The quintessential washoku, or traditional Japanese cuisine dish, is nimono — vegetables and other ingredients simmered in a broth of dashi stock, sake, mirin, sugar and soy sauce or miso. Nimono can be made in advance and served warm or cold, saving the cook some effort.
Sometimes the ingredients are sauteed in advance, and other times they are parboiled before being simmered in the broth. A nimono dish can be elegant, but for the most part it’s homey fare that is indispensable during winter. The key to great nimono is the quality of the dashi stock, as with many cooked Japanese dishes. Use the best ingredients you can afford for a nice umami taste.
Nishime is a refined type of nimono. Because each ingredient is simmered until there’s little liquid left, in the days before refrigeration it kept rather well. Thus a form of nishime became a standard part of osechi ryōri, the food served during the New Year’s holiday period, when household cooks had a few days off.
While it’s fundamentally a simple dish of simmered winter vegetables, it is also loaded with symbolism and hopes for a good year to come, as are all osechi dishes. The holes in lotus root are supposed to let one see clearly into the future; the long, tough burdock root signifies a wish for long and lasting good fortune; and the konnyaku (devil’s tongue jelly) is twisted into a rope shape, which has significance in both Shintoism and Bushido, the way of the samurai warrior.
This month’s recipe is for a classic New Year’s nishime. You can make this vegetarian by omitting the bonito flakes from the dashi stock — use a little more soy sauce to compensate for the loss of umami. I’ve used nama-bu (fresh wheat gluten), but alternatively you can use a block of koya dofu (freeze-dried tofu) that’s been soaked in water until it has swelled up like a sponge, squeezed out and cut into cubes. You can use 150 grams of chicken pieces instead, browned briefly in a little sesame oil before simmering.
Recipe: New Year’s nishime
1 piece konbu seaweed for dashi (about 20 cm x 8 cm)
20 g bonito flakes
800 ml cold water
1 tablespoon sake
1½ tablespoons mirin
½ tablespoon sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons usukuchi (light-colored) soy sauce
8 medium satoimo (taro root)
15 cm piece burdock root
1 medium carrot
1 section (about 150 g) lotus root
6 to 8 dried shiitake mushrooms
200 g nama-bu (fresh wheat gluten)
150 g konnyaku (devil’s tongue jelly)
4 to 8 snow peas
Soak the shiitake mushrooms in water to cover overnight.
Make the broth: Soak the konbu in 800 ml of water for 30 minutes. Bring the water to a boil, and remove the konbu. Add the bonito flakes and turn off the heat. When the bonito flakes have sunk to the bottom of the pan, strain the liquid through a sieve into a clean pan. Add the sake, mirin, salt and sugar. Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat and add the soy sauce. Set aside.
Cut the ends off the taro roots and peel. Scrub the burdock root, cut into 1-cm pieces and soak in a bowl of cold water. Peel and slice the lotus root, and soak in a bowl of water with a little vinegar added. Slice the carrot about 1 cm thick (optionally cut a few slices into flower shapes). Squeeze out the shiitake mushrooms and remove the stems.
Cut the konnyaku into strips, then cut a slit in the middle of each strip. Turn one end of the strip inside the slit to form a twisted rope-like shape. Repeat for each piece. Cut the nama-bu into bite-size pieces.
Put the taro roots in a pan, add enough water to cover, and bring to a boil. Boil for 4-5 minutes, and take them out of the pan. Add the drained lotus root slices and boil for 2-3 minutes; take out. Repeat this parboiling process with the carrots (boil for 3-4 minutes), burdock root (3-4 minutes), and konnyaku (1-2 minutes) — progressing from the light-colored ingredients to the darker ones.
Put the taro roots in a pan with enough broth to cover. Simmer for 10-12 minutes while stirring occasionally, until there’s almost no liquid left in the pan. Repeat in the same manner with the nama-bu or koya dofu (freeze-dried tofu), lotus root and carrot. End by cooking the burdock root, shiitake mushrooms and konnyaku together. Again, start with the light-colored ingredients and progress to the darker ones, to prevent discoloration.
Arrange each item on a serving plate, pour over some of the cooking liquid, and garnish with a few snow peas that have been boiled briefly in salted water.