Moving somewhere new, even within your own country, can be a scary and daunting task. Besides all the obvious environmental changes one must adjust to, there are unfamiliar customs to abide by, neighbors to meet, friends to make, and perhaps even a new language to learn. And then, of course, there’s the food.
Besides being in a country where very little English is spoken, what worried me most about moving to Japan was this last factor. It’s not that I don’t like Japanese food, but rather that I had no idea what I’d find in the grocery stores and markets.
Indeed, there were a lot of things that I hadn’t the slightest clue what to do with, like whole dried squid and the unappetizing-looking but tasty jellied yam cakes called konnyaku.
In addition, fruit seemed shockingly expensive, at least initially (but so worth it, because it actually tastes like fruit!) Many ingredients, however, were familiar to me from my previous forays into Japanese cooking (and thanks to this book). Others, like carrots and Napa cabbage, were not “foreign” at all, but I knew I’d learn to use them in new and different ways.
While I still ponder whether I should give natto a second chance, or which pickles to purchase, certain Japanese ingredients are now on regular rotation in my kitchen. The following recipe for kinpira gobo, or braised and/or stir-fried burdock root, makes great use of four of these ingredients. Although burdock root is probably not familiar to most American palates, it is a lovely, nutrient-packed vegetable with a deep, earthy flavor and satisfying crunchy texture.
The supporting cast in this recipe consists of carrots (for color and contrasting texture), mirin, soy sauce, and sesame seeds. Mirin, sweet rice wine, lends a delicate glaze to the vegetables, while soy sauce adds savory depth and color. Here, the sesame seeds mainly provide visual interest and crunch, though they can also be the integral component of a dish (as with goma-ae sauce, a common dressing for vegetables.)
Kinpira gobo would work well as a bento box filler, or as a side dish, particularly with grilled fish. However, I like it so much that I made it the centerpiece of my meal, topped with a fried egg. Not traditional, perhaps, but mighty tasty.
Kinpira Gobo (Stir-Fried Burdock Root and Carrots)
Adapted from No Recipes
Cutting the vegetables is a bit fussy, but it’s a good way to practice your knife skills! Once you’ve prepped everything, the dish comes together in a flash.
2 burdock roots, peeled and cut into matchsticks (see note, below)
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons mirin
1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, lightly toasted
2 fried eggs, optional
Drain the burdock root and pat dry. Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet over moderately high heat. Add the burdock and carrots and let sit, undisturbed, for 30 seconds.
Sauté, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are browned in spots. Add the sugar and mirin and stir to coat. Sauté about 30 more seconds, then add the soy sauce.
Cook until vegetables are glazed and liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat and toss with sesame seeds. Serve, topped with optional fried eggs, along with steamed rice (and hopefully some pickles, too).
Note: To peel burdock root, simply scrape off the thin skin with the back of your knife. Burdock root oxidizes and discolors quickly, so instead of peeling it all at once, I like to work in sections: peel about 5 inches, cut the section into matchsticks, and then submerge it in a bowl of cold water. Continue this process until you’ve peeled and cut up both roots.