It’s common practice to go grocery shopping nearly every day in Japan. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a good idea to minimize the number of food shopping trips you take. How? By helping your produce keep longer in the fridge and freezer.

Fresh vegetables

Whole vegetables keep longer, so buy a whole cabbage, head of lettuce or kabocha squash, rather than a cut piece, if your refrigerator can accommodate them. Instead of loose bagged salad leaves, get spinach with the roots on. Root vegetables like daikon radish, turnips and carrots will keep a lot longer than leafy vegetables, especially if you store them vertically.

To make leafy vegetables last longer, wash them as soon as you get home, pat dry and wrap completely in newspaper or paper towels. Put the wrapped vegetables into plastic bags and store, root end down, in your refrigerator. This will typically extend the life of lettuce, for example, from three or four days to six to eight days. Store green onions and leeks this way, too.

What about freezing? Some vegetables freeze well, but others (like potatoes, unless mashed) don’t. Mushrooms, however, freeze surprisingly well. Wipe clean with a damp cloth (don’t rinse, or they’ll get soggy), slice or shred and put in a large plastic bag. Then just take out as much as you need and cook. Most other vegetables, such as spinach, shredded carrot and cubed kabocha, should be blanched (quickly boiled), drained or squeezed out and cooled before freezing. And embrace flexibility: Salad vegetables like lettuce also work well in cooked dishes like soups and stir-fries.

Canned and retort foods are standard pantry items, but don’t discount traditional Japanese dried vegetables like kiriboshi daikon (shredded and dried daikon radish), kanpyō (dried gourd strips), shiitake mushrooms and hijiki seaweed. They’re all great sources of fiber, minerals and other nutrients, and keep a long time without refrigeration. Typically, they’re soaked until reconstituted, and cooked in a mixture of soy sauce, sake and/ormirin (sweet fermented cooking alcohol), sugar and so forth, but you can also try them seasoned with non-Japanese ingredients, too. For instance, rinsed and soaked kiriboshi daikon works very well in a salad. Don’t forget soybeans and adzuki beans, both of which are also available canned and ready to eat.

Pantry-friendly: Kōya-dōfu (freeze-dried tofu, front) is a useful protein-rich ingredient that can be stored at room temperature. | MAKIKO ITOH
Pantry-friendly: Kōya-dōfu (freeze-dried tofu, front) is a useful protein-rich ingredient that can be stored at room temperature. | MAKIKO ITOH


Tofu is a staple protein for many vegetarians. Shelf-stable tofu is available, but if you end up with an excess of fresh tofu you can freeze it and it will keep for about a month. After it’s been frozen, the texture of tofu becomes firmer and meatier. Or try no-refrigeration-needed kōya-dōfu (freeze-dried tofu, also called kogori-dōfu). It’s usually reconstituted in water and simmered, but if you just put dry kōya-dōfu pieces with your rice in a rice cooker it will magically transform into fresh-tasting, soft white tofu.

This one-plate meal contains three recipes in one. Store the extra rice well-covered in the refrigerator, or freeze it in portions.

Recipe: Lettuce and dried shiitake stir-fry with pan-fried frozen tofu and adzuki rice

Serves 2 (with extra rice)

Prep: 30 min., cook: 90 min.

For the rice:

50 grams dry adzuki beans, rinsed
360 grams (two rice cooker cups) uncooked Japanese rice
½ teaspoon salt
400 milliliters bean cooking liquid and water

For the tofu:

1 block (300 grams) firm or soft tofu
Potato starch or cornstarch
½ tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon mirin (sweet fermented cooking alcohol)

For the stir-fry:

1-centimeter piece ginger, minced
1 bunch romaine lettuce (or 1 head iceberg lettuce), ripped into pieces
6 large dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked, stems removed and sliced
3 tablespoons shiitake soaking water
1 tablespoon sake
1 tablespoon soy sauce
½ tablespoon sesame oil
½ teaspoonrāyu chili oil

To freeze the tofu: Line a metal tray or a plate with kitchen parchment paper. Drain the tofu, cut into eight pieces and put on the tray or plate. Freeze for at least three hours. Transfer to a plastic zip bag and store for up to a month. Defrost before using.

Cover the shiitake mushrooms with water and soak overnight.

Put the adzuki beans in a pan with water to cover and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for an hour to 90 minutes.

Simple celebration: Adzuki beans and rice is a simplified version of sekihan (red rice) that uses regular rice instead of mochi rice and can be made in a rice cooker. | MAKIKO ITOH
Simple celebration: Adzuki beans and rice is a simplified version of sekihan (red rice) that uses regular rice instead of mochi rice and can be made in a rice cooker. | MAKIKO ITOH

While the beans are cooking, rinse and drain the rice. Once cooked, drain the beans and add enough water so that the cooking liquid comes up to 400 milliliters total. Put the rice, beans, liquid and salt in a rice cooker and cook on the regular rice setting.

Lightly press the defrosted tofu to drain. Coat with starch. Heat a frying pan over medium heat with sesame oil. Fry the tofu on both sides until firm and light brown. Add the soy sauce and mirin and turn the tofu to coat with the sauce. Remove from the pan.

Wipe out the frying pan and add more sesame oil. Stir-fry the ginger over high heat until fragrant. Add the sliced shiitake mushrooms and stir-fry for one to two minutes. Add the mushroom soaking liquid and seasoning and bring to a boil. Cook rapidly until the liquid is almost gone. Add the lettuce and stir-fry for two to three minutes. Drizzle with chili oil.

 As we all stay home due to the COVID-19 outbreak, The Japan Times is making Makiko Itoh’s recipe archive available to all readers — subscribers and non-subscribers alike.

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