|

Food tradition with a long shelf life

by Makiko Itoh

A type of speciality food store that has almost disappeared from the streets of Japan is the kanbutsu-ya (dried-foods store). These days we can get fresh produce all year round, but that wasn’t the case before canning and refrigeration became widespread. To cope with the lack of fresh ingredients in winter, especially in colder areas of the country such as the Tohoku region, people turned to foods that were preserved though pickling, salting, fermenting or drying.

There are only a handful of standalone kanbutsyu-ya left, but you can still buy all kinds of traditional dried foods at supermarkets, department store-food halls and by mail order. There are dried-seafood products, dried seaweed (nori, konbu, hijiki and more), dried beans and dried fruits. Dried vegetables in particular have seen a bit of a renaissance in recent years as a healthy and low-calorie way of incorporating more fiber into everyday meals.

The most useful dried food may be mushrooms. Quality dried shiitake mushrooms are so full of flavor that the soaking liquid can be used as a soup stock. The rehydrated mushrooms are great in nimono (simmered dishes), stir-fries and winter hot-pots, as well as in sushi, as part of a roll filling or mixed into chirashizushi.

Besides mushrooms, the most popular kind of dried vegetable is probably kiriboshi daikon (shredded dried daikon radish), which has its own unique, slightly crunchy and chewy texture and flavor that’s very different from cooked or raw fresh daikon. Kiriboshi daikon is soaked in water until rehydrated, and then it’s usually simmered in the usual Japanese mixture of dashi stock, sake, soy sauce, sugar and mirin, often with abura-age (fried flat tofu), chicken or more vegetables. It can also be used in stir-fries, and in salads too.

Dried and shredded burdock root and carrot is used in similar ways; they can also just be thrown into soups and simmered, or cooked with rice and seasonings. Another popular dried vegetable is kanpyō (dried gourd strips), which are used to tie tofu skins into neat little bundles, or simmered in a sweet-salty sauce and used as a sushi-roll filling or mixed into chirashizushi.

Don’t forget dried beans, too, which are a great source of fiber, protein and various nutrients. If you don’t want to bother with the soaking and cooking process, you can buy high-quality canned and frozen beans of various types, from white navy beans to soybeans and more. Or try tsubu-an, the sweet, chunky adzuki-bean paste that is the base for traditional sweets such as daifuku and ohagi. For snacks there are also dried fruits, like sticky-sweet hoshigaki (persimmons), hoshi-anzu (apricots) and chewy hoshi-imo (dried sweet potato).

You can easily make a simple fiber-rich salad that incorporates various dried and canned foods. Soak kiriboshi daikon for about 20 minutes and wring out well. Combine with cooked or canned beans, canned tuna, boiled eggs, some fresh salad vegetables and mayonnaise or salad dressing.

Not only are traditional dried foods full of fiber and good for you, they’re also a link to Japan’s culinary past. They take up little space to store and last for a long time, too. I hope you’ll give them a try!

Makiko Itoh is the author of “The Just Bento Cookbook” (Kodansha USA). She writes about bentō lunches at www.justbento.com and about Japanese cooking and more at www.justhungry.com.