A few months ago, I sneaked away from my desk to see director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Japanese film “Our Little Sister,” about three women who live together in their grandmother’s house in Kamakura; upon discovering they have a younger orphaned half-sibling, they take her in.
More than making me long for sisters of my own, it compelled me to cook. The women constantly dine and prepare meals together. As I watched the oldest sister – and family cook – boil a pot of noodles, slide a tempura-battered slice of eggplant into a pan of bubbling hot oil or smilingly anticipate the salad she’d compose with Hokkaido potatoes newly arrived at the vegetable market, I thought, “I would like to make those things.”
It wasn’t an aspirational longing. This wasn’t like seeing “Big Night” and deciding to spend a weekend making a labor-intensive, gigantic, multi-layered, pasta-filled Italian timpano, or watching “Babette’s Feast” and getting the notion to re-create an elaborate dinner party that culminates in stuffed quails encased in puff pastry. What I observed on that screen was the kind of food I imagined I might fix for myself regularly if I lived in Japan: uncomplicated, relatively quick, nourishing dishes made with few ingredients.
The past few years saw an uptick in titles about that country’s cuisine that were more likely to appeal to the timpano types than to the Nigel Slater or Ina Garten crowd. More recently, though, contemporary cookbooks with recipes for Japanese food most of us can – and might be likely to – prepare have begun to reach the United States. I wondered whether, using them to guide me, I could cook the way “Our Little Sister” had inspired me to. I decided I’d challenge myself to do it for a week or so and see what happened.
First, though, I wanted to understand what constitutes home cooking in Japan.
“Everyday Japanese home cooking tends to be simple and unfussy: often grilled or fried fish or one-pot dishes like soups, stews and curries to be eaten with rice and perhaps some vegetables,” replied London-based chef Tim Anderson, whose cookbook “Nanban: Japanese Soul Food” (Clarkson Potter, $35, 256 pages) was published in 2016.
There isn’t a lot of overlap between what you eat at restaurants and what you’d make for yourself.
“Home cooks typically don’t have the skills, time or equipment to make classic Japanese dishes like sushi, ramen or even yakitori on a regular basis,” Anderson said.
Some savory street foods are household regulars, culinary instructor Kimiko Barber told me. She also mentioned that most cooking in Japan is done with surface heat, negating the need for an oven.
The Kobe native, who has called London home since 1972, says there’s no excuse for Westerners not to make the food of her homeland now that it has become so widespread and its ingredients easier to find.
“Japanese cooking is, in fact, quite simple,” she says. “We try not to cook but to draw out ingredients’ natural tastes and flavors, rather like Italian cuisine, because we believe nature knows best.”
I started with what Anderson writes is “perhaps the very first thing you should learn”: dashi, the stock made with dried kelp (kombu), which has a high concentration of the glutamic acid our palates register as umami. You can intensify that savory impact with dried shiitake mushrooms and katsuoboshi, dried and fermented tuna (bonito) chunks shaved into tissue-paper-thin flakes. It’s the foundation of most soups and stews, and of many sauces.
I followed his recipe, noticing he had another for braising the kelp once it had been used to flavor the stock. I tried that next, putting my dashi-spent mushrooms and bonito flakes in the pot with the chopped kombu and reducing it in a combination of soy sauce, sugar, mirin, rice vinegar and water until it became almost jammy. I stirred in sesame seeds and used it to garnish a fresh bowl of rice.
The next day, I picked up some Chinese chives for the egg-and-chive porridge in Barber’s “Cook Japanese at Home” (Kyle Books, new edition coming out in May). I pulled the dashi out of my fridge; brought it to a boil with sake, soy sauce and salt; threw in my chives; then quickly simmered it all with leftover rice from the night before. At the very end, I drizzled in some beaten egg. It was just as “warming and reviving” as the recipe’s headnote had claimed.
A few evenings later, arriving home late and hungry, I rinsed the fresh clams I’d left to soak in saltwater and, adhering to the instructions laid out by Maori Murota in “Tokyo Cult Recipes” (Harper Design, $35, 272 pages), steamed them in a liquor of garlic, sake and soy sauce. Less than four minutes later, dinner was ready; I sprinkled the shellfish with scallions and spooned them, with their cooking liquid, over buttered toast instead of the expected rice.
As I was flipping through Murota’s cookbook, I saw a photo of glazed meatballs with a gooey yellow egg yolk spilling into them and I wanted to eat them, very badly. Like the clams, these tsukune had been placed in the chapter on pub-style izakaya food but seemed straightforward enough for the home kitchen. If you had told me I was going to love anything made with ground chicken as much as I loved these little scallion-and-ginger-flecked spheres coated in a caramelized salty-sweet sauce, I never would have believed you.
The next recipe blew my mind. It was Masaharu Morimoto’s sake shioyaki (salt-grilled salmon) from his “Mastering the Art of Japanese Home Cooking” (Ecco, $45, 288 pages). The only other ingredient, aside from the two mentioned in that title, is vegetable oil, and a minimal amount, at that.
The Iron Chef includes an optional “magic trick” for neutralizing fishy flavor. It’s a quick (15-second) splish-splash in a sake-salt solution – and it should be mandatory. You then shower your salmon with more salt and refrigerate it for an hour. Rinse it, lightly oil a baking sheet, place the salmon on that and put it under the broiler for a few minutes. I don’t know if I’ll ever cook that fish another way again. I served it with Morimoto’s adapted version of kinpira, a stir-fry traditionally made with burdock and lotus roots. He swapped those out for parsnips and celery. It was a dead ringer for the original.
Anderson had touted his own baked sweet potatoes with yuzu butter, and I was already on a roll, so why not frenetically whip the creamy fat with a jot of yuzu juice and soy sauce and chuck some yams in the oven? On the back streets of Japan, you’d see people roasting the tubers on hot stones and eating them just so. These yaki-imo are made at home, too. The chef gussied them up, but not by a lot. I plonked a rather generous amount of his compound butter onto my potatoes and giddily watched it melt into the starchy flesh.
At this point I realized that the “challenge” I’d set myself was far from that. Japanese home cooking is even easier than Western, technique-wise, and frequently calls for fewer ingredients, and ones you reuse repeatedly. They’re probably not at your corner store, but you can find them at local and online Asian markets, and via Amazon.com.
The last dish I prepared is, Barber says, one of the most popular family meals and “never found in restaurants.” Known simply as beef and potato (niku-jaga), it’s a humble simmer that dates to the late 1870s and was inspired by a British stew. The meat and potatoes are joined by onions and enhanced by sake, sugar, mirin, soy sauce and our old friend dashi.
It turns out most people don’t render their stock; they use the instant formula. I see no reason to do it any differently, and my niku-jaga was so comforting and flavorful that I think I’ll stick with the powdered stuff from now on. Because I intend to continue making that stew and the rest of these dishes long after the next round of cookbooks has come and gone.
Now I’m realizing that the only thing missing, after all, are those three sisters – or better yet, some of my own – to eat them with me.
Chicken meatballs (tsukune)
You may have tasted Asian-inspired meatballs like these before, but the option of serving them with a raw egg yolk, which turns into a kind of rich sauce, takes them to another level. Serve with rice and a vegetable or salad.
If you are concerned about the risk of salmonella, use pasteurized eggs, available in select supermarkets.
Adapted from “Tokyo Cult Recipes,” by Maori Murota.
For the glaze:
2 1/2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
2 1/2 tablespoons mirin
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 clove garlic, bruised/barely crushed
For the meatballs:
14 ounces ground dark-meat chicken
2 scallions, finely chopped (white, light- and dark-green parts)
One 3/4-inch piece peeled fresh ginger root, grated
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon mirin
1 teaspoon sesame oil (not toasted)
1 large egg, preferably pasteurized, separated into white and yolk, plus 1 or 2 or more large egg yolks (keep the yolks intact; see headnote)
1 teaspoon cornstarch
Neutrally flavored oil, for frying
For the glaze: Whisk together the soy sauce, mirin, sugar, oyster sauce and garlic in a medium bowl.
For the meatballs: Use your clean hands to work the chicken, scallions and ginger together in a mixing bowl until smooth and well blended. Add the soy sauce, mirin, sesame oil, egg white and cornstarch, stirring with a large spoon to incorporate. Shape the mixture into 8 rounded portions of equal size; this may seem hard to do because the mixture is quite soft.
Pour enough oil to fill a depth of 3/4 inch in a large skillet. Heat over medium heat; once the oil shimmers, drop in the portions of the meatball mixture and cook for about 4 minutes, turning them as needed, until browned and cooked through. At this point, they will look like meatballs. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a plate.
Pour the oil from the pan into a heatproof bowl (to eventually discard), then carefully wipe out the skillet and return it to the stove top. Pour in the soy sauce mixture; bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook for 2 or 3 minutes, until it has thickened into a glaze, constantly swirling the pan and watching closely to avoid scorching. Discard the garlic.
Return the meatballs to the pan, quickly turning them to coat with the glaze.
Divide between individual bowls or plates, spooning any excess glaze from the pan over the meatballs. Gently place the remaining egg yolks on top of or alongside the meatballs; they are to be used as a sauce for dipping. Serve right away.
Baked sweet potatoes with yuzu butter
Slap some of this citrus butter on a potato straight from the oven, and something magical happens.
Bottled yuzu juice is available on the international aisle at Whole Foods Markets and at Asian markets. If you can’t find it, try combining 1 part fresh orange juice and 3 parts fresh lime juice.
Make ahead: You’ll make more yuzu butter than you need for this recipe, but you’ll be glad to have it on hand. It needs to be refrigerated for at least 2 hours and up to 5 days, or frozen (well wrapped) for up to 6 months.
Adapted from “Nanban: Japanese Soul Food,” by Tim Anderson.
14 tablespoons ( 1 3/4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 tablespoons yuzu juice (see headnote)
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
6 medium sweet potatoes
Black sesame seeds, crushed, for garnish
Combine the butter, yuzu juice and soy sauce in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer. Beat on medium speed until completely incorporated; no droplets of liquid should remain. Transfer to a sealed container and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, until firm.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Scrub the sweet potatoes and cut away any eyes or gnarly bits on the skins. Wrap each potato in aluminum foil; roast for 45 to 60 minutes, depending on their size; they’re done when you can easily poke all the way through their thickest part with a chopstick. Let them cool slightly.
Cut the yuzu butter into chunks. Split open the sweet potatoes and put a generous knob of the yuzu butter (about 1 tablespoon) inside each.
Garnish with a sprinkle of sesame seeds and serve warm.
Per serving (with 6 tablespoons yuzu butter): 210 calories, 2 g protein, 26 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 120 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar
Stir-fried parsnip and carrot (kinpira)
Maybe you’ve seen this sweet-and-salty dish at your local Japanese restaurant, but it would have been prepared with crunchy matchsticks of carrots, plus burdock and lotus root. Here, chef Masaharu Morimoto replaces the last two with celery and parsnip, which are widely available.
Togarashi and shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) are available on the international aisle of Whole Foods Markets and at Asian markets.
make ahead: The kinpira is best served after it sits for an hour or two, but it can be refrigerated for up to 3 days in advance. Reheat or bring to room temperature before serving.
Adapted from Marimoto’s “Mastering the Art of Japanese Home Cooking.”
8 ounces parsnips (about 2 large), trimmed and peeled
1 medium carrot, trimmed and scrubbed well
1 large rib celery, trimmed and peeled
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons mirin
2 tablespoons Japanese soy sauce (shoyu; see note above)
1 teaspoon sugar
Generous pinch toasted sesame seeds, for garnish
Generous pinch ichimi togarashi (Japanese chili powder; see note above)
Cut the parsnips, carrot and celery lengthwise into quarters. Working with one piece at a time, lay the vegetable cut side down and thinly slice it crosswise (about 1/8 inch thick) on the diagonal to get 1-to-2-inch-long pieces. Repeat with all of the vegetables. You will have about 3 lightly packed cups of parsnip, 1 lightly packed cup of carrot and 1 lightly packed cup of celery.
Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the toasted sesame oil, and once the oil shimmers, add the vegetables. Stir-fry for 2 to 3 minutes, until the vegetables begin to wilt.
Add the mirin; stir-fry for 30 seconds or so, then add the shoyu. Stir-fry for 2 minutes, then stir in the sugar. Stir-fry for 2 to 3 minutes or just until the vegetables are tender and begin to stick to the pan.
Transfer the mixture to a serving bowl; sprinkle on the sesame seeds and togarashi. You can serve it right away; for best flavor, let it sit for an hour or two before serving.
Per serving: 130 calories, 2 g protein, 17 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 550 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar
Beef and potato
This popular stew typically is cooked using a drop lid or otoshi-buta, which is an insertable wooden cover made of cedar or cypress. A smaller pot lid or cut-out circle of aluminum foil or parchment paper will get the job done.
Powdered dashi is available at Asian markets and at some Whole Foods Markets, as well as on Amazon.com.
Note: To make dashi, combine 1/2 teaspoon Ajinomoto brand HonDashi and 1 cup boiling water, stirring until the powder has dissolved.
Adapted from “Cook Japanese at Home: From Dashi to Tonkatsu, 200 Simple Recipes for Every Occasion,” by Kimiko Barber.
1 1/3 pounds waxy potatoes, peeled
2 medium onions
1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil or other neutrally flavored oil
14 ounces boneless rib-eye steak, cut into 1/4-inch slices
Scant 1 cup dashi (see notes)
4 tablespoons sake
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon mirin
4 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1 scant cup water
Peppercress or watercress, for garnish
Cut the potatoes into bite-size chunks, then rinse in water and drain. Cut the onions in half from top to bottom, then into 1/3-inch-thick slices.
Place a cold, damp cloth near the stove top. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Once the oil sizzles, remove the pan from the heat and place it on the damp cloth. Add the meat once the oil stops sizzling; this will help keep the meat from sticking to the pan.
Return the pan to the stove over medium heat; cook for 5 to 7 minutes, until the beef turns lighter brown in color. Add the potatoes and onions; cook for about 5 minutes, shaking the pan continuously, until they begin to soften.
Stir in the dashi, sake, sugar, mirin, soy sauce and water; increase the heat to high and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-high and cook for about 5 minutes, skimming off scum that rises to the top.
Reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting. Place a lid slightly smaller than your pot – so it can fit inside it –- on top of the ingredients, to cover. (Alternatively, you can make a circle with vent holes in the middle with aluminum foil or parchment paper.) Cook for 8 to 10 minutes, then remove the lid, increase the heat to medium and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, until the liquid has reduced slightly.
Remove from the heat. Divide among individual bowls, garnish with the peppercress or other greens, and serve right away.
Per serving: 410 calories, 25 g protein, 45 g carbohydrates, 13 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 65 mg cholesterol, 510 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 13 g sugar