Wednesday, 1 September 2010
What's for Dinner?
They tell me that Autumn has come, but the cicadas don't seem to be convinced. The children are back to school today after six weeks of holidays, (though with the volumes of homework they had I'm not sure that's the right word!). The days are still long and hot, not as humid as they have been, and the garden is green and lush.
Each morning Mika goes out to the vegetable plot and harvests the days produce. No chemicals or pesticides have been used on this land for at least twenty five years, so our vegetables are organically grown and ripened on the vine. During this time of year we get by with mostly our own produce. With four growing children we need all the help we can get!
Many of the vegetables that we grow here are the same as I had in Australia, but often there are subtle differences. The cucumbers that we grow here are much more slender with very thin skins.
The same applies to the aubergines ("nasu" in Japanese), although in recent years larger varieties have become popular, generally marketed as "American Nasu".
Nasu have been popular in Japanese cuisine for hundreds of years, but of course my first introduction to Egg Plant was in Greek and Lebanese cuisine in Melbourne in my youth.
There are, however, a variety of foods and vegetables here in Japan which I had never known before, and which are part of our daily diet. Many of these I know only by their Japanese names, and am often at a loss when asked what they are in English! One such vegetable is the "Gohya", or "Niga Uri". "Uri" is any of the squash, gourd or pumpkin family, and "Nigai" means "Bitter". This strange looking vegetable, which is very popular in Okinawa, is quite bitter when eaten raw. I slice it down the middle and remove the seeds and pith, then slice it cross ways and blanch it in salted water for a few minutes before using it.
One of our favourite dishes made with Gohya is "Kakiage", a kind of vegetable fritter. I mix the blanched Gohya with sliced aubergine and "Sakura Ebi" (literally "cherry blossom shrimp"), and then add one egg, two tablespoons of plain flour and some water. This mixture is then shallow fried in dollops till golden on both sides.
"Agedashi Dohfu" (Fried tofu) goes exceptionally well with the kakiage. I cut the tofu into 5 cm cubes, then zap it in the microwave for a few minutes to make it release the excess water. After draining off the water and patting them dry with a clean cloth, I dredge them in corn flour and fry them lightly. The garnish is sliced "Myouga", a relation of ginger, and "Ohba", a large leafed native herb related to basil. I make a sauce of 6 parts "Dashi" fish stock, 1 part soy sauce and 1 part "Mirin" sweet cooking sake. Bring this to the boil to evaporate the alcohol, then pour over the tofu to serve. This same "Tsuyu" sauce is used for dipping the Kakiage.
It is nice to serve "Sunomono", a vinegared side dish, with fried foods. In this case, sliced cucumber, sprinkled with salt and left to sit for ten minutes, then rinsed. Mixed with a hand full of roughly chopped "Wakame" sea weed, served with a dressing of equal parts sugar and vinegar.
Of course no Japanese meal is complete without a bowl of steamed rice. A sprinkling of sesame seeds adds fragrance.
Today we may dine in Japanese style, tomorrow might be something from my mothers cookbook, who knows? There is a world of possibilities. In this world where we can access the whole globe at the touch of a finger there are always new discoveries to be made. Sometimes those discoveries are simple pleasures that are common to all of us, familiar things that have brought joy to humans for generations past and will continue to do so for generations to come. After the kids get home from school and have been out adventuring out in the back yard, making discoveries under every leaf, they'll come rushing in with choruses of "What's for Dinner?"
With one thing and another, we have a very full life.