Japan: Miso Soup, Sashimi, and Japanese Curry

#10 Japan /日本 : Miso Soup, Sashimi, and Japanese Beef and Vegetable Curry

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Time for another first.  The first meal prepared from a different kitchen.  And a different state.  I decided to tackle Japanese cuisine from the Outer Banks, North Carolina.  Because who doesn’t pack fermented fish flakes in their luggage?  And is a vacation really a vacation without the guarantee of umami?  I guess everybody has their idea of what vacation is, and mine, now, certainly includes cooking in paradise.  So we are off to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Japan is an archipelago across the Japanese Sea from China, the Korean Peninsula, and Russia (apparently).  Though Japan is made of over 6,000 islands, 97% of its landmass comes from four large islands.   Of Japan’s islands, over 73% is forested, mountainous, and unable to be used for business, housing, or agriculture.  This somewhat harsh landscape causes the inhabitable lands, primarily located along the coasts, to be highly densely populated, with Greater Tokyo being ranked the largest metropolitan area in the world.  Ethnically, Japan is pretty homogenous, with over 98% of the population being Japanese.  The climate is primarily temperate.

Japan’s long history and geography have a great impact on traditional and modern Japanese Cuisines.  The long history of Japan has fostered an appreciation for the methods of consuming and preparing food and beverages in the country.  Japan regards tea ceremony, an elaborate and intricate traditional method of tea preparation and consumption, an art – the Way of Tea.  The composition of a traditional Japanese meal is also very standardized and regimented.  Japanese meals are almost certainly served with a bowl of steamed rice in the center, along with a bowl of miso soup.   From there, separate bowls containing various and numerous sides are often added.  But the rice and the miso soup are key.  Japanese geography, placing its people primarily along the coasts, coasts that are abundant in fresh fish, had established fish as a staple of the Japanese diet for hundreds of years.  This is, of course, a simplification.  The Japanese eat more than fish, rice, and miso soup… but the tradition is certainly there.

To illustrate Japan’s cuisine, I of course divided my meal into several parts.  Because… why make a meal easy just because you are on vacation?  I certainly can’t think of a reason.  Well, other than that nagging reason of the potential pitfalls of cooking while drinking, and possibly missing a sunset.  To start off my meal I went to the most traditional and ever-present dish of Japan – miso soup.  Miso soup is a dish that traces back hundreds of years.  Miso soup is prepared by first making a dashi broth and then adding miso paste.  Dashi broth is an essential broth used in many areas of Japanese cooking.  One might boil vegetables in dashi, boil fish in dashi, or of course use it as the base of miso soup.  Miso paste is a fermented soybean paste…which may sound kind of gross, but, trust me, you will probably love it, and have likely already tried it in some form.

After I prepared the miso soup, I moved on to sashimi.  Sashimi is kind of the cousin of the more familiar Sushi.  Sushi is a much larger group of products, where the fish is not always raw, sometimes no fish is involved, and there is always a vinegared rice component.  Sashimi, instead, is always freshly sliced raw fish or meat.  Typically sashimi is accompanied by a dipping sauce – often some soy sauce mixture.

The third dish I decided to try is Japanese curry.  I chose Japanese curry for four reasons: (1) to  try to blow away some of the preconceptions about Japanese Cuisine (2) to show foreign influence on Japanese Cuisine over the past hundred years or so, and (3) because it is often called a national dish of Japan and is eaten very frequently, and (4) because I had never even heard of it.

So let’s get into the details:

Miso Soup:

Ingredients:

  • 3 pieces Dried Kelp (Dashi Kombu)
  • Bonito Flakes
  • Miso paste
  • Green Onions
  • Dried seaweed

Directions:

Take a few sheets of your dried kelp and cover with 4 cups cold water in a large saucepan.

dashi kelp

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Turn the heat on the pan up to medium, and allow the water to slowly come to a simmer, never coming to a full boil.  This dried (super appetizing) kelp is where you get the notorious Japanese umami flavor.  This is the healthy MSG.  Although if you taste the water at this point, it won’t taste like much at all.  Let the kelp hover around almost-boiling for a few minutes.  The kelp should become more pliable, and look slightly more like food.

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Then remove the kelp.

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Turn the heat off on the soup, and it’s time to add the bonito flakes.   The bonito flakes I used were in little packets made for small batches of dashi like this.

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Bonito flakes, btw, are the product of skipjack tuna that has been boiled, smoked for weeks, infused with mold, aged more, and eventually dried out and shaved.  I prefer to think of it as just dried fish flakes.  But, in case you were wondering, it is much more complicated and … gross.

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Allow the bonito flakes to steep in the soup for about five minutes.  Then remove the bonito flakes from the soup with a strainer.

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Now you have dashi!  The only thing you need to make miso soup, at this point, is to add the miso paste.  Just put the soup back on the stove on low heat, and stir in the miso paste.

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Once the miso is in, you have miso soup, and can add whatever you want to it.   I went with some traditional green onions, shredded daikon, and dried wakame seaweed.

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Stir in the extras, and serve warm, with rice.

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The second course was the Japanese curry.  There are tons of ways to make Japanese curry – from the proteins and vegetables you use, to the level of heat, to the method you prepare it.  I went for beef, carrots, potato, and the curry cube method.

Japanese Curry:

Ingredients:

  • 2 medium potatoes cut into chunks
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 1 daikon radish, sliced thin
  • 1 carrot, sliced thin
  • 1 packet curry sauce mix
  • ½ lb stew meat cut into bite-size pieces
  • 2 tbsp. canola oil
  • 2 ½ cups water

Directions:

Brown the meat in the oil on medium-high heat.

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Once the meat is seared, add the onions.

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Saute the onions until they begin to take on some color.  Then add 2.5 cups water, bring to a boil, and lower to a simmer.  Allow the onions and meat to simmer until the beef is nice and tender.  Then add the rest of the vegetables.

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Let the vegetables simmer until tender (about 10-15 minutes).  Then add the sauce cubes, and let simmer for a few minutes to thicken.

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Serve with rice.

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And onto the third part of our dinner – the star of the night.  It also had little preparation, so I can’t take too much credit.  For the sashimi course we served sushi grade tuna.  One of the many benefits of vacationing in the Outer Banks of North Carolina is access to great, often cheap, fresh seafood.  Here is the piece we bought.

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Gorgeous, right?  All I had to do was slice it up.  I could try to describe how I cut the tuna, but it would be a disservice to Japanese cuisine.  Slicing sashimi and sushi requires precision and is a real art form at its peak.  But… that being said… just slicing up some great fish pretty thin will be delicious regardless.

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The pile of fish cut into chunks was set aside for a tartare the next day.  Of course.

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For dipping purposes, I served the tuna with soy sauce with ginger and daikon.

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The Verdict?  All thumbs up from my fellow vacationers.  The miso soup was a nice start to the meal – light, flavorful, and simple.  The curry was great.  It is not as spiced (in heat or flavor) as an Indian curry might be, but is full of complex flavors – it manages to taste like curry and soy sauce at the same time… it’s wonderful.  The sashimi was a crowd pleaser.

 

And from the land of the rising sun to the house of the setting sun: next week will be the second installment of Fusion on the Fives.

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