Ohitashi – a method of infusing lightly cooked vegetables with seasoned dashi – is one of the best-kept secrets of Japanese cuisine. Unlike Western techniques like roasting or sautéing, ohitashi gently draws out a vegetable’s inherent sweetness without sacrificing flavor or texture. Beautiful in presentation and subtle in flavor, it is perhaps the platonic ideal of a salad. Neither raw nor cooked, ohitashi inhabits a liminal space in the culinary spectrum. Both elemental and refined, it is a testament Japanese cuisine’s respect for vegetables and the land that grows them.
Fundamentally Japanese in its reliance on impeccably fresh ingredients, ohitashi uses a combination of dashi, shōyu, and mirin to permeate vegetables with notes of smoke, salt, and sweetness. (The “hitashi” in ohitashi derives from the verb hitasu (浸す), meaning “to dip” or “to soak,”, while the “o” is simply an honorific prefix.) Although the ingredients in ohitashi are generally cooked as lightly as possible, the technique is somewhat similar to nimono (煮物), in which ingredients are gently simmered with dashi and seasonings to amplify their sweetness, color, and texture.
As Harris Salat has noted, delicate spring vegetables are particularly well suited to ohitashi, but any seasonal produce will benefit from this subtle treatment. Spinach (horensō) is the most commonly used vegetable for ohitashi, but other mild, green vegetables work equally well. Last spring, at Soba Alps in Matsumoto, I enjoyed a particularly memorable version made with kogomi, or fiddlehead ferns. The tightly coiled fern heads had been blanched just enough to remove some of their bitterness before being nested in a small pool of salty-sweet sauce. A pinch of feathery katsuobushi completed the dish, their slightly smoky aroma permeating each bite. As an added bonus, the pale pink katsuobushi provided a lovely color contrast to the deep green vegetables. Served in this manner, ohitashi recalls cherry blossoms falling from leafy sakura branches – spring’s crowning moment before the onset of the steamy Japanese summer.
Komatsuna no Ohitashi – 小松菜のお浸し
(Boiled mustard spinach in dashi)
Adapted from Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji
Tsuji’s original recipe calls for usukuchi shōyu, a type of soy sauce used for dishes where a lighter color and more delicate flavor are desired. I used an all-purpose shōyu here; although the color is somewhat darker, the flavor is not substantially different. Komatsuna (Brassica rapa var. perviridis), also known as mustard spinach, is a wonderfully crisp, juicy green with a mild mustardy flavor. Although spinach is the most common vegetable prepared as ohitashi, I prefer komatsuna‘s more substantial texture and taste. Feel free to use either here, or substitute any other mild, leafy green vegetable.
1 large bunch komatsuna (substitute spinach or other tender, leafy greens)
1 1/4 cups dashi
3 teaspoons Japanese soy sauce/shōyu
1 teaspoon mirin
Pinch sea salt
Thinly shaved bonito flakes (katsuo kezuribushi / かつお削り節), for garnish
Trim about 1 inch off the bottom of the komatsuna and wash well, being sure to loosen any grit or dirt near the bottom of the stems. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Have ready a bowl of ice water. Blanch the komatsuna until the leaves and stems turn bright green, about 1 minute. Drain and plunge into the ice water bath. When cool, squeeze out as much water as possible. Gather the greens, arranging the stem ends together, and cut into 2-inch lengths.
In a small saucepan, bring the dashi just to a boil. Add the soy sauce, mirin, and salt and stir to dissolve. Simmer for a minute or so to burn off the alcohol in the mirin. Remove from heat and immediately pour into a bowl. Place this bowl inside a larger bowl filled with ice water and stir until cool. (This step is in important, as it ensures that the dashi’s delicate flavor won’t degrade with the heat.)
Place the komatsuna in a tupperware container and pour over the cooled dashi mixture. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or up to 4 hours total. Place neat bundles of the dashi-infused greens in individual serving bowls, spoon some of the sauce over each, and garnish with a generous pinch of katsuobushi.