Washoku is a feeling as much as it is a style of cooking or a way of seasoning. Mastering basic techniques — no matter what the season or the ingredients used — and developing the confidence to adapt recipes will help you to incorporate the style into your own cooking repertoire.
Over the next four months, we will look at each course in the traditional Japanese meal and learn several basic (and some advanced) cooking techniques. They can be used independently or combined to create many meal variations.
We will make our way through aemono (dressed salad dishes), sunomono (vinegared foods) and chinmi (delicacies). We will tackle buying and presenting sashimi (raw foods) and learn the basics of nimono-wan (hearty soups) and suimono (lighter, often clear, soups). Yakimono (grilled foods) and agemono (fried foods) will be treated as integral parts of the meal, and attention will also be paid to nimono (simmered foods) and mushimono (steamed foods). As the last savory course in any meal, gohan-mono (rice dishes) will be covered, with one-dish rice meals, donburi-mono, presented. Of course, tsukemono pickles will be covered. Finally, Japanese-style desserts will round out the year.
First, I would like to go over once again the weights and measures used in Japanese cooking. In previous recipes, I have had a tendency to jump from one to the other — I apologize. From here on in, I will present all recipes in the standard Japanese form, which I’ll outline now.
We’ll start with measuring by volume. Often confusing in Japanese cookbooks, volume is quantified in either cubic centimeters (cc) or milliliters (ml).
Although cubic centimeters and milliliters are equal in liquid measure, the latter are not used to measure dry ingredients. Using only cubic centimeters helps to alleviate confusion.
A standard Japanese cup measure is 200 cc. This is about five-sixths of a standard American cup. Don’t, however, get this confused with the cup measure used in your rice cooker. This is calibrated to the old Japanese system — called a go (ichi-go, ni-go, etc.) — in which one cup is just 180 cc. In this old measuring system — often still used in professional kitchens — 10 go equal 1 sho (1.8 liters), the size of a standard bottle of nihon-shu (Japanese sake). From this, the bottle size takes the name isshobin.
Making life somewhat easier, teaspoons (kosaji) and tablespoons (osaji) are the same in Japan as in the West. One teaspoon equals 5 cc, and a tablespoon equals 15 cc. In this column, to measure volume, cubic centimeters (cc), spoons (5 cc and 15 cc) and cups (200 cc) will be used.
Japan uses grams and kilograms (kg) to measure weight. Water is the standard for all metric measures. For water and liquids of a similar density, 1 ml = 1 cc = 1 gram. Other items, such as flour, are only half as dense as water (2 cc = 1 gram), so it is better to measure by weight to be consistent. Meat and fish are also best given in grams. Thirty grams equals approximately 1 ounce. The standard weight for dry ingredients in this column will be grams.
Understanding these systems of measure will make it much simpler to re-create recipes. You can also rely on small, easy-to-use kitchen scales, electronic or manual, which are inexpensive and widely available.
Before we begin our washoku review, here is a quick recipe for one of the late-summer gourds. Called nigauri (bitter melon) all over the archipelago, this ugly vegetable is called goya in its native Okinawa. This simple combination of pork with nigauri is a classic, inspired by Okinawan cuisine but thoroughly washoku. The myoga shoots used as garnish are just coming into season.
1 medium-size nigauri
100 grams of pork, very thinly sliced
1 cup of dashi
1 teaspoon of usukuchi shoyu (light soy sauce)
1 teaspoon of mirin
1 bulb of myoga, very thinly sliced
a pinch of sugar
a pinch of salt (if needed)
1) Slice the nigauri in half lengthwise and, with a spoon, remove the seeds and as much of the pulp as possible. Then cut crosswise into 1-cm-thick strips.
2) Cut the thinly sliced pork into small pieces.
3) In a pan over medium heat, saute the pork (you may need a few drops of vegetable oil), add the nigauri and continue sauteing.
4) Once the vegetable is almost fully cooked, deglaze the pan with the dashi, reduce the heat and add the soy sauce, mirin and sugar.
5) Simmer for several minutes over a medium-low flame. Taste and add salt as necessary.
6) Remove to a serving dish, and garnish with very thinly sliced myoga. Serves four.