As a natural foods chef, I explore ways to create meals that are not only amazingly delicious, but good for you. I've always been inspired by traditional cuisines -- Thai, Indian, Mexican -- but one in particular intimidated me: Japanese. The ingredients and terminology seemed so foreign. This was one cuisine I felt more comfortable enjoying at a restaurant as opposed to creating in my own kitchen.
But this spring I had the opportunity to spend time in the kitchen of talented Executive Chef Abe Hiroki at EN Japanese Brasserie in New York. At first, making dishes called "shira ae" and "zenmai piri-kara" made me skittish, but with time, I learned an invaluable lesson: bringing Japanese meals into my kitchen (and eventually to yours), was not only doable, but transformational.
Chef Hiroki grew up working above his father's sushi restaurant in Fukuoka, Japan, and after several years working as a sous chef overseeing traditional Japanese dishes, he moved to New York City to focus on cooking his authentic cuisine in America. Hiroki focuses on three main principals of centuries-old Japanese cuisine: seasonality, quality of ingredients, and presentation.
Attention to the first principal, seasonality, is known as kisetsukan in Japanese. Interestingly, they have a term to describe the celebration of food at its peak flavor, called shun. There is no translation in English, but the idea is to enjoy food when it is fresh and at the height of ripeness -- strawberries picked when they are most sweet; fish chosen when most flavorful. Shun permeates through the entire art of eating, even dinnerware is rotated according to seasons. Chef Hiroko uses Spring cherry blossoms from the farmers market in April to adorn plating.
Quality of ingredients is based upon the standard of always finding the best-sourced, most minimally processed ingredients and then, doing very little to them. Although it is now common to find cheaply produced soy sauces, instant dashi mixes, and other condiments, traditional Japanese ingredients are made with a lot of time and care, similar to the Italians' approach to extra virgin olive oil and parmesan cheese. The soy craze and controversy here in the States is mainly based on the consumption of genetically modified, isolated or extracted soy (soy isolate, soy lecithin) in our processed foods. Soy, in the traditional Japanese diet, is consumed much closer to its original, whole food source -- a higher quality ingredient.
And with an emphasis on presentation, eating traditional Japanese food encourages us to stay mindful, and practice portion control. The variety of cutting styles (half moons, grated, diagonal, etc.) in prepping vegetables, fruits and other ingredients is a testament to the importance the Japanese place on how the food looks and tastes. One type of cut, for example, will infuse a different flavor than another cut. And plating dishes is akin to creating edible works of art. Food can be presented as several small, mini dishes on one plate. This way you get a chance to experience a myriad of tantalizing flavors without stuffing yourself.
These are, of course, important lessons for our eating habits here in the States. But to me, the fact that the traditional Japanese diet has been around for centuries, coupled with the health statistics of the Japanese population, is a testament to its virulence. The fact that the Japanese have some of the lowest incidences of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity (Japan ranks #163, the U.S. #9 based on WHO 2007 estimates) relative to the United States is enough for me (and hopefully enough for you) to want to learn it -- and incorporate a bit of it into your life!
Centuries-old ingredients along with perfected cooking methods have made Japanese staples such as mirin, brown rice vinegar, and miso, delicious tools for the prevention of premature aging and the panoply of chronic diseases and epidemics that are making us not only sick, but broke paying for pharmaceuticals and medical bills. Steaming and quick simmering along with age-old techniques such as fermentation (e.g. miso, tempeh, soy sauce) enhance the nutritional profile of ingredients.
I've found time and time again that this delicious, ancient cuisine can curb cravings, keep you satiated, keep you light, and cleanse your palate with more "bitter" and "umami", and less "sweet" and "salty".
My hope is that through learning the simple basics of authentic, unadulterated traditional cuisine, America can feel better, live preventatively, and thrive. We're doing this with Italian cuisine -- instead of pizza (quite often a watered down version of true Italian food), we're warming up to the use of fresh basil, ricotta, and broccoli rabe. The same can happen with Japanese -- less California rolls and more of the healthier, pure basics, like miso, bitter greens, and mirin.
Here is a quick miso soup recipe that can get you started bringing Japanese into your home today! Miso is a Japanese culinary staple and is a nutrient powerhouse, high in protein, probiotics, and a variety of micronutrients. Miso paste can be found in a variety of natural foods stores and grocery stores. This recipe uses water instead of dashi stock, making it much more accessible. Miso paste lasts forever so it will never go to waste!
Pooja's Instant Red Miso Soup
Yield: Approx. 4 cups
1 teaspoon sesame or extra virgin olive oil
3 medium-sized onions, peeled and sliced into quarter moons (about 10.5oz)
¾ cup roughly chopped shitake mushrooms
2 medium-sized carrots, peeled and diced into ½ inch cubes (about 4oz) (optional)
3 ½ cups water (more/less depending on thickness desired, use dashi if preferred)
4-5 tablespoons brown rice miso*
1. In a large saucepan over medium - high heat, add oil. When warm, add carrots, onions and mushrooms. Sauté, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, allowing onions to take on a dark golden brown color and caramelize, about 5-8 minutes.
2. Cover pan, turn heat to low, and simmer for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure ingredients don't stick to bottom of pan.
3. Uncover and remove roughly ¼ cup of the liquid from the pan with a ladle, transferring to a smaller vessel. Add miso to this smaller vessel and mix to incorporate liquid and miso until original miso paste becomes a thinner consistency.
4. Add water to saucepan and bring saucepan to a boil over high heat. Pour thinner miso mixture from smaller vessel into the pan and immediately turn heat off, removing pan from stove. Stir a few times to fully incorporate miso mixture. Ladle into your favorite bowl. Serve and enjoy.
*Miso looks like a thick paste. My favorite brand is South River's Hearty Brown Rice Miso. Mixed miso paste called "awase miso", is the type of miso usually used in this classic dish you'll get at restaurants. I'm using red miso ("aka miso") here as it imparts a different, heartier flavor worth exploring!
Below is a short (not exhaustive) list of commonly used Japanese ingredients. Once you've acquired a basic toolkit of knowledge and realize that the ingredients are more accessible than you may have imagined, this healing, life-promoting, and beautiful food can be at your fingertips when you want it:
Azuki - Also spelled adzuki/aduki, are small reddish-brown beans that are commonly sweetened to make red bean paste -- the sweet creamy filling of many Japanese desserts. You can find this a most natural foods stores.
Taneko - Bamboo shoots.
Kabocha - Japanese pumpkin. It has a dark green skin and bright orange flesh. More common to find at natural foods grocers.
Mizuna - Japanese mustard green. It imparts bitter flavor, which helps aid digestion. Chef Abe uses it along with watercress and red leaf lettuce. Harder to locate but try your farmers market.
Renkon - The root of the lotus plant. You may have seen these slices in tempura. It is used in soups, deep-fried, stir-fried, and braised dishes and used a lot in traditional Asian herbal medicine.
Gobo - Burdock root. This root, uncut, can be several feet long. It has a dirty brown outer skin which is scraped off. Gobo has a unique earthy flavor and is known as a blood purifier.
Ninjin - Carrots.
Nasu - Eggplant.
Shishito - Small green pepper
Kombu - Edible kelp. Used to make dashi fish stock, the base for soups and a variety of other dishes.
Shoyu - A type of soy sauce made from soya beans and wheat. The foundation of Japanese cooking.
Mirin - Sweet tasting rice wine.
Miso paste- Fermented soybeans and rice or barley.
Pooja Mottl is a Natural Foods Chef and fitness consultant. She is a graduate of the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts. You can find all her latest on healthy living, food, fitness at Pooja's Way.
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