Ingredients, dishes and drinks from Japan by Ad Blankestijn

Monday, October 17, 2011


Konjac, taro gelatin. "Devil's tongue." (Amorphophallus konjac). かんにゃく、蒟蒻。

Konjac is the name of a tuberous plant and the product made from its root. The tuber is rinsed, peeled, sliced, dried and ground into a powder. That powder is next mixed with water until it becomes a gelatin-like paste. Then as a coagulating agent lime is added and the paste is formed into firm but elastic blocks and cakes. These are then boiled, and finally cooled in cold water.

Konnyaku roots
[The tuber of konjac. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Konnyaku is grown in Gunma, Tochigi and Fukushima. It grows on mountain slopes and after three years bears a large trumpet-shaped flower. This flower, by the way, led to the English name "devil's tongue" (see photo below). The root is usually dug up after about 3 years, when it is 2.5 kilos heavy.

More than 2,000 years ago konjac was introduced from China as a medicine. From the 13th c. on (Kamakura period) it became a popular vegetarian food among priests at Zen temples. In the 17th c. it became generally popular as a meat substitute in soups among commoners.

Konnyaku is devoid of calories and therefore makes an excellent diet food. Rich in dietary fiber, it helps relieve constipation. Itself tasteless, it takes on the taste of the ingredients with which it is served. It has a chewy character and should always be boiled briefly before eating.

Konjac can have various colors: made from peeled roots it is pale white (its natural look), from unpeeled roots and usually with the addition of hijiki seaweed it takes on a grayish dark color (its most common look). When chili peppers are added, it has a red color and when green tea powder is added, green. Types of flavored konnyaku are also on the market.

[Slices of flavored and slightly spicy konnyaku, served as a side dish. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Konjac is used in oden (winter hotpot with various ingredients) and simmered dishes. Coated with miso it is like dengaku (originaly dengaku is made from tofu). White or colored varieties are used as vegetarian sashimi ("yama fugu") - these are often eaten with sweet miso sauce.

Thinly sliced into fine, gelatinous noodles it is called shirataki ("white waterfall") and used in sukiyaki. Sliced into slightly thicker strings it is called ito-konnyaku ("string konjac") and used in nabemono (hotpots).


Saturday, October 15, 2011


Japanese pumpkin, winter squash. (Cucurbita moschata). かぼちゃ、南瓜。

Japanese pumpkin is smaller and sweeter than the Western variety. It has a thick, dark green skin and bright, deep orange flesh. After cooking, the flesh becomes sweet and creamy.

Cut in small pieces and simmered in dashi, sugar and soy sauce, it is one of the most popular home-style dishes of Japan. The skin becomes soft enough to eat. Cut in slices, it is delicious as tempura. It can also be steamed or served as aemono.

Kabocha (if uncut) can be stored for a long time and was therefore an important source of vitamins in the winter months in the past. Nowadays, it is available year-round, but best in autumn.

Food [Simmered pumpkin (kabocha). Photo Ad Blankestijn]


Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Arabesque greenling, also called Okhotsk Atka mackerel. (Pleurogrammus azonus). ほっけ。

Hokke is a species of mackerel. It is a grey fish with a light brown stripe, about 40 cm long. As a species it is is closely related to and therefore often confused with the Atka mackerel (Pleurogrammus monopterygius). Caught in Japan's northern waters (Northwest Pacific: Sea of Okhotsk and Kuril Islands down to Ibaraki Prefecture and Tsushima and the Yellow Sea) from early winter to spring. This type of fish is found exclusively in the northern Pacific.

[Grilled Hokke. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

High fat content. Usually eaten grilled (as in the photo above) or simmered. In the past not very popular (it was even called "rat fish") as it looses its freshness rather quickly, but that is in modern refrigerated times no problem anymore. The Japanese started eating hokke when the herring around Hokkaido disappeared due to over-fishing. Hokke formed an important source of protein in the years after WWII. It also became a fixed item on the menus of izakaya. The fact that the bones are easy to remove also added to its modern popularity.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Japanese butterbur. (Petasites japonicus). ふき、蕗。

The stems of this vegetable look large large rhubarb stems. They can become more than a meter long. Before use, they are blanched (akunuki) and peeled. Often used in simmered food, sauteed with miso, in pickles and also as tempura or candied. The taste is somewhat reminiscent of celery.

Fuki is indigenous to Japan. Von Siebold brought the plant to Europe and you can find it now as a decorative growth in forests in the Netherlands (but it is not eaten in Europe).

[Fuki. Photo Ad Blankestijn]


Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Pieces of grilled chicken on skewers. やきとり、焼き鳥。

A popular food with beer, sake or other drinks. Many izakaya have yakitori on the menu and there are also specialized restaurants. These can range from obscure joints "under the tracks," to quite upscale establishments. Yakitori is also sold in supermarkets.

Yakitori is eaten with either tare (a thick sweet sauce) or a dip of salt.

In making yakitori, nothing of the chicken is thrown away. So, besides the obvious negima (pices of white meat alternating with spring onion), momo (soft white meat), sasami (chicken breast) and tsukune (balls of ground chicken meat), we also have haatsu (chicken hearst pierced on a stick), rebaa (the liver), sunazuri (chicken gizzards), tebasaki (the wings), kawa (the skin, usually of the neck) and nankotsu (chicken cartilage) or shiro (the small intestines)...

Preparing yakitori is difficult as the sticks have to be grilled on the charcoal fire in such a way that the outside is well-done and hearty, but the inside still tender.

[Yakitori, above tsukune and below negima, Photo Ad Blankestijn]