Japanese Cooking

by Joan Greenblatt

Cutting-Lotus-RootNew Year’s Eve is traditionally the time for new beginnings. Ideally, we should begin every moment of our life anew, experiencing each moment as a fresh start.

While moving from 2000 (The Year of the Dragon) to 2001 (The Year of the Snake), we spent the day preparing a traditional Japanese New Year’s feast. Three very special Japanese friends, Sachiko, Tomiko and June, came together to cook the dishes that their mothers and grandmothers had prepared throughout their childhood. I, along with a few close friends, were gathered into this traditional, Japanese festive occasion.

It began the previous day with a visit to the local Japanese market. Here, we purchased several important traditional items such as burdock and lotus root, special sushi rice, mirin, dashi, seaweed, and sake. The cooking began at 10:00 a.m. and finished at 5:00 p.m. on the evening of the 31st. The first assignment given the helpers was to cut the vegetables in meticulously small pieces. The most challenging one by far was the symbolic lotus root. This hard, brown root, located in the muddy bottom of a pond, grows from one of the most beautiful flowers on earth. Gaining strength to rise above its murky surroundings, the lotus flower demonstrates that beauty can be found everywhere. The root, with its symmetrical holes running up and down its length, was to be thinly sliced. Later, Tomiko used these slices to make a delicate lotus-root salad. At the same time Sachiko was busy crafting a chestnut mountain. It began with cutting a cross-shaped slit on the top of the chestnuts then boiling them. When the chestnut meats were extracted and prepared to resemble an almost acorn squash-like preparation, Sachiko christened the mound of dessert, “Mount Fuji.”

The meal ended with traditional miso soup and mochi. June left early to specially prepare the mochi in a modern, electric mochi-maker. Mochi is a sweet rice dumpling that is commonly eaten during Japanese festivals. According to June, the chewy mochi welcomes the New Year with happiness and blessings. Interestingly, during the day every time I would ask the meaning of any of the dishes, the three girls would say in unison: “it brings happiness and blessings.”

On New Year’s Day, Sachiko returned to lead a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony. With grace and meditative movements, we all experienced a bite from a sweet teacake and then a sip of whipped green tea from a ceremonial teacup—a reminder that the art of mindful movement should be applied to all things, sweet and bitter. The combination of these simple, earthy flavors danced on our tongues—it was an ideal way to spend the first day of 2001. It was especially poignant since 2001 was to be a significant year for the world.
—Joan Greenblatt

Ringing of the Bells
By Tomiko Yabumoto

In my first New Year’s Eve in Japan, I went to Kyoto for the ringing of the bells (joya no Kane). As I walked along the path to the temple on this cold, starry night, I thought to myself, “Now I understand why people stay in a warm home, eating noodles and watching TV.” I was soon joined by others, and the stream of people swelled to a river. I forgot about the cold as we moved along like one body, travelling in the same direction, all with a common intention. There was nothing to do and nowhere to go, except to be present as “the river” carried us along. We flowed at various speeds so that on occasion my feet barely touched the ground. Our movements synchronized with the sound of the ringing bell—once, twice, and on to one hundred and eight times—an ideal way to start the New Year.

When we finally reached the temple, I was amazed by the immensity of the bell and its deep, powerful sound, which was created when one of the monks, holding a large timber, took a flying leap (of faith) and struck the bell. The sound reverberated through my body, and at that moment there was no sense of separation, like the union of form and emptiness. Afterward, we all ate toshi-koshi soba while passing the old year into the new one. Warm in body and spirit, we began the New Year with a fresh mind and happy heart.

Simple and Traditional Lotus-Root Salad
Locating the lotus root is the first challenge of this dish. You will have to go to an Asian market or find a mail order source. Cutting the lotus root as thin as humanly possible is an art form. After a few beginning disasters, you get into the momentum by calling on every ounce of concentration you can muster. Using a good quality mandolin is an alternative.

Hint: Lotus Roots
Lotus root plants are related to the water lily. The large seeds may be eaten raw, boiled, grilled and also candied. The reddish-brown roots (more accurately, rhizomes) are used as a vegetable, with a crisp texture and mild flavor.

3 C lotus-root, sliced pencil-thin. Pour boiling water over then and let stand about 10 minutes (this takes the bitterness out), then drain.
1 C carrots, cut meticulously small or shredded
1” ginger, cut fine into very tiny pieces or minced

Marinade lotus-root, carrots and ginger for a few hours:
½ C sugar and ¾ C rice vinegar (called sushi su)
1 T soy sauce
Dash salt

Delightful Tofu-Spinach Salad
This is a bit nontraditional, but still a Tomiko family favorite. It’s a fresh, delightful combination of flavors, and my personal favorite tofu dish!

Hint: Konnyaku Root
This is a very healthy but slimy yam which is made from the konja yam. In Japan it is known to absorb toxins and is called “the broom of the stomach.

2 C firm tofu, rinsed, drained and mashed
3 T yellow miso
1 T tamari or soy sauce
1 to 2 T sugar (in a major family confession Tomiko admits that she prefers the 1 T and her grandmother the 2 T; you can decide for yourself.)
4 T sesame seeds, golden roasted and ground in a mortar and pestle
4 C spinach, cut small, steamed until just wilted, drain well

COMBINE all ingredients. Adjust tamari and sugar to taste.
Option: Top with ½ C konnyaku root (cut into thin pieces and dry roasted)

Sweet & Sour So Simple Black Beans
A wonderful sweet and sour, gingery bean dish which can end up to be quite thick.

Hint: Rice Mirin
The sweetness of naturally made mirin is derived from the combination of sweet rice and koji rice (naturally fermented rice) and also includes water and sea salt.

1½ C black beans, soaked overnight or 2 cans cooked organic black beans, rinsed well and drained
2 to 3 T tamari
3 T honey, agave or maple sugar
2 cloves garlic, mashed
3 T rice mirin
2 to 3 T ginger, cut very small or minced

1.   DRAIN soaked black beans into a large, heavy-duty pot, rinse well and cover with at least 1” of fresh water, cook until very tender, about 1½ to 2 hours.
2.   ADD all the rest of the ingredients to the cooked beans.
3.   COOK on very low heat, uncovered, until most of the liquids are evaporated, make sure not to burn. Taste and add more tamari if necessary.

Chestnut Mt. Fuji Dessert
This traditional yet simple recipe has a delicate, nutty sweetness.

Hint: Tofu Cream
1 C silken tofu, ¼ C honey or agave, 1 t vanilla extract
Blend until very smooth.

4 whole sweet potatoes, peeled cut into large chunks
20 fresh chestnuts
½ C maple syrup and ½ C agave syrup
4 T margarine or butter, melted
4 T almond milk
1½ t salt

1.   STEAM or roast sweet potatoes until very soft, then mash.
2.   SLIT an “x” on the top of chestnuts, steam until very tender, about 15 to 25 minutes. Shell and mash.
3.   MIX all ingredients together with your hands.
4.   Adjust sweetness to taste. Add enough milk to shape.
5.   SHAPE into a mountain with a spatula.
6.   Cut into pieces, when cooled, top with a dollop of whipped tofu cream.

Traditional Soba Noodle New Year’s Dinner
To finish off new year’s day, we had a simple, yet elegant soba noodle dinner—a one-dish wonder. We had a lot of stock (dashi) on hand for miso soup. Ideally, the dashi should be made ahead of time. It freezes well, so you can make what you need for this recipe then freeze the rest in an ice cube tray, using a few cubes for a quick bowl of miso soup. You can buy prepared soba sauce at a Japanese grocery store, but there is nothing like the taste of fresh sauce. Soba noodles are available in a few varieties. The buckwheat version can be completely wheat and gluten free, but it is a bit more delicate and quite heavy. The most common soba noodles are made from 40 to 60% buckwheat, with the rest from whole wheat flour. There are two more interesting varieties of soba. The first is Jinenjo, or mountain potato. This variety helps to bind the buckwheat and is a strengthening food, rich in digestive enzymes. The other is mugwort soba, which is an aromatic bitter often used to cure general stomach upset.

Hint: Dashi
Japanese soup stock base
6” piece kombu (seaweed), 3 to 4 shiitake , mushrooms, dried, 7 C water

1. Soak kombu and shiitake mushrooms in water for at least 30 minutes or overnight. Remove mushrooms. Cut off and discard stems, and slice caps.
2. Add mushrooms and kombu to water and begin to heat. Remove kombu just before water boils and then lower heat.
3. Simmer mushroom broth for at least 5 to 8 minutes, remove mushroom pieces.

Cooking Soba — Use approximately an inch-wide handful of soba noodles per person. Since most Japanese noodles are made with salt, it is not necessary to add salt to the cooking water. In a very large pot, bring water to a full, rolling boil; use about twelve cups of water. Do not overcrowd the noodles or they will stick together. Boil about 3 to 4 minutes until noodles are al denté. Do not overcook. Rinse the noodles in two or three cold-water baths or under cold running water to prevent further cooking so noodles do not stick together. Use your hands to remove surface starch. Drain and use immediately.

Soba Sauce — Serves 4 people, double for extra servings: Combine 2½ C dashi, ½ plus 2 T dark soy sauce, 4 T mirin and 1 T sugar. Bring to a boil and remove from heat; cool to room temperature.

Serving Dinner

Garnishes: Extra firm tofu chopped into very small chunks; scallions, finely minced; wasabi; pickled ginger; dried seaweed, very thinly sliced; grated daikon and Japanese radishes (grate them at the last minute and squeeze out excess water; if daikon is not available, ordinary radishes will do.)

Preparation: Fill each person’s bowl with cooled soba noodles, add a small amount of warm dashi. Fill a small bowl with soba sauce for each person.

Eating: Add any garnishes you wish to the noodles bowl. Dip noodles into the sauce and eat.

From A Culinary Journey: A Personal Voyage into the World of Herbs, Spices and Vegetarian Cuisine. Copyright © 2013 by Joan Greenblatt. Published by arrangement with Aperion Books, Vista, California.