Foreign Foods in Japan – Chanpon (ちゃんぽん)

Students. Hungry and poor. The history of higher education is irrevocably intertwined with the history of starving students and the cooks who figure out innovative ways to feed them healthful, nutritious foods for very little money. Chanpon is one of those perfect student meals, and now, a great regional dish from Nagasaki, Japan that was originally created for Chinese students visiting Dejima Island in the area.

As with many beloved foreign foods in Japan, chanpon was developed during the Meiji Period (1868-1912). During this era, Japan had opened its borders to the world, sharing knowledge and information, along with culture and food. Students from China would visit Nagasaki, a port city, and head to a local Chinese restaurant called Shikairo. According to the restaurant, the dish was based on a Fujian specialty called tonniishiimen. Korean jjamppong is very similar!

Chanpon is made with pork meat, seafood pieces, and seasonal vegetables, served in a bone broth with noodles. The meat, seafood, and vegetables are sautéed in lard, and the soup base is made using pig bones and whole chickens. The meat, seafood, and vegetables are fried first, then the broth is added directly to the pot. Finally, the thick, chewy noodles are added to the broth mixture and everything is cooked together to seal in the flavor.

Chanpon has become such a popular dish in Japan that different regions have created their own versions. In Shimane and Hyogo Prefectures, a version called ankake chanpon is made using a thick soy sauce soup base while in Akita Prefecture, the soup base is made with miso broth.

Have you ever tried chanpon? Ready to cook packages are available in most Japanese grocery stores in the US, so we hope you decide to make it one day! Be sure to share your story with us in the comments below.

Foreign Foods in Japan – Supagetti Naporitan

Japanese people love good food. Traditional, seasonal, festive and of course, foreign foods!

One of the most universally loved foods is noodles, and in Japan, Italian spaghetti has been adapted to Japanese taste in a dish called Supagetti, or Spaghetti, Naporitan. Legend has it that the dish was invented in August of 1945, by Shigetada Irie, the head chef at the Hotel New Grand in Yokohama. On the 30th of that month, General Douglas MacArthur, leader of the Allied Forces during World War II, established his headquarters at the hotel, and in an effort to accommodate the new guests, Chef Irie developed a pasta dish inspired by the classical Italian pasta napolitana and the American spaghetti with ketchup that was served to military men.

Needless to say, the new dish was a hit, and has become a staple dish wherever yoshuku, or “Japanized Western food”, is served. Today Supagetti Naporitan is made with cooked durum wheat-based spaghetti, onions, bell peppers, sausage, ketchup, salt and grated parmesan cheese. The vegetables and sausage are stir-fried in oil, to which the spaghetti and ketchup are added, with all of the ingredients getting finished in a quick pan sauté. The dish is garnished with parsley and grated parmesan cheese and served hot.

The original recipe developed by Chef Irie, who was classically trained in French and Italian cuisines, used canned pureed tomatoes instead of ketchup, as well as garlic, mushrooms and bacon. Supagetti Naporitan is at heart an international dish. The pastas favored in the Naples region of Italy, where San Marzano tomatoes famous for their sweet acidity grow, is often considered the birthplace of simple spaghetti with tomato sauce and cheese. Popularized in the United States following multiple waves of Italian immigration which took place the 18th century, pasta napolitana became a staple in American households. World War II causes widespread scarcity, and instead of fresh, high-quality tomatoes, many families substituted ketchup for the more traditional tomato sauce. Add to this mix Japanese influences – sausages, pan-frying and vegetables – and you have a multi-cuisine but oh-so-comforting dish. Full of?umami from the tomatoes and cheese, protein and vegetables, and chewy noodles familiar to the Japanese palette, this dish was destined to become a staple in Japanese cuisine, just like in Italian and American cuisines.

Today, Supagetti Naporitan is available in local mom-and-pop coffee shops throughout Japan, as well as at yoshoku restaurants and chain restaurants. Since it is such a simple dish, it is most often eaten for weekday lunch or dinner and can quickly be made at home.

Have you tried Supagetti Naporitan? Be sure to share your story with us in the comments below!

An Acquired Taste of Japan – Kusaya!

The tradition of eating fermented fish spans cultures from Scandinavia to Europe to Asia. We know of famous examples like garum, from ancient Rome, where small local fish were salted and fermented until they almost liquified. And of the famous Swedish surstr?mming, where Baltic herring are caught in the spring time, lightly salted and fermented in barrels for months.

Japan’s rich food culture, which prizes fish in all of its varieties, is famous for kusaya, a fermented, dried fish that has a mild taste but a most-definitely acquired smell!

Kusaya is made from small flying fish or mackerel. When made using traditional methods, the freshly caught fish is descaled by hand and then flayed open. The bones, entrails and blood are removed, and the inside of the fish is scrubbed many times in fresh water to remove any remnants. The opened fish is then soaked in a salt brine called “kusaya-jiru” for about 24 hours, then dried in the open air and hot sun for up to two days, before it’s stored in jars. Kusaya is unique in that the brine used to begin the fermentation process is the key to preserving the fish. Every family that makes kusaya in a traditional fashion closely guards their brine recipe. The brines are made of water and small amounts of salt to begin with, then reused for each batch of fish, with some brines lasting as long as 100 years! The brine smells of decay, similar to feces, and an overgrowth of bacteria, lending kusaya the aroma that many who have not grown up with this dish find hard to tolerate.

Fermenting fish is a wonderful way to preserve it and to augment and release the umami in the flesh. The fermentation process for kusaya uses the microorganisms in the salt brine to release glutamates from the proteins, sugars and fats in the fish’s meat. These glutamates are the building blocks of umami, the fifth taste in Japanese food culture, and a building block of dashi. Many Japanese eat kusaya with sake or other alcoholic beverages, as it is high in protein and calcium and pairs well with sharper flavors.

Kusaya can be purchased almost anywhere in Japan, most generally in canned or packaged form. But if you’re lucky enough to visit a traditional kusaya maker, overrule the smell around you and try this delicacy!

And don’t forget to share your story with us!

Essentials of Japanese Cooking: ?Unlock Umami-Rich Dashi

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“Dashi is a subtle broth with the capacity to enhance and intensify the flavor of those foods with which it is cooked or blended. That ability is locked within kombu (kelp) and katsuo bushi (smoky bonito fish flakes), the two ingredients used to make this basic sea stock: Both are both rich in water-soluble glutamates.” – Elizabeth Andoh, author of Washoku and Kansha, and leading expert on Japanese cuisine

If umami represents the soul of Japanese cooking, then dashi certainly represents the heart, enhancing and harmonizing the flavors in many Japanese dishes. This month, we continue our series about umami with a tutorial about how to make dashi. We also feature recipes that use dashi, showcasing the breadth of dishes that rely on this essential ingredient.

In classical Japanese cooking, dashi is commonly made with water, kelp (konbu) and the shavings of dried, smoked skipjack tuna (bonito flakes or katsuobushi). Two types of dashi can be prepared from one batch of ingredients: ichiban dashi and niban dashi. Ichiban dashi is the first extraction of umami from the konbu and katsuobushi, resulting in a pale, clear and delicately fragrant broth. Niban dashi is the second extraction of umami from the leftover konbu and katsuobushi used to make ichiban dashi and results in bolder flavor. Japanese cooks use both types of dashi to flavor specific types of dishes and to fully utilize the ingredients without waste.

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Ichiban dashi is simple to make, as long as a few techniques are followed with precision. To extract the full flavor-enhancing properties of the glutamate-rich ingredients, start with cold water. Place the water in a saucepan, along with a square piece of konbu. Heat the water over medium heat until just before it boils, when bubbles start to appear along the bottom and sides of the pan. Remove the konbu, and let the water come to a full boil. Removing the konbu at this precise time prevents the glutamates extracted from the seaweed from becoming bitter due to prolonged exposure to high heat. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the liquid to cool. Then, add the katsuobushi to the saucepan and heat the mixture again until it reaches a boil. Turn the heat off and let the bonito flakes steep in the liquid. Finally, strain the liquid through several layers of paper towel or cheesecloth, into a clean glass container, so that no small pieces of fish or seaweed are left in the broth to muddle the flavor.

This step-by-step recipe for Ichiban Dashi notes the actual proportions, temperatures and cooking times…and we know you’ll find it enjoyable to make!

Niban dashi is made using the already-cooked seaweed and fish left over from preparing ichiban dashi. Add both ingredients back into the saucepan, add a few cups of water, simmer the mixture for several minutes over low heat, then strain.

In the case of both ichiban and niban dashi, the keys to creating the best dashi lie in extracting and preserving the glutamates from the konbu and katsuobushi. Prolonged cooking, excessively high heat and inadequate straining can result in a dull and fishy broth that sullies, rather than enhances, the dishes that rely on dashi to infuse them with umami.

Ichiban dashi is used in many types of dishes, from soups to appetizers to salads. We have some great recipes that use ichiban dashi on our website, like Tofu Misoshiru, Shrimp Ball Broth, Hiyashi Chawanmushi and Crab & Cucumber Sunomono.

Bringing out the flavor of fresh, high-quality ingredients using umami-rich dashi is at the core of Japanese culinary tradition. We encourage you to make your own dashi, and as always, would love to hear about your experience!

Essentials of Japanese Cooking: ?Umami and Dashi

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Last month we began our exploration of umami, the “delicious taste” discovered by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. Umami is the rich flavor imparted from foods that contain high levels of glutamates, a type of amino acid that, when ingested, tells the brain that the food the body is about to receive is savory, desirable and full of protein.

Umami is at the heart of a Japanese cooking liquid called dashi, which was studied by Dr. Ikeda and which forms the foundation of many Japanese dishes. Dashi is an all-purpose, light stock made simply from an umami-rich ingredient and water. Its role in Japanese cuisine can’t be overemphasized, as it is used to season simmered and steamed dishes, flavor soups and create a base for marinades.

While preparing dashi is simple, it requires a meticulous attention to detail.

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Top left, shaved Bonito flakes; bottom, konbu

When made from scratch, dashi is made from clean, soft water. Various ingredients are added to the water to give it flavor and to impart umami. The classic way to prepare dashi is to make ichibandashi, which typically consists of simmering shaved bonito flakes—dried, smoked skipjack tuna—and dried konbu kelp in water. While this type of dashi is used to prepare many Japanese dishes, many cooks also use variations of the classic dashi in modern Japanese cooking. Dashi made from dried shiitake mushrooms, dried baby anchovies or sardines, dried scallops, or even just konbu or only bonito flakes have become common additions to the Japanese cook’s dashi repertoire.

When making dashi at home, it’s important to use high-quality ingredients that have been air dried, avoiding frozen ones, as freezing alters the flavor and aroma of the ingredients. The best quality bonito comes in stick form and is approximately six-to-eight inches in length. Bonito sticks look like dense, brown hunks of wood that have an ash-white coating. The sticks are made by filleting skipjack tuna, boiling the fillets, then removing the skin and bones from the fish. The fish is smoked multiple times to dry it and to preserve the richness in the fish’s flavor. After, the dried fish is cultured to continue its preservation, and then finally, dried in the open air. When two sticks of bonito are struck together, they should make a hollow sound, like musical instruments! Dried bonito sticks are then shaved using an appliance similar to a mandoline, called a katsuobushi kezuri, and result in pink curls of fish.

konbuharvest

Konbu harvesting

Vegetarian dashi is commonly made using dried konbu or shiitake mushrooms, again with both ingredients of the highest quality. The most prized type of konbu is harvested from the cold waters off of the northern coast of Hokkaido. These giant kelp have wide, thick leaves and a rich amber color. They are harvested, rinsed in sea water and hung out to air dry. Once dried, the konbu will have a distinctive whitish coat, made up of natural sea salts and minerals, which holds much of the seaweed’s flavor. The dried konbu is simply wiped with a damp cloth and then it’s ready to use in making dashi. Simmering dried shiitake mushrooms also makes a vegetarian version of dashi, one with a darker color and more intense flavor.

Cooks often make their dashi from scratch, but when pressed for time, flavorful, high-quality instant, dashi products can be found at Japanese or Asian grocery stores. Modern cooks often keep both as staples in their pantries, giving them versatile options for this foundational ingredient in Japanese cooking.

We’ll share recipes about how to make dashi in our next blog post, so stay tuned! And as always, we’d love to hear how you’ve made dashi, so leave us a comment.