Friday, March 2, 2012

adventures in Japanese cooking

During our recent trip to Tokyo, Shula and I were lucky enough to stay with Rabbi Antonio DiGesu, the rabbi of the Jewish Community of Japan. A former student of my father’s, Antonio was pre-disposed to be a dutiful host, but he was so much more – gracious and welcoming and fun! He also made delicious, Japanese-style food.

Antonio has been in Japan since 2009, and does not have the luxury of living on a military base when it comes to easy access to American foods and ingredients. He has, however, applied a significant amount of time to becoming proficient in reading and speaking Japanese, and he uses those language skills to shop worry-free in Japanese supermarkets.

After Shabbat ended on Saturday night, Antonio took Shula and me on a “here’s what’s safe to eat at the supermarket” tour that was incredibly instructive. Some things were obvious: vegetables are vegetables (even if they’re different types than you’re used to, they’re safe to eat) and pork is still pork. But some foods that you would assume would be safe from a kashrut perspective are not. For instance, apparently all yogurt products in Japan contain gelatin. And almost any American snack food purchased in a Japanese supermarket (think Pringles, Ritz Crackers, etc) contains shrimp paste or something of the sort. It’s crazy and unfair all at the same time.

When it came to Japanese cooking ingredients (sauces, mixes, etc), I mostly resorted to taking pictures of the products Antonio declared safe, and hoping the same brands would be sold in our local supermarkets back on Okinawa. While having access to an American supermarket is a huge lifesaver, Yoni and I both really like Japanese food, and as long as we are here and have easy access to ingredients, I can’t find any reasons not to do a little experimenting. Also, Antonio had made a delicious tofu/vegetable soup that I found totally inspiring, and wanted to re-create at home.

When I got back to Okinawa, not all the products Antonio had pointed out were available, but some of them (including fabulous sweet and salty rice cakes) were. With a little extra help and the magic of the iPhone (one day I’ll write a blog about how magical my iPhone feels here), I was able to put together a Japanese soup that was similar in taste to the one Antonio served us.

What was in it, you ask?

The base was made of だし (dashi), a fish-stock that’s ubiquitous in Japanese cooking. There are many ways to make dashi, but I made it using what were basically tea bags.

I brought a big pot of water to boil, and then added the “tea bags” (one for every 3 cups or so), and allowed the boiling water to steep for 3-4 minutes. That’s it! Into the dashi went a seriously random assortment of vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, dried shiitake mushrooms, lotus root, really anything I could get my hands on), a bunch of dried kelp (for flavor, apparently), and some big chunks of tofu. Per Antonio’s instructions, I let the whole thing simmer for about an hour, and then took it off the heat and stirred in some miso paste.

To finish it off, I added a little bit of soy sauce, and removed the kelp. You can eat it, but it was in very big pieces and leaving it in the soup didn’t seem practical. And, by the way, the soup was delicious!

My next Japanese cooking project will, I think, be おにぎり (that would be Onigiri for all you non-Japanese readers out there). They look like this…

…and I love to eat them!

As to making them, though – I’m not sure. I’ll let you know how it goes. :)

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