Ohitashi

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.

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Wild Sustenance

Ramps & morels

Several years ago, I spent a summer working at a small garden in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. The work was sweaty and strenuous but also remarkably satisfying. My days were mostly occupied with transporting and turning compost, starting seedlings, mixing soil, watering, harvesting and drying herbs, and tending to vermicompost bins. One task that didn’t figure prominently into my daily routine, however, was weeding. Rather than spending hours uprooting every last foreign shoot from the beds and mulched paths, I took some advice from my supervisor, Martha, and let them take root. She taught me which varieties were edible and suggested ways to cook them. Lambs quarters, she warned, should be blanched first to remove any traces of toxic oxalic acid; amaranth leaves were better when young and tender. Armed with this knowledge, I returned home every week with armfuls of greens: peppery wild arugula and delicate lamb’s quarters were sautéed with garlic and plenty of olive oil before being incorporated into frittatas, blanched amaranths got tossed with spaghetti and salty cheese, and juicy purslane found its way into countless tomato and herb salads.

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Ozōni

I first tasted ozōni, a comforting mélange of vegetables and broth topped with toasted rice cakes, in Hakodate, a charming port city on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaidō famous for its squid and Western-style architecture. It was New Year’s morning, and I had arrived in Japan just a few days earlier. The previous evening had been a blur of rapid-fire Japanese, new and exciting foods (candy-sweet black beans! Bright yellow chestnuts and sweet potatoes! Raw quail eggs with soba noodles!) and unfamiliar etiquette. Of course, my confusion was compounded by jetlag and culture shock, not to mention a few sips too many of sake and umeshu. The next morning, after my attempts to watch the sun rise over Goryōkaku park were stymied by a blizzard, I felt a powerful craving for a hot, warm breakfast.

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Ochazuke

Growing up, there was nothing I loved more for breakfast than a bowl of sugary, crunchy cereal drenched in cold milk. It wasn’t only the sweet taste and colorful cartoon characters that entranced me; I also loved the ritual involved: unhinging the cardboard flap, rustling the plastic bag, hearing the tinkle tinkle of wheat flakes and puffed rice tumbling into the bowl, poring over the product-specific recipes printed on the side of the box. Ultimately, it was the process I loved, not the product.

As you might expect, my taste for cereal has since diminished, but there’s still part of me that craves breakfast food served in a bowl. In Japan, the answer to such a craving would almost certainly be ochazuke, an incredibly simple dish of hot tea over rice with a sprinkling of savory garnishes.

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Handmade

Shichimi turned two years old this week. Though I had hoped to have a more special celebratory post prepared, words have been eluding me lately.

Thoughts swirl around endlessly, but my attempts to verbalize them have been halting at best, incoherent at worst, and usually ineloquent. A simple e-mail turns into a ten minute ordeal, to say much less of one written in Japanese. Perhaps it’s the effect of acquiring new words in a second language; somehow one’s native tongue begins to seem convoluted and nonsensical. At times, relativity takes over – why shouldn’t the verb come at the end of the sentence? Do we really need a distinction between the present and future tenses?

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Shinshū Soba

By now, those of you who know me well (or who read this blog regularly) probably realize that I have a big crush on soba. While some foreigners who live in Japan become obsessed with ramen, ramen, and yet more ramen, I fell hard for soba. Not just any soba, but Shinshū soba (信州そば), which hails from mountainous Nagano prefecture in central Japan. (“Shinshū” refers to Shinano province, Nagano’s former name.) Why soba? It’s not a crowd pleaser like ramen, curry, or other Japanese favorites, perhaps due to its perception as “health food” in the west. While traditionally prepared soba noodles are indeed very healthy (high in protein and fiber, nearly devoid of animal products, and almost always accompanied by some sort of vegetable), this is not why they appeal to me. Rather, I am drawn to the painstaking process and ritual that surrounds their creation, their minimalist presentation, their hand-hewn texture and earthy flavor, and of course the sheer fun of slurping them up.

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Roots and Rootlessness

Every new year, we promise ourselves new lives, new looks, new selves. Yet by the end of the first week of January, how many of us still feel that motivation, that tug toward self-improvement? Think for a moment now: what if every day were lived with that sort of mindfulness and deliberation, of keeping our promises to others and ourselves? What would that feel like, and who would we become? We might not necessarily become better, or wiser, or more beautiful, but perhaps we would live with a greater appreciation for incremental change, the gradual completion of a project, the assiduous chiseling of an idea, the slow and uncertain progress that underlies day-to-day existence.

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