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.


Azuki bean and sesame dip

Couldn’t decide whether to call this a “dip” or a “puree.” One reeks of Superbowl parties and Midwestern soccer moms, and the other sounds like a French chef with a nosebleed charging €10 for what is essentially baby food swirled onto a white plate. Dip – for now.

I miss hummus. Sometimes I order chickpeas from the Foreign Buyers’ Club and make it, but that’s not very practical. So I have an alternative for you: behold, the azuki (小豆) bean. When my friend Natalie mentioned making a sort of hummus from mung beans, I knew I had to try to make a bean dip with the cheaper, more accessible Japanese beans. And it just so happened I had a container of freshly cooked azuki in my fridge. Hence, the azuki-sesame dip was born.


It’s a dip, so you probably won’t eat it with a fork. Not that there’s anything wrong with that . . .

Oh, but first – a little background. You, my chubby sweets-lovin’ gaijin reader, are probably most familiar with azuki in their mashed, sweetened form, when they’re called anko (never confuse with unko) and injected into everything from mochi to bread rolls. But azuki doesn’t have to be sweet! I’ve found it to be an incredibly versatile bean – soft and velvety when cooked, easily added to stir fries, brown rice, or blended into smoothies for protein. You can buy a dry 500g bag for a little under ¥300, which when cooked becomes an entire pot of beans capable of taking you 3-4 days through the week. Compare that to the paltry 120g cooked pouches on sale for ¥200. That’s 278% more per gram! Absurdity! Who are these cooked-bean racketeers and why do we allow them to make a mockery of us?

Don’t be hesitant to make dried beans – I know I was at first, especially after a split pea project that involved me simmering dried lentils for 2 days until they were finally soft enough to eat (turns out the beans were really, really old). Preparing dried beans requires a little forethought (thrift beats laziness in this situation):

1. At least 8 hours (morning of) but no more than 24 hours (previous night) before you want to cook them, put the beans in a pot and cover with water. I learned the hard way why you can’t leave beans to soak too long – they will begin to sprout!

2. Put the lid on to keep dust and foreign elements out.

3. Go live life and come back. Drain the water from the beans and replace with new water. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until beans are soft enough when bitten but not mushy – about 45 minutes.

If you want to add salt, do so during the last 10 minutes of cooking; adding any beforehand will toughen your beans (FYI: this is true with corn on the cob, too).


So you have the beans – now what? Well, here’s what you need – all of it can be found at your local super:


Mise en place, dudes: lemon juice, azuki beans, garlic, olive oil, white sesame paste, and paprika.

Lemon juice, fresh is best but whatever, you already made beans, have a glass of wine instead.

Azuki, once soaked, will increase in size.

Shirogoma white sesame paste (known as tahini elsewhere in the world) is sold at most larger supermarkets. It can seem a bit expensive, but you only need a small amount for each batch of hummus you make.

Olive oil. I find this to be one of the most crucial factors in a hummus-like dip, but you could theoretically use a different type of oil.

Garlic. Raw garlic is strong. Use only one clove or even a half clove if you’re sensitive to the taste.

Salt and paprika. These are the basics of a hummus-style bean dip – from here you can get creative and add different spices, herbs, spinach, or even washoku it up with a few drops of soy sauce, rice vinegar, or nama miso. The world of bean dip is yours to mash.


Speaking of mashing, that’s really all you need to do.

1. Pour a half cup of beans in a bowl, drizzle with olive oil, a teaspoon or two of white sesame paste, and a teaspoon of lemon juice.

2. Add chopped, pulverized garlic and seasonings to taste.

3. Then take the back of a fork and mash, mash, mash until the mixture starts to look uniformly flecked. Don’t be worried if there are still a few chunks – without a food processor or blender, it’s unlikely you’ll reach a smooth consistency unless you’re willing to put your back into it for an hour. This is how I usually make guacamole, since every time I try with a food processor, the consistency becomes so smooth it feels like it came from a factory.

By the way, if you DO have a food processor – and I highly, highly recommend investing the ¥4000 yen in one – throw everything in, pulse, and you’re done.

You can put a dollop on salad, scoop it up with rice crackers, or eat it my favorite way – with vegetables. Cut a few daikon, carrots, and cucumbers into sticks and use them to scoop up the dip. If you run out of veggie sticks, and you’re by yourself, eat the rest with a spoon and then finally your fingers while hunched over the sink,  the softly humming green fluorescent light as your only witness.

Marinated Cucumbers for Summer

The seasons affect how I cook and what I eat in strong and noticeable ways; this is only exacerbated in Japan, where there are fewer ways to shield myself from the realities of weather, temperature, and climate. In the winter I wanted to make stir fry and soup and then form a human wreath around my space heater, but no longer! Summer is again at our doorstep (or perhaps already standing in the genkan, slipping off its shoes and yelling out “Ojama shimasu! And I’ve brought all these insects with me!”), which means heavy-duty cooking over a hot stove is officially finished. In summers past, I went out of my way not to use the stove, so much so in fact that laziness often prevailed and my diet consisted mainly of chips and salsa, cottage cheese, fruit, and anything that can be marinated and eaten cold. My mom often has a bowl of thinly sliced cucumbers marinating on the counter, and I have continued this practice in my own kitchen.

Big, raunchy looking cucumbers are everywhere right now. Go snap up a bag for 100 yen and make yourself some marinated cucumbers for on a hot day.

The vinegar keeps bacteria from growing in the hot weather.

The vinegar keeps bacteria from growing in the hot weather.

Marinated Cucumbers (makes about 2 servings, or 4 Japan-sized side servings)


1 large cucumber

100 ml/half cup rice vinegar

30ml/2 tablespoons olive oil

15 g/1 tablespoon crushed black pepper

15 g/1 tablespoon salt

few pinches white sugar (optional)

fresh/dried garlic or herbs to taste (optional)


  1. Wash and slice the cucumber into very thin pieces. You can use a knife or, more conveniently, the slicer on a cheese grater or mandolin.
  2. Spread the cucumbers out in a shallow bowl.
  3. Add all ingredients and mix. Cover with foil or plastic wrap.
  4. Let the mixture sit for at least 2 hours. 8 is best, so I usually make it in the morning and eat some that evening.
  5. Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Eat it when you want a cool, refreshing snack or meal addition.

What do you eat them with? Naturally, you can eat them by themselves. Or mix them into a salad. I used to eat them with pickled garlic and cottage cheese. But I recently had some with a little rice and a fried egg on top. Total. Heaven.