Archive for February, 2010

Natto and okra

This dish is pretty much the definition of ネバネバ (neba neba)—the experience of eating something slippery and sticky. A Google image search might further elucidate the concept.

Combined here are two quintessentially neba neba items, natto and okra. Others include nameko mushrooms and tororo, which is made from grated nagaimo (a potato). Just for fun, I pasted a previous mention of tororo below. See more about neba neba this page (mid-way down).

So this brings us to natto. I’ve written before that it is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever tasted. Thanks to the legions of natto enthusiasts, the wikipedia article on the subject is very good. I’ll borrow its description: “nattō (なっとう or 納豆) is a traditional Japanese food made from soybeans fermented with Bacillus subtilis. It is popular especially as a breakfast food. As a rich source of protein, nattō and the soybean paste miso formed a vital source of nutrition in feudal Japan. Nattō can be an acquired taste because of its powerful smell, strong flavor, and slippery texture.”

The first bite isn’t bad; it’s the after-taste that gets you. I hope you’re not eating as you read this, because the only way I can describe it is vomit-ish.

Natto is beloved by many Japanese people and reviled by others. It has also become quite popular elsewhere because of its health benefits from the soy, protein, and beneficial bacteria (especially for folks into macrobiotic diets. See more info here and here).

Natto from flickr user whalt. License: Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

So despite the taste, I’m determined to acquire a taste for natto, and I asked Yusuke to make this dish so that I can give it another go. I’m interested in the health benefits, as well as being a gaijin who can eat natto.

Natto is usually sold in small styrofoam packages. There are lots of ways to eat it, but Yusuke usually mixes it the special mustard that comes with it along with soy sauce. For this dish, he just boiled and chopped the okra, mixed it with natto, and served it over rice.

So did I manage to eat it? Yes! Although my natto-to-okra ratio was weighted to the okra side. I think I can manage small quantities to develop the taste. Yusuke says that you can put natto in miso soup, so that’s what I’d like to try next.

The Natto Land website has some good pictures of natto on its English side, and as always, Just Hungry has a nice post. I also came across an interesting blog called the Natto Project, which describes one couple’s quest to make themselves eat lots of natto.

Tuna with tororo-imo

Tuna with tororo-imo

This dish above is yamakake, which is the combination of maguro (tuna) and tororo. Tororo is essentially nagaimo or yamaimo which has been ground up. Did you follow that? In other the words, the white stuff is a root vegetable that becomes extremely sticky and, well, slimy, when it’s grated or ground. It might be unappealing to some Westerners because of the stickiness. Here it was mixed with an egg, increasingly the sliminess factor. I liked the combination with the maguro, though it’s wise to keep rice nearby when eating it. (Original post)

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Miso notes

For inquiring minds, here are a few notes about miso. It is an essential staple of Japanese cuisine, and now of my own diet as well.

Miso soup is made by dissolving miso paste in hot water—roughly 4 tbsp in 5 cups of water. The paste itself is made from fermented soy beans, which are cooked with salt and rice and/or barley. In the grocery store, you can find the paste in a plastic box or bag, and it should be refrigerated after opening. Many general grocery stores stock it. Here in Montreal, we find the best prices at Korean grocery stores, but we occasionally buy it at P.A. on Du Fort.

There are many, many types of miso, with each region of Japan favouring its own traditional miso. But the most typical kind is white miso (shiromiso 白みそ).

The most important thing for beginners to note is that you have to add dashi (fish stock) to make proper miso soup. You can buy miso with the dashi already included, in which case you just dissolve the paste in water and add the veggies, etc. of your choice. The package will be labeled with the word “dashi” in English or in Japanese:  だし入り (dashi iri). We prefer to use miso without dashi, because then you can adjust the taste more easily. Yusuke also frequently uses miso and dashi on their own in other types of dishes.

Miso soup is generally very easy to make, and thus it is a part of nearly every meal that we have. I’ve posted a multitude of miso soups (click for pics!), but here are some of our most common combinations:

  • green onions and egg (Yusuke’s fav)
  • spinach, green onions, and egg
  • silken tofu and wakame (seaweed)
  • mushrooms and bean sprouts, sometimes with green onions or wakame
  • firm tofu and bean sprouts
  • cabbage and yakifu
  • okra (my current fav)
  • carrots, onions, and potatoes…and pork, if you like that sort of thing
  • eggplant
  • asparagus, especially with abura-age

Yusuke sometimes adds powdered chicken stock instead of dashi, just for something different. He also occasionally adds soy milk, especially in combination with a spicy sauce. Really, a good amount of the stuff on our shopping list can go into miso soup.

If you want a really excellent introduction to miso, check out this Just Hungry article. Her “5 days of miso soup” series is linked on the post. Kanako’s Kitchen also has a nice explanation of the soup.

Our current miso of choice

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Tangy umeboshi-miso stir fry

This was a delightfully tangy stir fry with a miso-based sauce. I’m always amazed at the never-ending possibilities for seasoning based on the basic Japanese staples. Miso in particular is a very useful substance. It’s hard to explain if you’ve never encountered it, but it has many, many applications.

Here’s the recipe:

Miso sauce

  • 3 tbsp miso
  • 1 tbsp sake
  • 1 tbsp mirin
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 3 umeboshi, smashed

Stir fry ingredients

  • cabbage (small pieces)
  • carrots (thin slices)
  • mushrooms (actually leftover portobello stems, chopped)
  • firm tofu, cubed

Procedure: combine sauce ingredients. Cook veggies in pan or wok. Add sauce. Eat.

Yusuke wasn’t entirely sure about the word “tangy,” which was the best way I could describe this dish, and I had trouble defining it. When he looked it up in a Japanese-English dictionary, the word was more like “sour,” which isn’t right at all. Does anyone have a good way to explain “tangy”?

Please note, you can read more about the wonderful umeboshi on this previous post.

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Hot springs eggs and okra

This fabulous dish features hot springs eggs (onsen tamago) crowning a mixture of chopped okra and sliced white onions, all perched over soba noodles. Hot springs eggs are so called, naturally, because they’re supposed to be cooked in water from hot springs.

From what Yusuke tells me, egg yolks start to cook at 70 degrees (Celsius), while the whites cook at 90. So, since hot springs water is—ideally—65 degrees after the eggs cook for 30 minutes, the yolk is slightly cooked but the whites are soft. The whole process confuses me, but these two blog posts seem to confirm the story: http://epicureandebauchery.blogspot.com/2005/06/imbb-onsen-tamago-hot-spring-eggs.html and http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/17933.

Anyway, all of that to say that Yusuke made these eggs in the microwave, and despite a slight explosion, they still came out well.

The last garnish was bonito flakes and shichimi togarashi. To eat, we destroyed the lovely arrangement by mixing everything together in the bowl.

During the meal, Yusuke noted that the texture of the dish, particularly the okra, was ネバネバ (neba neba), roughly translated as slippery and sticky, but not quite slimey or nuru nuru ヌルヌル.

Japanese has lots of delightful mimetic (sound symbolic) words that are difficult to translate or categorize. They aren’t really adjectives, but they describe an overall feeling or sensation. One that I learned in my Japanese class is ドキドキ (doki doki), which conveys nervous excitement, as with a fast heartbeat. There are tons of websites out there with listings of these types of words, but there are examples here, here, and here (the last if you read hiragana and katakana). I also like くたくた (kuta kuta) for extreme tiredness and のろのろ (noro noro) for cars (or people?) who are crawling along slowly in traffic.

Of course, food-related expressions are the most important category of mimetic phrases! In addition to neba neba, I also like ピリ (piri) for the sting of wasabi and シコシコ (shiko shiko) for chewy noodles.

Just Hungry and the Japan Times have other food expressions for your onomatopoetic pleasure.

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Abura-age cabbage

I’ve been craving cabbage a lot lately and this filling dish really hit the spot. According to World’s Healthiest Foods, it’s a fantabulous source of vitamins K and C, in addition to many other benefits: cancer prevention, heart health, cell detoxification, digestive benefits… Too bad that in the past, I could only envision it paired with corned beef (ewww).

Yusuke combined chopped cabbage with thinly sliced abura-age (deep fried tofu sheets) and boiled it in a soup of soy sauce, dashi, sake, mirin, and water.

We didn’t get a picture, but along with this meal, we also had Korean-style bean sprouts, meaning that they were cooked with garlic and sesame oil.

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Portobello sandwich + veggie almond soup

This was another one of my cooking attempts that didn’t come out too badly. The soup came from a recipe for Soupe de Haricots Verts aux Amandes found on the lovely Chocolate and Zucchini blog.

I came across the recipe while searching for way to use my leftover powdered almonds that did not involve baking cookies. As I also happened to have carrots and green beans in the fridge, this was a propitious find.

Ingredients:
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, peeled and chopped
1 garlic clove, peeled and smashed
3 carrots, peeled and sliced
500 grams (a little over a pound) green beans
Fine sea salt, freshly ground pepper
1 liter (4 cups) homemade vegetable stock or water
100 grams (1 cup) powdered almonds (see note)

You can read the full recipe from the original posting, but essentially you just sauté and then boil the vegetables, add the powdered almonds, and liquefy it all in a blender.

The soup was much sweeter than I had expected, so it went well with a salad and salty sandwiches. The texture was thick without being heavy, perfect for bread-dipping.

Above you see one of my “cooking” staples: portobello mushroom sandwiches. I marinate the mushrooms in soy sauce, red wine vinegar, olive oil, and a bit of salt and pepper before grilling them on our George Foreman grill. This time we ate them on toasted rolls fresh from the neighbourhood Polish bakery. I like spinach on my sandwich, but Yusuke always goes for mayonnaise. Ugh. I hope he never discovers baconnaise.

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