Readers, I’ve missed you so! Summer has officially passed, and so far all I’ve managed to write about is frozen sweets. Rest assured, my love of vegetables has not waned in the slightest, but I’ve found myself short on time to cook them in new and interesting ways. This recipe, however, is an exception. The inspiration for this dish came by way of a small restaurant in Matsumoto called Dengaku Kiso-ya. Housed in a traditional wooden building just a few paces from the Metoba river, the shop specializes in a simple dish known as dengaku (田楽). At its most basic, dengaku is tōfu or vegetables (usually eggplant) slathered in a sweet miso sauce and broiled until crisp-edged and caramelized.
Turnips — those pale, waxy orbs usually found sitting forlornly in bins at the supermarket — may win the title for the world’s most unloved vegetable. It’s no wonder: here in the States, the turnips one most often encounters are bulbous, fibrous behemoths utterly lacking in color, texture, and flavor. Even when roasted into oblivion and doused with butter, they’re a hard sell. Thankfully, learning to love turnips is not difficult if you can track down a bunch of the tender hakurei variety. This Japanese breed, with its smooth, snow-white roots and deep green leaves, is equally wonderful raw, roasted, simmered, or even lightly pickled.
In Japan, turnips (kabu / 蕪) are usually sold with their tender green tops still attached. In one common preparation, the roots are first simmered in a mixture of dashi, mirin, sake, shōyu, and sugar, then served alongside the blanched greens. This simple technique utterly transforms these otherwise unremarkable vegetables: upon emerging from their bath in the salty-sweet cooking liquid, the turnips have a remarkably silky texture and the unmistakable savory depth imparted by dashi.
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.
In his remarkable essay “In Praise of Shadows” (1933), Jun’ichirō Tanizaki expounds on his appreciation for the imperfections, tarnishes, and subtleties – shadows, broadly writ – that permeate and define everyday life in Japan. In discursive, flowing prose, Tanizaki discusses the patina objects acquire with repeated use, the subtle glow emitted by paper lanterns, the darkening and softening of wood over time, the fluidity and softness afforded by calligraphy brushes and paper. Over the course of these discussions, Tanizaki reveals what appears (at least in the context of the essay) to be a fundamental cultural divide. Where Western culture values illumination, clarity, and logic, Japanese aesthetic sensibilities place a premium on subtlety, haziness and ambiguity – that is, on the border between light and dark, on shadows.
I was recently back home in Brooklyn for several weeks, mainly to take care of some important tasks to prepare for my new job here, like getting a Japanese work visa. In my free time, I found myself craving Japanese home cooking – foods like simply prepared vegetables flavored with dashi or miso, grilled fishes and meats, and homemade onigiri (rice balls). In Japan, it’s easy to obtain these dishes from takeout shops that advertise “auntie’s” or “mama’s” cooking. In New York, such a shop would be overpriced, not to mention difficult to find in the first place. Besides, if you have the right ingredients, it’s easier and much more fun to cook these dishes at home.
Although I’m currently back in New York for a brief visit, I’ve been thinking a lot about spring in Japan, particularly what new foods will be available in the markets once I return in April. Even in February, when it was most definitely still winter, it was clear that people’s minds were already turning toward spring. Stores around Matsumoto began introducing sakura (cherry blossom)-flavored goods: a little street stand that sells taiyaki (fish-shaped pancakes surrounding sweet red bean paste) featured a sakura and mochi-filled version, and the local Starbucks was advertising a sakura frappuccino!
Then, in early March, we had a full week of sunny weather, with temperatures reaching 15°C (~60°F) some days – perfect biking weather. As I pedaled around town, I noticed that the mountains had taken on a reddish tinge, due to the appearance of buds on deciduous trees. Many of the local rice paddies had turned a verdant, brilliant green, and some plum blossoms had even begun to peek out.