Hanami is synonymous with a picnic with friends, family or colleagues under the blooming cherry blossoms, and it is something of a rite of passage into spring. Picnics mean sharing food — so how is a vegetarian in Japan to navigate this social scene? Here are some simple yet impressive items you can take with you to your picnic under the pink.
Nitamago, or marinated soft-boiled eggs, are often used as toppings for ramen, though on their own they are nothing short of divinely flavor-packed edible ovoids perfect for picnicking. In essence, nitamago are soft-boiled eggs that have been left to soak in a seasoned broth over several hours or even a few days.
There are countless ways to boil an egg, but in general you want to aim for a slightly runny but thick yolk, and firm whites. Using chilled eggs, six or seven minutes at a medium to full boil is my personal approximation, but you may need to experiment.
For the broth, most recipes call for more or less equal parts mirin (sweet rice wine used for cooking), soy sauce and water. My husband, the enthusiastic chef of the house, likes to dilute the stock with a bit more water, add a sliced clove of garlic and a dash of sesame oil to the mixture, and steep the eggs for around two days, creating a robust and savory egg that boasts an evenly distributed flavor.
After removing the shells, soak the eggs in broth inside a large plastic bag, carefully sealing out the air so the liquid envelops each egg. At the very least aim to soak them overnight to let the flavor fully soak into the eggs. Nitamago are perfect for hanami picnics as they are easy to share, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t like them!
Another surefire dish for spring gatherings is yakisoba, or stir-fried noodles, which can be as easy as buying a pack of plain noodles at the supermarket or convenience store, frying them in a tablespoon of vegetable oil for a few minutes, and adding tonkatsu sauce. (Don’t use the packets of powdered sauce that come with the noodles if you care that there’s likely a tiny bit of pork extract in them.) Yakisoba is tasty cold, so you can pack it up for a picnic and still enjoy it.
For a more impressive dish, add some chunks of sautéed tofu, cabbage, onions and thinly sliced carrots or green peppers. My ever-enduring on-hand gourmet uses a dense, silky variety of tofu called kinuage, and sautées the cabbage last to retain a fresh flavor. A bit of melted cheese is quite good as a topping too, though not necessary unless you’re a real cheese addict like me. (But be warned that yakisoba with cheese is better served warm.) Either way, don’t forget a side of beni-shōga (red pickled ginger) to complement the meal.
Finally, don’t forget to bring some sweets. In keeping with the season, pick up some sakura-mochi confections at your local wagashi shop, and all that remains is to head to the park and enjoy hanami.
Ananda Jacobs is a composer, recording artist and actress in Tokyo, and has been ovo-lacto vegetarian for over 20 years. She is currently producing music for her band Jacobs. www.facebook.com/anandajacobs.