FOOD AND DRINK / A Yen for Yin and Yang: Can't tell your nori from your nishiki? Sue Webster offers a guide to Japanese ingredients

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The Independent Culture
AFTER FRESHNESS and purity, aesthetics are everything in Japanese cooking: in sushi, for example, each grain of rice is supposed to point the same way. Delightful as this is for the restaurant goer, such mystique is daunting for the home cook. So why bother?

First, Japanese cuisine - though some of the ingredients may seem alien - is delicious. Anybody who likes smoked salmon will probably like sashimi (little strips of raw fish to be dipped in soy sauce), while the growing numbers of Californian sushi addicts have only one regret - the cost of feeding the habit.

'Su' means vinegar - hence 'sushi', bite- sized aperitifs of vinegared rice with raw fish (alternative fillings include cucumber, omelette and avocado) often held together by crisp strips of seaweed. Originally used to preserve fish, vinegared rice was soon recognised as a tasty comestible.

Every Japanese meal contains fish. Even if is not visible, you can be sure it is in the soup, in the form of bonito stock. At one time dried bonito fillets hung in Japanese kitchens, ready to be pared off into flakes to make stock each day; now the flakes are sold in packets.

Another key ingredient is seaweed - far richer in beauty-enhancing minerals, iodine and vitamin A than any land vegetable. This is one of the few Japanese favourites also farmed in Britain (off Scotland), and it can be bought cheaply in health food shops. As with most Japanese seaweed, it is sold dried; all except the purple laver (nori), which is used to wrap sushi, should be rehydrated.

Four other essential Japanese ingredients have health-promoting qualities: pale yellow rice vinegar; green wasabi (a perennial herb unrelated to horseradish but often referred to as such because of its pungent flavour); soy sauce; and the translucent pink slices of pickled ginger. All contain natural anti-bacterial agents which protect against disease.

There is much we can learn from the concept and presentation of Japanese food. In some respects we already have, for nouvelle cuisine attempted to capture some of its purity and exquisite proportions, though with Occidental ingredients. We probably have the influence of Zen Buddhism on Japanese cuisine to thank for the use of bigger plates, for the idea that empty spaces between items of food add to the general appeal. In a culture where balance and harmony are considered essential, yin and yang are not empty words. A common Japanese simile likens the food on a dish to the mountains, the spaces to the valleys.

The main problem for the British cook interested in tackling Japanese food is the difficulty of finding the ingredients, but the situation is improving. The Yaohan Plaza in north London (see opposite) stocks just about everything you will need. Many small Chinese retailers also sell some Japanese products, and here the answer is old-fashioned grocery store etiquette: ask.

Kikkoman, the Japanese soy sauce manufacturer, has just launched an initiative to popularise Japanese cooking. It has compiled a list of 25 essential ingredients, available this year: among them are nishiki rice and three kinds of noodles (wheat, buckwheat and beanthread); four kinds of seaweed (including nori sheets for rolling sushi); bonito flakes; dried shiitake mushrooms; sansho pepper; wasabi mustard; and soya sauces (teriyaki for marinating, and sukiyaki for cooking). Write to Kikkoman, Field House, 8 High Street, Hurstpierpoint, Sussex BN6 9TZ for the full list.

The company also publishes Cooking Japanese Style, a 112-page illustrated hardback (usual price pounds 9.95), co-written by a young New Zealander, Mark Gregory, twice Kikkoman's chef of the year. It is available to Independent on Sunday readers for pounds 4.99 including p & p. Write, enclosing a postal order made payable to Kikkoman, to the above address.

Generally speaking, Japanese cook books are hard to come by. Kodansha International (95 The Aldwych, London WC2, tel: 071-304 4095) publishes half a dozen in English. The most popular is Practical Japanese Cooking (pounds 26), which contains pictures of typical Japanese ingredients so you know what to look for.

Other than very sharp knives (Japanese knives are ground on one side only and sharpened on a stone, but any good quality, well-sharpened knife will do) and a bamboo mat for sushi, no special equipment is required. The art of picking the best, freshest fish (by their clear eyes, tight flesh and silvery bright skin) is a valuable skill common to serious cooks of both East and West.

The following recipes are from Tokihiro Sunakoshi, executive head chef of the Ninjin Group, which operates seven restaurants and a Japanese food store in London.

KING PRAWNS WITH JAPANESE SAUCE

Serves 2

12 king prawns

1 green pepper

70g/2oz mushrooms

4 small tomatoes

1 tablespoons pine nuts

salt and white pepper

For the sauce:

100g/4oz onions

30g/1oz Japanese radish (mooli)

1 clove garlic

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

50ml/2fl oz soy sauce

50ml/2fl oz mirin (or sweet white wine)

80ml/3fl oz water

50ml/2fl oz sake (or dry sherry)

Mix the sauce ingredients in a blender until smooth and creamy. The mixture will keep in a screw-top bottle in the fridge for two months.

Quickly wash the prawns in their shells, then dry by wiping with a towel. Put vegetable oil into a preheated frying pan. Add the prawns and cook well on both sides. Pour prepared sauce over the prawns and turn off the heat.

Cut the green pepper and mushrooms into squares (about 2cm/1in). Stir-fry with a pinch of salt and pepper. Transfer the green peppers on to a plate, garnish with the tomatoes, and arrange the cooked prawns in front. Sprinkle the pine nuts over the prawns.

SALMON STEAK

Serves 4

4 pieces (150g/6oz each) salmon steak

salt and white pepper

flour

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 tablespoons salmon roe (ikura)

1 bunch watercress

1 sliced lemon

For the sauce:

4 tablespoons dark soy sauce

5 tablespoons water

5 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon cornflour

Mix the sauce ingredients in a bowl before cooking. Sprinkle salt and pepper lightly over the salmon steaks and leave them in the fridge for about an hour.

Heat the oil in the frying pan. Lightly flour the salmon steaks. Cook both sides until golden brown. (To check if they are done, press the middle of the steak: if the surface does not bounce back, further cooking is required). Pour the sauce into the pan, amalgamate the sauce and salmon for 30 seconds.

Decorate the plate with salad, place the sliced lemon on the salmon and a spoonful of salmon roes in the centre of that. Arrange the watercress on top.

COD WRAPPED IN FOIL

Serves 2

2 slices cod fillet (180g/6oz each)

2oz shiitake mushrooms

4 spring onions (cut into 1in pieces)

For the sauce:

2 tablespoons miso (brown bean paste)

1 tablespoon sake (or dry sherry)

2 tablespoons mirin (or sweet white wine)

teaspoon finely grated ginger

Mix the ingredients well in a bowl to make a sauce. Lightly salt the cod fillets and leave in the fridge for an hour. Take a 20in (50cm) length of aluminium foil and lightly oil the centre of it. Place the fillets in the middle of the foil, pour 2-3 tablespoons of the miso sauce over the fish, arrange shiitake mushrooms and spring onions on the fish, sprinkle 1 tablespoon of sake over it, then wrap in foil. Bake in the oven preheated to 200C/400F/Gas 6 for 10-15 minutes. (Adjust time depending on thickness of the fish).-

(Photograph omitted)

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