Back to your roots (chicken and burdock soup).

Okay, I chose a grad school. Leaving Japan in August. The morning after I received the good news, the junior high school I work at was serving sekihan (red rice, eaten on auspicious days) to the students for lunch in honor of the upcoming graduation ceremony. The funny part was, the third year students – the ones who are graduating – were out of school on a mandatory holiday due to influenza, so they couldn’t enjoy the lunch in their honor. I, however, helped myself to a big fat sekihan onigiri and dedicated it to myself.

Because I am a raging narcissist. Okay, back to the cooking blog now.

It’s still cold, despite it being March. I’m also still low on funds, surprise surprise. So let’s make cheap soup that will last for many days and can even be turned into a stew provided you have barley on hand.

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Chicken Root Soup

This soup has a remarkable earthy taste that makes you feel like it could be something your ancestors would have eaten, if your ancestors were crunchy herbal healers. It’s composed mostly of daikon and cabbage, which makes it low in calories, but the chicken, burdock root, and milk add a savory element that makes it filling and warming on a winter’s day.

Burdock root (gobou) is delicious but I don’t cook with it often. Why? Because it’s a hassle to prepare. It is the pomegranate of the root vegetable family. You can buy it pre-peeled and cut for a little bit more. If you buy it whole, you will need to thoroughly rinse it while scrubbing off the peel with a tawashi, or you can use a peeler. Afterward, slice it into diagonally into disks similar to the way you’d slice eggplant. Daikon, which you might know as the 2 foot long white radish that sells for like ¥100 right now, is the other root in the soup. It’s slight tanginess layers well with the earthy flavor of the burdock. It’s also quite healthy.

This recipe produces a ton because I like to make big meals and eat them all week, but you could easily halve the recipe.


  • Cooking oil (¥10)
  • 1 onion (玉ねぎ), finely chopped (¥40)
  • 2 cloves garlic (にんにく), finely minced (¥20)
  • ½ large daikon radish (大根), finely chopped or shredded (¥75 or cheaper)
  • 2-3 cups burdock root (ごぼう), shredded – don’t know how many grams, basically just buy an entire 100 yen bunch at the supermarket (¥100)
  • 2 carrots (にんじん), finely chopped (¥80)
  • About 400g (14 oz) cheap chicken cuts, such as thighs (もも), cut into bite-sized pieces (¥300)
  • ½ head Chinese (白菜) or regular cabbage, shredded (¥75)
  • 100 ml (½ c) milk (牛乳)(¥100)
  • salt, pepper, thyme, paprika, parsley (¥10), (add dill if you have it)


  1. In a large stock pan, sauté the onion and garlic in oil, salt, and pepper.
  2. Add the chicken pieces and sauté for just 1 minute.
  3. Add the daikon, carrots, and burdock root, more salt and pepper, and paprika and thyme to taste. If you buy “exotic” spices at foreign stores like Kaldi, you can add dill here too. Saute 2-3 more minutes.
  4. Add 1000ml water and cabbage. Bring to a boil before reducing to a gentle simmer.
  5. Simmer, covered with the lid cracked, about 30 minutes. You won’t need to stir it much, maybe two or three times during cooking.
  6. Uncover, stir in the milk, and cook about 10 more minutes, or until liquid has reduced and the burdock root is tender.
  7. Turn off the heat. Puree half the soup in a blender (this may take a few rounds) and stir it back in. Garnish with parsley and serve with your favorite grain.*

*Note: After the first day, I cooked a bunch of barley and combined it with the soup. This is the soup –> stew conversion I mentioned above. One bowl is all you need.

Lasts: for one person, this will feed you about 6 hearty portions or 8-10 small portions
Total cost: 800 yen, or about ¥130 per serving. Even cheaper if you trade out the meat for beans or tofu.


I make mistakes all the time. Then I keep cooking.

People are always surprised I can cook; I can only attribute this to my general ineptitude in other areas of life. I firmly believe that anybody with two forearms and a stomach can learn to cook well, but many people do not believe this. During conversations, sometimes the topic of cooking a certain food comes up. Granola, for instance. “It’s easy,” I insist. Suddenly, eyes narrow and turn shifty, heads are cocked. “Really? It’s easy?” Yes, it is! I swear, if it weren’t easy, I wouldn’t say so. And I wouldn’t make it as often as I do.

But most people have reason to be skeptical. How many times has some smug back-to-nature-type D-bag insisted that “growing /making/brewing/breeding/milking your own ____” is a cinch, when you know – YOU EFFING KNOW – it is neither a cinch nor anything short of a huge, time-consuming hassle. Should we be made to feel like bad people because we’re not juicing our own fruit or milling our own flour? I don’t think so. Furthermore, these people are part of why most people eschew cooking. Telling someone how “easy” something is, and pretending like you didn’t have to work to mastery, is setting them up for failure. Why not be honest, mofo? You know what makes things a cinch? Practice. Effort. When I first started waiting tables at 18, I was a mess. I sucked. Two months in I still mostly sucked. Four years later, I could do it with my eyes closed (and if you’ve ever been a server, you know that, unfortunately, you often WILL do it with your eyes closed – in the form of “wait-mares”). And nobody likes to hear this, but that’s how it is with most professions and pursuits.

So, that said, it hurts to show you what I’m about to show you, as I have spent most of the past 25+ years trying to smooth a sheen of pure perfection onto everything I touch. By degrees, I’m learning to get over that. If nothing else, consider this a therapeutic endeavor.


Don’t forget to stir your barley, dudes. This took a good 10 minutes of scrubbing that could have been better spent looking up celebrity gossip on

(By the way, this is my second saucepan in 6 months. I had an oil fire in the first one. Fail number 2.)

Barley: the sexy grown-up grain!

In most supermarkets, next to the rice, a curious little bag of grains awaits you. If you’re unfamiliar with them, the contents may look like rolled oats at first. But, oats they are not. This is barley (mugi in Japanese) and you should absolutely be cooking with it.


Rolled barley.

There are different kinds of barley, but you are most likely going to run into one main type: “pressed barley” or “rolled barley.” As with rolled oats, the kernels have been run through a roller and flattened. This reduces cook time significantly without destroying the nutritional integrity of the grain. And oh, what integrity! Let me sing barley’s praises to you:


  • Has a lower glycemic index than rice, meaning it’s better for those with diabetes or insulin resistance problems. It stabilizes blood sugar, whereas other grains tend to spike it.
  • It’s higher in fiber than oats and wheat, meaning it digests slowly and make you feel fuller longer. It’s especially helpful as a weight-loss aid, since you’re less likely to eat if you feel satiated.
  • It’s high protein. In fact, it has twice the protein of wheat. Vegans and vegetarians, take note!
  • Some studies have shown that it reduces cholesterol and blood pressure. I’ll believe it, though I’m fairly sure you can still commission a study to prove gay marriage causes cancer if you know the right people.
  • TASTES F***ING AWESOME. Fluffy yet pleasantly chewy and substantial, barley is that bespectacled nerd whom you never notice until the day you find out he’s actually a superhero from the planet Krypton, has a 401(k), and totally respects women. Yeah, that’s barley.
  • Cheap. I bought an 800g bag for ¥368 at my local supermarket. That’s much cheaper than rice, by the way.

Kyushu Pride: We can grow barley, too!

Barley can be mixed with rice to make mugi-gohan, a popular sight on many a school lunch tray in Japan. It can also be toasted and strained into a deliciously refreshing tea, mugicha. But it stands up well on its own, too: use it in soups, pastas, salads, stir fries, or plain with a little salt and pepper. The possibilities are innumerable!

And did I mention, you can make it in your rice cooker? Of course, you can also make it in a pan; just stir every now and then to avoid burning.


Wholesome goodness in about 10 minutes. Ii nee!

What are your favorite ways to eat barley?