Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Culinary Challenge Day 7 The Final Chapter

Final Thoughts

Well well the end is nigh. My final day of the Japanese Culinary Challenge is at a close, all that is left is half a cup of green tea....My thoughts at this end of the week are mixed....I am sad to be leaving such a beautiful ritualistic way of eating that was focused by passion and intrigue...on the other hand if I ever see another grain of rice again.....

The Final Day

My day began with miso and rice. I think it would be fair to say at this point I wasn't ctually tasting flavours. I guess it is similar to those of us who have a morning ritual of cereal or toast and vegemite -we certainly are tasting all the distinct flavours day after day... Maybe I have been some what initiated into the Japnese way of life!

For lunch I returned to my favourite haunt - Bread Top for a tuna mayonnaise bun - wow I even have my Japanese comfort food! No time for anything else as I was eating on the run, but I was also anticipating my final dinner.....

Dinner tonight required something extra special and not just in the food....I found myself at a Asian chinaware place late this afternoon admiring the many beautiful platters, bowls and spoons used in the presentation of Japanese food and I couldn't resist.....

When I returned home I moved my low table into the middle of the lounge room and placed four floor cushions around it. Tonight my guests and I would eat in true Japanese style. The meal began with a bonita fish broth, then sashmi, cut myslef from a beautiful piece of fresh tuna I bought from the Queen Victoria Market. The next course was cold buckwheat noodles with a soy dressing adorned with roasted sesame seeds and spring onions. This was accompanied with grilled teriyaki fish. The fish I used was ling, soft, sweet and succulent. To finish we nibbled on some sweet chestnut dumplings (not made by me, but purchased from an Asian store.) To accompany dessert we drank warm sake. Ahh it was a memorable ode farewell to Japan.....

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Culinary Challenge Day 6

Nearing the End
As I near the end of my week I feel the need to return to my staple breakfast of rice and miso. While there is a large part of my imagination busy creating many new and wonderful breakfasts I can mke once this week is over I have enjoyed a certain peacefulness of the routine and ritual about eating the same thing in the same fashion each day (although I am sure I won't eat rice again for at least another few weeks!). As I sit and drink my third cup of green tea (I hope all those antioxidants are being readily absorbed!) I contemplate life after.....But alas I getting ahead of myself because tonight I am going to cook one of my favourite Japanese meals....

Japanese Vegetable Garden
Today was an exceptionally busy day so my trip to the market to pick up supplies for tonight would have to be a quick one. With my head still contemplating the meals of the last few days I realised one of the biggest changes for me has been the types of vegetables I have been eating. I absolute adore vegetables in all their shapes, sizes, textures and flavours, but I realised there are some vegetables, like cabbage, daikon andleeks that I don't eat on a regular basis. It strikes me that these vegetables have a particular flavour sought after by the Japanese - savoury, oniony, slight bitterness (perhaps not the leek) that contribute to the extra taste the Japanese refer to as umami. This flavour can be fully understood by emersing yourself in Japanese food and it also describes the a level of warm satisfaction that the meal tends to give you without weighing you down - a deep savouriness that is very comforting. Hmmm.....

Curry in a Hurry
There is nothing in the world like a Japanese curry. They tend to be sweet, not hot and they also tend not to be homemade. Yes that's right the Japanese curry I love is made directly from a packet and one which I would perhaps reccomend not reading the ingredients on! But I can guarantee you if you can get past this then you will have a fast and depply satisfying meal on your hands! O.K to begin there are a few rules about Japanese curries - they must contain potatoes and usually carrots also, the vegetables are usually in nice chunks, not dainty slices and while any meat can be added I think the flavour is best with just vegetables (don't ever use fish). At this point I shoul add that if you are a Vegetarian then you must pick your packet sauce very carefully as most of them contain pork lard. As my partner is vegetarian I use Golden Curry mild which uses palm oil instead so you will be fine if you stick with that. So, the process is as follows - chop up your veegtables into chunks (best to keep it simple and only us a few different types. Heat up a little oil and quickly cook your meat if you are using (also cut into chunks). Remove from the pan once it is brown. If you aren't using meat then skip this step. Start cooking the vegetables in order from potatoes, then carrot, pumpkin. If you are using all three, leave 4-5 minutes between each. Then add the curry sauce and a little water as directed on the pack. Stir to coat the vegetables. If you are using any softer vegetables such as broccoli or eggplant add them at this stage. Also add you browned meat now too. Turn you pot down to a simmer and cook for 7-8 minutes until everything is tender and the sauce is thick and goopy. There you have it Japanese curry. It must be served with rice of course and for a more traditional approach with some pickles on the side. Curry sauces are available from Japanese or large Asian stores.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Culinary Challenge Day 5

Tasty Tofu
On one of my adventures out and about I came across some interesting tofu products.Now don't get me wrong I love tofu in many forms - smoked, silken, firm, marinated even fried (if it is done well) but there are several forms of tofu which seem to defy my logic and my tastebuds. One of these such products formed part of my breakfast this morning - shredded duck tofu! Its texture was thin and flaky and flavored with soy and five spice. I think it was supposed to resemble cooked duck meat, but it was chewy and a little cold and slimey. Some things just weren't meant to be! Consequently my breakfast this morning consisted of rice and green tea. Ah the simple things really are a blessing in disguise!

Sweet and Soft
After the tastebud tragedy of my morning by lunchtime I was hankering for something sweet and soft to erase all memories of salty slime. I knew just the thing - a sweet mochi or Japanese rice cake. They come in many weird and wonderful flavours, but I wasn't feeling very adventorous so I opted for good old apple. There are no words to describe the silkiness of mochi - a kind of texture that only the Asian cultures seem to be able to create. One mouth full of this soft green heaven, then I was ready to forgive any fake duck misadventures (surely they were led astrat by the Chinese fantasies of vegetarian meat products.) I can tell you no more about these delicacies except to say that one was enough to satisfy my tastebuds until dinner and that they are available from all Japanese foodstores. (The Great Eastern in Russell Street has some wonderful flavours.)

Beans for Dessert?
By dinnertime I was lusting after real meat. All day I had time to ponder the benefits of the real thing that I thought I would create a Japanese inspired roast chicken and vegetables. For this recipe I purchased some chicken drumsticks (3 per serve is good), a head of celery, a daikon, a leek and a pumpkin. I chopped the vegetables to roughly the same size and threw them into a baking dish with the drumsticks. I combined some sake, mirin, chopped ginger and garlic, chicken stock and a little oil together and poured over the vegetables and chicken. I then chopped up a lemon removing the skin and pips and mixed that in with the vegetable (the lemon disintegrates and gives a wonderful flavour). I left everything to marinate for an hour and then I cooked it in a hot (200 degree) oven for another hour. Served with some rice the dish was a hit. Needless to say the flavours perfectly balance each other and while this is obviously not a traditional Japanese dish after the last five days I think it was time for me to experiment a little! Dessert however was a simple and traditional affair sweet red beans (from a can!) Hmmm very interesting!

Monday, February 20, 2006

Culinary Challenge Day 4

Alcoholic Dreaming

I awoke thinking about the wonderful plum wine my friend had often talked about drinking in Japan. I wondered where I could find some. Apart from a few nips of warm sake after one of my meals I had been beverage free during meals. Don't get me wrong this is not unusual for me, but I do occssionaly enjopy a glass of wine or an apertif which does completely change the feel of the meal. I was determined to track down some plum wine for dinner that night. Eager to begin my search I grabbed a handful of rice crackers (not sakata, but the chunky Japanese version wrapped in nori or filled with this strange slightly cheesy filling) and some umeboshi (salty plums) and headed out the door. Who says Japanese breakfasts can't be eaten on the run. (not sure it is too traditional though!)

The Search Begins

As I had a meeting in the city I thought would be the logical place to begin for my Plum Wine search. I was rewarded immediately upon my visit to the Great Eastern Food Store in Russell Street. There among there collection of Japanese teas nestled several brands of Plum Wine. Unsure of any brands I grabbed the one with the prettiest label (you have to start somewhere!). Before I left I picked a sheet of tofu skin, which I though would make an interesting addition to dinner. I had a quick lunch next door of believe it or not Miso Soup - half a day without it and I am missing it!

Exploration of Soy and Seaweed

With the purchase of the tofu skin I felt I should explore some more interesting tofu fillings for my nori rolls (sushi). Tofu skin is a strange thing. Wrinkled brown sheets of crispy tofu which is skimmed off during the tofu making process and dried. To use it must be soaked in boiling water. It can then be sliced and added to soups, stews or even nori rolls. For the nori rolls I have decided upon fried tofu strips, avocado, egg, red capsicum, steamed spinach, tempeh (a fermented soy bean product) and tofu skin. I soaked tofu skin in a mixture of soy and mirin. I mixed and matched my soy selection in the rolls. Before we ate though we sat down and enjoyed beautiful Plum Wine and oh my god this is definitely going to be something I enjoy regularly! For the record it is best served over ice with a slice of lemon.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Culinary Challenge day 3

Rice Overload

After 3 days of solid rice eating this morning I needed a change. I am still enjoying the miso style broth so I decided to add a few extras and make a miso stew. I thought a simple combination of potatoes, spinach and tofu would be both satisfying to the hunger and desirable to the tastebuds. As well as miso I added some sake (don't worry, all alcohol will evaporate) and mirin to the broth which proved the perfect combination. The recipe for this combination will be printed in the upcoming newsletter.

Stringy Seaweed Tastes so Fine!

Lunch was out and about so I grabbed some rice and a seaweed salad from a Japanese takeway in the city. Seaweed salad has always intruiged me. The seaweed used is the thin, lime green, luminescent variety which often gets stuck annoyingly between my teeth. However I love the flavour of this salad so much I am willing to overlook this problem. The dressing is slighlty sweet, from the addition of rice wine vinegar and a little sugar and it contrasts nicely with the toasted sesame seeds. Pure, simple flavours so brilliantly combined!

Perfect Pancakes

I was really feeling like some new flavours by dinnertime tonight - in all honesty I was really hanging out for pasta, not noodles or rice, or please no more soy! Instead however I made my favourite Japanese snackfood Ominyaki or Japanese pancakes. The panckes are made with a simple egg and flour batter into which grated carrots and shredded cabbage are added. Sometime seafood is added to the batter as well. They are then pan fried and served with a spicy, barbequed flavoured mayonnaise. To make the mayonnise I added some hoisin sauce to some Japanese mayonnaise which worked really well. These pancakes are best served hot so it is good to keep the oven warm while you are cooking them and keep them warm in the oven once they are cooked. By the end of my dinner I felt satisfied that I could face another day of Japanese food again. This challenge has certainly made me realise how much I vary what I eat each day and expose my tastebuds to a large variety of flavours. It truly is a luxury to live the way we do in Western countries choosing from an endless list of cuisine types, often not restricted by season or cost.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Day 2 - Part 2 Culinary Challenge

More Rice!

Lunch is a quick and simple affair - rice with a fresh daikon and horseradish pickle. Daikon is a staple accompaniment or garnish in Japanese cuisine. It looks rather like a smooth parsnip and tastes like a mild horseradish. For the pickle I simply grated the daikon, shredded some cabbage for extra crunch (also another popular Japanese vegetable) and added wasabi, a little mirin (rice wine vinegar) and a little salt. It was woderfully refreshingly and not too hot. It was also a nice contrast to the rice which I am beginning to become a little blase about! I am looking forward to dinner tonight though...

To Sear the Salmon

If there is one thing I truly admire admire about the Japanese it is their ability to appreciate seafood in all its glory. Not only are they experts in preparing the finest raw fish (sashmi) but when they cook it they keep it simple and allow the try flavour of the fish to shine. I am a huge fan of juicy fish, rather than the dry, flaky, overcooked version. This makes me perfectly suited to eating fish Japanese style. My fish of chice tonight is Salmon - not because I am terribly unoriginal, but because it was the freshest and best looking fish at the market. (Another skill the Japanese possess - choosing what is the best on the day) For my marinade I choose the classic Japnese 3 - soy, garlic, ginger - a wonderful combination but not the secret to my salmon success.

Salmon Secrets

I am lucky enough to possess a teppanyaki style grill, but you could use a griddle or a quality cast iron pan. The secret (and I am sure you have heard this before) is to get the pan or grill REALLY HOT! Sear the salmon quicly to create a lovely crust and don't pour the marinade over the fish while cooking because this will dramatically lower the temperature and the fish will stew. If you like your fish tender and moist then just a few minutes each side will suffice. Let the fish rest for 5 to 6 minutes after cooking. If you prefer your fish cooked more than this then finish it off in a 200 degree oven, not in the pan. Place in a dish and cover the fish with foil. Cook for 5-10 minutes until your desired doness is achieved. Cooking in the oven makes sure that moisture is maintained and that the fish is more evenly cooked - not dry and stringy on the outside and uncooked in the middle. But remember: make sure you preheat the oven.


What better way to accompany my fish than with my favourite vegetable: eggplant. I prepare this in the traditional manner - grilled with topping of white miso moistened into a paste with a little mirin. The miso is quite salty so you don't need very much. It is not necessary to salt the eggplant for this type of preparation. For nice colour contrast I steam some baby spinach and serve it with a sauce of ground sesame seeds and mirin. Tahini will do rather than grinding your own sesame as they do in Japan. A meal like this is pure heaven and can only be topped off by homemade green tea icecream made by my lovely boyfriend. How was it made? I can't tell you because the secrets are all his! Sufficed to say it was divine... (For those of you without such a creative partner, the green tea icecream from Asian stores is also very good!)

What will Day 3 hold?

Monday, February 06, 2006

Day 2 of the Culinary Challenge

Miso Meditations

I wake up bright and early on the 2nd day of my Japanese journey. My stomach is crying out for food. Surprisingly, the idea of the deep savouriness of miso soup for breakfast sounds very inviting. In preparation I have cooked extra rice the night before and steam it over boiling water to reheat. This is a good way to reheat rice to prevent that terrible dry, chewy texture old rice can take on. I gently reheat the miso also. It is crucial to remeber to never boil miso soup so always heat over a low heat even when first preparing it. I finish my breakfast with a nice warm feeling contemplating the benefits of miso soup as a winter breakfast. With a busy day head of me I push on out of the house early to gather ingredients for dinner and to stock up on my supply of green tea which has quickly become a consistent ritual throughout the day while I am working.

The Beauty of the Vessel

The Japanese are masters of rituals and one of the things I have embraced wholeheartedly is the attention they pay to the presentation of their food and I am not simply refering to how pretty or perfect the food looks, but the bowls, dishes and utensils used for the serving and eating of food. During my outing this morning I managed to pick up some lovely Japanese rice bowls, swirled with lovely Autumn colours which will surely enhance my daily rice experience. I also can't resist purchasing yet another teapot. This time a beautiful matted-white vessel, adorned with a single Japanese Kanji character in blood red. It has a rather unusual pouring spout. I hope it is as practical as it is beautiful!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Food For all Culinary Challenge

Welcome to the latest feature of Food For All!

The Culinary challenge requires that for 1 week of every month I eat every meal from a chosen country.

A diary entry will appear on site detailing my adventures that day including restaurants, recipes and ingredients I have discovered.

The Culinary Challenge is both an exploration of the tastebuds and a cultural journey through another world.

The first destination is Japan and here is day 1.....

green tea


Well, day 1 of my week of Japanese eating has come to an end with a cup of green tea and a long list of Japanese dishes I would like to try during the week to come. I am full of excitement and anticipation about emersing myself fully in the Japanese experience. My day began with a traditional bowl of miso soup and rice, accompanied by some pickles and umeboshi paste. I then ventured out of the house in order to gather some more unusual ingredients. There is nothing I love more then to spent an hour or so exploring the depths of an Asian food store. My one of choice today is the Great Eastern Food Store in Russell Street in the City. Consequently lunch was an out of the house affair.

Black Sesame Bubble Drink

I began with a black sesame bubble drink complete with black tapioca pearls. I must admit I have always been a bit dubious about these strange concoctions but I loved the balance of sweetness with the dark nutty flavour of the black sesame. This worked fantastically with chewy, but soft tapioca. I purchased my bubble drink from the food hall in the QV building, but there are a number of drink bars within the city that sell these drinks. To complete my lunch I was tempted by the flavours of the nearby Breadtop Bakery and chose a green tea red bean bun which was a perfect accompaniment to the bubble drink. Other unusual, but typically Japanese flavours include fish finger and mayonnaise bun, melon red bean bun and double sausage bun.

green tea bun


On arriving home I put on a pot of sushi rice in preparation for a dinner of nori rolls (better known as sushi) After the rice had cooked I let it cool before adding a little mirin, or sweet rice vinegar to give the rice a little more stickiness as well as added flavour. I have the best technique for nori rolls is to prepare them 12 hours prior to serving and leave them in the fridge as whole rolls, before slicing them into smaller rolls. This allows the nori sheets to soften and makes them extremely easy to cut. For my nori I prepared a simple egg omelete with 2 eggs. I also cut red capsicum, cucumber, carrot and avocado into thin wedges. I marinated some strips of tofu in soy, ginger and garlic and mixed some canned tuna with some Japanese mayonnaise. With all my ingredients prepped I was ready to roll...Lay the sheet of nori out flat and fill a small bowl with warm water. Place 2 large spoonfuls of rice on the bottom third of the nori sheet, leaving a gap of 4 5cm at the bottom. Press the rice out into an even band across the middle. Pile on the ingredients (remember you don't need to use every ingredient in each roll!) and squeeze on some wasabi paste directly onto the seaweed. Wet your fingers and use them to dampen each end of the nori sheet. Gather the bottom end and gently roll up the sheet, encasing the filling. Seal the end of the nori by pressing along it and leaving the roll, join down. Continue under you have made the required quantity and then chill in fridge. Remove just before serving and slice into 34 cm rounds. Serve with soy for dipping and pickled ginger and extra wasabi.


Chocolate Filled Koalas

After dinner we enjoyed some Japanese chocolate filled koalas I hd purchased from the Asian store earlier in the day(I remembered being sent these from Japan as a child) and a nice cup of green tea. With my tummy content, I look forward to another morning of miso!