Category Archives: Japanese

Spring Okonomiyaki (Japanese Savoury Pancake) with Wild Garlic

Okonomiyaki is one of the most frequent Japanese dishes in my house. From the beginning I took its name literally (it means roughly “grill what you want”) and never stopped improving, adapting to my changing palate and, of course, seasons. As a big garlic fan, I made crushed garlic the obligatory ingredient of every single batter. Last weekend I decided to add chopped wild garlic leaves instead and this seasonal twist made me discover one of the best versions (actually I wonder if it wasn’t even the best okonomiyaki in my life…). It’s definitely one of the best wild garlic dishes in my collection.

If you have never heard of okonomiyaki, it’s a kind of savoury pancake (sometimes called “Japanese pizza”), but the batter contains only a small amount of flour and lots of white cabbage. The magical side of every okonomiyaki is a generous choice of toppings added once it’s fried, and these usually include a special okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, katsuobushi (dried and shaved bonito), green onions, pickled ginger, ao nori (seaweed “flakes”)… The basic cabbage batter can also be played with and enriched with sliced pork, beef, raw calamar or dried shrimp and it is often topped with thinly sliced pork belly, fried when the pancake is flipped. There are two main variations of okonomiyaki: Kansai/Osaka-style (the one I “practice” and describe above), and a very filling Hiroshima style, which contains also cooked noodles and which I find too heavy. 

As I have mentioned, I have experimented a lot with both the batter and the toppings. Most modifications are surprisingly successful and I can only hope the pancakes I make can still be called okonomiyaki….

If you don’t have wild garlic/ramsons (click here to learn more about it), you might like one of these versions:

Okonomiyaki with Chorizo

with Chorizo

Okonomiyaki with Bok Choy and Chicken

with Bok Choy and Chicken

Okonomiyaki with Chicken

with Chicken

Okonomiyaki with Eringi Mushrooms and Bacon

with Eringi Mushrooms and Bacon

...with Red Cabbage and Garlic

with Red Cabbage and Garlic

Okonomiyaki with Green Onions

TIPS:

Okonomiyaki batter mixture: it can be bought in Japanese grocery shops or prepared from the scratch. Personally I am happy to prepare it from scratch since it takes two minutes and I’m sure it tastes better. I have seen different batter recipes; mine is composed of an egg, some flour, some dashi (Japanese stock), salt, pepper, baking powder and, last but not least, grated mountain yam (or yamaimo in Japanese), a slimy cousin of the potato (I find it in organic shops and I know Asian and Chinese grocery shops sell it).  It is not necessary, but in my opinion it largely improves the texture, making it lighter and fluffier. Yamaimo freezes very well (I freeze it peeled in individual portions and then grate when half thawed). When I don’t have yam, I skip it and when I don’t have dashi, I simply replace it, trying to keep the same pancake-like texture. The result is still delicious, albeit slightly different.

Okonomiyaki is always served with okonomiyaki sauce. I once bought it and it was much too sweet, so I was more than happy to learn from Hiroyuki how to make my own sauce, mixing ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and soy sauce in desired proportions. (Nowadays I go even further, replacing sometimes this sauce with my homemade Indian style tomato chutney)

Okonomioyaki mixture can be prepared in advance and fried/grilled the following day. As an addict, I often make a double batch and have it two days in a row.

Okonomiyaki toppings: these usually include okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise and katsuobushi (flakes of dried bonito). Ao nori (powdered seaweed) is also very frequent, but I have noticed many Westerners dislike its “fishy” aroma. Personally I prefer to skip it and sprinkle with green onion or chives. Among my obligatory toppings are also taberu rayu (chilli oil with sediments) and very often tobanjan (Chinese chilli paste, which I buy in… Japanese shops and in Japan!). You can add of course whatever topping you like!

Preparation: 40 minutes

Ingredients (serves 2):

Batter:

5 slightly heaped tablespoons flour

30 ml (about 1 oz) dashi (Japanese stock, home-made or instant) or a mixture of milk+dashi or good quality chicken stock or simply water (though the latter yields the least flavourful pancake)

1 egg

3 cm/about 1,2 in grated mountain yam (yamaimo) (can be omitted, but then less flour should be added)

salt

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

10  bok choy leaves and stalks (or more if the bok choy is small), chopped ; if your bok choy has more leaves than stalks, use only half of the leaves, otherwise the pancake will be too soft (at least for me)

1 big handful of chopped wild garlic leaves

1 chicken breast

1 tablespoon oil

Toppings:

dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi)

okonomiyaki sauce (or a mixture of ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and soy sauce) ; I have used here my Indian-style tomato chutney

mayonnaise

chopped chives or spring onions

2 tablespoons oil

(ao nori, or powdered seaweed)

(chili paste, oil or sauce, such as Taberu Rayu)

(pickled ginger)

(6 thin slices of smoked bacon, cut into bite-sized pieces)

Cut up the chicken breast into small cubes (1 cm x 1 cm). Season with salt and pepper, stir-fry until golden brown and put aside.

In a big bowl combine the batter ingredients. Adjust the consistency adding more liquids or more flour (the mixture should be very thick, not liquid and the batter should only bind the ingredients together and not dominate them).

Heat one tablespoon oil in a frying pan or on a smooth grill (called teppanyaki grill or la plancha).

Put half of the okonomiyaki mixture in a more or less round-shaped heap (you can adjust it on the pan).

Flatten delicately the pancake, but not too much. Otherwise it might fall into pieces when you turn it over. (My okonomiyaki is max. 1,5 cm/about 1/2 inch high).

If you use smoked bacon, place the pieces on top, cover the pan and let it fry at medium heat for 5 – 10 minutes until you see the upper part of batter set. If you use an old-fashioned pan (steel or iron), you might have to turn down the heat to the lowest because it might burn.

Flip the pancake over, cover once more and fry for another 5 minutes until the bacon is slightly browned.

Flip over onto a plate and add your favourite toppings.

Repeat the same with the remaining batter mixture.

Chilli Lovers’ Preserving Reminder

Yuzu Koshou 柚子こしょう

Yuzu Koshou 柚子こしょう

In many countries imported fresh chilli is available all year round, but the most delicious aromatic local ripe chilli – the best for preserves – is sold only for a limited time. In my part of Europe the beginning of August is the best moment to start thinking about preserving this fresh aromatic chilli, find the most interesting farmer market stalls, check the stock of empty jars, lids and, most of all, make a list of the fiery treats that will fill one’s pantry or fridge this year.

I have chosen here my favourite fresh chilli pickles and condiments, successfully tested every year (some short-term preserves are made even dozens of times a year). All of them are easy to prepare and guaranteed as addictive. Some can become long-term preserves, some keep for a limited time in the fridge. I hope my fellow chilli lovers will find at least one of them worth trying and those who cannot stand the heat might substitute chilli with sweet peppers. Write to me if you have any questions or problems.

Raimu Koshou (Chilli and Lime Zest Paste)

Raimu Koshou (Chilli and Lime Zest Paste)

Yuzu Koshou 柚子こしょう

Yuzu Koshou 柚子こしょう

Vinegar-Pickled Chillies

Vinegar-Pickled Chillies

Peperoncini sott'olio (Fresh Chillies with garlic and Oil)

Peperoncini sott’olio (Fresh Chillies with garlic and Oil)

Salt Brine Pickled CHilli

Salt Brine Pickled CHilli

Chilli Jelly

Chilli Jelly

Hunan Salt-Pickled Chillies/Erös Pista

Hunan Salt-Pickled Chillies/Erös Pista

Habanero and Oil Paste

Habanero and Oil Paste

Pineapple and Chilli Jelly

Pineapple and Chilli Jelly

Mango and Chilli Sauce

Mango and Chilli Sauce

Easy Lazy Eggless Baked Chicken Katsu (Breaded Chicken Breast)

baked_chkatsupTonkatsu 豚カツ (breaded pork) and especially chicken katsu チキンカツ are among those Japanese dishes I could eat practically every other day. Until recently, I thought they had a huge disadvantage : being deep-fried. (I don’t find deep-frying difficult, complicated or dangerous and actually like it, but avoid it due to the fat and calorie content.) This was until I discovered Nami’s (Just One Cookbook) revolutionary solution : baked chicken katsu. Thanks to her, suddenly, tonkatsu and chicken katsu have switched from a rare special treat to a guilt-free staple!

If you have ever deep-fried chicken katsu or tokatsu, the ingredients of this lighter baked version are the same: flour, beaten egg and panko (Japanese breadcrumbs), all used to coat the meat. The only difference is that panko is stir-fried until golden before the meat is coated, which takes only a while, so the process is quite easy. However, since I’m a lazy cook, always in search of shortcuts, after a dozen of baking sessions I started to wonder what would happen if I skipped the flour and egg coating stage… One day I simply brushed chicken breasts in oil (to make them stickier), coated in stir-fried breadcrumbs and baked as advised in Nami’s recipe. Even though oil-brushed meat is less sticky than an egg coating, the amount of panko is enough to make it still deliciously crisp. This baked chicken katsu might look less attractive than its deep fried version, but it’s so much quicker, lighter and easier, I just couldn’t wait to share it with you.

Personally I find both the three stage-coated and this lazy, one stage-coated chicken katsu equally delicious, but it might not be to everyone’s taste, so check the beautifully photographed Nami’s Baked Chicken Katsu together with a very helpful video.

TIPS: You can use any fat or oil of your choice. After many tests I have become crazy for coconut oil in both panko frying and meat brushing stages. The final flavours have only a hint of coconut aroma and I love it.

You can fry some panko crumbs in advance, cool them down and keep in a closed jar for several days. Strangely they still keep crisp and you can skip their stir-frying process.

Chicken katsu and tonkatsu are served in Japan with a special tonkatsu sauce (easily available at Japanese groceries but I prefer much more less sweet homemade version) and ground white sesame seeds. I also like it with ponzu (yuzu citrus and soy sauce mixture) and… mayonnaise+ taberu rayu (garlicky chilli sauce with sediments, see how to make it here).

Quick Chilli and Garlic Oil with Sediments

Quick Chilli and Garlic Oil with Sediments

Preparation: about 30 minutes

Ingredients (serves two):

2 small chicken breasts or 1 very big (if you use very big chicken breasts, halve them lengthwise)

8 heaped tablespoons of panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)

1 tablespoon coconut oil+ 1 more for meat brushing

salt, pepper

Preheat the oven to 190°C.

Heat 1 tablespoon of coconut oil in a pan (at low heat). Slowly stir-fry the panko crumbs (don’t stop stirring because at a certain point they quickly burn) until they become golden.

Once they cool down, place them on a plate.

Season the meat with salt and pepper.

Coat the chicken breasts in panko, pressing with your hands (pat more with your hands if you want more of the crunchy crust!).

Place on baking paper and bake for about 20-25 minutes (depending on the breast size and the oven) until, when pierced with a tooth pick the running juices are clear, not pink.

If you intend to eat with chopsticks, cut the breast into bite-sized pieces before serving.

You can serve them with tonkatsu sauce (in every Japanese grocery shop), but personally I love them with mayonnaise and hot sauce (such as sriracha or taberu rayu) and, in a lighter version with ponzu (soy sauce and Japanese citrus sauce).

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.

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.