gaijinfarmer

Organic farming, Japanese recipes


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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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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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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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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!

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New rice hulling and bagging machine

Our old rice hulling machine featured previously finally gave up the ghost, and was replaced with a new model, which naturally features a bright color that makes it easy to coordinate our outerwear when we use it.

The essential functions are unchanged but there are plenty of handy new features which we are finding indispensable such as blinking lights, little buttons, and (I know you know I’m not making this up), when a bag of rice is filled it plays the Mickey Mouse theme song.


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Talas in Wakayama, Japan: the typhoon that just wouldn't go away

I think one of the two things that were so surreal about tropical storm Talas, or Number 12 as we call it over here, was that it only got started after it was supposed to be over.  Moving excruciatingly slowly, it kept us waiting and waiting for it to pass.  When it finally passed, then it started raining, and that’s when all the stuff you’re seeing on the news happened.

Heavy wind, but relatively little rain yet:

On the night it landed I posted to my facebook page, “Why does it only get interesting after dark?”  I like windstorms and was kind of bummed I’d miss this one while I slept.  I was woken up many times through the night, and then finally in the morning, by rattling windows and pounding on the walls.  The wind was just as strong in the morning, and continued through the afternoon.   As time stretched on, we watched the weather updates on TV throughout the day, with the weather commentators noting that it was only going as fast as someone on a bicycle (and they don’t mean a Bianchi around here), and then giving it the name ノロノロ台風 (noronoro taifuu), or sluggish typhoon.

When the sluggish typhoon finally rode its mama-bicycle far enough away that the wind died down, it started to rain.  And rain and rain and rain.  A freakishly direct line of rain clouds spiraled in toward our peninsula, delivering up to 1,800 mm of rain in a period of six days.  For comparison, the wettest typhoon on record happened in 2009 in Taiwan, with 2,327 mm of rain.  So while 500mm more rain would have been disastrous here, we’re somewhere in the same category I think.

Another factor that contributed to the intensity of this storm was the tides.  During the period of peak wind we had three high tides, which were enhanced by the steady, powerful winds, and got blown onshore, over seawalls, into drainage systems, and most importantly, reduced the draining potential of the swollen rivers.

Although it rained hard and long here, the majority of the clouds broke as they hit the eastern mountain slopes on the other side of the peninsula, and that’s where the record rainfall numbers happened.  But the landslides that the continued rain caused happened all over the peninsula, and that’s the second thing that was really surreal about this storm–that it happened here, after all.

The storm made landfall on Shikoku, far enough away we locked the steel shutters into place but didn’t worry too much.  Any typhoon that makes landfall will cause deaths in one way or another, but after the numbers climbed slowly, spread out over Shikoku, our peninsula, and elsewhere, they began to climb faster–and only here.  Although Mie and Nara prefectures got more rain, Wakayama has a higher number of dead and missing by far, and now the newscasters say it every time they take inventory.  The numbers aren’t catastrophic, but there are people within two degrees of separation there, people who live in areas I know well.

In fact, the landslide featured in the video below cut off the overland route to the other side of the peninsula, essentially stranding an area where I used to teach.  The road will be cleared soon enough.  I was hoping to take my scooter over an incredibly narrow mountain road, the back way into that area, to check out the landslide from the other side–but that road starts in the area of Tanabe hit by a gigantic landslide, a tiny neighborhood where three of only six households were flattened.  Although I can’t help the area that’s been cut off, visiting would be fun.  But I can’t get over the feeling that taking that road to get there would be akin to disaster tourism.

I was happy to see that most of the rice still in the fields was still easily harvestable, with only a few fields really flattened.  A local junior high school’s sports fields were hit pretty hard, and a landslide narrowly missed cutting off the main bridge to where I used to live.  Click on any picture below to start a slideshow of the pictures included.

Here the river is much lower than at its crest, but still really dangerous.

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Rice harvest: dryer to bags to storehouse

The rice in the dryer reached 15% moisture content today, so we hulled and bagged it and moved it into the storehouse.  We ended up with 28 30-kilogram bags, which represents a good year for rice despite the sometimes very strange weather.

This video is a real quick introduction into the hulling and bagging process.

When it’s done, what do you have?  Wakayama rice!

 

We have two more loads to do, each spaced three to four days apart to account for drying.  So we should be done sometime next week.

では、早速!
(Without delay, let’s eat!)

Rice that was harvested a couple days ago–delicious!!


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The Japan rice harvest has begun!

When it gets close to rice harvest time, everyone watches the weather.  Harvesting after a rain means a very heavy harvest, and letting mature rice get hit by a typhoon can be disastrous–it can get flattened and must be harvested by hand immediately or it will rot.

This week’s forecast is for clouds and rain, so naturally it was sunny today.  We went to cut the weeds at the entrances to the rice fields so trucks can get in and out without slipping, and just in time, as the friends who do our harvesting decided to get a jump on the weather and harvest today.

You may remember that their rice planter is bright blue.  To round out the garage palette they bought the orange harvester.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a beautiful day!  Keep going for some videos that show the operation of the harvester.

 

 


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Vacuuming the tomatoes

We can’t exactly say it was a whirlwind tour, but after taking off through a typhoon in early June and returning through a typhoon in mid-July we can surely say that our trip had its ups and downs.

The temperature here has also gone up, and rising with it are all the plants—rice, weeds, and crops.  Rising, or at least growing: we returned to find our new garden plot in disarray.  The broccoli was crawling down the raised bed and the cucumbers had ignored the trellis and were sprawling among the tomatoes, which had been toppled by the wind.

The bugs loved the chaos, too.  Huge drone beetles were crawling facefirst into split tomatoes for feeding orgies, eating until they couldn’t move.  Brown marmorated stink bugs had taken over the tomatoes and sweet potatoes, coating the trunks and branches, raising their young and even mating in plain view.  It was a hedonistic insect heaven.

Our little vacuum changed that pretty quick.  There were far too many of them to pick off one by one, and they seemed to think of my homebrew fermented organic insect repellant as a kind of perfume.  So out came the little hoover, and the stink bug population dropped pretty quick.  The big tomato eaters just got dropped into a garbage bag, tomatoes and all, and were disposed of.

Now we’re back under a semblance of control.  At least our thick layer of grass mulch did a good job of keeping the weeds down while we were gone!


 

 

I don’t think I’ve posted about this garden patch before.  We wanted something a little closer to our home, so we dug part of our lawn up over the spring.  The soil was collected from a mountain road our friends knew about; it’s a leaf compost, which is supposed to be pretty acidic, but our plants seem to love it.  We filled our little truck up with bags of the compost, filtered it through a large sieve, and mixed in just a little bit of additives from the store.  Hiro shoveled it into five little rows, and voila, our kitchen garden.


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Rainy season and ume plum liquor

We’re getting ready for a trip back to America in a couple days, and it looks like we might be taking off through a typhoon! The 2nd of the year is on its way north, over Okinawa right now, and it looks like a doozy.

Seasons around here are wacky. A very popular question for foreigners is, “Do you have four seasons in your country?”, and no amount of meteorological education can sway people’s instinctive belief that Japan is the only place in the world that really has four seasons.

Despite this, you could easily argue that the extended rainy season between spring and summer constitutes a fifth season, and the Japanese certainly treat it as such. Temperatures usually drop a little, the humidity skyrockets, and the typhoons start coming.  As they form in the SW Pacific and start to swing northward they’re a regular feature on the news, and as they get closer they bring days of rain if they swing wide, or an increasing gale and downpour if they come our way.  During the rainy season I’ve had leather shoes grow mold and wool sweaters mildew.  They’re in sealed bags this year!

Japanese plums on the tree

The rainy season apparently started 18 days early this year, and despite the fairly cool temperatures we were lucky that the ume plums ripened a bit early too, in time for our trip.  We like to invite ourselves over to our friend’s house who grows the plums and help ourselves to some of the variety called ‘nan-kou’. That’s the variety used for juice or liquor, rather than pickling, and as such they just leave those trees to themselves and harvest what comes–the other trees they spray, process into salted pickles, and sell mostly on the domestic market.  We always make umeshu, Japanese plum liquor.  If you’ve tried the Choya stuff from the store and found it way too sweet, remember that it’s possible to make your own at any sweetness level you like.  We usually use 40-50% of the standard amount of sugar, resulting in a sweet but very tart liquor.  Delicious!

Finding the best ones

Picking is usually a pretty sweaty affair but this year it was a very pleasant family evening out.

In pretty short order we had 12 kilos or so.

Soaking in water for cleaning

Drying

Processing is pretty easy–just remove the stem connecting point with a skewer or knife, soak overnight to wash, lay them out to dry, and set them soaking in 35% alcohol white liquor and some sugar. That’s it! In as little as 3 months you can enjoy it, but you can soak the plums much longer and then even age the product after you remove the plums. We have some 5- and 10-year stuff around here somewhere… not telling where! 😉

Plums soaking in liquor and sugar

In the last picture you can see the color has changed–these have been soaking overnight at this point.  If you look closely you’ll see that the plums are also floating in the middle of the liquid.  The sugar has dissolved and the sugar-heavy liquid has sunk to the bottom and it’s heavier than the plums.  It’ll all normalize in time.

As a final note on plums, these are not really plums.  They’re actually species of apricot but if we started calling them that no one would know what we’re talking about.  So for everyday purposes, they’re plums! I hope you agree that the misnomer isn’t quite as offensive as, say, the Clean Air or Patriot acts.

And we’re offline for a month and a half!  See you all soon enough in the summer heat!

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