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.

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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?

Other People’s Recipes: Vegan Lemon Bars

Bakin’ with tofu, no longer just for trustafarians!

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While I’m not a big baker – save for one cookie I make every year around Christmas – I’m a fan of the blog Chocolate and Zucchini, run by a lovely French woman named Clotilde (one of those names that sounds exotically beautiful, but that I could never pull it off with my own spawn). Browsing through her archives the other day, I spotted a recipe for vegan lemon bars made with silken tofu and lemon juice. I’m always on the lookout for delicious, butter-free dishes, since butter is prohibitively expensive in Japan (unless you’re in Hokkaido, I suppose). I have a theory this is why macaroons have become so popular in Japan – it’s the one cookie without butter!

There were a few noteworthy modifications made. I’d recently been gifted the Worst Citrus Ever, so I grated some of its fresh peel right into the filling mix until it took on a pleasant smell and a yellow tinge. I also added some powdered yuzu, because why not, we’re in Japan! I hate measuring, so the zest was added “to taste.” I also added a pinch of nutmeg to the filling and reduced the sugar by about 25%, and it still came out sweet as hell. Finally, for about half the bars, I pressed a single raisin into the center of where each bar would be before baking. Dane (mah life partner) said the raisin bars were better than the plain ones.

Instead of coconut oil, I used regular canola oil for the crust. It’s a crumb crust, and Clotilde recommends that the crumbs be “pressed loosely” into the pan. I pressed them a bit more firmly. Even then, the crust was a bit thicker than I would have liked, though the texture was wonderful. In the future, I’ll probably reduce the sugar from the crust, too, and maybe add a bit of flax meal if I’m feeling saucy.

All in all, these bars were outstanding, easy, cheap, and vegan. One caveat: despite the presence of tofu, they abound with sugar and carbs . . . so cut those pieces small and make your coworkers happy with a lemon bar giveaway.

While mixing up the batch last night, I remarked to my neighbor, Kay, that I bake more in Japan than I ever did in the States, which is hilarious because I don’t have an oven.