The everyday meals, cooked in the homes of Japanese mothers and grandmothers, is the food that Emiko Davies grew up with. They're the dishes she makes for her own children: simple, satisfying food like tamagonogohan (stir-fried egg and rice), soba noodle soup, Japanese curry, yakisoba, and miso soup, prepared with whatever seasonal vegetables happen to be around.
They are the dishes in her latest book, Gohan: Everyday Japanese Cooking.
While she's been living in Italy since 2005, the cookbook author, food journalist and food blogger, is proud of her Canberra connections. Her parents Ian and Sumie were diplomats and the family travelled extensively during her childhood, living in China and visiting family in Japan, but Canberra was the family base.
Despite what many people think, Japanese home cooking is not fiddly, nor time consuming, she says. It's quick and remarkably simple, thanks to the Japanese philosophy that fresh, seasonal food doesn't need much to enhance its natural flavour.
"Gohan literally means 'rice' in Japanese - and when I think of this word, I think quite specifically about a small ceramic bowl of fragrant, glistening, steamed, lightly sticky rice," she writes.
"Tellingly, it is also the general word for a 'family meal'. A bowl of rice is what most home-cooked Japanese meals revolve around.
"If you haven't eaten rice, you haven't eaten. I can still hear Obaachan, my Japanese grandmother, announcing that dinner is ready with, 'Gohan desuyo!"
Davies has dedicated Gohan to her grandmother.
"My obaachan made the best food, full stop. It was something I looked forward to every single visit. It wasn't shojin ryori, the restrained, almost-vegan temple cuisine of Zen Buddhists; hers was proper home cooking and, in line with the flexitarian philosophy of their Buddhist sect, it consisted mostly of vegetables and plenty of tofu, but also fish and eggs, with the occasional beef sukiyaki (undeniably her signature dish) for special occasions such as when we would visit."
When Davies asked her mother Sumie, who still lives in Canberra, what she thought about the idea of calling a book on Japanese home cooking Gohan, she touched on what's been captured in this beautiful book.
"Gohan means the everyday home-cooked meal. Nothing fussy, but quick and easy, and nourishing. One that is made with love," her mother said.
"I think the best food is created when you cook for someone you love."
Davies said her mother paused and reminded her of a drawing her eldest daughter Mariu did when she was five, before she could write properly. It was a recipe for soup, where all the ingredients were drawn instead of written down. One of the ingredients was a heart.
"Remember Mariu's soup recipe that had love as an ingredient? To me that is 'Gohan'."
This dish has a special place in my heart. It was everyone's favourite signature dish of my obaachan, and one of the rare occasions she would cook meat. It felt like such a special treat and still is for me when my mother makes it. I've lived continents away from home since going to university; after being away for a year, sukiyaki was the dish that my mother would make to welcome me home.
Invented in the Meiji era, after the Emperor dropped the 1200-year-old ban on meat, sukiyaki was a dish that encouraged the Japanese to embrace eating beef. We make sukiyaki in the Kanto (Tokyo) style, where the sauce goes in first and everything is simmered in it, then taken out as each ingredient is cooked. In Kansai style (around Osaka), the meat is grilled first in the pot, usually with some beef tallow to grease it, and can be savoured as is, followed by the sauce and vegetables.
Starting with a sweet sauce of mirin, sake and soy sauce, simmering right at the table, you place the well-marbled, paper-thin slices of beef into the sauce, along with vegetables, tofu and shirataki noodles. Every ingredient takes on the most wonderful flavours and everyone has their favourites. (Mine? The tofu, which is like a sponge that soaks up that sauce, and the spring onion, which becomes impossibly sweet - I love it so much I make an easy version of it to eat anytime.)
Guests are served bowls of rice and bowls with a single raw egg cracked into them. You beat the egg with your chopsticks and it serves as a dipping sauce for the boiling-hot foods coming straight out of the pot. As the hot, saucy meat or vegetables hits the raw egg, it becomes a deliciously, creamy sauce - think carbonara - and it is one of my favourite parts of this dish.
1. To make the sukiyaki sauce, place the mirin and sake in a saucepan and bring to the boil, which will evaporate the alcohol. After two minutes, turn down to a gentle simmer and add the soy sauce, sugar and water and continue simmering, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved. Set aside. (You can make this in advance and keep in a jar in the fridge for up to a week.)
2. To prepare the table for sukiyaki, set up the burner in the centre of the table with the pot of sauce on top (sukiyaki is normally cooked in a cast-iron pot). Arrange the beef on a platter and arrange the tofu, vegetables and shirataki noodles attractively on a separate platter. Serve each guest a bowl of rice, a bowl with a freshly cracked egg, if using, and some chopsticks.
3. Turn on the burner and bring the sauce to a simmer over a low-medium heat. Add the meat and some of the vegetables (enough to fit - you'll do a few rounds). Pick out the ingredients as they are ready - most things take mere minutes to cook: the tofu and greens are very quick; the cabbage, leek or spring onions can go longer, for example.
4. To avoid contamination of chopsticks in the sukiyaki, rather than allow every guest to use their own chopsticks, use a pair of saibashi, cooking chopsticks, which are longer than regular chopsticks, that stays by the pot and anyone who wants to take something out can use those alone. Otherwise, appoint a "cook" who is in charge of distributing the foods as they are ready to come out.
Simply leave out the beef and add a little extra of the other ingredients (my favourites are the tofu and the leek, but mushrooms are excellent in this dish, as they soak up the sauce so well); vegans only need to leave out the dipping egg, too.
On the ingredients:
My mother eyeballs this recipe, so it is always a bit different each time, so when I asked her for her recipe she turned to one of her oldest and best friends, Chieko, who is also a brilliant cook, to share her recipe, which is just perfect. Sukiyaki sauce has a distinctly sweet flavour, and my mother likes to keep the sugar to a minimum - you could use a little less if you prefer, too.
Traditional ingredients in sukiyaki include shirataki noodles, which are gluten-free noodles made of yam starch; different types of Japanese mushrooms, such as enoki, fresh shiitake or oyster mushrooms; and chrysanthemum greens, which are confusingly not the leaves of chrysanthemum flowers but actually another plant that resembles them - they are deliciously bitter, and you could substitute another bitter green for them, or simply try spinach, bok choy, broccoli rabe or even watercress. If you manage to find shungiku to include here, note that like spinach they cook very quickly and will only need about 30 seconds in the pot. The quality of the beef is important here and, for an occasion dish like this, it is worth splurging on - there isn't too much meat as it isn't the main star of the dish. Not only should it be good quality but it should also be well marbled so that it remains very tender. Recently, in Nagano, we enjoyed sukiyaki with a delicious wagyu particular to the region where the cows are fed only apples. My mother buys impossibly thin, pre-sliced frozen beef from her local Korean grocer and it is perfect for this, as the slices should be paper thin - about 2mm or at most 3mm thick. If you can't get the pre-sliced beef, choose a nice piece of marbled steak from your butcher, put it in the freezer to firm up for about one to two hours and then you should be able to slice it thinly.
I messaged my mother, Sumie, one day to ask her how she does her pickled daikon, which is, for me, one of the most Japanese flavours ever. I love dipping into a little side of these pickles at breakfast or really with any meal. She sent back a one-sentence explanation: "After sprinkling salt over slices of daikon, drain water and marinate with vinegar, lemon slices and a bit of sugar if I feel like it!" I was getting used to figuring out these kinds of instructions on my own, but I wrote back: "Lemon slices only or juice too?" "I like both. Try adjusting how you like it," she wrote back, shortly followed by, "I add lemon in everything."
And that is precisely how Japanese pickles should be approached - try adjusting how you like it. Keep in mind that lemons can vary greatly in acidity - my mother has Meyer lemons, so these are on the sweeter side. If using other kinds of lemons, you may need to adjust the sugar to balance out the acidity. I personally like just the lemon slices in here and this is how the recipe is written below, but if you want to add lemon juice to the pickling liquid too, do so as you combine the rice vinegar and sugar - again, you may need to taste and adjust the sugar to keep the balance.
These are so easy to make because they are a form of "quick pickling" - you can enjoy them after only a couple of hours - and you can always adjust the sweetness, sourness or even spiciness (with the addition of ginger or chilli, for example) to your liking. But if you ask me, these are the best pickles. It's the slices of lemon that do it for me.
1. Peel and slice the daikon into 2-3mm slices and then cut the slices into halves or quarters, depending on how large the daikon circumference is. Place them in a bowl and sprinkle over the salt, rubbing it through so that it is well distributed. Leave for five to 10 minutes. This will help draw out extra moisture. Rinse and pat dry really well with a clean dish towel.
2. Combine the rice vinegar and sugar in a jar and shake or stir the mixture until the sugar is dissolved. Add the daikon and lemon pieces to the jar and let marinate for a couple of hours before eating.
3. Keep leftovers in their jar in the fridge; these last really well, if you don't eat them all at once.
Makes 1 x 250ml jar.
"Nasu dengaku" is one of the first Japanese recipes I learned how to make when I moved to the US for university and was very far from home, and it is often still the dish I will make for someone unfamiliar with Japanese home cooking, because it is an instant winner - it has been my husband's favourite dish ever since I first made it for him. The silky eggplant together with the intensely flavourful, sweet miso sauce is just unforgettable. Nasu dengaku is commonly used to top tofu and other vegetables like daikon - the tofu is usually cut in a rectangle and skewered, then grilled. Personally, I also love this as a dip for crunchy cucumber sticks and if there is any sauce left over that's usually what I do with it.
You can eat nasu dengaku as a side dish, in which case this is enough for four to share, or turn it into a meal on its own with a crunchy, zingy cabbage salad for two. In either case, you always need a bowl of freshly steamed rice nearby as a foil to the richness of this wonderful dish.
1. Cut the eggplant in half lengthways, then score the flesh in a criss-cross pattern about 2cm wide to make it easier to eat with chopsticks. I also like to trim a small (5mm) section of the skin on the bottom so that the eggplant doesn't wobble and sits flat.
2. Heat a 1-2cm depth of vegetable oil in a frying pan and fry the eggplant halves until they become deep brown and tender, about three minutes on each side. Frying is the secret to the silky texture. Remove carefully from the oil and let drain on a wire rack.
3. Heat the grill element of your oven (or heat the oven to 220C if you don't have this function).
4. Mix the miso, soy sauce, mirin and sugar together to a smooth paste and warm in a small saucepan to dissolve the sugar. If it is too thick, add a splash of water to loosen a little and mix until smooth, then remove from the heat.
5. Place the eggplants with the criss-cross sides up on a baking tray and cover with a thick coating of the miso mixture, about one to two tablespoons. Place under the grill until the miso paste is bubbling around the edges, about two to three minutes (if using the oven to roast, place the tray on the top shelf and bake for several minutes or until the miso paste begins to bubble and brown slightly).
6. Serve sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds or finely chopped spring onions.
Serves 4 as a side dish.
Strawberry daifuku (meaning literally "great luck") are made of a small round mochi filled with anko and a whole fresh strawberry. They have been popular since the 1980s and are a very special treat when strawberries are in season - I loved these as a child. The strawberries are usually enclosed entirely inside the mochi but I think this version, with the strawberry nestled on top, is so eye-catching. I also love the simplest version of mochi - rice mochi hiding an anko filling - and with this recipe you can choose to leave them that way, or score them on top and add the strawberry.
1. Combine the rice flour with the water and sugar in a small, heatproof bowl. Cook it in a steamer, simply letting the steam gently cook the dough, checking two to three times and mixing with a wet spatula as needed for 12-15 minutes, or until the dough becomes thick with a completely translucent appearance. You can also microwave it in a similar way, checking for it to become translucent, and mixing two to three times in between.
2. Prepare a chopping board or tray dusted liberally with the potato starch.
3. Divide the anko into six balls, about 25g each, roughly the size of a large cherry. If it is too sticky, wet your hands to help make nice smooth balls. Set them aside.
4. Tip the mochi dough onto the top of the potato starch and use a dough scraper or sharp knife to cut the dough into six even pieces. Dust with more potato starch, then roll one piece out to a thin circle, about 1-2mm thick, with a well-dusted rolling pin. You can also shape by hand, stretching the dough like a miniature pizza. Place a ball of anko in the middle of the dough and gather up all the edges, pinching to seal. Turn the mochi upside-down so the seam is facing down. Continue in the same way to make the rest.
5. With a sharp knife, cut a slit in the top of each daifuku and push a strawberry inside. These should be enjoyed immediately with a cup of green tea. Do not refrigerate mochi as they will become unpleasantly hard.
I would substitute all the chocolate in the world for anko. I love it in all its forms and offerings, which are as numerous as the uses for chocolate. Anko has two versions: koshian, which is very fine and smooth, and tsubuan, a chunky version where some beans are left whole. I am partial to tsubuan for the texture, but also because it is less work to make as you don't need to separate the skins.
To make this smooth for koshian anko, simply add in the extra step of blending the beans fully in a food processor before putting back in the pan with the sugar and salt and passing through a fine-mesh sieve for the smoothest result. I make batches of it at a time and simply freeze what I'm not using immediately, for a rainy day.
1. Rinse and drain the beans. Because they are so small, there is no need to soak them. Place in a pan with the water and bring to a gentle simmer, then cover and cook for one hour, or until the beans are so soft they can be easily squashed. Check occasionally to see if you need to top up with any water to keep the beans just covered.
2. Strain the beans. Place the beans back into the pan, pour over the sugar and salt and heat over a low-medium heat. Adding sugar makes the beans release water, so you should see that as the beans warm up they will soon be floating in liquid. Once they are floating, for tsubuan, blend the beans with a stick blender, leaving about a third of the beans whole. For koshian, you can blend completely, then - to make it even smoother - pass through a fine-mesh sieve.
3. Continue to cook over a medium heat, stirring frequently so the mixture does not burn (be careful as it will splutter if given the chance), until you can draw a line in the bottom of the pan and it holds for a second or so. Remove from the heat and let the anko cool completely.
4. Use in your favourite recipe, enjoy by the spoonful or store for later use (it will keep in the freezer for up to three months, or in the fridge for up to four days).
Makes about 750g.
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