“Stamina” Liver

We’ve just begun to come down from the stifling August heat, when schools reluctantly suspend lessons to prevent students from asphyxiating in their non-air-conditioned classrooms (I’m only a little joking). During this time, many tempura-and-noodle restaurants push their “stamina” sets, which typically consist of a high-calorie protein – usually eel – with garlic, noodles, and rice, designed to fortify their consumers with the energy they need to combat natsubate, heat exhaustion.

Unfortunately for an eel-lover like me, it’s not very economical to make at home, and thus is relegated to the Treat Yourself category of food. So where is the penny-pinching cook to turn when she is in need of a hearty dish to sustain her?

Don't be so squeamish; chances are you already consume muscle and adipose tissue.

Don’t be so squeamish; chances are you already consume muscle and adipose tissue.

In a word: liver.

Okay, now that I’ve lost the Americans, let me expound to you the virtues of liver: It’s cheap. It’s full of vitamins and nutrients. It prevents anemia and fatigue. It tastes really good when prepared with a little thought. Let’s explain that last one . . .

The key to good liver is to soak or marinate it before cooking. My mom recently told me she doesn’t do this – and maybe it’s not necessary – but for most people, this seems to be an important step. As with other offal and sweetbreads, the most common way to do this is by soaking the liver in milk for 1 or more hours (overnight in the fridge, even), but you could certainly get creative and brine or marinate with liquid of your choosing.

After soaking, dump the liquid and cook your liver. We had ours for breakfast, so it’s hash style, but here’s a very comprehensive article about liver from the Weston A. Price Foundation that gives several different recipes – including the following from Japan, called “Nira Reba” (liver and chives):

Nira Reba

Serves 4

1/2 pound pork liver
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 bunch nira (Chinese chives)
2 tablespoons arrowroot powder
1 tablespoon grated ginger
2 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sake (rice wine)
1 tablespoon water and 1 teaspoon potato starch
lard for frying

Cut liver into bite-sized pieces and marinate in a mixture of soy sauce, sake and ginger for 20 minutes. Remove liver from the sauce, pat dry and dredge in arrowroot. Heat lard in a deep pan and fry the liver pieces.Remove liver to a heated plate. Chop nira into short pieces and sauté in a frying pan. Add deep-fried liver and sauté with nira. Add the sauce used for marinating liver to the frying pan and stir well. Add the mixture of water and potato starch, stir quickly and remove from heat. Serve immediately.

Sounds delicious. Here is our recipe – I dare you not to like it.

Sunday Morning Liver Hash

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Quick note on dredging: Dredging – or rolling a piece of meat in a starch before cooking it – is a popular way to prepare liver. If you don’t want to do it, it’s certainly not necessary.

Ingredients:

1 package chicken livers (with hearts attached); about 6 livers
300 ml milk
2 medium yams or potatoes
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium onions, diced
3 small green peppers (Japanese piman), diced
2 medium red peppers, diced
canola oil
1/2 cup potato starch (for dredging)
salt, pepper, paprika
soy sauce and red wine (optional)

Directions:

  1. Cut the livers into bite-sized pieces and separate the hearts. Soak the livers and hearts in the milk for 2 hours.
  2. While livers are soaking, boil the yams until they are soft enough to be pierced through with a fork. Drain, cut into cubes, and set aside.
  3. Fill a shallow bowl or plate with potato starch, salt, pepper, and paprika. This is the mixture in which you will dredge (dip and roll) the livers.
  4. When liver has soaked, pour out the milk. Return to bowl – don’t pat them dry, as the moisture will help the flour adhere to them.
  5. Heat a large fry pan with a little canola oil over medium heat. Add garlic, onions, peppers, and seasonings. Add a dash of soy sauce and/or red wine if you’re using it. Saute until onions are just soft.
  6. With a wooden spoon, push the sauteed vegetables to the side of the pan to create space and add a little more oil if necessary. Turn the heat up to medium-high. Working quickly, take each liver piece and lightly roll in the starch before popping it into the pan. Do the same with the hearts.
  7. Spread the vegetables lightly around the meat.  Add potatoes. Cover the pan and let cook until the liver turns pale, about 6 minutes. Check for doneness by slicing a piece and examining the insides. As with steak, a bit of pink in the middle is ideal, but it’s up to you.
  8. Plate and serve immediately.

Dane added ketchup because he likes it (gross) but I could also see a bit of Worcestershire sauce or Tobasco working as well. I didn’t add anything else to mine; all that oil and garlic was enough.

Enjoy lovelies.

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!

Pasta with Shrimp, Scallions, and Soy Beans

Dane and I have decided that, one night a week, he’ll make dinner. When we first started dating, he made me stuffed peppers that he served with a glass of chardonnay and a simple lettuce salad. Swoon.

Since I grew up cooking, and Dane didn’t, I’m often quite impatient with him. Cooking is something you learn over time – nobody is born knowing how to scramble an egg, and most of us destroyed several eggs in our attempt to learn this “simple” art. So what seems like second nature to me is, of course, not nature at all. I try to remember that. Especially here, I know how lucky I am to have a partner who cooks at all. And actually, Dane is a wonderful cook. I joke that he eats box dinner when I go out of town, but last time I went anywhere, I came back to a tupperware container full of “curried pumpkin and broccoli soup.” It was delicious.

Dane made a delicious, laid-back dinner last night, which I devoured before heading off to taiko practice, and the leftovers of which are currently beckoning to me from inside the crowded refrigerator here at work. With pre-cooked beans and deveined shrimp, the whole thing can be executed in less than 30 minutes.

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I don’t use filters. Not cause I’m into purity and truth; I’m just too lazy to open photo-editing software.

Pasta with Shrimp, Scallions, and Soy Beans (serves 2 people)

Ingredients:

  • 2 servings dry spaghetti or pasta (a bundle about 2 cm in diameter = 1 serving)
  • 1 cup cooked soybeans
  • 2-3 large cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 eggplant, cut into disks 1 cm thick
  • 8-10 uncooked, de-veined shrimp
  • 2-3 tbs olive oil
  • 1 tbs white wine or cooking sake
  • ¼ cup chopped scallions
  • Thyme (to taste)
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)
  • My friend and well-known cooking guru Xan says that she made this dish and added lemon juice to bring out the flavors. I added lemon juice to a very similar dish and I agree. So, try adding a squeeze or two of fresh lemon juice during the cooking process!

Preparation:

  1. If you are using dried soybeans, measure out ¾ cup into a pot, cover with ample water, and let soak overnight. Drain and replace with fresh water. Cook at a simmer for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally and checking for bean softness.
  2. If your shrimp havn’t been de-veined, use a toothpick to easily scrape the single black “vein” (actually the digestive canal) from each shrimp. If the toothpick isn’t working for you, you can also just pick them out with clean fingernails.
  3. Optional, but recommended: Lightly salt the eggplant discs after slicing.

Directions:

  1. In a medium pot, boil the pasta until cooked, then strain in a colander. Don’t wash the pasta! Set aside
  2. Pour olive oil into a saucepan set over medium heat. Allow the oil to warm before adding the chopped garlic. Sautee the garlic about 1 minute.
  3. Add sliced eggplant, cooked beans, and spices. Sautee uncovered for 3-5 minutes, or until eggplant begins to look tender. Taste and add more oil and spices if desired.
  4. Add the shrimp, scallions, and white wine/cooking sake. Stir to mix ingredients before covering the saucepan with a lid for about 3 minutes. Remove the lid and sautee a little longer if necessary.
  5. Measure the cooked pasta onto two plates before covering with the shrimp sautee. Serve and enjoy, perhaps with a glass of white wine.

If you’re a multitasker, you can boil the pasta while you cook the sauteed portion to save more time.

Japan is not the gluten-free mecca you think it is

Back from hiatus, during which I moved apartments and my mom and siblings came to Japan. My mom made delicious classics like salad and cabbage while she was here! I dream of my mom’s salad. They left two days ago and I could barely hold it together on the train on the way home. I love living in Japan but my “Japanese self” is a timid, neurotic little ball of stress, so it was lovely to be my crude American self for a few weeks, where my family and I did nothing but laugh and poke fun at each other as loudly and boisterously as possible. Also, my new apartment is a palace, with a clean kitchen and a new cook range. My mom snapped a photo during dinner on our last night.

I mean, the tiles aren't even crumbling.

I mean, the tiles aren’t even crumbling.

My younger sister Jackie has a condition called ulcerative colitis. It’s an autoimmune disease where her body attacks her colon and large intestine. Over the past few years she’s gone through many treatments, including a round of strong steroids that made her face look like Betty Boop’s for a while. My sister’s tried many diet modifications to assuage her symptoms, the most prominent being the avoidance of gluten. I knew about this before she came, of course, but I thought she was just avoiding gluten. “Okay,” I said, “Just don’t use extra soy sauce or eat udon.” But then she arrived in Japan, and it turned out I’d been mistaken; she wasn’t just avoiding gluten, she was completely gluten-free. Zero gluten. It’s easy to eat a low gluten diet in Japan, but avoiding it all together is a gargantuan task indeed. What’s worse, if she were to ingest any gluten, she would become immediately ill. In fact, once anyone goes gluten-free – whether they have a medical intolerance to it or not – the reintroduction of gluten is quite hard on the system.

Japan, at first glance, might seem like a gluten-free paradise. Unlike the Western world, the staple grain here is rice, not wheat. But, as we discovered, while it’s very easy to eat low-gluten, gluten-free is difficult, requires lots of planning, and – this is the worst part – Japanese skills that are definitely beyond my own. Yes, there’s a lot of rice here, but there’s also a lot of barley and wheat, the latter moreso with the influence of Western-style snack products and foods.

I’m not going to sugar-coat it. Being gluten-free in Japan is a pretty miserable experience. Seeking advice for how to handle my sister’s situation, I chatted with a fellow ALT, Mark, who has Celiac’s disease. He basically told me that the solution to eating out in Japan is not to eat out. My sister remained very chipper during her time here, but I felt terrible about it most of the time. Jackie quickly learned the kanjis for flour (小麦粉 komugiko) and barley (麦 mugi) and we set to work scanning each and every product we wanted to buy to look for it. In the process, we learned a lot and had a few meltdowns (mostly me crying and her snapping, “I do NOT want another bowl of goddamn rice!”). Everything seemed to contain some form of wheat flour or barley. We may have been totally vanquished if it weren’t for . . .

Halleluijah!

Yes, Soyjoy! One of the few gluten-free snacks in Japan! But Man does not live by soy bar alone. I scoured the internet for resources on gluten-free Japanese foods, and found very little, so I decided – in honor of my sister and her purse full of Soyjoy wrappers – to compile a little reference for any sufferin’ Celiacs or otherwise gluten-intolerant gaikokujin.

Let’s start with the positive. Here’s a list of gluten-free snacks that can be safely consumed. I tried to choose things that can be bought prepared or ordered out, because of course, it’s easier to be gluten-free when you cook yourself:

  • O Soyjoy. All flavors
  • O X Certain rice crackers. Like the shrimp/squid flavored ones at the convenience store, or plain salt (shio) flavor – but not the ones flavored with soy sauce, which is most of them. If the rice cracker doesn’t contain soy sauce, you can probably bet on MSG (I don’t mind MSG but some people are physically sensitive to it).
    Update: I recently learned from Gluten Free Gaijin that MSG is made with wheat! So, most rice crackers are probably out.
  • O Mochi. All kinds, both traditional rice mochi and also arrowroot (kuzu) or bracken (warabi). Even the ones that looked like they were floured were dusted with either soy or rice flour. Real azuki bean paste should not contain any gluten, but the cheap, fake stuff contains starch syrup (水あめ mizuame), which does.
  • O Yatsuhashi. Yes! Kyoto’s best-known omiyage is made from rice flour, cinnamon, and sugar. When it contains the traditional azuki bean filling, yatsuhashi is 100% gluten-free. I’m not too sure about the fruit-filled ones, though.
  • O Boba milk tea. Tapioca pearls are gluten free – they’re made from cassava.
  • O Salt-only non-marinated kushiyaki. Excluding marinated meats (like kalbi) and wieners or meatballs (tsukune), many izakayas and yatai stalls offer two choices of sauce for your meat – salt (shio) or soy-based sauce (tare). Choose salt and you will be fine. We found that chicken thigh skewers (momo) were not marinated anywhere we went.
  • O Edamame
  • O Natto
  • O Traditional Japanese pickles.
  • O Kimchi
  • O Yakiniku. Excluding marinated cuts like kalbi, and avoiding dipping sauces.
  • O Yakiimo. Baked sweet potatoes, which we didn’t eat, because it’s the g-d’ed middle of summer.
  • O Tofu. I’ve heard that it can be made with flour, but we didn’t find one package of tofu containing flour. Even fried tofu (atsuage/namaage) is just tofu fried in oil with no breading, so it’s gluten-free, too.
  • O Some pre-made onigiri. Pickled plum (ume) onigiri is usually a safe bet. Some fish and roe versions are also okay, but the ingredients list should be consulted. Convenience store onigiri is especially suspect, as it most likely contains MSG, but perhaps you live next to a nice rice ball shop?
  • O Indian curry. Japanese curry isn’t gluten-free, but Indian curry is.
  • O Thai food. Thai curry and pad thai are usually gluten free.
  • O Sashimi and sushi. Ah, hello old friend. Excluding marinated varieties, such as eel (unagi), nigiri sushi is a great bet. Maki rolls can be trickier, since sometimes they contain egg sweetened with soy sauce (tamagoyaki) or pickles/vegetables marinated in soy sauce.

The above list should give you a good idea of what my sister ate while we were out in Japan: a lot of black-sesame flavored ice cream, a lot of fish and tofu, and packages of mochi. Luckily, we rented an apartment when we went to Kyoto and so were able to cook nearly every night.

Sad gluten-free panda.

And now, for the sadness: that which is not gluten-free in Japan. You can sniff out most of it by sight and name – anything dredged or breaded, anything containing soy sauce, cakes and cookies, noodles, etc. – but then there’s the less obvious. I assume an intelligent audience, so here I’ll only detail the less obvious:

  • X Soy sauce. Okay, so that’s obvious, but what may not be is that it’s in many things, including meat marinades, salad dressings, yaki-onigiri, tare sauce, tamagoyaki omelets, dried jerky, and the sauce on those mitarashi dango rice balls.
  • X Ponzu shouyu. Straight ponzu sauce does not contain any soy sauce; however the ponzu that is on the table when you sit down at a restaurant is actually ponzu shouyu, ponzu mixed with soy sauce, often simply called “ponzu.”
  • X Tamari. Apparently, the gluten-free crowd back home is big into tamari, which is a thicker dipping soy sauce. It contains less wheat than regular soy sauce (which already contains a pretty negligible amount), but it is not gluten free. 100% soy versions do exist, but we couldn’t find any in the grocery stores we visited.
  • X Miso soup and miso-marinated dishes. Actually, a lot of miso is gluten free, being made from beans, salt, and rice, but several varieties are not – they may contain flour or barley. Unless you are making it yourself, you can’t be sure if the dish you’re eating  was made with a wheat or barley-free miso. And sometimes chefs don’t know either.
  • X Japanese curry and yoshoku dishes. Yoshoku – which is the Japanese “Western-style food” like omuraisu, hayashi rice, et cetera, often contains wheat. Curry, hayashi rice, and cream stew are all made from roux which contain flour, omelet batters all contain soy sauce, and even the hamburg-onion or menchi-katsu (like meatloaf) is most likely made with flour.
  • X Soba noodles. 100% soba noodles are gluten free, but since buckwheat is so difficult to bind on its own, it is always cut with flour to make noodles that won’t fall apart. I couldn’t find any pure-buckwheat noodles in Japan, but they can be ordered from organic stores online. With many soba noodles, wheat flour is actually the first ingredient – bah!
  • X Barley tea (mugicha). If you know what this is, then it should be obvious. But a lot of people don’t think to ask whether the tea their guest is handing them is made from gluten. Mugicha is an incredibly popular and common drink in Japan, so be sure that what’s in front of you is made from tea leaves before you drink.
  • X Cold-cuts. Pre-packaged sausages and weiners contain flour to bind the bits (ha, ew). These are often found in convenience store bentos.
  • X Gummy candies. If it contains starch syrup (水あめ mizuame), it’s not gluten free.
  • X Certain sweet azuki bean desserts. If the shop is using pure azuki bean paste (餡 an), you’re fine, but many use a pre-made paste that contains starch syrup and thus, gluten.
  • X MSG. As I mentioned above, I recently discovered that Japanese MSG is made with wheat! This complicates matters, doesn’t it?

Food allergies are rarer in Japan than elsewhere, but they do exist. Unfortunately, they are still not taken as seriously in Japan as in the Western world – many people do not understand their severity. There is also less of an emphasis on accommodation in Japan as there is in the West. Does accommodation disrupt group harmony? Are people worried that it will lead to entitlement, self-aggrandizement, or arrogance? I don’t know, I can only guess. The saying is, “The customer is God,” but this seems to refer more to reverential treatment and pampering rather than adjusting to the customer’s wishes. We were told our requests were impossible more than once – they essentially told us to leave, but they were like, really, really nice about it, man. So, while Japan is known internationally for it’s service, I think there is an implicit message: This is what we have to offer you. If you cannot accept it as is, then please go somewhere else. There is a hole for every peg in Japan, but when the two don’t fit together it’s the peg that’s changed, not the niche.

But a food allergy is not the same as pickiness. It’s not even the same as a voluntary lifestyle choice, such as vegetarianism. Nobody with an allergy ever asked for it. Last year, a young girl died when her teacher refused to take her insistence of a milk allergy seriously. There was a small bruhaha in the news, and maybe even an official statement or two diplomatically handed down from some official body, but as far as I can tell, students are still encouraged to clean their plates each and every day, whether or not they like the food, whether or not it upsets their stomachs. If I had to guess, I’d say things are unlikely to change soon, and until the gluten-free fad makes a jump across the Pacific, it will be harder to eat this way in Japan.

And that’s it. I personally love gluten, and so to counteract this post, I think I’ll post soon about fu, which is literally straight wheat gluten in a bag that you can buy for a dollar and add to your soups and stews.

If you’re interested in reading more, I found a blog, Gluten Free in Japan, from a Celiac detailing her experiences living in Okinawa.

The cheap (non)meat-loaf generator

I made meatloaf a handful of times in college, but always with cheap ground beef (which I mostly detest), so I could never get around the fact that it tasted just like a hamburger you cut into slices. I remember watching my mom make meatballs out of ground beef. Her meatballs were pretty good, and so was her meatloaf (more or less the same as her meatballs). I guess I just never wanted to make a good loaf enough to invest some thought and consideration into making it more delicious.

Then I went through my vegetarian stint, and started experimenting more with plant proteins. The okara vegetarian burgers from a previous post reflect that. I soon learned that there are many foods – beans, eggplant, mushroom – that can supply that umami flavor, protein, and satisfactory filling feeling just as well as meat.

So, when I came across this Vegan Dinner Loaf Generator, I knew I’d have to give meatloaf a second try. It’s simple, really: choose the ingredients you have on hand, click submit, and follow the recipe. If you don’t have a loaf pan or an oven, make the mixture into patties or a pancake and let them cook in a covered pan.

Here’s the link to the loaf generator.

And here’s a loaf I created with commonly available Japanese ingredients in mind. I added in a few modification options (not all are vegan or vegetarian)

Ingredients:

1/2 cup ground white sesame seeds
2 TB olive oil
One onion, diced
One cup mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
2 cups cooked soy beans, mashed firm tofu, or canned tuna
1 cup cooked brown rice or barley
1/4 to 1/2 cup vegetable broth, as needed
2 TB flour (potato, soy, rice, or regular wheat)
1 tsp. dried basil
1/4 tsp. dried oregano
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 TB soy sauce

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350º F/`180ºC. Lightly grease a loaf pan or 20x20cm baking pan and set aside (a 20×20 pan makes a crisper loaf). Alternatively, line the pan with silicon-coated baking paper.

Place the ground sesame seeds in a large mixing bowl and set aside.

Sauté any vegetables you’ve chosen in the olive oil until soft. Add to the large mixing bowl along with all the remaining ingredients. Mix and mash together well, adding only as much liquid as needed to create a soft, moist loaf that holds together and is not runny (you may not need to add any liquid if the grains and protein are very moist). Add more binder/carbohydrate as needed if the loaf seems too wet.

Press mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until cooked through.

Let the loaf cool in the pan for 10 to 15 minutes, then turn out onto a plate or platter and slice. Serve with potatoes, vegetables, and vegetarian gravy, if desired.

Cold leftover slices could make a great bento filler, or re-fry in a pan for a delicious breakfast hash.

Enjoy!

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.