Now that we are entering the hottest part of the Japanese summer, it’s time to get really serious about saving electricity — in the kitchen as much as anywhere.
The power shortages caused by failed or closed power plants (nuclear and otherwise) will affect the whole nation, as soaring temperatures cause even the strongest-willed among us to reach for the air conditioner remote. And while the government has offered power-saving tips such as remembering to switch off unnecessary lights and appliances, there are also a number of ways you can keep a low-energy kitchen this summer.
There are lots of ways to cut down on power consumption in the tastiest room of the home, besides simply switching off and unplugging unused devices. For example, if your refrigerator is set to a very cold setting, turn it up to medium cooling. Also, overcrowding your fridge will make it operate less efficiently, so now’s a great time to clean out all those mystery jars and dishes of leftovers lurking in there.
The key to setsuden (power conserving) cooking is to expend as little energy as possible throughout the day. Go for quick cooking methods such as stir frying and boiling, and leave long-simmering dishes for the cooler months. Consider cooking things in batches, preferably in the early morning or late evening hours when overall power consumption is low.
If you rely on an electric rice cooker, make as much rice as your family will need for the day in one go. Take the rice out of the cooker as soon as it’s done, let it cool down enough to handle, divide into portions, wrap tightly in plastic wrap or airtight containers and store in the refrigerator or freezer. A single-size portion of rice will heat up in two minutes from frozen or 15-20 seconds from refrigerated on the “high” setting of your microwave oven.
Alternatively, a more elegant way to deal with steamed rice is to use a traditional ohitsu (cedarwood rice container). Turn out your freshly cooked rice into an ohitsu, cover with a clean tenugui (rectangular cotton towel) and then the lid, and keep in a cool, dark place. The wood and cloth will absorb excess moisture from the rice and help to keep it fresh for several hours.
Cold noodles such as soba, sōmen and hiyamugi, so refreshing in hot weather, can also be cooked in the morning and stored until needed later in the day. Make sure to rinse the noodles thoroughly in several changes of cold water to rid them of any sticky starchiness, drain well and cover, then store in your now almost-empty, efficiently operating refrigerator. Serve with dipping sauce (store-bought bottled mentsuyu, thinned out with water to taste, is easiest) and plenty of yakumi (stimulating additions), such as chopped green onions, grated ginger and shichimi tōgarashi (seven-flavor chili pepper).
When it’s sizzling hot and steamy, it’s important to drink plenty of liquids. My favorite summertime beverage is mugicha, or roasted barley tea. Traditionally made by boiling roasted barley kernels for a few minutes, nowadays most mugicha is sold in cold-brew tea-bag form. Simply put a tea bag or two in a pitcher of water, and leave for a few hours until chilled in the refrigerator. Take the tea bag out and enjoy.
And for the ultimate cooling snack, try a big bowl of kakigōri (shaved ice), perhaps with a traditional sauce such as kuromitsu kinako (toasted soy-bean powder and brown sugar syrup). You can buy hand-cranked shaved ice makers, which are a great way for your kids to make their own snacks and burn off a few calories — or just go out and enjoy some kakigōri at a kanmidokoro (traditional dessert shop).
Many in-season vegetables and fruit, such as eggplant, cucumber, tomato, watermelon and bitter gourd, are considered to be cooling foods with a high water content. My grandmother always had a watermelon cooling in a well, to be sliced up and eaten on the porch in the evening. With more offices and homes being over-cooled with air conditioning in recent years, experts in traditional Chinese medicine have been cautioning against eating these vegetables to avoid over-cooling the body, but this year it makes sense to eat plenty of them instead of using the air-con. Besides eating these cooling vegetables in salads, try them as traditional homemade pickles, as in the recipe below. Pickles like these are “cooked” without using any electricity or gas, and keep for several days.
Finally, why not bring a little traditional suzumi to your home too? Suzumi is a term that means to achieve a feeling of coolness by using all the senses. You’ll find that the stores are filled with traditional Japanese suzumi items this year (some department stores even have a whole section devoted to wa [Japanese-style] suzumi).
For the table, you’ll find summertime dinnerware made of clear, icy glass, as well as porcelain and pottery items painted in cool blue and green tones with summer motifs such as goldfish and flowers.
Going beyond the table, the clean, high-pitched, cooling sound that fūrin (wind chimes) make in a breeze is the background music of a traditional Japanese summer. Try a hand-blown and hand-painted clear glass fūrin, which have been made since the Edo Period (originally in Tokyo) or a cast-iron Nanbutetsu bell from Iwate Prefecture.
Finally, why not dress the part? Yukata, or summertime kimono made from cooling fabrics such as linen, are a beautiful way to look and feel cool. And if you’re an adventurous man, why not spend your summer weekends at home dressed in suteteko? Sure, it looks like a long pair of boxer shorts, but it’s the way Japanese men have kept cool for generations.
The most popular way to pickle summer vegetables is soaked in nukazuke (fermented rice bran), but maintaining a nukadoko pickling “bed” can be rather bothersome. This miso pickling method is much easier to take care of. I like to use a mild (not very salty) white miso for this, but try your favorite. You can use any other vegetables that you like in this formula, but I would recommend pickling eggplant separately from light-colored vegetables, since it can turn them black.
Miso of your choice — 200g
Cucumber — 2 small or 1 medium
Fresh ginger (tender new ginger is best) — 1 piece
Myōga ginger buds — 2
Small white Japanese turnips — 2 or 3
Small red takanotsume or Thai chili pepper — 1
Prepare the vegetables: Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds if preferred. Peel the ginger and slice. Cut the myōga lengthwise into slices. Take the green tops off the turnips, leaving a small piece on the roots for color (keep the greens for use elsewhere). Peel the turnip roots rather thickly for the best texture and flavor, cut into quarters and slice.
Put the vegetables in a colander and sprinkle lightly with salt. Put a small plate on top and a weight such as a soup tin on top of that, and leave for at least an hour. This expels extra moisture from the vegetables and improves their texture.
Spread half the miso evenly in a flat, shallow container. Cover with a piece of gauze (cheesecloth) or other porous fabric. Place the vegetables in a single layer on top of this, cover with another piece of gauze, and spread the rest of the miso evenly on top. Cover the container and leave in a cool, dark place or the refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours.
To serve, take off the top layer of miso and gauze and remove the vegetables, wiping off any excess miso. Cut into bite-size pieces and serve with any Japanese meal. Leftovers should be stored in the refrigerator, where they will keep for several days.
The so-called miso bed can be reused several times until it gets too watery. You can remove some of the excess moisture by pressing a wadded-up paper towel onto it.