For this edition of Cook the Books Club, we are reading, reviewing and getting inspired to cook, by Victoria Abbott Riccardi's Untangling My Chopsticks. The book is a Memoir of her adventures in Kyoto learning the art of Tea Kaiseki, the culinary component of Tea Ceremony - a formal, ritualized specialty form of food preparation and presentation. But her book is much more than that, encompassing history of the art of Tea Ceremony, as well as her careful and very beautifully evocative, personal observations of modern Japanese culture and life, as encountered during two stays there. I especially enjoyed this read, as it brought back many wonderful memories of my trips to that country.
On my first trip to Japan, the idea was to study with a Japanese potter. I had been working at the University of Hawaii on a Fine Arts degree, with a major in ceramics. Another area of commonality with the author, we (Bob and I) also taught English in Kyoto, living upstairs in a small apartment at the English school (a part of the owners' home), where we crazy Americans used the little electric heater too much. Well, hey those windows are paper. Thin .... and it was cold. Bob also left the furo go to boiling our first night, and very nearly cooked himself. Okay, if he'd gotten in. We were also able to get Japanese language lessons from the proprietor. I especially enjoyed my class of little kindergartners. So delightful and cute.
As soon as I saw the word Okonomiyaki in Riccardi's book, I knew that was what I wanted to make, due to our fun experience of it in Osaka, and wanting a repeat. For years. I really don't know what has stopped me. On that first trip, Bob and I went to an Okonomiyakiya, (say that three times, quickly) a specialty restaurant, with a long grill, sort of like a bar, with shortish stools pulled up to it. There we had this uniquely Japanese dish, a cross between an omelet and a pancake, prepared in front of us.
With a decorative swirl of mayo, don't you just love it?A very good explanation of the Okonomiyaki technique and some of its' more esoteric (at least uncommon to most Westerners) ingredients may also be found here If you're not thrilled with any of the more traditional items often included - dry fish flakes (though maybe that could be viewed as an inexpensive, Japanese version of bottarga?), bean sprouts, pink pickled ginger, etc., feel free to substitute for what you do like. You should be able to enjoy a very similar dish even if you don't like or aren't able to find all the exact Japanese ingredients. After all, its name does mean something on the order of, "as you like it, grilled." We are taking that very literally.
2 cups shredded cabbage, you could also use zucchini, potato or asparagus, etc.
1 grated turnip or carrot
2 green onions, sliced thinly
2 tablespoons minced pickled ginger (optional)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup smoked salmon, broken or cut into pieces, or whatever fish or meat desired
1/2 cup dashi or stock
1 cup flour
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
1/2 cup grated Nagaimo - Japanese mountain yam
1/4 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 dashes Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon lemon juice
mayonnaise - you can squeeze out designs
Dried bonito flakes (or Bottarga shavings?) I used more fresh chopped dill
shredded red pickled ginger (I used the Health Food Store uncolored kind)
Grate vegetables and stir together with the salmon, salt, pepper and ginger, if desired. Set aside. In a mixing bowl beat the eggs, flour, stock and flour together, stir in the finely grated Nagaimo if you want. I did use it for the first two tries, and skipped it in the third version, which I really preferred. Now stir the veggies into the batter, and mix to coat everything well.
Heat your griddle or skillet to medium high. When it is hot, brush with vegetable oil. When piping hot, pour or scoop about 1 cup of mix onto the pan. Spread it a bit to flatten slightly and keep in a circle shape, about 8 inches, or whatever size you like. Big ones are nice, then you can divide each like a pizza. Reduce the heat to medium low.
If you are using bacon or uncooked shrimp, (I did on the first try above) now is the time to arrange them on top, while the other side is cooking. Cook until the bottom is golden brown and top edges look cooked, about 4-5 minutes. Turn carefully with 1 or 2 spatulas and fry the other side until golden brown, 4-5 more minutes.
While it is cooking you can set out your toppings and mix up the sauce. Then, remove the pancake to a serving plate and keep warm in the oven, while you repeat the process with the rest of the batter. You can cut into wedges, letting everyone top theirs as preferred, or do smaller whole disks.
This was quite good, though my personal favorite was the last attempt I made. For this version, encouraged by a look at Mark Bittman's Vegetable Pancakes, in Food Matters, I prepared a more Westernized take on this "as you like it, grilled" thingy. As a sort of breakfast experiment, with grated sweet potato, green apple, red onion, coppa, a bit of chopped marjoram, spelt flour, and soy milk instead of dashi. Also for the dipping sauce I added maple syrup and only a little dash of shoyu. The salty soy and coppa, together with tart grated apple, combined very well with the sweet potato and maple syrup. Highly recommended.
Okonomiyaki - New WaveAs you see this is an extremely adaptable dish, to whatever your preferences and pantry might indicate.
Even though I tremendously enjoyed my times in Japan, the food is not something that regularly calls out to me (I think being there and the whole ambiance was a major part of my enjoyment). Except sushi and sashimi on occasion. But Riccardi's book has stirred my interest to give more dishes a try. Her vivid descriptions, with a careful eye for the color, scents, and texture, are just outstanding. Though, I'm with her husband on some of it, she is careful to be a diplomatic observer. Such as on page 218, describing dessert at a Kaiseki restaurant:
On a kiwi-green plate sat a ball of what I can only describe as "chewy" lemon sherbet. Perhaps it had been blended with mochi? Then there were two large grapes, the tops of which had been scored like a cross and pulled back at the corners. "Oh, I'm stuffed, I couldn't possibly finish these," snickered John, pointing to the tiny purple orbs.They went out to eat something more satisfying immediately after. However, some of what they ate next would give most people pause. Chicken Sashimi?? And, grilled sparrow heads? Brave soul, she actually ate both. Here I thought it was bad when my friend and I were treated to dinner at a restaurant featuring horse sashimi in Matsumoto. Which, I will say, we did not try. On the other hand, Bob and I, on our trip, did try the fugu at a specialty restaurant that the English School owner took us to. Maybe he was trying to get rid of us? People die in Japan every year eating that blow fish. It has to be prepared very carefully.
Altogether a wonderful read, I would recommend to anyone especially those planning a trip to Japan, interested in Japanese culture, or who enjoy good cooking and travel accounts.