Ingredients, dishes and drinks from Japan by Ad Blankestijn

Monday, December 21, 2015



Soy sauce. しょうゆ、醤油。

Soy sauce is the basic condiment in the Japanese kitchen and is used in all sorts of dishes, in marinades, dipping sauces and also at the table. Soy sauce is made from soy beans, roasted wheat, salt and koji. Soy sauce boasts a hearty aroma and contains 15% to 20% salt (there are also low-salt varieties).

Although soy sauce has ancient roots (in the form of a fish sauce which is still used in S.E. Asia, a product called hishio or uoshi in Japan), it was only in the middle of the 17th c. developed in its present form. In fact, soy sauce started as a by-product of miso production, in towns like Yuasa, Tatsuno and on Shodo Island in Western Japan. In the 18th c., the soy makers in Noda and Choshi (Chiba Prefecture) also came up, as they were close to Edo. Different from miso, which can be made by small producers, or even in individual households, for soy production large industrial presses are necessary, which asks for a more large-scale, industrial approach.

There are various types of soy sauce:
  • Tamari consists only of soybeans without wheat or with very little wheat. It is a thick, sweet sauce that is especially suitable as dipping sauce for sashimi, as the basis for teriyaki sauce, for tsukudani or for the coating of rice crackers. This is the original soy sauce until the mid-Edo period: as also the name indicates, it was the liquid that runs off miso as it matures, a byproduct from the fermentation of miso. It was originally obtained by pressing miso, but nowadays the production method is the same as for soy sauce, with as only difference that little or no wheat is used. Mainly produced in the Chubu region (around Nagoya).
  • Koikuchi shoyu (with an equal amount of soy beans and wheat) is dark in color and has a strong taste. This standard type is good for 82% of all soy sauce. As a true versatile all-purpose sauce it is also used at the table. Koikuchi shoyu was developed in the late 17th c. in the Kanto area by improving tamari by adding wheat to the production process (this was done in 1697 by Higeta from Choshi). Koikuchi shoyu is now produced in the whole country, but the production in the Kanto area is still the highest, with companies as Kikkoman (Noda), Yamasa and Higeta (both Choshi) - in the past, these companies could transport their products easily to Edo over the River Tone. Another production center is on Shodo Island in the Inland Sea, where the climate is very suitable (Marukin). 
  • Usukuchi shoyu is lighter in color but (against expectation) also 10% saltier. This type is mainly used in the kitchen and is good for 15% of all soy sauce. Usukuchi soy sauce is especially popular in Kyoto and the Kansai area, for example in clear soups, udon soup and in simmered dishes (nimono). As it is lighter in taste and color it doesn't clash with the light cuisine of Kyoto (where dashi is made only with kelp, without the addition of katsuobushi). The production process is slightly different, too: the wheat is lightly roasted; during fermentation, less koji and more brine is used; and at the end amazake or mizuame (glucose) is added. The fermentation is shorter than for koikuchi shoyu. An important producer of usukuchi shoyu is Higashimaru in Tatsuno (Hyogo Pref.).
  • Saishikomi shoyu or kanro shoyu is "twice-processed" or "sweet" soy sauce. Both flavor and color are very rich. The koji is mixed with koikuchi shoyu instead of brine. This type was developed in the town of Yanai in Yamaguchi Pref., and is now mainly produced in the Sanin area and Kyushu. It is used for sushi and sashimi. 
  • Shiro shoyu or "white soy sauce." Is lighter in color than usukuchi shoyu, obtained by mainly using wheat and very little soy beans (so the opposite of tamari). Is rather salty and also very sweet, Suitable for simmered dishes (nimono), suimono (clear soups) and chawanmushi. Developed in Hekinan in Aichi Pref.  
  • Genen shoyu and Usushio shoyu are soy sauces with "reduced salt," and "light salt." The first one usually has 9% salt (half of normal koikuchi soy sauce) and the second one 13%. 
  • Sashimi-joyu or Ponzu-joyu etc. These are not pure soy sauces, but sauces on the basis of soy sauce. In the case of the first one tamari, sake and mirin have been added to koikuchi shoyu to make a dip sauce for sushi. The second one is the same mix, but with the important addition of the juice of citrus fruits like yuzudaidai or sudachi. Ponzu is used as a dipping sauce for one-pot dishes. There are many varieties in Japanese supermarkets of such mixed sauces.
The production process of koikuchi soy sauce is as follows:

1. Equal parts of steamed soy beans and roasted and shredded wheat are mixed together.
2. Koji spores (Aspergillus) are cultivated for 3 to 4 days on this mixture. Koji spores have a high proteolytic capacity, i.e. they break up proteins into amino acids, and produce all sorts of enzymes which are important later on in the process. Other microbes contained in this culture include yeast and lactic acid bacteria.
3. Next brine is added to make moromi, the main mash, which is fermented and aged in large tanks. Instead of brine, also dry coarse salt can be used for dry fermentation. The enzymes in the koji now start working and transform the proteins in the soy beans into amino acids. They also change the starch in the soy beans and wheat into sugars. Lactic acid bacteria produce lactic acid and yeast makes ethanol.
4. The moromi is aged for several months. Through aging and secondary fermentation numerous flavor compounds typical of soy sauce come into being.
5. After it has been sufficiently aged, the moromi is pressed so that the pure soy sauce is separated from the lees.
6. This soy sauce is next filtered and pasteurized.

It is possible to cut corners in soy sauce production by chemical processes (using acid-hydrolyzed soy protein instead of the time-consuming fermentation process - this takes only 3 days), so select soy sauce that has been labeled "honjozo" or "100% genuine fermented." When using soy sauce for Japanese dishes, use only soy sauce produced by a Japanese maker.

Friday, December 18, 2015



Paste of fermented soybeans, "miso." みそ、味噌。

Japan's traditional seasoning and also a versatile health food - and on top of that very tasty! Made from fermented soy beans mashed into a thick paste. No traditional Japanese meal is complete without miso. Full of umami, the paste is used as a seasoning for soups and a host of traditional dishes.

Miso originated in China and found its way to Japan in the 7th c., after which it was gradually transformed into an intrinsically Japanese seasoning. Initially it was a luxury product that could only be enjoyed by courtiers and priests. In the 14th century it finally reached ordinary Japanese. At that time, miso was an actual side dish that provided a major source of protein; as a preserved food, it was also carried by wartime troops. This miso side dish was chunky, as the soybeans were left uncrushed and so could be eaten easily with chopsticks. Today we still find this type of side-dish miso in Kinzanji miso in Yuasa (Wakayama).

In the 17th century industrial scale production was started. But small-scale - even home - manufacture also continues. There are about 1,400 producers of miso in Japan. Total production is something to the order of 560,000 tonnes per year. The Japanese consume almost 5 kilos of miso per person per year.

The fermentation and aging process of miso involves a multitude of factors. Variations in this process result in different tastes, colors and textures. Throughout Japan numerous types of miso can be found, each with its own distinct flavor.

Miso can in the first place be divided into three types based on the type of koji-culture being used (koji-kin is a healthy mold that produces many important enzymes; it is also used for other food products and for sake making); one also speaks about three different "malt types," depending on which ingredient the koji culture is developed.

The three basic types of miso are Kome miso, Mugi miso and Mame miso.

Kome miso or Rice-malt miso: the Koji-kin (Koji spores) is grown on rice (ingredients are soybeans, malted rice and salt). This is the most common way – 80% of all miso is made according to this procedure. It can be sweet, semi-sweet or full-bodied, and the color can vary from white, via light yellow, to red. Color differences in miso are the outcome of the strength of the aminocarbonyl or so-called Maillard reaction, which is the result of the combination of amino acids and sugars during the fermentation and aging process. Based on color and taste Kome miso can be further subdivided as follows (there are also many other regional types which are not included below):
  • Shinshu miso (Miso from the Nagano region). The strong-flavored shinshu miso is used widely in households for the daily miso soup.
  • Red miso (Aka-miso). Aka-miso is higher in salt content and rich in amino acids and other nutrients, the result of the breakdown of soybean proteins, and therefore, it is particularly rich in umami. Examples of red miso are Tsugaru miso and Sendai miso.
  • White miso (Shiro-miso). Shiro miso possesses a lower salt content that reveals the sweetness of the rice koji. Shiro miso is preferred in the Kansai area surrounding Kyoto and Osaka. The sweetest type, with a higher percentage of rice than of soybeans, is called Saikyo miso and is exclusively produced in Kyoto. It is an expensive top-quality product that fits well to the Kyoto kitchen with its light tastes and is mainly used in restaurants. In ordinary households, white miso usually appears only on special occasions, as during the New Year, when it is used to make zoni soup.
  • Awase miso, finally, is not a type, but a combination of various kinds of Kome miso; it is usually light in taste.
Mugi miso or Barley-malt miso: the Koji-kin is grown on barley (ingredients are soybeans, malted barley and salt). This type is popular in parts of South-Western Japan (Kyushu, parts of Shikoku and Yamaguchi Pref.). This type of miso is rich in minerals and has a mild aroma. It has a sweet taste and fits to a great variety of dishes. The color is light yellow; there is also a full-bodied type which has a reddish color. About 11% of all miso is Kome miso.

Mame miso or Soybean-malt miso: the Koji-kin is grown on soybeans (ingredients are soybeans, malted soybeans and salt). Also called Hatcho miso after the Hatcho area in the town of Okazaki, where this type of miso is made exclusively by only two producers. Hatcho miso is fermented for two years and has a dark, almost black color. It is a powerful, dry miso that looks a bit like chocolate. It has a bitter flavor and lots of umami. This type is popular in the Nagoya region.

In the past, it was customary for every household to have its own special recipe for miso, one to boast about. This is the origin of the Japanese expression, temae miso, "to sing one's own praises."

Miso is made as follows:
Steamed and crushed soy beans are mixed with water and salt. A koji-culture, that has been separately developed on either steamed rice, steamed barley or steamed soybeans, is added to the mix. The mix is then put into vats of cypress wood where it is allowed to ferment and age for a year. During that process, several micro organisms play a role and all ingredients are transformed into a nutritious paste.

Miso is very nutritious because the paste contains high-quality proteins. Miso also contains amino acids and has a hearty and aromatic taste - it is the embodiment of umami!

Some dishes in which miso plays a large role:
- Miso soup (miso-shiru)
- Gindara no yuanyaki, grilled black cod marinated in miso;
- Saba no misoni, mackerel simmered in miso - the miso masks the fishy taste;
- Tofu dengaku, skewered, grilled tofu coated with a warm miso glaze;
- Miso-zuke, one of the many ways to pickle vegetables.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015



Pleasant, savory taste; "umami" 旨味, うまみ

Umami is one of the five basic tastes (together with sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness). The term was devised by Professor Ikeda Kikunae of Tokyo University, who in 1908 identified glutamic acid (glutamate) as the component responsible for the tastiness of dashi stock made with konbu-kelp. As this fifth taste was first recognized in Japan and there was no word for it in other languages, the Japanese term UMAMI has come into general use.

After the scientific identification of glutamic acid in kelp by Professor Ikeda Kikunae in 1908, two more umami components were discovered by Japanese researchers. Professor Kodama Shintaro, a disciple of Ikeda, discovered in 1913 that katsuobushi (smoked and fermented bonito flakes) contain another umami substance, inosinic acid or inosine monophosphate (IMP). And in 1957, Kuninaka Akira realized that guanylic acid or guanosine monophosphate (GMP), present in shiitake mushrooms, also conferred the umami taste.

Another discovery of Kuninaka Akira was the synergistic effect between inosonic acid / guanylic acid (both ribonucleotides) and glutamate. When foods rich in glutamate are combined with ingredients that contain ribonucleotides, the resulting taste intensity becomes many times higher than that of the individual ingredients. That is the science behind dashi, where the glutamate-rich konbu is combined with ribonucleotide-rich katsuobushi or shiitake mushrooms.

People taste umami through receptors in taste buds specific to glutamate. Umami of course not only occurs in Japanese food - in fact, all humans first come across this taste in breast milk! In larger or smaller amounts, umami is present in fish, shellfish, cured meat, mushrooms, vegetables as ripe tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, spinach, celery, etc., and fermented and aged products involving bacterial or yeast cultures, such as cheeses and soy sauce. Rice also contains umami and umami is an important characteristic of sake as well.

Umami was especially important to the Japanese. Already 800 years ago the Japanese spoke of umami, and in writings from the Edo-period (17th-19th century) it is stated that umami forms the basis of all taste. It certainly is the basic principle of the Japanese cuisine, which doesn't use strong sauces or spices to give taste to food, but which aims to bring out the original taste of the ingredients themselves in a delicate way. That is exactly the function of umami.

By the way, nowadays umami components can also be artificially produced according to the methods of the fermentation industry. It was in fact Prof. Ikeda Kikunae who already in 1909 developed a process for mass-producing monosodium glutamate or MSG (he called it "Ajinomoto," "the basis of taste," and this is now the name of one of the largest food companies in Japan). In that case we speak about “flavor enhancers.” During the production of flavor enhancers, guanylic acid and inosinic acid are added to monosodium glutamate, making this another example of the synergistic umami effect.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Konbu Updated

The post on Konbu (kelp), one of the most important ingredients in the Japanese kitchen as it is used to make the basic stock, dashi, has been rewritten and expanded!



Stock だし、出し、だし汁。

The Japanese basic stock, the pillar of the Japanese cuisine which provides Japanese cuisine with its characteristic flavor. The quality of a Japanese dish is determined by the quality of the dashi that seasons it. Dashi is the foundation for soups, simmered dishes, salad dressings, marinades and much more.

Traditionally, there are five kinds of dashi:
  • Konbu dashi ("Kelp stock"), made with only konbu. This is vegetarian stock, shojin dashi, a delicate and clear broth.
    How to make: After wiping the kelp with a paper towel (do not rinse!), bring 40 grams of kelp to the boil over medium heat in one liter of water. Remove the konbu before the water starts boiling (after about 10 minutes, never allow the kelp to boil as it will become bitter). Your stock is finished! Alternatively, you can also simply soak the kelp in cold water for about eight hours (overnight), without heating. 
  • Ichiban dashi ("First brew stock") made from konbu (kelp) and katsuo-bushi (shavings of preserved, fermented bonito). Ichiban dashi has a subtle and refined flavor and weak color and is used for sensitive preparations as clear soups (suimono), chawan-mushi, and dipping sauces for cold soba noodles.
    How to make: Follow the instructions for making kelp stock. Immediately after removing the kelp, add 30 grams of bonito flakes (kezurikatsuo or hanakatsuo). Bring again to the boil (takes about 10 seconds), immediately turn off the heat, skim off the foam and let the mixture stand for a few minutes. Strain through a fine sieve - and your stock is ready.  
  • Niban dashi ("Second brew stock") made from konbu and katsuo-bushi by reusing the ingredients used for making ichiban dashi. Niban dashi has a stronger aroma than ichiban dashi and a cloudy appearance and serves as a basic seasoning. It is used for miso soup, as broth for hot noodles, and as a liquid for simmering other ingredients (nimono). It can also be used to dilute soy sauce and mirin resulting in a sauce called warishita which is used in one-pot dishes.
    How to make: simmer the kelp and bonito flakes used for making ichiban dashi for 15 to 20 minutes in 1.5 liter of water - do this immediately after making the ichiban dashi, as the ingredients can't be kept. At the end add 15 grams of new bonito flakes and then immediately remove from the heat. Allow the new flakes to settle for about one minute, then remove foam and strain the liquid through a sieve. (Now the ingredients should be discarded, you can't reuse them a third time!).
  • Shiitake dashi ("Shiitake stock"). Another vegetarian stock, made from dried shiitake mushrooms. Like kelp stock it can also be combined with katsuobushi.
    How to make: just soak 30 grams of dried shiitake mushrooms in one liter of water for about two to three hours. For regular stock, so-called koshin dried shiitake are used; for a stronger flavor, use donko dried shiitake.  
  • Niboshi dashi ("Sardine stock"), a type of fish stock, made with dried sardines or anchovies, which is a more hearty type of dashi. Used in miso soup or nabemono (one-pot dishes), as sardine stock is more savory than bonito stock. Also often used in hot broth for udon noodles.
    How to make: Remove the heads and entrails of the fish as those would lead to bitterness. Bring 40 grams of niboshi to the boil in one liter of water or kelp stock and simmer for about 8 minutes. Strain through a sieve after removing from the heat. 
Of these four types, dashi made with kelp and dried bonito, so ichiban dashi and niban dashi, is the most common type in the Japanese kitchen.

For good dashi, it is important to have good quality soft water. Hard water contains minerals as calcium and magnesium which influence the taste of food, especially when - as is the case in the Japanese cuisine - no strong spices or sauces are being used. Soft water, on the contrary, possesses a mild and sweet taste that fits well to the character of dashi, i.e. to emphasize the own taste of the ingredients. No wonder that countries with hard water, such as European countries, have as basic sauce a strong-tasting sauce on the basis of meat extract. Good Japanese food always starts with a perfect dashi!

"Umami" is the basic characteristic of dashi: the "fifth taste" which enhances the taste the ingredients possess of themselves (defined in 1908 by Ikeda Kikunae). That is why kelp, bonito flakes and shiitake mushrooms are used to make dashi: modern research has shown that these ingredients possess the highest concentration of umami elements. When used together, they further enhance the umami through a synergistic effect. For example, by combining kelp with flakes of fermented and preserved bonito, the umami factor increases eight to ten times.

Top restaurants are proud of the excellent dashi they make fresh every day. However, despite the fact that dashi is simple and quick to make, our convenience culture has led to the virtual disappearance of fresh dashi from home-cooking, where often instant dashi is used, either in liquid or granulated form.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Kinton (Kuri Kinton)

Sweet confection of mashed sweet potatoes with candied chestnuts. A festive dish popular at New Year. Lit. "chestnut gold mash."

Satsumaimo (sweet potatoes) are mashed and made with sugar into a sweetened puree (an), to which whole or crumbled candied chestnuts are added. Dried gardenia pods (kuchinashi no mi) can be added to enhance the yellow-golden color, although this is not an imperative as satsumaimo already have a yellow color of themselves.

The puree is eaten with a spoon. The taste is rather sweet, but not unpleasant.

This dish is part of osechi-ryori, the traditional New Years dishes, which always have an auspicious aspect. In this case it is the "gold" color (which also appears in the name, "kinton" could be pieces of gold), which suggests wealth and prosperity in business. Note that, despite its sweet character, this is not a dessert!

Kuri Kinton
[Kuri kinton]

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Kintoki Ninjin

Kintoki carrot. 金時人参。Daucus carota.

In Japan, both the orange-colored Western carrot and the reddish Japanese carrot are popular vegetables.

The modern carrot originated in Afghanistan in the 10th century - an Arab agriculturist at that time describes both yellow and red varieties. Cultivated carrots appeared in China in the 14th century, and in Japan in the 18th century. The now all over the world so popular orange-colored carrots appeared in the 17th century in the Netherlands, where orange is the national color.

Kintoki Ninjin
[Kintoki carrot]

There are two indigenous varieties in Japan, both fresh red in color: kintoki and takinogawa; both are fairly long and slim (the takinogawa is even very thin).

Japanese carrots are in season in autumn and winter. They are often prepared as nimono, simmered dishes, and can also be used in nabemono (hotpot) and soups.

The kintoki is a Kyoto-brand vegetable and also called "Kyoto (red) carrot." These beautifully tapered carrots are deep-red in color. Compared to orange carrots, the kintoki carrot contains many nutrient components. The red color contains not only Beta carotene, but also lycopene. The flesh is tender and the taste is sweet. Kintoki carrots do not break apart during boiling. They are sweet and have only little typical carrot smell, but their characteristic flavor is stronger than that of other carrots.