December 3rd, 2004

Fishy Circumstances

Cooking Japanese

I've eaten plenty of Japanese meals in my life - in restaurants, in homes, in Japan - but today was my first venture into cooking it for myself. Emboldened by the discovery of a nearby Japanese grocery store and an extraordinarily thorough and informative cookbook (Shizuo Tsuji's Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art), I designed tonight's menu around food I was deeply certain I could do reasonable justice to on my first try. This meant no deep-frying, no fish (C. won't eat it), no overly elaborate cutting or animal dissecting, and no recipes which would take more than a few hours at most to finish.

We started with miso soup, a cheat since I had instant packets of it already in the house, so its modest success was no reflection on anything more than my water boiling abilities.

The complication of dinner itself lay in the sauces. Everything required a sauce, but they were all made up of different combinations of soy sauce, sake, dashi, rice vinegar, and sugar, all of which last forever and are thus worth having as staples in the house. The chicken and egg on rice (Soboro donburi) turned out elegantly, although I overcooked the chicken slightly. The beauty of the meal lies in scrambling the egg so that it looks just like the fried ground chicken, the different in colors reduced by the stain of sauce. Even the rice had its own sauce. I made vinegared cucumber (Kyuri no Sumomi) for a salad, the cucumber peeled, seeded, very thinly slices, and, like everything else, soaked in a sauce of its own. We reused the sake for drinks, improvising with our small Finnish drinking cups.

Dessert was wonderful and entertaining. You should all go out and toast mochi / rice cakes! They double, triple, quadruple in size like oversize popcorn or marshmallows under the grill. We ate the mochi with azuki bean sauce (zenzai), delicious, but far too large and heavy after an already substantial meal.

Cooking took about an hour and a half in all, with the red beans cooking the entire time. Next time I would try to make more things in advance, and I would endeavor to have more of an appetite for dinner. Also, next time I will know how long everything takes - that's the cookbook's one major defect - most cooking times are the equivalent of "cook until done". But I would do it all again.