A seasonal sensibility known as “kisetsukan” permeates Japanese food culture. The choice of what to serve, and how to present it, is closely linked to the cycle of the seasons and cultural symbolism.
Many of the seasonal motifs used to enhance the dining experience are inspired by nature. An ordinary carrot can evoke autumn when carved to resemble a maple leaf. The same carrot can conjure up wintertime, and the new year holidays, when beveled to look like a plum blossom.
Plum, bamboo and pine are known throughout most Asian cultures as “sai kan no san yū” (the three friends of winter). Originating in China where these hardy botanicals symbolize resilience and resolve, they entered the Japanese lexicon in the Heian Period (794-1185 AD). In Japan the three friends of winter are known as “shō chiku bai” (pine, bamboo, plum): Evergreen pine connotes steadfastness, bamboo suggests both strength and flexibility, while plum blossoms unfurling on snow-laden branches imply hardiness. Combined, this trio is emblematic of Japanese new year.
A slow, soy-braised dish known as nishime, is an end-of-year favorite in Japan. This style of cooking builds a deep, complex flavor bit by bit as ingredients are added one after another to the pot. Shiitake mushrooms and bamboo shoots are cooked with shoyu and acquire a burnished look. Other vegetables such as carrots, lotus root and green beans are blanched then steeped in a broth seasoned with usukuchi (light) shoyu, so they retain their bright colors.
Although making this dish takes time (prepping and cooking) and patience (waiting for food to cool down naturally), nishime can be made days ahead. Stored at cool room temperature, it frees up precious refrigerator space for other more perishable items. Since it is enjoyed at room temperature, there is no need for split-second timing when serving it.
Soy-braised winter holiday vegetable stew
- Serves 4
- Prep: 40 mins. (12 hours if soaking mushrooms)
- Cook: Under an hour
First vegan stock
- 4 dried shiitake mushrooms, preferably the thick-capped donko variety
- 2½ cups water
- a 5-centimeter piece of konbu (kelp)
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons sake
- about 150 grams bamboo shoots, purchased already par-boiled,
- 1½ tablespoons shoyu
Second vegan stock
- 1 cup water
- a 2.5-centimeter piece of konbu
- 1 teaspoon usukuchi shoyu
- 185 grams lotus root
- 2 cups water
- 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
- 12 slender green beans
- 12 carrot “flowers” (see article below)
- Make a (vegan) stock for cooking. Soak the dried mushrooms and kelp together in water for at least 40 minutes; soak them overnight for a deeper, more pronounced flavor to the stock. When ready to proceed with cooking, pull the softened mushrooms from the stock and slice off the stems, discarding them. If gritty material appears to be caught in the webbing of the mushroom caps, rinse them briefly. Strain the stock through cloth or a paper towel to remove any gravelly bits.
- Slice each softened mushroom cap in half using the slant cut (sogi-giri). Lay the blade of your knife nearly flat on the mushroom cap and slice through at an angle. This will produce pieces with more surface area than a straight cut would, thus enabling greater flavor transfer between the mushrooms and other ingredients when cooking.
- Place the strained stock in a pot with the softened mushroom caps; add the sugar and sake. Bring the stock to a simmer over low heat — you want to slowly extract the flavor. As you heat the stock, the mushrooms and konbu will produce large clouds of froth. This is entirely normal. Skim the froth away and cover the mushrooms with a wooden otoshi-buta (drop lid). Or, improvise with cooking parchment cut into a circle and placed directly on the simmering mushrooms (this keeps them moist while cooking). Set a timer for five minutes while you prepare your bamboo shoots.
- Par-boiled bamboo shoots are typically packaged in a bit of liquid in see-through, vacuum-sealed bags. Open the bag and drain. Slice the shoots into eight or 12 comb-like pieces. If any white, gritty material is caught in the “teeth” of the combs, remove it with a toothpick. Quickly rinse and pat dry before adding the bamboo shoots to the pot with the mushrooms. Cover with the wooden lid. Reset your timer for 15 minutes and continue simmering over medium-low heat. (If at any time the vegetables seem in danger of scorching, add a bit of water).
- Add the shoyu and cover the mushrooms and bamboo shoots with the drop lid; continue to simmer for five more minutes to meld flavors and further cook the vegetables. Allow the braised vegetables to slowly cool in the pot, covered. It is in the process of cooling down that seasonings are drawn into the food and commingle, making for a better balance of savory and sweet flavors.
Now it’s time to turn your attention to the lotus root, green beans and carrots.
- Make a second (vegan) stock for steeping parboiled vegetables. Place the konbu in a saucepan with the cup of water and slowly bring to a simmer over low heat. Cook for one minute. When froth appears, skim it away. Season the kelp stock with a teaspoon of usukuchi shoyu and set aside.
- Prepare the lotus root: Bring two cups of water to a rolling boil and add the rice vinegar (this will keep the lotus root from discoloring). While waiting for the water to boil, use a vegetable peeler to remove the lotus root’s outer skin — it is an impediment to flavor transfer. With a sharp knife slice the peeled lotus root in half, lengthwise. Place the cut edges of the lotus root on your cutting board and cut each half across to make a total of 12 half-circle slices. Add the lotus root to the boiling vinegar-water. Cook for five to six minutes over medium heat. Test for tenderness: a skewer or toothpick should easily pierce the lotus root.
- Drain the lotus root: Do not refresh with cold water. Instead, immediately transfer the slices to the saucepan with stock for steeping. As the blanched lotus root cools in the stock, it will absorb its flavor.
- Prepare the green beans: Break off the stem end and draw down toward the flowering (tapered) end to remove any tough “string.” Bring a small pot of water to a rolling boil, add the green beans and blanch for 90 seconds. Drain but do not refresh the green beans with cold water. Instead, let them cool in the stock for steeping. When cooled, slice the beans on the diagonal into slender 2½-centimeter lengths to enhance the illusion of pine needles.
- Prepare the carrot plum blossoms by cutting, carving (see article below) and blanching them. Add the carrot flowers to the pot with mushrooms and bamboo shoots and simmer them together for one minute to meld the flavors.
- If you will be serving the nishime more than a few hours after preparing it, transfer the vegetables to a lidded container to store at a cool room temperature. Keep the mushrooms, bamboo shoots and carrots with whatever braising liquid remains after final cooking. Similarly, transfer the lotus root and green beans with whatever steeping liquid remains and set in a cool spot to store. Leftover nishime will keep for two or three days at cool room temperature.
- When ready to serve, you can plate multiple individual portions or arrange in a single vessel. The Japanese typically serve nishime in a jūbako (stacked box). The vegetables can be scattered at random, clustered in groups, or aligned in rows.
All that’s left is to wish everyone a happy and prosperous 2022. Enjoy your meal!
Washoku Essentials is a series focusing on the building blocks of Japanese cooking wisdom. For more information, visit tasteofculture.com.
Carve your carrots into plum blossoms for seasonal flair
A sweet, crimson-colored variety of carrot called “kintoki ninjin” comes to markets throughout Japan in December. Most of them are grown in Kagawa Prefecture, though a variety known as “kyō ninjin” is associated with Kyoto. When it comes to making the carrot blossoms, the chubbier carrots will be easier to cut and bevel. Ideally, each portion of nishime will have at least one red and one (ordinary) orange carrot flower.
There are special vegetable cutters available to help you shape your carrots. The decorative cutters come in a wide range of prices — from a few hundred yen to several thousand yen (the more costly ones will have sharper, sturdier cutting edges). Professional quality ones from Aritsugu, a Kyoto-based purveyor, are sold in many department stores throughout Japan and online.
To enhance the New Year holiday table, you want to shape your carrots into plum blossoms (ume), a five-petaled flower that have rounded edges. The five-petaled flowers with notched petals are sakura (cherry blossoms, which would be lovely for a spring flower-viewing luncheon but not appropriate for year’s end).
- a 5-centimeter segment chubby carrot (about 85 grams)
- a 5-centimeter segment chubby kintoki ninjin (about 85 grams)
- Scrape or peel your carrots. Cut each segment into four rounds. Place your cutter in the center of each round. Place a towel or potholder over the top of the cutter (to protect the palm of your hand) and press down to punch out a plum flower shape from each carrot round [the top left image in the above photo]. The surrounding carrot can be used in other dishes.
- To make your carrot flowers more attractive, bevel them. The Japanese call these three-dimensional carrots “neji-ume” (twisted plum). Hold one flower in your non-dominant hand and with a small sharp knife held in your dominant hand make a slit between each petal from the edge of the flower toward the center [top right image]. Ideally the slit is deeper at the edge and quite shallow at the center. I find it easier to hold the knife still while I rotate the carrot into the blade.
- When there is a slit between each petal, go back and shave off a sliver from the adjacent petal [bottom left image]. Repeat until all five petals have been beveled [bottom right image].
- Bring a small pot of water to a rolling boil. Add the beveled carrots and cook until barely tender (about two minutes). Drain and let cool naturally (do not “refresh” the carrots with cold water). Or, if you have kelp stock for steeping, let the carrots cool in that.
- When ready to finish cooking your nishime add the carrot flowers to the pot with mushrooms and bamboo shoots and simmer them together for one minute to meld the flavors.
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