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COVID-19 case numbers are once again rising in Japan, especially in urban centers. In some regions, eating and drinking establishments are once again being asked to close by 10 p.m. The usual year-end bōnenkai parties will be few and far between, if they happen at all. Even a casual afterwork round of bar and izakaya-hopping with only a few friends may not be a good idea.

But instead of lamenting what cannot be, why not take this time to sharpen your drinking appetizer (called ate, among other names) cooking skills? Having an “at-home izakaya” was a trend even before this extraordinary year. And this is the best time to savor the bounties of the autumn harvest.

There are just a few rules you may want to follow at your home izakaya. Portions should be small and easy to eat with chopsticks or your hands. The tidbits should be well seasoned to provide a foil for the alcohol. Finally, aim to end your meal with a shime, a carbohydrate dish such as ramen, udon or rice — or even a dessert like the parfaits that are popular in Sapporo’s Susukino district. The shime not only fills you up, but may even help prevent that next-day hangover, or so many Japanese barflies believe.

I can’t say I’m a major bar-hopper myself, but I do like to spend some time in a local izakaya from time to time with friends. Whatever the time of year, I like to alternate rich, protein-based items with lighter, vegetable-based fare. Enjoying ingredients that are in season is important, too. A typical night at an izakaya in November might go like this: Start with sanma (salt-grilled Pacific saury), followed by a little chilled potato salad packed with mayonnaise and crunchy cucumbers. After that maybe some hiyayakko (cold tofu), shungiku (chrysanthemum greens) with a sesame sauce, then some straight-out-of-the-fryer chicken karaage, depending on how the evening goes.

Spicy starter: Crunchy kinpira stir-fry is the perfect accompaniment for your alcohol of choice. | MAKIKO ITOH
Spicy starter: Crunchy kinpira stir-fry is the perfect accompaniment for your alcohol of choice. | MAKIKO ITOH

But the one item I always have to have in the autumn and winter is furofuki daikon, a very old dish where daikon is slowly simmered and served with a miso-based sauce, which may or may not have a little ground meat in it. The daikon radish is so tender that you can cut it easily with your chopsticks, and oh so juicy and sweet.

The recipes here use daikon radish in two ways. One is for a classic furofuki daikon with a salty-sweet miso sauce. It’s best to peel a substantial layer off the daikon, since the part near the peel is quite fibrous. But it won’t go to waste, since you can use it to make crunchy, spicy kinpira stir-fry. And it’s OK to rely on store bought and instant items to fill out your home izakaya menu, too. Convenience store chicken karaage is pretty good, and ready-to-eat supermarket items, cup noodles, frozen yaki-onigiri (grilled rice balls), even ice cream, make great shime.

Recipe: How to make simmered furofuki daikon radish with miso sauce and spicy stir-fried daikon kinpira

Serves 4 as appetizers

Prep: 15 mins., cook: 75 mins.

1 to 2 daikon radishes, at least 5-centimeters in diameter
¼ medium carrot

For the furofuki daikon:

1 10-centimeter square piece dried konbu seaweed
6 tablespoons light brown miso, such as Shinshu miso
3 tablespoons sake
3 tablespoons mirin (sweet, fermented cooking alcohol)
4 tablespoons sugar
Shredded yellow yuzu citrus peel

For the daikon kinpira:

1 tablespoon sesame oil.
½ teaspoon ichimi tōgarashi (red chili pepper powder), or to taste
1 tablespoon mirin
1 teaspoon sugar
1½ tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon white sesame seeds

1. Cut four evenly sized pieces (around 5-centimeters thick) from the middle of daikon radish. (Keep the rest of the radish for later.) Peel the daikon pieces quite thickly, taking off at least 3 to 4 millimeters all around. Shave the sharp edges off the cut sides of the daikon so that they are rounded off. Set aside the peel and the shaved-off bits. Make a cross-shaped cut about 1-centimeter deep on the bottom side of each daikon slice.

2. Put the konbu seaweed in a pan and add the daikon slices. Add enough water to cover the slices. Bring the water up to a boil, then turn the heat down to medium-low and simmer the daikon until a bamboo skewer goes through a slice very easily, about 60 to 70 minutes. Add additional hot water if the liquid boils down below the top of the slices.

3. While the slices are cooking, make the miso sauce. Combine the miso, sake, mirin and sugar in a small pan. Cook over low heat while stirring frequently until the mixture is quite thick and creamy. Take off the heat.

4. As the daikon slices are cooking, cook the kinpira. Cut the peel into matchsticks and do the same with the carrot. Heat up a frying pan over medium heat with the sesame oil and add the ichimi tōgarashi. Add the daikon and carrot and stir-fry until they are wilted. Add the mirin and sugar and stir-fry for a couple more minutes. Add the soy sauce and sesame seeds and stir until the liquid has evaporated.

5. Serve the simmered daikon slices hot and topped with some of the miso sauce and yuzu peel. The kinpira can be served at room temperature. Any leftover miso sauce can be stored for up to a week in the refrigerator.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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