Mirin and miso, dashi and daikon, hijiki and, um, haiku. Six Japanese words which might sum up their culture, the first five of which are basic ingredients in the Japanese kitchen.
That's the trouble with understanding Japanese food. Hardly any of it relates to western experience. But Shirley Booth, a Yorkshire-born television filmmaker, who has lived much of her adult life in Japan (she's now in her forties), thinks the time has come to do something about this.
"Japanese food is so tasty, stylish and healthy," she says. "Japan has a remarkable record of longevity. Their heart disease rates are among the lowest in the world."
Booth is presently living in St Albans, a base for sorties, teaching and demonstrating Japanese cooking. She makes films about British food for the Japanese Broadcasting Company and is planning a series on Japanese food for British television. She is also author of Food of Japan (Grub Street, £17.99), one of the few books by a Briton on Japanese cooking.
In the kitchen of Booth's St Albans house, there are rows of strangely labelled packets, jars and bottles. Here are the mirin and miso, the dashi and daikon, the hijiki, if not the haiku. But if we want to try cooking Japanese, where, outside speciality stores, do you get the ingredients?
Dashi, for example, is stock flavoured with dried bonito flakes, the basis of daily breakfast soup throughout Japan. Daikon is a giant white radish, shredded to a fluff and served as a garnish. Mirin is sweet rice wine. Miso is a dark paste of fermented soy bean, tasting like Marmite.
Hijiki, which looks like small black twigs, is one of the numerous seaweeds which are staples of the Japanese diet, along with agar agar (a jellying agent), kombu (also used to make the dashi stock) and nori, the black sheets of processed seaweed used to wrap sushi - something we do know about.
Some foods on her shelves are more familiar. The ubiquitous tofu, chunks of white bean curd, so favoured by vegetarians. The many forms of rice and noodles, such as the delicious buckwheat noodle, soba, which is served cool or cold. Shoyu sauce, as they call soy sauce.
Some ingredients are now surfacing in supermarkets, especially those for making sushi; the rice and the nori seaweed, Japanese rice vinegar and rice wine, mirin. Others are more obscure, though Shirley can get them 20 minutes away at Oriental City, in Colindale, the largest Japanese store in Europe, which also sells some of the freshest fish in the UK.
But ingredients are only part of the ritual. You need the correct tools, cleavers, chopping blocks, razor sharp knives, graters and elegant ceramic mortars with engraved ridges, with fine bamboo brushes for cleaning them. And bamboo mats for rolling sushi, and so on.
And yet it all seems so simple to Shirley. She was 23 on her first visit, as an English teacher. The first thing she tasted was miso soup, a long way from the tastes of her home town, Hull. "It took me about a week to get used to it. But soon there wasn't anything I missed about English food except perhaps cheese."
Shirley chose these simple and tasty recipes for us from her book. If you don't have access to a speciality shop, health food shops sell wakame seaweed and mirin wine, and sometimes wasabi mustard. Taro is available in Caribbean markets (also sold as eddoe or yam).
Chicken grilled on skewers Serves 4
For the dipping sauce (tare):
7 tablespoons sake
180ml/9fl oz soy sauce
7 tablespoons mirin
2 tablespoons caster sugar
6 chicken thighs
2 Japanese negi or small leeks (alternate with pieces of chicken on one skewer)
12 small fresh shiitake mushrooms (skewer alone)
225g/8oz chicken livers
4 small green peppers (thin skinned if available)
Bamboo skewers (18cm/7in long) soaked in water
First make the dipping sauce: mix the ingredients together in a small saucepan and bring to the boil to dissolve the sugar and get rid of the alcohol. Take off the heat and put into a tall, narrow jug, the correct size to dip a small bamboo skewer in.
Prepare the ingredients to be grilled. Cut the chicken thigh into bite-size pieces, about 2cm (3Å½4in). You can remove the skin and grill the pieces separately or leave it on. Cut the leek into 2cm (3Å½4in) slices. Wipe the mushrooms and cut off the stems. In a colander, pour boiling water over the livers to eliminate odour, then plunge into cold water and drain. Wash and de-seed the peppers and cut into bite-size pieces.
Thread the ingredients on to the skewers: about five small pieces of chicken on one skewer; three pieces of chicken alternated with two pieces of leek on another; and three shiitake on a third. Put green peppers on another, and the liver separately. The items are mostly cooked separately because the grilling times will vary for each ingredient.
Grill either over charcoal or under a grill for about five minutes (depending on ingredient and size) until 80 per cent cooked. Dip into the sauce and return to the grill for about three minutes more, until the chicken is just cooked through. You may have to test the first one to get the timing correct - you don't want to serve underdone chicken, but nor do you want it dried out or blackened. A little charring is fine. Dip once more into the sauce before serving, and allow any excess to drip back into the pot. Although most delicious hot, these can be eaten at room temperature.
Nasu no Soramame ae
Deep-fried aubergine with fresh broad beans
This is a dish for early summer, when broad beans appear in the markets. In Japan they are not sold in their pods as they are in Britain, but shelled. The cooked beans are pressed one by one out of their skins, and the pulp is mashed.Try to use small aubergines as they are fried skin side down to reduce the absorption of oil and if you fry large areas of cut flesh the dish will be too greasy.
36 large broad beans
2 teaspoons mirin
Vegetable oil for deep frying
4 small aubergines (or 2 larger ones) stalks removed, and cut in half, lengthwise
Cook the beans in lightly salted boiling water, for about five minutes until tender. Drain and rinse in cold water. Make a little nick at the top of each bean and squeeze the pulp out into a grinding bowl. Discard the skins. Crush with a pestle (or fork). Mix in the mirin and salt. The mash should be slightly lumpy, not too smooth. Now you need to fry the aubergines. Heat the vegetable oil to 340F/170C on a medium heat. Place the aubergines skin side down and fry for about three minutes (longer if using bigger ones), until they begin to soften. Turn over and fry for a further minute, flesh side down, until just soft all the way through.
Drain on kitchen paper. Cut diagonally into 2cm (3Å½4in) slices. Combine carefully with the mashed beans, and serve in individual dishes, as a side dish. This could also make an interesting starter in a Western meal.Reuse content