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?

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Chikuwa

Whatever you think this is, it’s probably not what you think it is. You dirty thing.Image

Chikuwa is a processed Japanese phallus fish cake made from a fish paste called surimi. Surimi itself is usually made from white fish Foreigners most often come into contact with surimi in the form of fake crab (krab!) or kamaboko, a popular udon garnish – often in the form of an unnaturally pink half-moon shape. In Japan, kamaboko, chikuwa, and other fish cakes are used in a variety of dishes – in fact, I once ate a kamaboko course meal on a company trip. (After the kamaboko nigiri and the kamaboko nabe, I was pretty much done with the stuff for the next few months.)

Chikuwa is something I buy every so often. I first encountered it in my school’s daily kyushoku, where it’s been in everything from soups to salads to an interesting main dish topped with an oily seaweed-cheese-gratin. Easily identified by it’s hollow tube shape, chikuwa is made by wrapping the surimi mixture around a bamboo pole and then cooking it until the outside blisters. The texture is chewy and a little rubbery, though not elastic or glutinous like mochi. This makes it perfect for boiled dishes, because it won’t disintegrate. Maybe this is why chikuwa is most visible in the winter months, when people like to add it to oden and noodle soups. If you live in Tottori, there’s a good chance you eat chikuwa quite a bit – according to Wikipedia, consumption is significantly higher there (I’ve never been to Tottori, but I’m guessing this means that chikuwa is a “Tottori specialty!” pushed at omiyage shops). Most of us, though, just walk right on by it at the store, as it’s usually in the Aisle of Mysteries, which is what I like to call the refrigerated row adjacent to the produce in Japanese supermarkets – where you’ll find the natto, the pickles, a million types of tofu, and fermented god-only-knows.

But unless you’re vegetarian, you should try chikuwa. Here’s why:

  • It’s low-fat.
  • It’s high-protein.
  • It’s pre-cooked. Just add it to whatever you’re cooking so it can absorb the flavors.
  • It’s cheap. During winter, I was buying 100g for ¥100. Prices have gone up lately. Yesterday I bought 130g for ¥168. The stick in the picture is about 33g, a little more than an ounce.
  • It’s relatively healthy, depending on how you feel about certain ingredients. I’ve often thought about the processed aspect of fish cake. To be honest, it’s not something I know much about. The basic ingredients are ground fish, egg white, some sort of starch, and – yes – MSG. I’m not as worried about MSG as other people, so this isn’t a dealbreaker. If you’re trying to stay MSG-free in Japan, my advice would be to learn the kanji and check all labels and then, I don’t know, probably starve because that sucker’s in everything.

How to Eat It

I’ve only begun to scratch the springy surface of the fish-cake world, but here are a few ideas:

  • Chop the tube up into rings. Add it to your soup while boiling.
  • One of my favorite ways to eat chikuwa is to simmer it with vegetables in dashi as a bastardized version of nimono, which is the word for vegetables boiled in broth.
  • I also – shockingly – add it to stir fry as a source of protein.
  • You could even stuff the holes with filling before heating them in a pan or microwave. If your filling of choice is cheese, may I suggest plugging each end with a tiny piece of carrot to keep the cheese from melting out.
  • You could also chop it into half-rings, boil it with greens, drain and cool. Then top with sesame seeds and a little rice vinegar. Voilà, a salad!
  • Chop it up, sautee it with yaki-sauce, and put it on top a bowl of rice or sauteed noodles.

Suggestions? Do you regularly eat chikuwa? Did you mistake it for churros and swear you’d never touch it again?