Leftover Seaweed Rice Topping (Kombu no Tsukudani)

konbu_tsukudanipHave you ever considered making your own Japanese stock (dashi)? If you like miso soup, you should try doing it at least once. Then you will realise it’s a piece of cake in comparison with, say, chicken stock, not to mention the difference in taste with the powdered form. All you need (for the most popular dashi type) is dried konbu/kombu seaweed (昆布) and dried bonito flakes, both easily available at Japanese groceries or by internet. You can keep your stock several days in the fridge, you can of course freeze it, use also in Western dishes… the only problem you might encounter is throwing away the beautifully scented kombu strip, which obviously still has a culinary potential.

After different unsuccessful attempts, like shredding it and putting into Japanese stews, I finally discovered tsukudani, a delicious rice topping which gives a perfect second life to kombu. In fact, I love it so much, I no longer see leftover kombu as a problem, but as a great chance to prepare this addictive, crunchy, umami-flavoured alternative to the boring soy sauce.

Tsukudani 佃煮 is an old method of preserving, coming from the years when fridges were unheard of. Its main ingredient can be seaweed, meat or seafood. The products are simmered in soy sauce and mirin (sometimes with additional seasoning), until the mixture thickens. Thanks to the high concentration such a preparation keeps for longer. I prefer to keep it in the fridge because it tastes better when cold, but it will keep at room temperature too.

(My recipe is loosely adapted from ingredients’ list I have read on the package of a commercial tsukudani (I don’t even remember the brand…) and then adapted the amounts to my taste.)

TIPS: If you prepare dashi for the first time, don’t wash dry konbu before using it in dashi or in anything else! You will wash away lots of its flavour (and maybe some health benefits too…). Of course, rinse the cooked kombu before making tsukudani.

Apart from being an excellent rice topping, this tsukudani is delicious on fried or poached egg and also fresh cheese/quark toast… but possibilities are endless

Preparation: about 15 minutes

Ingredients (the below amounts should be treated only as a hint and adapted to everyone’s taste):

(approximately) 7 cm (about 3 in) piece of leftover konbu (still moist and fresh from the previous preparation)

4 tablespoons low sodium Japanese soy sauce (or 2 tablespoons of normal Japanese soy sauce)

1 tablespoon mirin (sweet cooking sake)

1 tablespoon sake

1 teaspoon toasted white sesame seeds

3-4 tablespoons dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi); I prefer here the small pieces

Rinse the konbu piece and chop it into tiny cubes or threads.

Place the kombu into a small pan, add the soy sauce, the mirin, the sake and the sesame seeds.

Let it all simmer at low heat until it thickens and becomes glossy.

Take off the heat, add the dried bonito flakes and stir well.

Keep in a closed jar in the fridge; it will last at least a month.

Serve as rice topping/seasoning.

Greek Yogurt (or Quark) Spread with Caramelised Red Onion

onionspreadpI discovered this wonderful spread in an overpriced, but otherwise average restaurant I’d certainly try to forget if it hadn’t been for quark with caramelised red onion, the highlight of their welcome snacks (and of the whole evening really). Visually unappealing, it proved surprisingly complex in taste and absolutely delicious. It has quickly become my staple light snack and favourite winter breakfast. I prepare a batch and, as soon as it’s finished, I prepare a new one. It’s been going on like this for several weeks and I don’t get tired of all these fantastic flavours.

TIPS: The restaurant I’ve mentioned used quark (aka fresh cheese or fromage frais), which is not available everywhere. Greek yogurt has a similar consistency and is also perfect here (I’ve tested both and even made it with normal natural yogurt and all these three options work perfectly). (Though if you have choice, do try it with quark first). You can also try it with thick sour cream; it will no longer be light, but the slight tanginess will be there.

US cream cheese is not an option here:  it doesn’t have the tanginess and freshness yogurts or quark have, so I don’t advise it; moreover the spread would no longer be healthy or light….

The condiments’ amount given below should be treated as a vague proposition. Taste the onion (when cooled) and adjust according to your taste.

If you skip soy sauce, the onions will retain their purple colour. (Soy sauce is my recent improvement idea).

SERVING IDEAS: My absolute number one is a canapé with thin Finnish wholemeal crisp bread, but it goes as spread/dip on any bread, chips, nachos, etc.. You can serve it as a side dish with grilled chicken or as heat taming sauce with Mexican or even Indian dishes. I’m sure it tastes fantastic with baked potatoes.

Preparation: about 30 minutes + at least 2 hours in the fridge.


200 ml (about 6 oz) Greek yogurt or Quark (see the TIPS above)

1 big red onion (which has a size of a medium white onion)

1 tablespoon oil

2 tablespoons vinegar (the best would be balsamic; if you use a stronger one, put only 1 tablespoon)

1 teaspoon brown sugar

1 tablespoon soy sauce

ground black pepper

(salt, if needed)

Cut the peeled onion in half and slice more or less finely.

Heat the oil in a pan and constantly stirring, fry the onion at medium heat until it loses about half of its volume.

Add the vinegar, the soy sauce and the sugar and continue stir-frying.

After about 5 minutes, put aside, let it chill and taste. Adjust the flavours, adding more salt, sugar or vinegar and fry for a minute to heat once more. (Don’t taste the onion when it’s warm because the taste changes a lot). At the end add ground pepper and give the onions the last stir.

Combine with the yogurt or quark, add more freshly ground black pepper,  and refrigerate for at least two hours. It improves greatly overnight.


Japanese Shredded Cabbage Salad

cabbage_otoushipWhile in Japan we usually follow the same eating pattern: restaurant for lunch and izakaya for dinner. Izakaya could be described as the equivalent of a pub, but no one goes there only to drink and the food is as good as in “real” restaurants (or even better, but at a lower price!). Izakayas serve small food portions and this makes them perfect places to end the day in a cool atmosphere, whether very hungry or just a bit. Most izakayas make customers pay for “otoshi/otoushi”, which could be described as an obligatory welcome snack (if you are lucky, you might also receive another non-ordered snack in the middle of your meal and even at the end, but these will be on the house, so make sure to compliment them, even if you don’t like them!). Otoshi tells a lot about the place : if it is bad and it’s our first visit to the place, I order very cautiously and immediately search internet for another izakaya to continue the evening, just in case….

Strangely, among all the different otoshi, some of them very unusual, this cabbage salad, served in one of our favourite izakayas, was was the most extraordinary. Having gone there twice this year, I memorised well all the ingredients and prepared it as soon as we came back. It’s by far the best raw cabbage dish I have ever eaten in my life! If you like typical Japanese flavours, I guarantee you will dream of this salad every time you see the humble cabbage in your grocery shop (at least that’s what happens to me every time I go shopping!).

TIPS: This dish is not vegetarian, but can easily become such if you skip the dried bonito flakes. (I don’t advise skipping the remaining ingredients which are essential in my opinion).

Those who never cook Japanese, might be put off by some ingredients, but they are easy to get in any Japanese grocery shop (or can be ordered by internet, at least in Europe, US or Canada).

Ponzu is a slightly sweet, slightly tangy and savoury light sauce. The tanginess comes from the Japanese citrus : yuzu.

Nori is the seaweed sheet used to make maki sushi.

Dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi) look a bit like wood flakes, but are made from very hard pieces of dried fish. They are used in the preparation of the most popular version of dashi (stock) and to put on top of dishes, such as okonomiyaki (they are delicious simply sprinkled on rice).

If you have never tasted Japanese mayonnaise, try it at least once. I consider it the best mayonnaise in the world.

I haven’t managed to shred the cabbage as finely as it’s done in Japan, but the thin slices are sufficient and are easily obtained with a mandolin.

Because of the ponzu’s tanginess, I find this salad particularly good with fried meat or fish (as long as you don’t exaggerate with the mayonnaise!). You can also serve it as a starter.

You can shred the cabbage in advance, but add the remaining ingredients only just before serving.

Preparation: about 10 minutes

Ingredients (serves two as a side-dish): 

1/3 small white cabbage

2-3 tablespoons mayonnaise (the Japanese mayonnaise is just perfect here)

1/2 nori sheet, shredded (the seaweed used to make maki sushi; sometimes you can find it already shredded)

4 tablespoons ponzu sauce

 a small handful of dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi)

Shred the cabbage with a mandolin or a special shredder.

Place the cabbage into individual bowls.

Sprinkle with ponzu, add the mayonnaise, nori and bonito flakes and serve immediately.

Winter Salad with Salt-Brined Cucumber, Leek and Apple

leek_cuc_saladpSomehow, even though lettuce is available throughout the year, I rarely have it in winter (while I can have prepare a green salad sometimes every other day in the summer!). At this time of the year I often need more crunch, more texture in cold side-dishes and this one is a good example. This salad is based on one of the many versions of the Polish salt-brined cucumber and leek salad, usually prepared during cold months. Vinegar-pickled cucumbers can be used here too, but I prefer salt-brined ones which are a typical source of vitamin C in the winter and have less “violent” flavours. The super light sauce is barely perceptible, but I think a good dose of freshly ground black pepper is an important taste improvement.

TIPS: Some people find eating raw onions or leek difficult. If it’s your case, after slicing it, sprinkle with salt, rub with your fingers and leave for about 15 minutes and then rinse. It should make it milder.

Salt-brined cucumber can be found in Polish, Russian or Ukrainian shops, but I regularly buy it also in Germany (in an organic shop), so look for it in organic shops too. The visual difference of the jar is that vinegar-pickled cucumber’s brine is clear while the salt brine is a bit muddy at the bottom and not perfectly clear.

If you cannot find salt-brined cucumber, you can use vinegar-pickled, but rather the milder ones which have a low vinegar content (more sugar and more water). I’m not sure if the amount shouldn’t be cut down in this case… it depends how strong they are.

If you have fresh dill or parsley, they suit this salad, but are not very important.

Since salt-brined cucumber is already salty, I don’t add any more salt, but you can add it of course to the sauce if you wish (or if you use vinegar-pickled cucumber).

Preparation: 10 minutes

Ingredients (serves two-three as a side-dish):

1 big apple (I prefer rather the tangier varieties)

1 medium leek (the white and light green part only)

3 big salt-brined cucumbers


2 tablespoons good quality oil (it can be any neutrally tasting oil or olive oil)

1 tablespoons lemon juice or white wine/cider vinegar

freshly ground pepper

(fresh dill or parsley leaves)

Cut the leek in half lengthwise and then slice it.

If you have problems with raw leek, sprinkle with salt, rub with your fingers and leave for about 15 minutes. Rinse it. (It should make the taste milder.)

Cut up the remaining vegetables, coat in the sauce and season with freshly ground pepper just before serving.

Easiest Japanese Pickled Cucumber

pickled_cuc1Happy New Year, my dear visitors! I hope all of you have spent wonderful festive days and that your return to active life was not too hard. I don’t know if any of you feel the same, but I have big remorses about all I’ve devoured during the previous weeks and, just like every year, try to eat lighter and thus feel better. Low-fat soups and konnyaku products have become staples and I turned my interest to healthier activities in the kitchen, such as an intense use of the pickling jars brought from my last trip to Japan.

Even though nothing compares to the short sun-scented summer cucumbers, I find the winter greenhouse-grown specimens fully acceptable, especially in a pickled form, so the first pickling session that came to mind was this simple salted cucumber. Perfect introduction to the world of tsukemono (Japanese pickles), it is so quick, you won’t believe the results. Actually it’s so easy I even didn’t follow any recipe not counted ingredients’ amounts… I simply took salt, cucumbers and… it worked every single time. Sprinkled with salt and pressed with a heavy object, cucumber pieces acquire a different texture, taste and colour, but still remain fresh and crunchy. For me it’s a perfect light snack, side-dish or addition to salads, sandwiches and even stir-fries.

If you feel like experimenting further with tsukemono, here are some other Japanese pickling ideas (not all of them adapted to winter season though):

Japanese raw aubergine salad

Japanese raw aubergine salad

Overnight Japanese Pickled Celery

Overnight Japanese Pickled Celery

Japanese Dried and Pickled Daikon

Japanese Dried and Pickled Daikon

Kyuuri no Kyuuchan (Japanese Pickled Cucumber with Soy Sauce and Ginger)

Kyuuri no Kyuuchan (Japanese Pickled Cucumber with Soy Sauce and Ginger)

Pickled Ginger (Gari)

Pickled Ginger (Gari)

Preparation: 10 minutes + 1 or 2 hours


salt (no more than a heaped tablespoon per 1 long cucumber)


You may peel the cucumber completely, peel one in two horizontal lines or leave the skin on (I prefer to leave the skin on the smooth long cucumbers and peel partly only the short cucumbers with thicker skin).

Cut the cucumber in two lengthwise, then slice it thickly (about 1/2-1/3 cm thick).

Place in a jar or bowl in layers, sprinkling each layer with salt.

Place on top a heavy lid or another bowl or for example a jar/glass filled with water and leave for one or two hours.

Serve, drained, as a snack or side-dish.

Your pickles will keep in the fridge for maximum two days. You can eat them for a longer time, but they will lose their crispiness.