#44 Date selected: 9/1/17 Date completed: 26/2/17
Country selected: Japan
Dining Selection: Cooked Own
What was on the menu/recipe address:
- Easy Soba Noodle Salad with Wakame
- Japanese Potsticker Dumplings (Gyoza)
- Special Occasion Japanese Omelette Crepes
- Green Tea Steamed Cake
When I first selected Japan as my next challenge, I was filled with a mixture of delight, anticipation and dread. I love Japanese food, have a great respect for Japanese culture and was excited to try something new, but was also keenly aware of the great care and detail that the Japanese put into the preparation and presentation of each dish. I knew that to do this challenge justice in my own head, I would need to take the same time and care in the dishes I made.
Japan is located in the Pacific Ocean off the eastern cost of the Asian mainland and if often referred to as the “Land of the Rising Sun.” For a great many years Japan shut itself off from the rest of the world, only opening its gates to the West in 1853. Today it has the highest life expectancy rate in the world with a very high standard of living. It has one of the largest military budgets of any country in the world and is a leading nation in scientific research, with a particular focus on fields related to engineering and the natural sciences.
Having studied and performed one of Japan’s traditional performance arts, Kyogen, for a brief period at university, I’ve come to appreciate the beauty and subtlety that make up much of the Japanese cultural identity. The painstaking lengths that artists take to learn their craft is quite remarkable with students taking decades to perfect their craft. Something as simple as the way a performer holds themselves and moves around a space is dissected in intricate detail and perfected over long periods of time. I remember our teacher saying that one of the greatest compliments a Kyogen performer can receive is that they walk well.
The Japanese take as much care and pride over their cuisine and cooking is often seen as an art form in itself. A great deal of thought goes into every item served and chefs work to bring out the simplicity of each dish, doing as little as possible to bring out the colour and flavour of each dish. As with other art forms, apprentice chefs sometimes work in restaurants for ten years before they are allowed to handle the fish or meat. Particular rules and etiquette are entwined with the process of serving and eating the cuisine which goes to show how ingrained it is within the culture. In fact Japanese cuisine is only one of three national food traditions recognised by the UN for its cultural significance. This basically means that the preservation of this way of eating is vital to the survival of the traditional culture.
So no pressure whatsoever……eekk!
I decided that there was no way I was going to be able to replicate a truly traditional style meal so I decided to try a few different smaller style dishes, that would feature a range of ingredients and textures and I would attempt to serve them in a simple yet stylish manner. With such a huge range of dishes to choose from, I ended up choosing three dishes that I thought were representational of my goals and a fourth dish, gyoza, because I’ve been a little bit obsessed with these dumplings since I tried them many years ago, but have never quite made the leap of attempting to cook them myself.
Gyoza are also known as Japanese Potsticker Dumplings and I discovered why in the preparation of this dish! They’re simply a fried dumpling with a mixture of pork, spring onion, cabbage, egg, soy sauce & chilli oil however the cooking style is a little more unusual than other dumplings I have attempted before. You fry them arranged in close rows for a couple of minutes until the bottoms are golden. You then add water, covering the pan and cooking again until the wrappers are translucent. You then remove the lid and again continue cooking the dumplings until the water has mostly evaporated and the bottoms are crisp.
Inevitably the dumplings become extremely tactile and wind up sticking to the bottom of the pot, which is how they got their name. This process also makes them very difficult to get out of the pot unscathed and I broke quite a few trying to scrape them out of the pan.
Boy are they delicious though! I served mine as the recipe suggested with a dipping sauce of spring onions and soy sauce and some drizzled chilli oil. They’re a little like dim sims in some regards, but lighter and somehow more delicate. The juices from the meat burst into your mouth when you bite into the dumpling (a word of warning if you’re eating them straight from the pan – you could be in danger of a burnt tongue) and they’re full of flavour. I could eat these for days on end. Simply delicious!
I wanted to include a dish that allowed me to get a hit of umami for this challenge and this, for me, meant something with wakame (seaweed). I chose a soba noodle salad with wakame for its freshness and because I thought it would go perfectly on an Australian summer day.
Again, it’s a very simple process. Soak the wakame in cold water until it’s softened and shred. Cook the noodles and drain and refresh them under cold water. Mix the two along with finely julienned cucumbers, carrots, a handful of bean sprouts, sliced spring onions, fresh ginger, sesame oil, lime, soy sauce and toasted sesame seeds. It’s served cold as a meal or as a side dish.
The salad certainly provided me with everything I had hoped. It was fresh tasting, surprisingly filling and the umami made the mouth water, enhancing the flavours of the dish even more. I would (and in fact already have) make this dish again and I could see it going perfectly with some grilled fish or chicken or as a tasty vegetarian alternative.
Next on my list was special occasion Japanese omelette crepes. I chose this because they intrigued me. Any omelette I would make usually either has eggs, maybe a bit of milk and not much else or has a mixture of vegetables and/or bacon as a filling. Instead this one is a mix of ingredients that I would not normally associate with this kind of dish so I decided to give it a try.
The eggs are mixed with soy sauce, mirin, black sesame seeds, sugar and a pinch of salt. You thinly fry them and they are eaten rolled up. Usually you are supposed to roll them around a small amount of freshly steamed rice, however, as this wasn’t listed in the ingredients list, I somehow managed to completely overlook this detail until it came time to serving! I decided to simply roll them up as is and secure them with a strand of chives rather than ruin them whilst I waited for rice to steam (besides by this time I had run out of eggs!).
The taste of the omelette was very unusual for me. There was a rich, fragrant taste that almost (but not quite) overpowered the egg. The egg was still very discernible however and the entire result was a rich, fatty, savoury snack that, admittedly, could have done with a bit of rice to balance out the flavours. It was still very tasty though and the dark sesame seeds against the yellow of the egg makes for an interesting visual effect as well as providing that gorgeous nutty flavour to the mix.
Finally, knowing the importance of tea to Japanese and other Asian cultures, I decided to make a green tea steamed cake for a sweet option. I had some matcha in the cupboard which I don’t use very often but loved the idea of adding another dish that I could utilize this ingredient into my collection. I was also thrilled with the recipes’ claim that it takes less than 20 minutes to cook from beginning to end (disclaimer: I didn’t actually time myself doing this so I have no way to substantiate if this claim is true or not. It was a very quick process none the less!).
First up is preparing the frying pan by wrapping the lid with a kitchen towel which apparently prevents condensation from falling onto the cakes while they are steaming. The pan is half-filled with water and covered with the lid as the water brought to the boil.
Next up you whisk together an egg and vegetable oil before adding honey and yogurt. Sugar is mixed in before you sift flour and baking powder together and add to the mix. Finally matcha powder is sifted and folded into the batter. You are supposed to put cupcake liners into the ramekins before pouring the batter, however I decided to pour it directly into the ramekins themselves. Once the water is boiling, the ramekins are placed inside the pan, covered with the lid and left to steam for 12-14 minutes.
I was originally planning to serve the cakes in the ramekins but found that they came out remarkably easily so ended up serving them on small individual plates with a touch of sweet red bean paste on top as a garnish.
The cakes were beautifully light and fluffy with that hint of a chewy skin that you can only get from steamed cakes. The matcha gave the cakes a nice savoury zing that was balanced beautifully by the sweetness of the honey, sugar and red bean paste. Not to mention that gorgeous dusty green hue that screams of summer or spring. They were delicious, delicate and incredibly moreish. I am not ashamed to say that I polished off several small cakes within a very short period of time and this will certainly become a favourite recipe for morning teas or for when I’m looking for something a little different to serve. I’d be very curious to try making a larger style cake in the same manner and see how that came out.
However, before we do that, it’s onto our next challenge…..