Nabe party

Nabe refers to a variety of Japanese hot-pot dishes. It is a typical winter food. All the ingredients for nabe are prepared together in a large clay or iron pot. The pot is usually placed on a burner in the middle of the table and the dish is cooked at the table. Everyone gathers round and picks from the pot what they like, as the ingredients cook. This makes the eating of nabe a highly social event and therefore a perfect excuse for a party, the so-called ‘nabe party’.

There are several stages to a nabe party, involving different ingredients that are added in turn to the pot. Many varieties of nabe exist, but it all comes down to a mix of different ingredients in a broth. The nabe that I will describe below consists of stock, lots of vegetables, tofu, fish cake, thin slices of meat and rice. Dipping sauce and an egg were also involved.

nabe party stock

The stock for our nabe party: water with pieces of kombu and bonito flakes in a tea bag (katsuobushi)

nabe party vegetables

Vegetables and tofu are placed on top of the stock. The vegetables are cabbage, spring onion and daikon.

how to prepare nabe fish cake

Fish cake, sliced

how to prepare nabe

Fish cake and more vegetables (spinach and carrot) are added

Japanese nabe party

The pot, filled to the brim, is placed on a cooker in the middle of the table

As the nabe is placed on the cooker, the party can begin. Friends gather round and wait for everything to start simmering. A perfect moment to enjoy a glass of wine and a laugh together. When the broth has come to a boil and the vegetables have shrunk somewhat, very thin slices of meat are placed on top of the nabe. Since the slices are so thin, they cook in about a minute.

Japanese nabe meat

Thin slices of pork for nabe

Japanese nabe meat

The meat is placed on top of the nabe and cooks very quickly

Now the time has come for everyone to dig in. You may take whatever you like from the nabe pot. This communal enjoyment of the meal creates a very cozy feeling. A nabe party is perfect for warming both body and heart during a cold winter evening.

You might have noticed the collection of sauces on the table. They are dipping sauces for the nabe, collectively referred to as tare. Everyone has two bowls for dipping sauces. As you take food from the nabe pot, you may dip it in the sauce of your choice.

nabe dipping sauce

On the left you see ponzu, a soy sauce based condiment with yuzu (japanese bitter orange) and gomadare, which is a sesame sauce. On the right are two types of paste that are added to the sauce for additional spice. I believe the green one is wasabi based but I am not sure. The red one is a seasoned chili paste called shisen toban jan.

nabe dipping sauce

On the left sesame sauce with chili paste, on the right ponzu with wasabi (?) paste

Japanese nabe party

Table setup for a nabe party: two bowls for each guest with dipping sauce. Food is picked from the nabe pot and briefly placed in dipping sauce, before eating.

When most of the vegetables are eaten and the pot is nearly empty, it is time for the second round. More vegetables are added to the pot and everyone continues eating.

japanese nabe party more vegetables

Second round of vegetables at a nabe party

At the end of round two, when only a little of the broth and some pieces of vegetable remain, cooked rice is added to the mix. The rice absorbs the taste from all the previous ingredients and gets a porridge like texture.

japanese nabe party rice added

Round three of a Japanese nabe party: cooked rice is added to absorb the left over liquid

japanese nabe party rice added

Stirring the rice

While everyone enjoys the first serving of rice, the rice left in the pot continues to cook and starts sticking to the bottom. A raw egg is added to this crunchy rice mixture, thus turning the dish into baked rice. This baked rice forms the end of the meal.

japanese nabe party baked rice

An egg is added to the leftover rice

japanese nabe party baked rice

Rice and egg baking together. Yum!

This nabe party was such a wonderful experience. Thank you to my friends for showing me this great piece of Japanese culture and for welcoming me in their midst!

friends at a japanese nabe party

Bellies full and smiling faces. What a great night!

Different types of sushi

Japan has a type of sushi for every occasion. In the West, we often have a very limited view on sushi. When Belgian people think of sushi, they generally think of sushi rolls, as pictured below:

Japanese sushi rolls makizushi

Sushi rolls as we know them in the West.

This type of rolled sushi, wrapped in nori seaweed, is called makizushi (which literally means ‘sushi roll’). In my experience however, this is not the most common kind of sushi in Japan. When you go to a sushi restaurant, you will mostly eat nigirizushi (meaning ‘hand pressed sushi’). Nigirizushi is a rectangular piece of rice with a large sliver of raw fish or seafood on top.

types of sushi: nigirizushi

Delicious nigirizushi. When you eat this kind of sushi in Japan, it is not unusual for the piece of fish to be twice the size of the piece of rice. Yummy!

There is also a particular kind of nigirizushi that is quite common in sushi restaurants, called gunkanmaki. Gunkanmaki means ‘warship roll’. It is the same oblong base of rice as nigirizushi, with a fish or shellfish topping, but wrapped in a piece of nori. The nori serves to keep the topping of the gunkanmaki in place. It is usually prepared with softer toppings or some kind of fish eggs, which benefit from the structural support of the nori. In the picture below you see a gunkanmaki with sea urchin roe, but the most common kind is with salmon roe.

types of sushi: nigirizushi and gunkanmaki

A nigirizushi with shrimp and a gunkanmaki with sea urchin roe

types of sushi: nigirizushi in a Japanese sushi restaurant

A snapshot of one of our sushi fests in a local sushi restaurant. You see lots of nigirizushi with one of my favourites: toro salmon. There is also a gunkanmaki with what I think is meat. That is by no means a common or typical type of sushi, but I think we were feeling adventurous when we chose that one.

But despite the dominance of the nigirizushi, you do encounter makizushi (sushi rolls) in Japan. It is possible for a meal at a sushi restaurant to include a few pieces of makizushi, but they are mostly very plain and meant to top off your meal with something cheap and neutral tasting to fill up on, rather than being the focus of the meal. They are also quite thin. This kind of thin, plain makizushi is called hosomaki, which means ‘thin rolls’.

types of sushi: makizushi in a Japanese sushi restaurant

This is the makizushi that I got at the end of my meal at a more high-end sushi restaurant. They are a lot more simple and narrow than the makizushi served in Belgian sushi restaurants. These narrow makizushi are called hosomaki.

The variety of makizushi that we see most often in the West is called futomaki. This means ‘thick rolls’. In the West, these sushi rolls are filled with a variety of ingredients, usually some kind of raw fish with several other ingredients in one roll. Sometimes they are fried as well. In Japan, futomaki are usually vegetarian. Futomaki is popular during the Setsubun holiday, when it is considered good luck to eat an entire, uncut futomaki roll while facing that year’s lucky direction, as determined by the zodiac symbol of that year.

futomaki sushi roll for setsubun

Futomaki sushi rolls for Setsubun. Eating one of those babies in one go seems like a daunting task. I guess you have to make a bit of an effort if you want to have good luck.

There are some other types of sushi that I mostly came across outside of sushi restaurants. One of those is temaki. This literally means ‘hand roll’. I saw this kind of sushi at sushi parties at people’s homes. At a sushi party, people put all the ingredients for sushi out on the table, the guests compose their own sushi cone to their liking and eat it at once. The procedure is repeated until everyone has had their fill.

sushi party with temaki in Japan

The table setting for a sushi party at my neighbour’s house. You take a piece of nori, put some rice on it, add the ingredients of your choice, roll it up in a cone and eat it directly to avoid the nori getting soggy.

Sushi party in Japan

Another sushi party. On the left, you can see the start of a temaki, with the rice on the nori. Too bad I didn’t take any pictures of the finished cone. The cone usually looks quite messy, but since you eat it right away, that doesn’t matter at all. And the taste is delicious!

Inarizushi is another type of sushi that is fairly unknown in the West. Inarizushi does not contain any fish. It is an oval rice ball, wrapped in a pouch of fried tofu. It is one of the cheapest kinds of sushi. Inarizushi is a popular ingredient of homemade bento lunch boxes.

types of sushi: inarizushi

Making a big bowl of inarizushi. On the top right, you can see the fried tofu pouches soaking, and they are being filled with sushi rice.

Another lesser known form of sushi is chirashizushi, which means ‘scattered sushi’. This is a bowl of sushi rice (i.e. rice seasoned with vinegar), topped off with raw fish. It is typical of Hinamatsuri, the doll festival on March 3rd, but it is also eaten the year round.

types of sushi: chirashizushi

A big bowl of chirashizushi for dinner at a friend’s house. Underneath all that delicious raw fish is sushi rice.

Finally we might consider sashimi, which is raw fish and shellfish. By many Westerners, sashimi is mistakenly considered to be a form of sushi. While sushi and sashimi are often served in the same restaurant, they are not the same thing. The main difference is that sushi always involves rice while sashimi is raw fish without rice. Sashimi must always be eaten with chopsticks while sushi may be eaten with the hands if one so chooses.

sashimi at an izakaya in japan

A plate of delicious sashimi at an izakaya in  Toyota City. As you can see, there is no rice in sight.

What is your favourite type of sushi?

How to make Japanese green tea

Green tea is one of the basic elements of life in Japan. I think it is safe to say that most Japanese people drink green tea every day, in one form or another. One of the most famous kinds of Japanese green tea is sencha. It is a fairly good quality of tea leaves, served to guests that visit one’s home. For everyday use, many people drink bancha. Similar to sencha, these are green tea leaves, but of a lesser quality. Other common types of Japanese tea are hōjicha, roasted green tea leaves, and genmaicha, green tea leaves with roasted brown rice. For a more complete overview of the most common types of tea in Japan, I refer you to japan-guide.com and japanesegreenteashops.com.

Japanese green tea sencha

Sencha, good quality Japanese green tea

Japanese green tea bancha

Bancha, lower quality Japanese green tea, a bit coarser and with a less delicate taste than sencha

Japanese green tea hojicha

Hōjicha, roasted Japanese green tea

Japanese green tea genmaicha

Genmaicha, Japanese green tea with roasted brown rice

Today I would like to share with you how to prepare Japanese green tea. More specifically, I will explain how to prepare sencha when receiving a guest at your home. It is possible that there is more than one correct way to do this, but this particular way was taught to me by a Japanese friend from Nagoya.

Start by arranging everything you will need on a tray:

  • A teapot. Most teapots that I have seen at people’s homes were rather small, plain red earthenware teapots. But of course teapots come in all shapes and sizes.
red Japanese teapot kyusu

This type of teapot is called kyusu. Though the Japanese word kyusu itself simply means teapot, it often refers to side-handled clay pots like those made in the Tokoname region of Japan.

Japanese teapot kyusu inside

Japanese teapots include an integrated strainer, allowing the tea to steep freely and thus improving the taste.

  • The tea leaves, in a decorative tea holder.
japanese decorative tea tin

Japanese decorative tea tin

  • Cups for all the guest. Sencha cups are smaller than mugs or even Western teacups.
  • Saucers for the cups. The use of a saucer adds formality. To serve the cup without a saucer could be perceived as a bit rude. Wooden saucers can be used in all seasons. Openwork woven saucers are only for summer. If you serve cold tea, it is also best to use an openwork saucer. Instead of a saucer, you could also use some kind of coaster.
japanese tea saucers

Japanese saucers for sencha tea cups, wooden saucers on the left, openwork woven saucers on the right

  • A small plate with some kind of sweet for each guest, with a small fork or spoon if need be.

The total setup should be something like the image below:

serving sencha final setup

This setup, although not exactly as I described, gives you a general idea of what I mean. Image from everyonestea.blogspot.com.

japanese tea

This is one instance where I was served tea when visiting a friend’s home, on an afternoon in July. What a lovely and welcoming image!

Now on to the actual instructions for making the tea. It is best to make sencha green tea with less than boiling water. Boiling water burns the leaves, ruining the delicate taste of sencha green tea. To reach the desired water temperature, water is first brought to the boil and then passed into several different vessels (like the tea-pot and the cups) to drop the water temperature. Every time water is transferred into a different vessel, the temperature drops by 10° C. There is also the added advantage of preheating the cups with the hot water. Proceed as follows:

  • In the kitchen, pour the boiling water from the kettle into the tea-pot. At this point, there are no tea leaves in the tea-pot yet. The reason you are doing this in the kitchen, is to hide the kettle from your guests. Since it is very hot, your guests might burn themselves. By hiding the kettle, you show concern for your guests safety. Showing great concern for your guest’s comfort at all times is very important in Japan.
  • Then take the tray, with the teapot and everything else on it, to your guests. In front of your guests, pour the water from the teapot into the cups. This way, the water cools further and the cups are preheated.
  • Put the tea leaves into the teapot, about one tablespoon for each guest.
  • Pour the water from the cups back into the tea-pot.
  • Steep the leaves for a few minutes.
  • Pour the tea from the tea-pot into the cups. Start by pouring a little into each cup, then go back to the first cup and pour some more into each cup. The reason you are doing this, is because the first tea out of the pot is the weakest. The tea at the bottom of the pot is stronger. It is believed that the last drop from the teapot is the best one, so make sure that the last few drops are divided over all the cups and that the tea-pot is completely emptied.
  • Give each guest a cup and saucer, as well as a small plate with a sweet.
japanese tea

Tea served by my calligraphy teacher when I visited her home in April.

It is possible to use the same tea leaves for a second brew. For the second brew, the water should be slightly hotter. Since you can no longer use the tea-pot or the cups to transfer and cool the water, the boiling water is transferred into an extra tea-pot or water container in the kitchen and then brought to the guests, where it is poured into the tea-pot. Steep the leaves a bit longer than on the first brew, then serve the tea in the same way.

If you want to know how to brew bancha, hōjicha and genmaicha as well, this Japanese video explains it:

Chicory Village

In Japan you never know what you’ll see next. It is one of the many things that I love about living in Japan. The strangest thing you will ever see might be just around the corner.

Like that one time we were visiting the towns of Magome (in Gifu) and Tsumago (in Nagano). These picturesque little mountain towns are a popular tourist destination. They are connected by a beautiful walking trail that used to be part of the Nakasendo and at only 1h30min from Toyota City by car, it is the perfect day trip.

My story, however, pertains to the remarkable sight we had on our way back from Magome to Toyota City. All of a sudden we saw a building with a giant chicory plant (also known as Belgian endive) on the roof. Since chicory is a typical Belgian product, we were very excited. I managed to snap a few shots as we drove by.

chicory villagechicory villageThe only thing I could make out from the sign on the roof was ちこり村, which reads Chicori Mura, meaning Chicory Village. So with only that information to go on, I still had no idea if this was a factory or a tourist facility. Fortunately the internet is there to help mankind solve such mysteries. A little research revealed that this is in fact a tourist recreation park dedicated entirely to the humble chicory.

chicory village website and mascot

They have a website (unfortunately Japanese only) and of course there is a chicory themed mascot

It seems amazing to find a place in Japan that is exclusively dedicated to chicory. Perhaps the bitter taste makes it a popular vegetable in Japan? I do believe that Japanese people living in Belgium are generally quite fond of chicory.

Since I don’t read Japanese well enough to understand the website, I am still not entirely sure what one is supposed to do at Chicory Village. In any case there is the opportunity to eat chicory in the restaurant and drink some chicory shochu or grappa. I would love to find out what other kind of chicory fun can be had there.

Be sure to check out the videos on the Chicory Village website if you want to get a feel for the place. The enthusiastic employees with their big smiles are so typical of Japan and really make me miss living there even more!

chicory village smiling employees

Smiling Chicory Village employees

Are you excited to visit Chicory Village for yourself? It is right off the Nakatsugawa intersection on the Chuo expressway. The address is 1-15 Sendanbayashi, Nakatsugawa, Gifu Prefecture 509-9131, Japan. If you have a Japanese navi system, you can probably insert the phone number: +81 573-62-1545. There are detailed directions on the website, but they are Japanese only: http://chicory.saladcosmo.co.jp/access.html

Signs of spring: Field Horsetail or Tsukushi

Japanese people are a lot more aware of the seasons than Belgian people are. While the first signs of spring are met with joy everywhere, Japanese culture takes it to another level by singling out a great number of tell-tale sings of spring that people can look for and rejoice about. Famous examples are the first cry of the uguisu (a little bird, called the Japanese bush warbler in English) and the first blossoms, which are usually ume (plum blossom). But even the less glamorous signs of spring are noticed and welcomed with open arms. Like the inconspicuous little plant called tsukushi (土筆) or field horsetail.

Equisetum arvense - the field horsetail  - tsukushi

The field horsetail by the side of a road. The plant is called tsukushi in Japanese and its scientific name is Equisetum arvense – picture from http://blog.livedoor.jp/ak0503hr0406/archives/51385999.html

This little plant pops up by the side of the road all over Japan in early March. It was first brought to my attention by my lovely English students. They are a group of senior citizens and they still recall the days when people used to eat this plant. It was an inexpensive food source in times when Japan was not yet the land of plenty that it is now.

I also noticed the Field Horsetail on the wonderful Facebook page ‘Seasonal food in Japan’. Apparently the page is owned by a Japanese company that produces the ‘Taste Calendar’ (味のカレンダー). Their website appears to be in Japanese only but their Facebook page sometimes contains information in English. I wonder if the inclusion of the Field Horsetail in such a trendy calendar means that it is gaining in popularity again. In Belgium, there is a trend of bringing ‘forgotten vegetables’, such as parsnip or celeriac, back the daily menu. It would be interesting to see a similar trend in Japan.

Equisetum arvense - the field horsetail  - tsukushi

Last year the horsetail was assigned to the 8th of March on the Japanese Taste Calendar.

Different kinds of Pocky

Yesterday was Pocky Day. It is a Japanese ‘holiday’ that celebrates the snack Pocky. The reason that the 11th of November was chosen as Pocky Day, is because the date consists of lots of 1’s, which are of course shaped like Pocky.

What is Pocky? It’s a crunchy biscuit stick covered with chocolate. This is the classic Pocky with milk chocolate:

The classic Pocky in its characteristic red package

The classic Pocky in its characteristic red package.

Pocky was first sold in 1966. As the popularity of the snack increased, new varieties were added. By now there is such an enormous assortment of Pocky available that it is hard to know where to begin. Below is a picture of the Pocky aisle in a standard supermarket. You can see that other brands have also tried to benefit from the success of Pocky, by making their own Pocky clone.

different kinds of pocky in japan

This is my very inexpert attempt at merging two different photos to show you all the different kinds Pocky in a Japanese supermarket.

There is a Pocky for every demographic. Strawberry Pocky for the ladies, extra thin Pocky in a simple package for the men, and some very interesting varieties with almonds and with salty chocolate that I unfortunately did not get a chance to try yet. Next time I’m in Japan, I will do my best to further explore the world of Pocky!

Happy belated Pocky Day everyone!

strawberry Pocky in Japan

Strawberry Pocky. The hiragana reads ‘tsubatsuba ichigo’, which means strawberry with seeds. This is a classic, first offered on the Japanese market in 1977.

almond crush Pocky in Japan

Almond crush Pocky. Looks yummy! According to Wikipedia, this is another classic. It was the first new variety after classic Pocky, developed in 1971.

salty milk chocolate Pocky in Japan

Salty milk chocolate Pocky. I’m really curious about this one.

The sushi train

Ask anyone to name something typical of Japan, and it is highly likely that they will say ‘sushi’. After my return to Belgium, I have often been asked if Japanese people really eat sushi every day. The answer is no! Japanese cuisine is incredibly varied and there is so much more to it than just sushi.

Since I am not a fan of these stereotypical ideas about Japan and did not want to encourage them further, I have put off writing about sushi for more than two years. But despite all my ranting, I cannot deny that sushi is in fact a part of Japanese cuisine. Moreover, it is an extremely delicious part of Japanese cuisine. By the end of my stay in Japan, I could be found in a sushi restaurant on a weekly basis. (*´∀`*)

So it seems that the moment has finally come. It is time for a post about sushi.

In Japan, sushi is often enjoyed at a restaurant, rather than at home. There are many different kinds of sushi restaurants, ranging from extremely high-end places where the chef personally prepares each delicacy in front of you, to the more moderately priced conveyor belt restaurants (kaiten zushi 回転寿司 in Japanese). Even in the conveyor belt category, there are different prices and qualities. Today I will talk to you about the lowest of the lowest: Kappa Zushi. Although this is not a great introduction for a restaurant, I assure you that compared to most European (or at least Belgian) sushi restaurants, the quality is still very good.

kappazushi logo

Kappa Zushi logo

kappa_zushi_mascotte

Interior of a Kappa Zushi restaurant. The mascots of Kappa Zushi are these two green creatures. In Japanese, kappa is a water monster from folk tales. But it can also mean a sushi roll with cucumber in the middle. Hence the choice for kappa as mascots I guess. Despite their best efforts to make these kappa seem cute, they still scare me a little – image from the Kappa Zushi website

kappazushi conveyer belt

Kappa Zushi conveyor belt

tuna sushi on the conveyer belt

Tuna nigiri zushi on the conveyor belt

At conveyor belt restaurants, the kitchen prepares a standard selection of different sushi dishes and places them on the conveyor belt. The sushi passes by all the tables and the customers take off whatever they want to eat. Usually the colour of the plate determines how much the sushi costs but at Kappa Zushi, all the sushi costs 105 yen per plate (about 1 euro at the time we were in Japan). At the end of the meal, the plates are counted to determine the price to be paid.

kappa zushi stack of plates

Our stack of plates at the end of the meal

In case you don’t find what you are looking for on the conveyor belt, you can also order  directly from the kitchen (for the full Kappa Zushi menu, click here –  click on each category to see more sushi). Kappa Zushi has a computerized system for those orders. You operate it with a touch screen above your table. Not an easy thing to do if you can’t read kanji. There is one button that summons a waitress. I am afraid we accidentally summoned the poor lady twice before we figured it out. But if you press enough buttons, you will eventually end up in the orders menu.

kappa zushi touch screen

Kappa Zushi orders menu. You might notice some unusual sushi like tonkatsu sushi (fried pork cutlet) and beef sushi. You will definitely not find any meat sushi in a high-end sushi restaurant.

hamburger sushi

Another special sushi: hamburger sushi. I guess you can pretty much slap anything onto a piece of rice and call it sushi.

Now comes the best part: the orders are delivered on a special sushi train! It is shaped like a shinkansen and swishes over to your table in no time. You take off the plates and the train goes back to the kitchen. Never mind sushi quality, that train in itself is a reason to visit Kappa Zushi!

Something else that I love about Japanese conveyor belt sushi restaurants, apart from all the sushi, is the table side tap of hot water. You get a cup, a tin of green tea powder (different from matcha) and you serve yourself from the tap at your table. All you can drink green tea and an endless stream of sushi passing by under your very nose… pure bliss!

kappa zushi tea

Tea can in the bottom left, cup in the middle, and the tap is below the conveyor belt, next to the red box with pickled ginger. The black box holds the chopsticks. Each table also has their own supply of soy sauce and wasabi.

If this post has made you hungry, or you want to see the sushi train for yourself, you can find your nearest Kappa Zushi restaurant on this map (Japanese only). This is the Kappa Zushi in Toyota City:

KappaZushi_ToyotaCity

Kappa Zushi in Toyota City – image from Google Maps Streetview

My first bowl of matcha green tea

After having lived in Japan for over a year, a bowl of matcha green tea seems like the most normal thing in the world to me. But I can still vividly remember the first time I came into contact with this magical substance.

Matcha tea is produced by drying and grinding green tea leaves into a powder. This powder is then placed into a bowl, hot water is added and the tea is whisked to a uniform consistency with a bamboo whisk. The end result is a bowl of bright green, foamy tea with a soft, slightly bitter, slightly sweet taste. Matcha is most famous for its use in the Japanese Tea Ceremony, but in Japan it is also enjoyed on more informal occasions like a touristic temple visit or as an afternoon treat.

making matcha

Making matcha: the tea powder has been scooped into the bowl. Hot water is ready to be added. Then the tea is whisked. You can see the bamboo whisk in the bottom right.

Of course I didn’t know all of this when I first arrived in Japan. I had never even heard of matcha. My first introduction to matcha was at a small lunch restaurant (Mamean 豆庵 in Toyota City), popular with elderly Japanese ladies. I noticed all the ladies were consuming some bright green beverage after lunch, which fascinated me tremendously. In my beginner’s Japanese, I tried to ask one of the waiters about it. In reply to my halting “are wa nan desu ka” (lit. “what is that over there?”), the waiter provided me with a very elaborate explanation, of which I of course understood absolutely nothing. I just practiced my smile and nod technique, which is my go-to solution for such situations, and was rewarded with a steaming bowl of matcha tea.

my first matcha

This is the result, my first bowl of matcha tea

I think ‘interesting’ would be the best way to describe my first taste of matcha. It is somewhat of an acquired taste. Some foreigners just plainly dislike it, but I have grown very fond of the taste. In Japan you will encounter it frequently, since it is also used as an additive for sweets, cakes and ice cream. Starbucks Japan even serves matcha flavoured latte and frappuccino.

Starbucks Japan matcha

Azuki Matcha Latte at a Starbucks in Japan… while one could argue about the taste, it is certainly very Japanese.

matcha ice cream

My first taste of matcha ice cream (the green scoop on the top) wasn’t really a big hit. I later discovered that the taste can differ greatly from place to place and occasionally it can be very good. Therefore my advice is: avoid the Baskin and Robbins matcha ice cream, try it somewhere where it is homemade.

Homecooking: miso soup

If asked what the most typical Japanese food is, I would probably say miso soup. I already imagine some of you raising your eyebrows at this point, thinking to yourselves “what about sushi?” Contrary to popular belief in the West, sushi is not a part of daily meals in Japan. Sushi is more of a restaurant food, enjoyed on special occasions or on a fun night out with the family.

Miso soup, however, is very much part of Japanese home cooking. I think it is safe to say that most Japanese people still eat miso soup (almost) every day. Rice and miso soup make up the basics of most Japanese meals. When I found myself missing Japanese food after having moved back to Belgium, the taste of miso soup was what I missed most. It is just so typical of Japan.

The recipe for miso soup is very simple. The first thing you need is of course miso paste. Miso is made by fermenting soy and/ or rice and barley. The result is a thick, salty paste. It comes in many varieties. Most common are white miso (shiromiso 白味噌), which has a mild taste and the more spicy red miso (akamiso 赤味噌), which is typical of the Nagoya region.

Japanese miso

Japanese miso

The other basic ingredient for miso soup is fish and seaweed stock (dashi, 出汁). These days most people use dashi powder that can be added to water, rather than making their own stock from scratch. Other than miso and dashi, you can add anything you like to miso soup. Typical things to add are wakame seaweed and tofu, or daikon and fried tofu.

miso soup ingredients

Ingredients for miso soup: on the left instant dashi to be solved in water and on the right miso paste

When I had just arrived in Japan, the task of making miso soup at home seemed daunting. There were so many overly complicated recipes on the internet, while in fact it is very simple to make miso soup. I will therefore describe my own, easy way of making miso soup. Of course you are more than welcome to leave suggestions or remarks in the comments section. I’m always open to learn more!

Japanese miso soup with wakame and daikon

1. Soak the dried wakame in water for about five minutes or until it has stopped swelling. Drain the water and rinse the wakame. Don’t take too much; perhaps start with a teaspoon. The quantity of dried wakame can be deceiving since it swells so much in water.

daikon and dried wakame

daikon and dried wakame

2. Cut off 1/3 of the daikon. Peel it, cut in half lengthwise, cut in half again and then slice it.

peel the daikon

peel the daikon

slice the daikon

cut lengthwise and then slice the daikon

2. Heat water and add the instant dashi according to the instructions on the package.

3. Add the swelled wakame and the daikon to the dashi and boil for a few minutes. At this stage you can replace the wakame and daikon with other ingredients of your choosing.

miso soup recipe

4. Remove the soup from the fire. Take a spoonful of miso paste and dissolve it in the soup. You can add as much as you like. It depends on everyone’s individual taste. Start with a large teaspoon and add more if you like. Never bring the soup to the boil after having added the miso.

miso paste

miso paste

miso soup

It is possible to dissolve the miso paste directly into the soup but I prefer to use a small strainer. It makes dissolving the miso easier and you avoid finding chunks of undissolved miso in your soup afterwards.

miso soup finished

Miso soup finished. I used a lot of miso since I like the taste to be quite strong. If you use less miso, the soup will be a little less opaque.

Et voila! You have the basis for a simple Japanese home cooked meal. Enjoy!

basic japanese homecooked meal

Simple Japanese meal with salad, brown rice (genmai), miso soup (miso shiru) and pickles (tsukemono). The solid ingredients in the miso soup are eaten with chopsticks. The liquid is drunk directly from the bowl. The miso drops to the bottom of the bowl after sitting for a while. This is normal. You can stir it with your chopsticks before drinking.

Traditional Japanese breakfast

If you ever spend the night in a Japanese hotel or traditional ryokan, it is highly likely that you will be confronted with what I like to call ‘the Japanese breakfast experience’. While most Westerners will already consider a bowl of cereal a heartening breakfast, the Japanese are a bit more thorough when it comes to eating breakfast.

The simple version will usually include a bowl of miso soup, rice or rice porridge (called okayu), a piece of cooked fish and some pickled vegetables. Additionally bread, eggs, vegetables, natto or meat may also be included. And of course a cup of green tea.

japanese breakfast

Traditional Japanese breakfast from a breakfast buffet at a youth hostel. From left to right: bowl of miso soup, cup for green tea, glass of water, plate with fried egg, baked fish, various vegetables and salad, pickled vegetables and squid salad, bowl of rice, container with natto

japanese breakfast

Japanese breakfast in a hotel. From left to right: pickled vegetables, cup of tea, daikon and tofu boiled in broth (oden), bowl with various vegetables, bowl of rice porridge (okayu) with a pickled plum (umeboshi) on top, fried eggs, glass of water, miso soup.

modern japanese breakfast

Due to Western influences, bread and meat may also appear in a modern Japanese breakfast. From left to right: cup of green tea, delicious home-made bread, miso soup, yoghurt with raisins, a plate with vegetables, bacon and fried egg.

The Japanese breakfast experience can be quite a hurdle for Westerners. We are not used to eating fish, rice or soup for breakfast. Most of those items are considered dinner foods in Western cultures. While some gaijin seem to have trouble suppressing their gag reflex while just looking at a Japanese breakfast, personally I am a big fan. The hearty Japanese breakfast provides energy all through morning, without getting the 10 a.m. faintness I usually experience after a Western breakfast. And I love the taste of the salty rice porridge.

But even a fan like me has her limits. I had a bit of trouble downing this breakfast provided to me in a traditional ryokan:

japanese breakfast ryokan

Elaborate Japanese breakfast at a ryokan

grilled fish for breakfast

I had some trouble with the fish especially

The fact that the breakfast was served at 7 a.m. didn’t help. I was even more surprised that the gentleman at the table next to us felt the need to combine this healthy, early morning breakfast with a large beer.

beer for breakfast

A Japanese man enjoying a beer for breakfast. Notice the 1 liter (!) bottle on his table.

In fact, it seems quite normal to have alcohol at breakfast in Japanese hotels. Look at this menu we found on our breakfast table at a hotel in Nagano:

beer for breakfast in Japan

A menu advertising beer or sparkling wine for breakfast. Don’t even get me started on the Engrish, that’s for another blog post.