Tofu Kimchi + everything Korean all the time

I went to Seoul and had such a good time that I spent much of the train ride back from the airport trying to figure out when I could fly back to Seoul. It’s about an hour and ten minute flight from Fukuoka, a scant 348 miles, but oh what a difference.

Right off the subway, Dane and I stopped into one of the first bulgogi places we saw in Hongdae. Turns out we stumbled into a well-known restaurant, “Mountainous Bulgogi,” that serves steaming plates of meat 24 hours a day. We chose a kalbi and tteokbokki soup that was, well, really spicy. I wasn’t sure if Dane would make it, but he made me proud. He even managed to say something about how delicious it was in between gasping noises (I’m likely dead inside so spice doesn’t affect me as much). And check out the banchan (side dishes): salad with black sesame dressing, fermented fish cake, soup, pickles, and of course kimchi.

So spicy I'm surprised the fumes didn't distort the picture.

So spicy I’m surprised the fumes didn’t distort the picture.

In a flight of feverish post-barbecue fancy, I told Dane I wanted to cook nothing but Korean food for the rest of my life. Given the amount of time it’s taken for me to reign in J-food, I think K-nosh will have to come gradually. Luckily, it’s relatively easy to make basic Korean-inspired dishes in Japan, thanks to the proximity of the two countries (seriously, Seoul and Fukuoka geographically as far apart as San Francisco and Los Angeles). A popular “Korean-style” dish here is “buta kimchi,” pork in a sauce of kimchi, onions, and ginger. Here’s my tofu version, which happens to be vegetarian/vegan.

Tofu Kimchi (serves 4)

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbs cooking oil
  • 2 tbs mirin
  • 1 tsp soy sauce
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup katsuoboshi flakes
  • 1 package shirataki konnyaku noodles, drained
  • 1 leek or onion, cut in half and sliced
  • 1 carrot, finely chopped
  • 50 g ginger root, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 handful shimeji mushrooms (or your favorite mushroom, I’m not a mushroom authoritarian)
  • 1 whole block firm tofu, diced into 1.5 in/2 cm cubes
  • 3/4 cup kimchi (about 150 g)
  • 2 cups bean sprouts
  • Korean red pepper flakes (gochugaru) or hot red chili pepper

Directions:

  1. In a large frying pan on medium heat, heat the cooking oil until it slides around the pan easily. Add the garlic.
  2. Add onion, carrot, mushrooms, shirataki noodles, ginger, mirin, soy sauce, and katsuoboshi flakes. Sautee 1-2 minutes. If mixture looks a little dry, add a few tablespoons of water.
  3. Add kimchi, tofu, and bean sprouts. For spiciness, add Korean red pepper flakes to taste.
  4. Mix the ingredients together until they are well coated in the kimchi and red pepper flakes. Cover and let cook on medium heat, about 8 minutes or until bean sprouts are soft.
  5. Serve atop a bed of hot rice and drink with makkgeoli, Korea’s alcoholic rice drink, or whatever red wine you found at Family Mart.

Tastes better the next day reheated or in a cold lunch box. Enjoy!

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!

Fresh cheese in ten minutes.

When I taught elementary school in the States, I used to make butter with my students once a year. It’s fairly easy: buy heaving whipping cream, put it in a tiny container with a tight-fitting lid, and shake, shake, shake. First you’ll have whipped cream, and then – right around the time your arm feels like it’s about to fall off – the milk solids will miraculously separate and cohere and wow, you have butter. My kids used to love it; we’d spread it on pieces of bread and talk about liquids and solids while we munched.

There’s not much point to making your own butter in Japan, as heavy whipping cream is probably more expensive than the already ridiculously pricey Hokkaido butter itself, but there’s a principle at work here: there was a time, not long ago, when everyone worth his or her salt knew how to turn milk into butter, cheese, or yogurt. It sounds daunting, but I’ve made all three, and of all of them, fresh farmer’s cheese is by far the quickest and simplest.

I saw a teeny-tiny container of “cottage cheese” at the store the other day for ¥398. Against my better judgement, I bought some – and found out it was actually much closer to a ricotta consistency. Four dollars for 200g of cottage cheese? とんでもない。Tondemo nai. (Don’t be ridiculous). Why don’t you make the same amount for the price of a liter of milk? Superior in freshness, flavor, and price?

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A worthwhile Sunday breakfast: green onion, mushroom, and chile pepper omelet with freshly made farmer’s cheese. Are you convinced yet?

Here’s how to do it.

Fresh Cheese

Ingredients and Materials:

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Again, taking advantage of the leftover kyushoku milk that piles up in my school’s fridge!

1 liter whole milk (please make sure it is 3.5% fat or above 牛乳)

2 tablespoons lemon juice or rice vinegar

Heavy-bottomed saucepan.

Finely woven white cloth (a cloth napkin will work)

Strainer

Large bowl to contain the strainer.

Directions:

1. Pour the milk in the saucepan and heat over medium-low heat, stirring gently every now and then to keep the bottom from burning.

2. You’re going to “scald the milk,” meaning you’ll heat it until it’s just about to boil. It will begin to froth and smell like the warm milk your mom used to make your when you were a kid.

3. At this point, add the lemon juice, stirring in slowly and gently. Don’t stir too much – just enough to mix the lemon juice in. Immediately you will see the milk beginning to coagulate and curds beginning to separate.

4. Turn the heat off allow the mixture to fully curdle a few moments.

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Curds have formed. Don’t stir after this – they’ll be much plumper if you let them sit.

5. Stir in salt and pepper or whatever seasonings you prefer with your cheese.IMG_0647

6. Prepare the strainer by setting it over the bowl and lining it with the cloth napkin. Slowly pour the cheese curds and whey through the strainer. Lift up the strainer and pour the whey off into another container for future use (or, if you hate whey and don’t want to deal with it, you can pour it down the drain).

7. Replace the strainer and lightly wrap the cheese curds into a bundle with the cloth. If you want a drier, more crumbly curd, manually squeeze the bundle a bit until the cheese forms a compact ball. Leave this way and allow to drain a few more minutes before removing the cheese from the cloth.

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Whoa! Take a moment to revel in the fact that you just made cheese! It’s like some Little House on the Inaka Prairie ish up in heah! Show your neighbors in your jutaku! They’re all gonna be so jealous right?

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Whey in a jar.

This is a fresh cheese, which means it will only keep for 3 or 4 days. Use it in omelettes, pasta, on salad, or spread on toast. I like it with sliced tomatoes, spinach, and balsamic vinegar.

As for the whey, you could put it in soup or stir fry, or drink it plain if you’re weird like I am. Apparently, fresh whey was a common drink in British public houses in the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s nutritious and has been shown to help regulate blood sugar in Type II diabetics.

If you’re really starting to feel this whole homesteading thing, as I am (Dane might be getting a little worried, but he’s humoring me so long as I continue to supply him with homemade peanut butter), I highly recommend Jennifer Reese’s Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, from which I’ve drawn many of these recipes.

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.

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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).

Ingredients

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

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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.

Directions

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)

Ingredients:

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)

Directions:

  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.

Enjoy.

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.

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?