For the past few weeks, I’ve had an uncharacteristically low appetite. Some part of this is no doubt due to Japan’s notorious natsubate (summer fatigue), but I suspect it’s also because I know my time in Japan will soon come to an end. I’ve been here nearly two years now, a short time by most people’s standards, though it feels like an eternity. It has been an eternity, in some ways, considering all I’ve seen, learned, and discovered. Friendships have been made, while others have sadly faded. I’ve changed, too, in ways that may be difficult to comprehend for some of my friends and family back home. Some might wonder why I can’t accept a compliment without immediately waving it off, and others may find my habit of constantly nodding and bowing in conversation bit peculiar. To be sure, these mannerisms will fade with time, but there will be a rough period while I transition to life back in the States.
That’s still a few months away though. For now, I’m doing my best to soak up the remaining Japanese summer, and continuing to cook and eat this cuisine I have grown to love so much. In fact, summer is still very much with us here, much to my delight. Tomatoes, green beans, eggplants, sweet and hot peppers, edamame, cucumbers, peaches, melons, and plums are still in abundance, though some welcome newcomers — Asian pears, figs, baby kabocha squash, and tiny sweet potatoes — have also begun to appear at the market.
However, one summer vegetable I rarely ate before coming to Japan is okra. Unlike in the States, where okra is usually stewed or fried into submission, here it is most often eaten raw, the better to appreciate its delightfully neba neba (sticky-slimy) qualities. I’ve enjoyed it atop cold soba alongside similarly slippery nameko mushrooms and tossed into crisp, lemony salads for a hint of textural contrast, among other preparations. So when I saw this pretty red variety at a grocery store in Matsumoto (grown in the city, to boot), I immediately snatched up a bag. What to do with it though?
The okra languished in the refrigerator for several days as I pondered this question. On one particularly sluggish day, when the midday air was thick with humidity and summer languor, the idea of eating lunch seemed impossible. Remembering that refreshing, slippery okra-topped bowl of soba, I embarked on an easy lunch plan that I hoped would revive my nearly non-existent appetite: chilled sōmen noodles topped with okra and bracing garnishes. To begin, I thinly sliced the pods to highlight their pale green interior, which contrasted beautifully with the fuzzy, jewel-toned skin.
Next, I sliced d some myōga (previously introduced here), cutting the delicate bulbs lengthwise first, then into feathery slivers.
The resulting piles of vegetables were beautiful, but there was a certain monochrome quality to them. To remedy this, I rescued some emerald-green shiso from the desert-like conditions on the veranda.
Cut into chiffonade, it contributed the requisite visual and textural contrast to the other vegetables.
Finally, I boiled a small pot of water for the sōmen, which took all of two minutes to cook.
To prevent them from sticking together, I immediately drained the noodles, rinsed them thoroughly, and chilled them in ice water. All that remained was to dilute some chilled, bottled mentsuyu (noodle dipping sauce) with cold water, shake the water from the noodles, and pile everything on a plate. (As usual, I recommend you make your own sauce, as the commercial varieties are usually far too sweet and loaded with unnecessary ingredients. However, the bottled stuff can certainly work in a pinch.)
Slurping up the thin, ethereal noodles, I finally regained my appetite and remembered why summer in Japan is something to be thankful for. Here was a meal, visually and texturally rich, composed of nothing more than incredibly fresh ingredients paired with flavorful condiments. It seemed almost silly, eating something so simple, yet it somehow managed to sustain, to console my weary palate and mind. And although very little effort on my part had been required, I partook of the plate otherwise, remembering that it would not have been possible without abundant water, warm days, rich soils, and the labor of many. Then again, this is how we begin all meals in Japan, with a single word, itadakimasu - I will humbly receive.
A few food notes:
*If you’re not a fan of okra (and/or don’t have access to shiso and myōga), you could of course vary the toppings to your liking — julienned cucumber, shaved radishes, halved tiny tomatoes, grated fresh ginger, wasabi, basil, mint, kizami nori, thinly sliced scallions, and even peppery greens like arugula and watercress would all be delicious here. The idea is to have a contrast between textures and colors, and to include at least one or two bracing or invigorating flavors.
*Another tasty variation would be to use this sesame-miso dipping sauce, from the Japanese Food Report.