Ginkgos roasting on an open fire.

It’s the season when nuts fall from trees, and since there are no squirrels in Kyushu, they end up in enormous bags at the grocers.

I made chestnuts a few weeks ago. I’d never done it, but having heard a certain Christmas song many times, I figured I could just wing it and toss them under the broiler. Big mistake. It sounded like a scene from The Untouchables inside my stove, and I was forced to turn the heat off early for fear of blowing up my house. I checked with Chef Google (phrase adapted from my inventive friend Bethany) and found out that chestnuts should be scored before heating – cut an X into one side of the nuts before roasting.

So now I know. And thank goodness, because I was ready when a thoughtful friend, Kyrsten, handed me a bag of ginkgo nuts. I’d never had them before. “Toast them in oil,” she said, then after a pause, “They can, um, explode, so you might want to put a lid on your pan.”

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I followed the directions and this time I knew what to expect. After about 6 minutes of terrifying pops and pings, the nuts were ready. They were just as she said they’d be – transluscent and green. I added a little course salt and gingerly ate one.

It tasted like bacon. Smoky and unctuous.

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They’re best hot of the stove; I’m sure you could use them creatively, but I did enjoy them as an otsumami-style snack. Apparently you should not eat more than a few ginko nuts a day – poison and all that. I ate 15, maybe 20, and I feel fine. So far.

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Kinako, black sesame spread, and fruit = ambrosia

Kinako is a toasted soybean powder that tastes pleasantly nutty. You’ve probably had it dusted over mochi, which is all I’d ever really had it on as well. But then one of my adult conversation class students – who is probably about 85 years old and still “shreddin’ it,” as the kids say – told me she eats kinako in her yogurt every morning. So, in my quest to live forever genki, I tried it.

Just one spoonful is all you nee-ee-eed.

Whoa. Delicious.

The whole experience got me thinking; what else could I put kinako in or on?

So I put it in pancake batter. Amazing.
Sprinkled kinako, cinnamon, and sugar on my toast. Earth-shattering.
Dusted it over a plate of apple slices. Seriously, someone please stop me, I’m out of control.

Here’s a picture of the apple before I devoured it too quickly:

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The black dots are sesame seeds. When I made this snack again, I made a paste of black sesame (kurogoma 黒ごま) and honey – 1 part black sesame to spread to 2 parts honey. If you don’t like apple, it goes especially well with pineapple and orange. When making this paste, a little goes a long way, as black sesame has a stronger taste than its white counterpart. Or, you can just pick up the pre-made kurogoma spread at your local Kosumosu; this is the lazy beggars’ guide, after all.

But if you forgo the sesame, at least try a bit of kinako on your next bowl of fruit. That’s going to be my mantra from here on out, like the Portlandia “Put a Bird On It” thing: Put Some Kinako On It!

Renkon!

Renkon! sounds like the name of a monster in a big-budget movie – maybe the Rancor from Return of the Jedi mixed with KING KONG? Run for your life! Get out while you can! The RenKON IS COMING!

Definitely takes more than one bite to eat.

But it turns out, renkon is just the Japanese name for lotus root. Yes, that lotus, the flower of which, along with the ohm symbol, took the tattoo market by storm in the late 90’s. I recently visited the gardens at the Heian shrine, where there is a large and quite famous pond full of lotus (it’s the one Scarlet Johansson hops across in Lost in Translation). As calming as a pond of lotus can be, it’s nice to know that beneath the murky pond mud lie hundreds of edible vegetables. When sliced, renkon has a distinctive honeycombed look, with many small holes that look like spokes in a wheel. It adds crunchy, delicious texture similar to watercress, and remains crisp even when fully cooked.

Because lotus grow in ponds, they’re often sold covered in a residue of dark mud at the store. This can be easily washed off in the sink. To cook the renkon, wash and peel the outside. Cut the renkon into thin (less than a half centimeter) slices, and then maybe cut the slices in half to make half-moon shapes. Sometimes I don’t do this; it probably makes them harder to eat, but I think a round slice of renkon is pretty cool-looking.

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You can add renkon to stir fries and salads, but I personally prefer it as a grilled or sauteed side dish. Renkon sauteed in mirin and soy sauce is sometimes called kinpira, though I think the word refers more to the way it’s cooked than the actual inclusion of lotus root. Here’s a “Western-style” take on lotus root with mushrooms and carrot.

Roasted renkon with shitake mushrooms (serves 1 – 2)

Ingredients: It’s difficult to give precise amounts – just make however much you want to eat.

1 medium renkon root
1 small package shitake mushrooms (about 7-8 mushrooms)
1/2 medium sized carrot
olive oil
parsley
basil or other italian herb
salt and black pepper

Directions:

  1. After peeling, slice the renkon into the thinnest discs you can manage. Slice the discs in half.
  2. Slice the shitake mushrooms into thin strips.
  3. Slice the carrot into thin, 2 cm-long strips.
  4. Put the vegetables in a large mixing bowl and coat with olive oil, salt, pepper, and herbs. Use just enough oil to coat the vegetables, not to pool in the bottom.
  5. Pour the mixture into the middle of a large piece of aluminum foil. Wrap tightly, ensuring that the foil completely covers the mixture.
  6. Put the package in your fish broiler and “roast” for 10-15 minutes.

Carefully take out the hot foil package and check for doneness. Serve alongside your favorite main dish. RAHH, RENKON!

Low-calorie summer snacks in Japan

I haven’t updated recently because I haven’t been cooking much. There’s a heinous water leak in my kitchen, so everything’s been cleared out from the cabinets and shoved into boxes for the past few weeks. We’re moving next month to a place that’s not crumbling to the ground (ostensibly), so normal activity should resume then.

There’s a term in Japan, “natsubate,” which describes that general feeling of exhaustion and loss of appetite that many of us experience in the intense heat and humidity. Sometimes it’s accompanied by “natsuyase” – summer weight loss. Sometimes it just means the idea of slaving over a hot range sounds like torture. “Calorie-off” and “Calorie-zero” beverages and snacks are available, but there are actually some more established Japanese foods – especially during the summer – that are healthy, light on calories, and dare I say a bit more natural than “Zero-calorie jelly.” The below items can all be bought more or less ready-to-eat, can all be served chilled, and all make for pleasant, cooling snacks that won’t leave you feeling full and uncomfortable in the sweltering summer sun.

1. Konnyaku and shirataki (devil’s tongue jelly or yamcake)

Konnyaku is often translated as “devil’s tongue jelly,” because that sounds both appetizing and straightforward. Apparently, devil’s tongue is a type of plant from which a gelatinous substance can be extracted and processed into the chewy, wobbly bricks that are so common in the grocery stores (in the Aisle of Mysteries, where else)? Shirataki is simply konnyaku that has been extruded into long, skinny noodle shapes.

I first heard of konnyaku in the US, though it wasn’t called konnyaku – it was called “Miracle Noodles” and advertised as a zero-calorie pasta substitute. A writer for some online magazine tried substituting these shirataki noodles in a pasta marinara. Knowing what I know now and having experienced konnyaku in several dishes, this idea is madly hilarious. Don’t put shirataki noodles in traditional Italian-style pasta dishes unless you want to be disappointed (the writer came to the same conclusion). But you should put konnyaku to different uses – stir-fried with meat, veggies, mirin, oil, and soy sauce, for example. I like to sautee it with fresh ginger, mushrooms, and tofu, then chill it in the refrigerator and eat it as a cold dinner.

Oh, and you can also buy “konnyaku candy” or “konnyaku jelly” snacks, which are little fruit flavored blobs you can stick in the fridge and eat. Bonus: They’re considered choking hazards and banned in the US due to their slippery texture. But in Japan, if you choke, it’s your own damn fault for eating wrong. Each bite-sized packet feels like a little bit o’ rebellion against the nanny state, yeah?

About 15 calories per serving of straight konnyaku. 25 calories for a piece of konnyaku candy.

2. Tokoroten (agar-agar noodles)

These are “noodles” made from agar that has been extruded much the same way as shirataki. They don’t need to be cooked – buy them chilled and eat them with a little salad dressing. Many come already flavored with “summer flavors” like aoshiso. I like to mix a little kimchi into mine and eat it as an after-work snack.

I will warn you, tokoroten might not be for everybody. I offered Dane a bite with mustard and ponzu; he bravely accepted. He ruminated silently for a moment before pronouncing, “You like weird stuff.”

About 20-30 calories for a pack. Sometimes it comes with dressing, the way natto does, but feel free to toss those and use something fresher.

3. Hijiki (brown seaweed) and wakame (green seaweed) salad.

 

Hijiki shows up in kyushoku a lot, mixed with cooked carrot, burdock root (gobou), and sometime tofu or soybeans. It usually needs to be soaked for a 20 minutes, then rinsed. After that it can be eaten mixed into salad or simmered with the above ingredients (with soy sauce, mirin, and/or dashi, of course) and chilled. I love it.

By itself, about 15-30 calories per 100 grams (source information varies widely).

Wakame salad is also quite popular, and often eaten with sliced of cooked octopus. It should also be soaked and boiled before being eaten.

By itself, about 40 calories per 100 grams.

4. Edamame (green soybean)

Buying edamame still on the stalk, knowing it came from the fields just down the street, was one of my first “Holy hell I live in Japan” moments. Buy the pods dirt cheap, pick them off the stalk, and boil for 5-7 minutes. Drain them, salt/season them, and eat hot or cold.

125 calories per 100 grams.

5. Mugicha (toasted barley tea)

You can buy this premade or make it in the same manner you would make loose leaf tea. Dane doesn’t really like the flavor of barley tea – because it actually tastes like barley tea – but I love the earthy wheat flavor. It’s shockingly thirst quenching.

0 calories.

Did I forget something? Let me know in the comments below while I go pass out next to the fan.

Okara Vegetarian Burgers

Even if you’re not vegetarian, this may be one of the best things you ever make.

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Riddle me this: There exists in Japan a food so cheap that vendors often give it away for free. It is nutritious, being high in both protein and fiber, as well as entirely vegan, yet it is more often fed to livestock than to humans. What is it?

It’s okara, the byproduct of soy milk/tofu production, of course. Any similarity to also-delicious okra is in name only; the latter is a green seedy vegetable, while the former is a soft white powdery pulp. If you live near a shop that specializes in tofu products, chances are they’ll give you okara for free, but you can also buy it at the supermarket for 40-89 yen per package. Fresh okara still contains quite a bit of moisture, so it’s best used within the week you buy it (I’ve frozen it before and it’s cooked into fishes fine, though the texture did change a little). You’ll find it near the tofu, usually in a small plastic bag.

Really, 82 yen is too much.

If you’ve never cooked with okara, I don’t blame you. Despite its nutritional content, most people find it bland on its own. As an ingredient, it’s a straight man – the Michael Bluth of soy products. Yet, like Michael, it does extremely well in an ensemble, and one of the best uses for okara is in vegetarian dishes where it can provide structure while allowing the flavors of the other ingredients to shine. This is a welcome change from, say, portobello mushroom or black-bean burgers.

We’ve made okara burgers twice this month. Dane can’t stop eating them. Once you’ve had one of these, you’ll never, ever be able to eat a Boca patty again without experiencing profound disappointment akin to “peeing into a Mr. Coffee and expecting Taster’s Choice,” as Ross Perot once said (okay, so it was Dana Carvey doing an impression of Perot, but that may be more authentic).

These burgers are not vegan, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be. I went to a vegan restaurant in Kyoto one time where I was served amazing deep-fried okara dumplings that were basically vegan chicken nuggets. If you so wish, you could make okara your vegan burger bitch. Let me know, okay?

Okara Vegetarian Burgers

(makes about 14 patties)

Ingredients:

300g fresh okara

200g firm tofu (if you use soft or silken, it’s still possible but the burgers may not hold together as well)

100g cooked, drained soybeans (or bean of your choice)

3 medium eggs

large handful of chopped scallions, maybe more

2 tbsp black pepper (yes, it’s a lot, and it’s important)

1 1/2 tsp garlic powder

1 tsp each oregano, basil, and/or thyme (whatever your taste)

large handful shredded cheese (optional)

breadcrumbs or crushed fu (optional)

Directions:

1. In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs until smooth.

2. Add all other ingredients. Knead with clean, bare hands until mixture forms a thick, doughy paste.

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3. Chill the ingredients in the fridge for 30 minutes (optional step, but it helps the patties cohere better).

4. Remove the mixture from the fridge and shape into patties, as you would with hamburger meat.

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5. Cook in lightly oiled nonstick pan over medium-low heat, about 8-10 minutes per side (cook temperature and time could be wildly variable depending on whether you have a Fisher Price stover, like me, or a real one). The outside of the patty should be a lovely golden brown. The inside will still look fairly raw and soft. If you’re worried about the patties cooking through (you basket case!), make your patties slightly thinner and use a meat thermometer – the internal temperature should reach 60˚C/140˚F.

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“Piri-piri” is the sizzling sound in Japanese.

And, finish! Serve on buns or over salad greens, with plenty of mustard, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil. If you work out the cost for ingredients and gas for the stove, each burger ends up being about ¥25. Enjoy!

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*Yo, if you make these, let me know if you needed to adjust my measurements in any way. Peas and thank you.

Aburaage, the pita pockets of the Orient.

Dane’s parents came to Japan last week! We did Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, and Kobe in a whirlwind before heading down to beloved Fukuoka, where we sat in front of the sea and ate the most delicious sushi any of us had ever had – including the infamous live abalone, still squirming on its roll. The whole experience had me wondering whether or not it’d be possible to make sushi at home, so last night I hacked and huffed my way through my first vegetarian makizushi roll. It made for a nice breakfast this morning, but photos and description will not be posted until I improve my skills and invest in a knife that won’t mutilate nori like Ted Bundy.

Inarizushi: Sushi Wrapped in Fried Tofu

Misconception-banishing TRUTH BOMB: Sushi actually just means vinegared rice, not fish! This is why inarizushi (named for the Shinto god Inari), which is merely sushi rice wrapped in fried tofu, qualifies as “real sushi” every bit as much as a tuna belly nigiri. I have to admit, I was disappointed the first time I bit into a a pocket of inarizushi, hoping to find a center of fish or meat or at least pickles. But no. The Japanese love their rice, whether as a complement to another ingredient or by itself.

Inarizushi. Photo credit: lets-make-sushi.com

Though the plain inner contents failed to impress me, the tofu exterior did. It’s a thin skin of fried tofu known variously as aburaage, sushiage or sometimes inariage. To make it, one cuts tofu into thin slices and deep fries them twice, causing the tofu to puff up into a little pouch (think of it like a tofu beignet or tofu pita). The pouch can then be cut and stuffed with the desired filling.

That sounds like a pain in the ass, so it’s a good thing that nowadays most everybody buys their aburaage pre-made. The cheapest pack of 8 costs about 100 yen. Depending on what you fill it with, 2 or 3 stuffed pouches is a meal. One pack will keep in the fridge for a long time, so don’t feel like you need to make ’em all at once. That’s gluttony, man.

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The cheapest pack of aburaage from my local HalloDay “Food Hole.”

Before You Stuff . . . Blanch!

One thing to mind when cooking with aburaage is its oiliness. Abura as it turns out, means “oil,” and age means “fried.” Thus you are buying “oil-fried tofu.” (Sounds so much less romantic in English, doesn’t it?) Fittingly, this product is, gram-for-gram, high calorie – but an actual pouch probably weighs less than 20g, so I wouldn’t worry too much. To remove the oil, lightly boil each pocket for 1-2 minutes before stuffing. I put that in bold because it’s important, and because if you’re anything like me, you ignore recipe “suggestions” that involve unnecessary extra steps. But really, I implore you to boil them first, if not for health then at least for better texture.

Filling the Pouches

All right, your aburaage are boiled. Now what? Well, you could cut them in half, either lengthwise or diagonally before stuffing them. Or, you could cut a slit into one side and stuff the whole pouch. That’s what I did.

I had leftover stir fry (barley, chikuwa, and vegetables) in the fridge, so I quickly re-heated it in a pan before generously spooning it into each pocket. Then I secured the ends with toothpicks inserted like dress pins.

It’s only proper to make a few “get stuffed” jokes during the process.

Secure the slit (while continuing to make obscene remarks about slits).

The most common way to cook stuffed aburaage is probably to boil it in some sort of dashi-based broth or soup, but I think you could get creative here, especially if your choice of filling is pre-cooked. I pan-seared mine, as they still had quite a bit of oil on them. However, it’s possible to grill, roast, steam, or even bake them if you have one of those microwave/oven/broiler devices that are so popular over here. (For those of us without a roasting pan or a fancy microwave, Daiso sells very cheap “grill pans” that can be set inside a regular pan on top of your range.)

Recommended Fillings

Sky’s the limit.

  • Rice (ha! haha!), barley, or a mixture
  • Finely chopped cabbage and radish, seasoned with red pepper and a little soy sauce
  • Thin strips of pork marinated in miso, ginger, and ponzu
  • Scallions and a raw egg (drop into boiling liquid to poach)
  • Left-over stir fry
  • Mushroom, spinach, scrambled egg, and cheese. Breakfast!
  • Get really Japanese and go with a mixture of seaweed, gobo, soy beans or thin pounded beef, and okara.
  • Natto, ginger, and scallions or cooked onion
  • Onion, potato, and green pepper with lots of paprika and pepper
  • More tofu!!

Do you cook with aburaage? What have you put in it?

The Aisle of Mysteries

Sounds like a Harry Potter title, doesn’t it? Yet there are no basilisks or dementors here – though I have a feeling some of the contents may be just as terrifying to certain crowds.

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Did you know there were so many types of tofu?

This, my friends, is what I like to call “The Aisle of Mysteries,” the refrigerated aisle found in every Japanese supermarket, usually across from the produce. I have spent many a moment parked in front of it, quietly lifting and examining its contents in awe. I’ll be honest with you – I still don’t know what everything is or what it’s used for, but I’ve come a long way since last August, when a bold obaachan took a cell phone picture of the confused look on my face as I examined a pack of konnyaku (which is “devil’s tongue jelly” in English, though that really doesn’t help).

Most foreigners, I suspect, walk right on by the Aisle, either because they don’t know what the hell anything is, or because they do know what it is and find it repulsive. I’m not here to change anyone’s mind about stinky, fermented beans – but if you haven’t before, you should give this area a few minutes of your time, as it’s filled with cheap, fresh, healthy, and often ready-to-eat foods.

Each week, I’ll devote at least one entry to an ingredient that can be found in the A of M.

  • Tofu and its many permutations like aburaage, yakidoufu, okara, atsuage, and gomadoufu though it’s not actually tofu.
  • Ganmodoki
  • Satsuma age, chikuwa, and kamabako
  • Natto
  • Kimchi
  • Tsukemono (pickles) and its many permutations like nukazuke and umeboshi
  • Natto
  • Konnyaku and shirataki
  • Namamiso
  • Cooked, ready-to-serve beans
  • Soft noodles like udon, champon, ramen
  • Fresh gyoza and dumplings

Looking forward to it!