kilo-bag of small fish with incredible kaleidoscopic stripes down their sides for me. They’re called きびなご (kibinago) in Japanese, silverstriped round herring in English. Although I wasn’t present for the flashing of Japanese fingers filleting 100 tiny fish, I sure still enjoyed the meal. We ate them raw, tempura fried, and fried with bread crumbs.

Recipe: Herring sashimi

With a pinch of the fingers, break the head away from the body and pull to remove the organs.  Split from the head down the belly with your thumb, and rinse the interior cavity under cold water and then gently remove the bones with your fingers.  Take off the tail with a pinch.  There’s no need to remove any scales, but I usually pick up the fish by the side fins to eat, and leave the fins. If you can get fresh wasabi, grate and enjoy!

Recipe: Tempura or Kara-age herring

Remove the head and organs as above, but leave the bones (optional for tempura).  Dip in iced tempura batter or roll in raw egg then bread crumbs, then fry in hot oil–either in a shallow frying pan or deep fryer for either.  For kara-age, season with salt and pepper or citrus vinegar; for tempura, season with salt or dip in a tempura dipping sauce.

There were two more presents in the bag, as you can see on the right–if you bite into the head, the cartilaginous bone is exposed and you can pull it out. Dip the rest in soy and it’s a delicious bite. Even given my experience with Japanese food I was a little reluctant but loved it in the end. 😉

Leave a comment

Japanese vegetable recipes: easy and healthy

In the not too distant future I hope to report that we’ve realized the farm-to-table dream. That’s still a way off, but here is one awesome veggie that comes directly from our garden. It’s called Ogura-na; the ‘na’ means vegetable, and Ogura is my wife’s maiden name–her grandmother named the vegetable after herself. Good luck with a google search!

Eaten raw, it’s soft in the mouth but hearty like a winter leafy green, and has a pleasant bitter flavor. I love it raw or lightly steamed but that’s a bit much for many Japanese people, who prefer these recipes. If you don’t have veggies named after my wife’s family, you can try them with kale, spinach, collard greens, or anything similar.

Peanuts-ae recipe

(that’s pronounced “ah-ey”, by the way)

One bunch of leaves (about one bag spinach or 3 leaves of kale)
2 T peanuts, crushed
1 T mirin (substitute 1 T sugar if necessary, but not recommended)
1 T soy sauce
pinch of salt, to taste

Boil the leaves until wilted but not longer, cool, cut into small pieces and lightly squeeze to remove excess water. Toss quickly with the other ingredients and serve chilled as a small side.

Sesame-ae with omelet recipe

Same amount of veggies as above
Sesame oil
Dried bonito flakes (optional)
Soy sauce

Cut the leaves into small pieces and saute in a little sesame oil. Add soy sauce and bonito flakes to egg, and cook with the sauteed greens as you like–mix and scramble, or pour over and make an omelet.