My mom and I always call this time of year the “shoulder season,” when the last rush of summer produce tumbles in and people begin to set their sights on the soups and warm comforts of the coming months. Those of you in the States are probably already donning your fall jackets, scarves, and other cool weather accoutrements, as have many of us in Japan. I, for one, have never been so happy to wear pants, long sleeves, and boots! Autumn is indeed a very special time here, in part because people are eager to bid farewell to the hot and humid Japanese summer.
Yet there is also another reason for the autumnal mania, one that I believe is deeply engrained in Japanese culture. Here, people truly embrace and relish the changing seasons in every aspect of life. In particular, the cherry blossoms of April and the turning foliage of October have a special significance. The quiet snowfall of pale pink blossoms and the brief crimson burst of maple leaves are seen as beautiful not in spite of but because of their impermanence. These fleeting displays of nature are to be cherished precisely because they cannot last forever. For if they did, what would be the point of celebrating?
Of course, a great deal of this seasonal celebration also involves food, which is what I’m hear to talk to you about today. In my last post, I mentioned how the fading days of summer always make me feel nostalgic. Autumn often has the same effect, although this year the feeling has been compounded by the realization that I have been in Japan for nearly one year(!) As a result, I’ve been reflecting on what I cooked in those first few cold, lonely months here. At the time, I wasn’t very well-versed in Japanese cuisine and had difficulty planning meals. I simply didn’t have the basic knowledge of how Japanese food should taste. The correct proportions of seasonings, the techniques, the ingredients – everything was foreign to me.
So I embarked on an epic adventure to teach myself everything possible about this country’s remarkable cuisine. I visited markets, trolled supermarket aisles, ate at local restaurants, and of course tapped into my boyfriend Steven’s native knowledge of Japanese food. When I was stuck, I turned to the endless resources of the internet (the blogs Just Hungry and Japanese Food Report proved to be particularly helpful), or consulted my one cookbook on Japanese food, Harris Salat and Tadashi Ono’s “Japanese Hot Pots.” (I have since acquired Shizuo Tsuji’s “Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art” and and Harumi Kurihara’s “Everyday Harumi.” Both are fantastic and highly recommended.) Armed with these resources, I was able to re-educate my palate. Now, I can recognize when a dengaku sauce needs a touch more mirin to balance out miso’s saltiness, or whether soba noodles have reached the appropriate level of doneness.
As I reevaluated my cooking from last winter, one recipe that jumped out was kinpira gobo, which I wrote about previously in “The Japanese Pantry.” This dish is perfect for autumn, both in terms of its character and its colors, which are burnished orange and brown. After snagging a giant (¥100!) bag of pre-cut burdock and carrot at my local veggie market, I decided to re-make the dish. This time, I tweaked it slightly from the original version to suit my personal tastes, swapping out vegetable oil for sesame and sprinkling it with a special “black” variety of shichimi togarashi that a coworker gave me. (The spice mix was heavy on sansho, or Sichuan peppercorn, which gave it a lovely floral aroma and a nice touch of tingly heat.)
The vegetables, which had acquired extra depth and dimension from the sesame oil and shichimi, were as addictive as junk food. In fact, I found it difficult to stop myself from eating them directly from the pan (because we all do that sometimes, right?) Although my journey through Japanese cuisine continues, I’ll consider this dish mastered.
Kinpira Gobo, take II
As mentioned above, I used pre-cut burdock and carrot, because it was there and cheap. Also, I was making this after work. A food processor fitting with a shredder disk or a mandoline would make quick work of the veggies. I’d recommend using either shichimi togarashi or toasted sesame seeds, though neither or both would yield equally delicious results.
About 3 cups finely shredded or julienned peeled burdock root and carrot (the ratio of burdock to carrot should be about 2:1)
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 ½ tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons mirin
1 tablespoon fine raw sugar
Shichimi togarshi, for sprinkling (optional)
Toasted sesame seeds, for sprinkling (optional)
Heat the sesame 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 and the burdock is cooked but still crunchy. The cooking time will vary depending on how hot your stove and pan get, but 5-7 minutes should be sufficient.
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 shichimi and/or sesame seeds.