Tag Archives: Japanese food

Visit the Tsukiji Fish Market… But Not in Late December

Even though I spent many years living in Japan every time I visit I still find random, fascinating aspects of the culture and country that I hadn’t noticed before. Instead of creating one long blog post I’ve decided to turn it into a series where each week I share one or two observations from my most recent trip. 

If you love seafood and/or food markets you really can’t leave Tokyo without spending one of your mornings gawking at the dizzying display of colors, smells and sounds at Tsukiji fish market. It is one of the most famous fish markets in the world, and where most of the really good sushi restaurants—all over the globe—buy their fish. I visited Tsukiji on December 30th, the last business day of the year for this popular market. Do not follow my example.

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Unfortunately It Is Possible to Get a Bad Meal in Japan

Even though I spent many years living in Japan every time I visit I still find random, fascinating aspects of the culture and country that I hadn’t noticed before. Instead of creating one long blog post I’ve decided to turn it into a series where each week I share one or two observations from my most recent trip. 

It pains me to admit that but it’s true. I’ve been guilty of hubristically proclaiming that it’s nearly impossible to get a bad meal in Japan. And while I will say that your chances of finding good food are higher than many other countries, it doesn’t hurt to do a little research beforehand. Here are a few things I’ve learned.

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It’s Possible to Order at a Restaurant in Japan Without Speaking or Reading a Lick of the Language

Even though I spent many years living in Japan every time I visit I still find random, fascinating aspects of the culture and country that I hadn’t noticed before. Instead of creating one long blog post I’ve decided to turn it into a series where each week I share one or two observations from my most recent trip. 

I attribute this to three factors. First, many restaurants have plastic replicas of menu items outside their establishment, making it easy to see what they serve just by browsing the window displays. Once you spot a plastic model of something that looks good walk in, get a table and order it. Think of it as buying an outfit right off the mannequin.

Second, food photography in Japan is ridiculously good, prevalent on menus, and the food comes out looking pretty damn close to how it did in the photo. This goes for fast food joints as well. The lettuce is just as green and frilly. The beef patty is just as shiny. Everything is assembled with such exactitude you would think all the employees carried rulers.

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Eggplant with Spicy Miso Sauce

We’ve all tasted poorly prepared eggplant—a gray, bitter mushy blob so unpleasant that it left a scar on our food subconscious. I’ve sent back eggplant dishes at otherwise fantastic restaurants because their bitter eggplant brought me the same pleasure I imagine sucking on a metal popsicle would. True, it can be a challenging vegetable to work with, but when cooked correctly, eggplant can also be a thing of beauty.

There is a popular dish in Japan called nasu no dengaku: essentially, broiled eggplants with a miso, sake and sugar glaze. While delicious, I find the purely traditional form to be a little too sweet for my tastes. Even so, I love how the skin gets lightly charred and smoky while the flesh turns creamy under the intense broiler heat.

My version of nasu no dengaku came together after a dinner at Kaz Sushi Bistro in downtown DC. Chef Kaz Okochi has the most amazing spicy broiled New Zealand mussels on his menu. The sauce on this dish is incredible. In fact, I loved it so much that I went home and tried to replicate the flavors. Now I’m sure Chef Okochi’s secret is far more complex than combining three ingredients in a bowl, but to be honest my version tastes SPOT ON. Best of all you can easily whip up the sauce in under a minute & it partners beautifully not only with mussels* (see Cook’s Note), but with eggplant and a variety of fish as well.

Miso, a fermented soybean paste, imparts a deep salty flavor. The mayonnaise makes the sauce luscious, and keeps whatever you spread it on moist. As for the Sriracha… do you really need a reason to invite the ever-popular “Rooster” hot sauce to the party?

I prefer to use Chinese or Japanese eggplants because they lack the bitterness of other varieties. But if you want to use other types try curing them first.

1. Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise.
2. Score the flesh. (Tiny cuts in a crisscross pattern)
3. Sprinkle generously with salt and allow the eggplant to sit for 45 minutes to an hour.
4. Rinse and dry the eggplant halves before cooking

Or you can use baby eggplants which typically haven’t had a chance to develop that infamous acrid flavor. Last Sunday I picked up some gorgeous French and Turkish baby eggplants at the Dupont farmers market (I recommend the French ones). I split them in half lengthwise, scored the flesh, spread the miso sauce over them & popped them in the toaster oven. Twenty minutes later I pulled out a visually stunning and deliciously earthy autumnal side dish.

Serves 4

1-quart baby eggplant or 2 Japanese eggplants
Neutral oil
2 Tbs. Kewpie mayonnaise
2 tsp. miso paste
1 tsp. Sriracha
Chives or scallions, thinly sliced (optional)

• Preheat the oven to 350°

• Mix the mayonnaise, miso and Sriracha in a bowl (spice lovers, there’s nothing wrong with adding a little more Sriracha).

• Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise and score the flesh, taking care not to cut through to the skin. Drizzle with a little oil.

• Place a generous smearing of the sauce over the top of each eggplant

• Lay the eggplants, cut side up, on a lightly oiled sheet pan

• The total length of cooking time will vary depending on the size of the eggplants you are using but begin by placing them in the oven for 20 minutes. Keep a close eye on the sauce; you don’t want it to burn. If it starts to get too much color cover the sheet pan loosely with foil.

• Check for doneness by squeezing the eggplant. When it’s ready it’ll be soft and give easily.

• Just before removing from the oven blast the eggplant under the broiler for 30 seconds.

• Top with sliced chives or scallions and enjoy immediately

Cook’s note: For the mussel version of this dish scrub and debeard the mussels. Heat a little stock or sake on the stove in a wide skillet. Once the liquid comes to a boil add the mussels and cover tightly. The mussels will open in 30 seconds–1 minute. Remove from the heat and pull the shells apart. Spread the sauce on top of the side containing the mussel. Place the mussels on a sheet pan and under a broiler set to high. Blast for 30 seconds-1 minute. Sprinkle with scallion slices and serve.

TCKs: Sibling #3 Requests Mochi with Butter and Sugar

Staring out of the car window at the rolling green knolls, tall aluminum silos and herds of happily grazing animals on my way from Milwaukee to Green Lake, I seriously debated pulling up to one of the picturesque farms and asking if they’d be willing to let me milk one of their fat cows. And when I saw a woman walking to her mailbox with a lamb by her side I knew Wisconsin would be the place to live out my fetch-a-pail-of-milk-with-a-bonnet-on-my-head fantasy.

Damn, that would’ve made a good blog entry.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t drag myself out of bed for a 5am milking after lying around on my friend’s dock, swimming in the lake and stuffing my face with fried cheese curds. Luckily for me my toast-and-milk-loving brother saved my lazy ass with the following text. “Holy shit, I just remembered my comfort food… mochi with butter and sugar… that shit is bananas.” (Yes, that’s really how my 28 year-old brother talks).

If you’ve never had mochi before, a brief explanation might be in order. Mochi is a Japanese rice cake made by pounding glutinous rice till it forms one sticky mass. After this, it is divided and shaped into squares or little mounds, and eaten savory or sweet.

As kids we used to join our neighbors for mochitsuki, mochi pounding, a ritual that is part of the Japanese New Year celebration. It was riveting to watch the process. Two volunteers, one pounding the rice with a heavy wooden mallet, the other quickly folding and flipping the hot mass lying inside a mortar between mallet strikes. As you can imagine, timing is everything. I was always relieved by the absence of accidents. But my two brothers, who had been so excited for the possibility of seeing a hand caught under the mallet, were continuously disappointed by the lack of gore. Once the mochi was ready we’d line up for a serving of that warm, slightly sweet, stretchy goodness.

Personally, I love mochi nice and Asian, with seaweed and soy sauce. But—in genuine TCK confused fashion—my younger brother prefers his with a pat of butter and sprinkling of sugar.

I could use this space to talk about the long painstaking process behind mochi. I could tell you how to soak and steam the mochi rice. Pound, shape and dust the pieces with rice flour. But why risk pancaking a finger with a wooden hammer when there are perfectly made rice cakes sold in stores? Look for mochi at your local Asian grocery store (I purchased mine at Hana the Japanese grocery store on U St. in Northwest Washington, DC) and simply follow the cooking directions on the back of the packaging. I simply throw them in the toaster till the exterior is shatteringly crisp and the inside is warm and gooey. Mochi is good no matter what you decide to top it with. Soy sauce, seaweed, red beans, white miso, sesame paste… or even butter and sugar.

Shrimp & Pork Fried Rice

I knew I’d get at least one request for fried rice when I emailed my siblings asking about their favorite childhood dishes. Sure enough, the following reply came from my older brother, “I would say a proper Chinese/Japanese fried rice is a staple comfort food for me. It’s simple but always takes me back to childhood food”.

Disclaimer: I am a HUGE snob when it comes to fried rice, as is my older brother, which is why I understood when he prefaced his choice with the word “proper”. But what is proper Chinese/Japanese fried rice? For starters, Japanese fried rice is really Chinese fried rice. I’m not looking to veer off into touchy foreign policy issues here. It’s not an invitation to begin debating Japanese history textbook revisionism or who really owns the Senkaku islands…  This is just a simple statement; good Japanese fried rice is really Chinese fried rice.

I am willing however, to argue over what goes inside said fried rice. Perhaps it’s best to start with what should NOT be included. There shouldn’t be any chunks of softened pineapple dominating the dish with its sweetness. No bean sprouts poking out like tadpoles from a mound of rice. And no bright green broccoli florets with their promise of nutrition. As for the protein component this is not the time to start defrosting those questionable items in the back on the freezer. The rice shouldn’t be yellow from curry powder, or red from ketchup. And it should definitely not be brown from thickened soy sauce.

For me the best fried rice is flavored with both shrimp and pork; the rice is still white rather than stained brown from soy sauce, and the vegetables are uniformly cut and cooked.

The first really great fried rice I remember eating with my older brother was at the Seagull Hotel in Shanghai when he was six and I was four. We had just travelled with our parents, two-year-old brother and one-month old baby sister by ship, from Japan to China (that’s right, I said SHIP). At the hotel my brother and I would alternate between ordering the fried rice and fried noodles. I’m sure we ordered other dishes as well, but none stuck in my memory like those two big starchy plates of food.

Nowadays our massive family has a system for ordering when we go out for Chinese food (imagine the mayhem without one). Two or three of us will scan the menu and call off suggestions for the others to reject or accept, while another sibling furiously scribbles the orders on a scrap of paper. Fried rice with its salty nuggets of ham, just-cooked pink shrimp, and delicately scrabbled eggs always gets a round of head-nods and an enthusiastic “definitely” from the whole family. I’m hoping that the version below gets the same unanimous stamp of approval.

Neutral oil for cooking
½ cup diced onion
1 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp. minced ginger
3/4 tsp. salt
1/3 cup diced carrots
1/3 cup diced celery 
5 shiitake caps, diced
1 tsp. oyster sauce
1/3 cup cooked peas
¾ cup diced ham or Canadian bacon
10 small or 5 large (cut into 3rds) peeled and deveined shrimp
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 cups cooked white rice *cook’s note I*
1 tsp. chicken bouillon *cook’s note II*
¼ tsp. white pepper
½ cup sliced scallion
2 tsp. sesame oil

*As with all Chinese food timing and speed are the keys to success. Make sure you have everything prepped and ready to go before you turn on the stove.

  • Heat a wok or large skillet and 1 Tbsp. of oil over med-high heat. Once wisps of smoke begin to appear add the diced onion. Cook for 1 min. Add the garlic, ginger and ¼ tsp. of salt. Cook for 1 minute more.
  • Add the diced carrots. Cook for 1 minute. Turn the heat to high. Add the celery and diced shiitake caps. Add 1 tsp. oyster sauce. Cook for 1 min. Add the peas, stirring through. Remove and set aside.
  • In the now empty wok/skillet heat 2 tsp. of oil. Add the diced Canadian bacon or ham (I prefer Canadian bacon for its fat content). Fry quickly over high heat until lightly brown and fat begins to render. Remove. Turn the heat down to medium-high and add the shrimp to the pork fat. Add ¼ tsp. of salt. Cook for 2 minutes, or until shrimp are pink and no longer translucent. Remove shrimp, leaving any remaining fat behind.
  • Turn the heat down to medium and add the lightly beaten eggs to the center of the hot wok/skillet. Cook as you would scrambled eggs for 15 seconds, add the rice to the pan. Mix well with the partially cooked eggs. Sprinkle in 1 tsp. chicken bouillon, ¼ tsp. salt and ¼ tsp. ground white pepper. Continue stir-frying for 1 minute.
  • Add the cooked vegetables, pork and shrimp. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring well to evenly distribute all the ingredients. Add the scallions and sesame oil. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.
  • Remove from heat and serve.

Cook’s note I: To get the best results the rice needs to be cold. Freshly steamed rice is too sticky to fry properly. Use leftover rice or cook it early in the day and let it cool for a while in the refrigerator.

Cook’s note II: In an effort to develop a recipe as close to the version my older brother remembers from his childhood I’ve used chicken bouillon. I doubt it comes as a surprise to anyone that this is an ingredient frequently used for seasoning in Chinese food. It received a bad rap for a while due to its MSG content, but these days it’s pretty easy to find a MSG-free version.

Kara-age: Japanese Fried Chicken

I have an insatiable appetite for fried chicken. If I spot it on a menu, at a street fair, or night market it’s just a matter of time before it ends up in my mouth. I’m not overly finicky about how it’s prepared, but I do have one rule: don’t strip it of its skin and fat. I want a brown crackling exterior and juicy meat that tastes like it spent some time soaking in good brine or marinade. In order to accomplish this you essentially need two things—skin and fat.

Japanese enjoy this simple fried chicken with their after-work beers, alongside a bowl of ramen, or tucked inside a bento box. Traditionally potato starch is used for coating the chicken but I find that when used alone it can be a bit powdery on the tongue. Rather, try using a mixture of flour and potato starch; you’ll get a crisp exterior without the dusty flakes.


Once I debone the chicken thighs I like to pound each piece until it’s an even inch across. I do this so that each slice has a good skin-fat-meat ratio. You can cook the thigh as one uniform piece, or cut it into strips before dredging and frying.

My hubby believes that food is simply a vessel for sauces, so I serve this chicken with Japanese mustard and a spicy mayo (a mix of sriracha and Kewpie mayonnaise). But the traditionalist in me is satisfied with a simple squeeze of lemon and a cold Kirin beer.


6 chicken thighs, deboned with skin on
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 Tbsp. mirin (or sake)
1 Tbsp. grated ginger
1 cup potato starch
1 cup flour  
1 tsp. curry powder
½ tsp. salt
White pepper for dusting
Lemon wedges

  • Place the boneless chicken thighs between two sheets of plastic wrap. Pound till about one inch across. Cut into one-inch strips.
  • Mix the soy sauce, mirin and grated ginger together in a bowl. Add the chicken. Toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes but no longer than 45min.
  • Place a pan (preferably cast iron) over medium high heat and fill two inches deep with neutral (sunflower, peanut, canola) oil.
  • Mix the potato starch, flour, curry powder and salt together in a shallow dish. Coat the chicken in the mixture. Shake off any excess.
  • When the oil has reached 325° gently lay the chicken into the pan, taking care not to overcrowd. (If you don’t have a thermometer test the temperature with a little piece of chicken. You want to see tiny bubbles quickly rising with the meat. The oil should not be smoking)
  • Cook for approximately 5 minutes per batch. If you’re frying the thigh as a whole piece rather than strips cook each side for about 4 minutes.
  • When the chicken is a deep golden brown remove and drain on paper towels.
  • Dust with finely ground white pepper and serve with wedges of lemon.

Hamburger, Hambagu, Hanbagu… Who Cares? It’s Smothered In Sauce and Delicious.

Denny’s in Japan is not the home of the grand-slam breakfast, chicken fried steak, early bird specials and caloric overload. It is a place to go when you’re in the mood for yoshoku or Japanized Western food. Favorites such as “American” club sandwiches, crab spaghetti, grilled winter vegetable curry and hamburger steaks are served to diners in the mood for something “Western”.

Slide into one of their booths in the morning and you won’t be offered stacks of chocolate chip pancakes, skillets of hash and burritos the size of a serving platter. But perhaps you’d like to order the Choose a Salad Morning. Your choice of a salad accompanied by a stack of small pancakes, toast or rice. For the Japanese breakfast lover, there is Denny’s Balanced Japanese Breakfast: rice, miso soup, an egg and a tofu salad. Unfortunately the Grand Slamwich—egg, cheese, ham, bacon AND sausage busting out from between two slices of bread and served with hash browns—is nowhere to be found. However, you can try to satisfy that craving with the vegetable and egg sandwich to be enjoyed with a bowl of yogurt and fresh fruit.

If you’re an expat desperately needing a greasy American breakfast to dilute the alcohol in your system, your best bet is the Denny’s Morningone slice of toast, two eggs, one slice of bacon, a small sausage and a salad. You may have to order two or three of these to obtain the desired results.

As a kid in Japan I often ordered the Japanese version of a hamburger patty. Served with rice, pasta or French fries but never between sesame seed sprinkled buns. Other than the shape, they are pretty different from what Americans think of when they hear the word “hamburger”. If you order off the kid’s menu your patty comes adorned with toothpick flags. I don’t know why there are flags or what sort of marketing tests recommended them, the idea probably originated in a posh Japanese office filled with old men. Over the last 20+ years the flags have migrated from the hamburger to a the nearby rice but they are still present.

The Japanized hamburger or “hanbagu” is enormously popular. Variations make up an entire section of Denny’s Japanese menu. Below is my version of this yoshoku classic. Try to buy ground beef containing at least 20% fat (health freaks, it’s the fat that keeps the patty moist).

Feel free to celebrate successfully conquering this dish by stabbing a flag of your choice into the succulent mound of meat.

Hamburger Patties:
1/3 cup bread crumbs
1/3 cup milk
¼ onion, minced
1 pound ground beef
1 egg
salt and pepper

Mushroom Sauce:
½ onion, diced
10 shiitakes, stems removed and caps sliced
½ tsp. of salt
2 tsp. flour
1 cup mushroom stock*
1 cup beef stock
1 Tbs. soy sauce
1 Tbs. plus 1 tsp. ketchup
1 Tbs. tonkatsu sauce (or Worcestershire sauce)
1 tsp. mustard
1 tsp. sugar

  • Preheat the oven to 375°
  • Pour the milk over the bread crumbs. While that softens, mince ¼ onion.
  • Place the bread crumbs, onion, ground beef, and egg into a large mixing bowl. Season generously with salt and ground pepper. Mix with your hands until just combined. Shape mixture into four hamburger patties.
  • Heat a skillet over high heat, add oil and sear the patties on both sides. Transfer to a plate. Add the onions, mushrooms and ½ tsp. of salt to the hot beef grease. Sweat for three minutes over medium heat. Sprinkle in two teaspoons of flour. Cook altogether for another minute.
  • Add the beef and mushroom stock. Stir. Add soy sauce, ketchup, tonkotsu sauce, mustard and sugar. Let it come to a boil while you continue to stir. Turn the heat down and let the sauce reduce by 1/3.
  • Place the hamburger patties in a deep baking dish and pour the sauce on top. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes.
  • These hamburger patties can be served with rice, potatoes or pasta so long as they’re plated up with a generous spoonful of the mushroom steak sauce.

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*Mushroom stock: when you bring shiitakes home from the market remove the woody stems and put them in a pot with 3-4 cups of cold water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain and put in a container. You now have mushroom stock for stews, sauces, and anything else that calls for vegetable stock.

Grown Up Instant Ramen

My next major culinary project is to learn how to make real ramen broth. The sous chef at the restaurant I stage at kindly loaned metwo Japanese magazines on the intricacies of making ramen. But with my rapidly deteriorating Japanese reading skills I fear I may never uncover the secrets to rich, complex and creamy tonkotsu broth.

However, I remain determined to learn and in the meantime I’ll continue to use store bought ramen packets to satisfy my cravings. I’m not talking about the dorm room favorite— Cup Noodles, rather than buying the packets with dried instant noodles look in the refrigerated section of your local Asian store for the ones containing fresh noodles. They are definitely a major step up.

Prepare the noodles and broth as stated on the back of the package. Then gently reheat three or four slices of pork belly. Quickly sauté cabbage and bean sprouts in a hot skillet with a little chicken stock (liquid or powder form, no one’s judging), salt, and white pepper—finish with a splash of black vinegar and sesame oil. Other great ramen toppings include soft-boiled eggs, seaweed (dried or fresh), bamboo shoots and shiitakes.

Place the pork belly, vegetables and toppings of your choice in a bowl with the ramen noodles and broth. Enjoy this elevated college staple on your real dining room table rather than on a stack of old pizza boxes that you’ve draped a sarong over in an effort to disguise its origins. Seriously, did that ever fool anyone? Congratulate yourself on becoming a grown up… of sorts.