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Osechi-ryori is the Japanese style of traditional foods eaten on New Years Day. It typically consists of many different small dishes that are served in stacked jubako (fine lacquer boxes similar to bento). To purchase a ready-made Osechi can set you back well into the hundreds of dollars. Or, you can spend all of that money on an airplane ticket to Japan and let your mother-in-law cook all of the food and arrange the jubako for you, Kawabata family style. Now, I’m not completely sure of all of the ingredients that were used, but I’ll sure do my best to fill you in on what filled my belly.

First and foremost was a delicious bottle of sake. My father-in-law always gets a really nice bottle when I come to visit. This is a bottle of Junmai Daiginjo from Aomori (Aomori is the farthest north area of Honshu and I once hitchhiked from central Tokyo all the way up there, but that’s a story for another time) called Denshu. It’s one of the best bottles in Japan and you won’t find it anywhere in the States. Junmai Daiginjo is sake that is made from pure rice without any added alcohol or sugar, rice that is polished at least 50%, and cold brewed at less than 5 degrees celsius. While you can find some Junmai Daiginjo in the States, you won’t find any as nice as this. It’s smooth as a baby’s ass! Even if you don’t love a baby’s ass, you’ll certainly love this bottle of sake.

In this box there was some simple steamed pea pods, shiitake simmered in shoyu (Japanese soy sauce), boiled satoimo potatoes, simmered lotus root, simmered carrots, and koya tofu (freeze-dried tofu, something I’ve never eaten before but really like the texture).

Here we have braised beef wrapped gobo (burdock root), salmon wrapped in kombu, sweet-pickled daikon and carrot, and sweet shoyu glazed yellow tail.

This level of jubako contained dried herring roe, white and pink fish cakes, ikura (salmon roe), mashed sweet potato, soy-glazed dried anchovies, Cool Breeze Amongst Pine Trees (Uichiro’s name for his famous meatloaf, don’t ask me how he came up with that name, some things are probably better unknown), and ham.

Next to the jubako was a plate with some grilled red snapper. I’m always disappointed when I order red snapper in Chicago. I’m never disappointed with I eat it here in Japan. Tamiko got the skin nice and crisp while keeping the flesh moist and juicy. Extremely fresh fish.

Then, she brought out bowls of soup. A clear broth made from kombu and katsuo-bushi (bonito flakes) filled with mitsuba greens, fish cakes with good fortune written in the middle, mochi (an absolute necesity at the Japanese new years table), shiitake, and slices of yuzu peel.

Last, but surely not least, she served up some red snapper sashimi that was cured in kombu. A touch of wasabi was all it needed.

Dessert was simply fresh strawberries and green tea. Strawberries are extremely expensive here in Japan so they’re always a treat.

To wipe our mouths we used “Year of the Dragon” napkins since 2012 is the year of the dragon. I was born in a year of the dragon as well.

Happy new years everyone!

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Last night Yuki and I went to see RUSH at Northerly Island. What a great band! Because of that I didn’t cook Meatless Monday, though I did eat a falafel sandwich with some babaganoush before the show to keep with the theme. I tell ya, being at the concert really drove home the point that all Americans need to adopt a healthier diet as at least 75% of the concert goers were way overweight. That might be an understatement too. Concert seats are only so big and literally everyone around us was well over 200 pounds. I felt claustrophobic at time. America, start eating healthy well-balanced diets!!! But that didn’t stop us from enjoying the show. At any rate, I’m going to blog about the dinner we had Saturday night.

We were out in Schaumburg so that we could stop at the Tensuke Market, which is actually in Elk Grove, but just south of Mitsuwa. It’s smaller than Mitsuwa but sometimes has better deals and has the absolute best retail seafood in the Chicago area. If you want to make sashimi at home, I highly suggest making the trek to Tensuke for your fish. There’s a restaurant called Daruma that Yuki had wanted to try for a while so we decided to give it a try. Honestly, walking through the doors was almost like walking into Japan. I mean that in every good way possible.

The decor is very traditional of casual dining in Japan. The Japanese don’t put a whole lot of stock into gaudy decor, instead they prefer to focus on high quality food. The walls were poorly painted, the tables and seats a little worn down, cheap napkins (in Japan you usually don’t find any napkins). It really felt like a restaurant in Japan. Made me feel homesick even though I’m not Japanese.

Service was pretty good. All Japanese servers, but bi-lingual so don’t worry. It was the food that starred though.

We started off with some Miso Soup. Nothing fancy, just a well made miso soup with wakame and tofu. I also had some sake. I was torn between two kinds so they gave me a couple of samples. The samples were very generous and I honestly didn’t need to order any sake due to the large pours. But, I did get a sake from the Nara Prefecture.

We got a Daikon Salad. Thin sticks of daikon served with carrot stick tempura and a shiso dressing. Carrots often accompany daikon, but this is the first time I’ve seen carrot tempura with the daikon. Nice touch. Little pea shoots for a bit of peppery bit and color.

We ordered two maki rolls. Ebi Ten, shrimp tempura with avocado, cucumber, and smelt roe. Unakyu, fresh water eel with cucumber. The sushi was good. Not the best I’ve ever had, but overall solid.

Tatsuta Age, deep-fried chicken thigh. Usually served in smaller pieces and called karage, these were pretty big chunks of chicken. Served with shredded cabbage, potato salad, pea shoots, and a slice of lemon this is a classic. It’s also one of mine and Yuki’s favorites.

Niku Tofu, a play on the popular Japanese home cooked dish called niku jaga (meat and potato). Instead of potato Daruma used tofu. It’s thin sliced beef with tofu simmered in a sweet soy broth. Also simmered in the dish were chopped napa cabbage and green onions. This was delicious!

Hamachi Kama, the absolute star of the show! Yellowtail jaw broiled to perfection. You got all of that flavorful cheek meat, easily the best part of any large fish. I don’t know why this part isn’t served more in American cuisine because it has so much more meat and flavor than our prefered filets. This chunk of fish was so tasty it almost brought a tear to my eye. My stomach thanked me for eating this.

Overall, the food and ambiance at Daruma were fantastic. So far it’s the most authentic Japanese restaurant we’ve been to in the Chicagoland area. The food is delicious, portions are priced accordingly (we had leftovers), and the sake was flowing. The only downfall of this place is that I have to fight Hwy 90 traffic to get there. Next time Yuki’s parents are in town we’re definitely taking them there to show them that there is real Japanese cooking here.

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So, Yuki and I took a few days to visit some of the early temples and castles in the Kansai region of Japan. Most of the structures we saw date back to the 8th century and are truly amazing! Besides the structures there were also tons of great sculptures from the same time period. However, as you all know, this blog isn’t about architecture, it’s about food. This post is to let you know about the incredible Kaiseki we ate our last night in Nara at the Ryokan (traditional Japanese Inn) we stayed at, Yoshino.

Kaiseki is the classic multi-course meal that progresses through various cooking techniques using regional, seasonal ingredients. It’s the highest art form you can find in food anywhere in the world. Focus on the subtleties of each ingredient to draw out natural flavors and not cover then with heavy sauces (sorry Frenchies, but the Japanese have your asses kicked in food culture!).

It started with that dish in the middle of the picture above. From left to right was a little fish grilled in a sweet soy marinade, a roasted chestnut, ama ebi (sweet shrimp), some sort of seafood that had a jellyfish-like texture in a miso sauce (I have absolutely no idea what it was, but it sure tasted good!), then a three-colored fish cake.

After that they brought out this dish. It was obviously a shrimp, but I’m not quite sure what else there was. I think it was a gratin made with the roe of the shrimp. Also on the plate as a macaroni salad and some lettuce with a tomato.

Then we moved on to the sashimi plate. It had some fantastic Chu-Toro (tuna), Tai (snapper), and the star of the plate….Ika (squid). In the States when you order Ika it’s usually very thin and a little rubbery. Not these two slices. They were about a half centimeter thick, squid steaks! Rubbery? Hell no! Each chew and the squid literally melted away in our mouths. Hands down the best squid I’ve ever eaten.

Then they brought us a plate of steamed Ayu (sweet fish). It’s a river fish that eats moss attached to stones giving it a really fresh and clean taste. It was served with a light ginger sauce. The thing that makes Ayu special is that it’s eaten when the belly is full of fish roe. There isn’t much meat, so it’s like dipping chopsticks into a bowl of fresh water caviar.

Being the meatavore that I am, the next plate was what I was most looking forward to….Beef Tataki. Lightly seared beef to give a little texture to the soft raw meat laden with mouth-watering fat. The dipping sauce is a soy-dashi mix. You see the little mound of reddish gew on the side of the dish? That’s a mix of togarahsi (Japanese red pepper) and yuzu (a small citrus fruit). You mix that into the sauce like you would wasabi for sushi, along with thinly sliced chives. With the tataki there was a small dish of sliced cucumber and I think seaweed in a vinegar sauce that cleansed the palette from the fatty beef.

Then we ate the Shabu-shabu. Unfortunately I forgot to get a picture of the individual hotpots we used, but here’s the ingredients. The broth was a light sake base, in it we added cabbage, enoki mushrooms, and shimeji mushrooms. Once they were cooked, we sloshed the thinly sliced beef around to cook it and then dipped it all in a light soy with more of the togarashi yuzu and chives.

After that we got two different preparations of Unagi. To be honest, I have absolutely no clue what the difference was. One was served on top of rice, the other with rice on the side. All I can tell you is that you will never find eel of that quality anywhere in the States. It tasted like they just caught it that morning. Best eel ever! Both came with a little dish of Japanese pickles. They were probably damn good pickles, but I don’t like pickles so I let Yuki eat mine.

After the Unagi was a clear broth soup with an ingredient we couldn’t figure out. At first, we thought it was some sort of mushroom. It wasn’t. Then we thought it might be shiroko, fish sperm sack. It wasn’t that either. We finally found out that it was eel liver, probably from the Unagi we just ate. It had kind of a crunchy yet soft texture. Not something you’ll find on any old menu.

Finally, to finish things off was a plate with fresh persimmons and grapes. persimmons are in season right now and are everywhere while Japanese grapes are absolutely huge compared to what we get.

All in all this was my 5th Kaiseki. I wish I could afford to eat like this every night as there is always something unusual and strange to the western palette. If any of you get to Japan I highly recommend splurging at least once to experience the delicate yet sophisticated Japanese cuisine at it’s finest.

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