命の出汁 – broth of vigour

an adventure in japanese cuisine, an obsession with the izakaya


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Friday Night Sushi

I love a casual sushi night at home; out come the Japanese knives and the toys from the kitchen street in Tokyo. Next thing you know the head is shaved and the Jiro impressions come out. Well, maybe not quite that far.

The biggest challenge I have with sushi at home is variety. Going to the trouble of making the vinegar from scratch and slicing up the fish along with all the garnishes etc is kinda effort effort for a Friday night. On the flip side however my choice of sashimi grade fish is limited in Australia even when going to the biggest fish market in Sydney. There is always salmon, tuna (normally just straight maguro not otoro or chutoro fattier variants), king fish and if lucky you will get one of the following available: Scallops, Snapper or Octopus. Very soon you can get the feeling that you’ve “had enough raw fish”.

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So here are some of my approaches for adding a bit more variety to the table when ingredients are rare:

  • Marinate the fish: There are many different ways to change the flavour of the fish and add variety. For Tuna I often blanch a piece in hot water very quickly, bathe it in ice, then marinate in a mix of sake and soy sauce. For white fish, wrapping it in konbu seaweed and refrigerating it for a few hours.
  • Dressed Sashimi: From a simple drizzle of yuzu or lemon juice to the Nobu style Tiradito which includes a drop of chilli paste along with cilantro (coriander) leaves you can have a small plate of zing on the menu
  • Pressed Sushi: We can often get BBQ Eel at our fish markets. Making this into nigiri sushi normally requires more attention to detail than I have available on a Friday night especially when I have already burned my focus not cutting off fingers with the yanagiba. Pressed sushi frames are often available in asian grocery stores and give a different shape and style to add variety.
  • Lazy Garnishes: While most sushi bar’s have piles of stringy daikon radish on hand, this also is not a Friday night fun project. I will often grab a bag of bean sprouts to use as garnishes or to prop up sashimi. Some salmon roe perched atop a scallop or a twisted flower made from slices of salmon give het another twist.
  • Rice Cakes: I admit it, to make my sushi rice I use an electronic rice cooker. There is always that starchy crust on the bottom no matter how many times I wash the rice. It never goes into the mix for the sushi rice, but I will often season it with a bit of the sushi vinegar and dry fry it in a non-stick pan to give a crust on both sides as a lazy-western-onigiri.
  • Vegetables: Yeah, Yeah I know, vegetables. From cooking slices of carrots in sake, mirin and soy to using okra, avocado (not my favourite) or even mushrooms this can add a bit of a change. Also can calm down vegetarians if they manage to get through the security guard you have placed at the door.

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Hope this gives you some ideas. Now just chill the sake, turn up the Jazz & chill 😉


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Staying Soba

From my first visit to Japan I fell in love with Soba noodles. They were my first experience of cold noodles in a dipping sauce and the combination of the sweetness of the sauce with the texture of the noodles was amazing. They also make sense in a warmish climate in Australia as a simple summer dish. On one of my trips I bought a soba bocho (knife for cutting soba noodles) and had a couple of reasonable attempts at making the noodles. These were inspired by a couple of recipes from Nobu that I had in a US visit where the Soba were made with either Jalapeño or Cilantro into the actual soba dough.

In August 2014 my wife and I braved up and attended a full day Soba Making course as part of the Tokyo Cooking School. Our teacher Inouye-san was cheerful and extremely excited to share his knowledge of Soba noodles.

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The course started with Inouye-san giving some background into Soba and its preparation followed by demonstrations from him on how to make various soba broth and dipping sauces, preparing different accompaniments for cold and hot Soba and then making both pure soba and soba noodles that incorporate a small amount of wheat flour.

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As with anything you try to do yourself without seeing a master do it, there are plenty of tricks involved in preparing Soba noodles. All the recipes I had used were quite simply in weight of flour and volume of water. I almost felt taken back to black and white photo school talking about the impact of relative humidity on the production of noodles – the end result being using the weight of the added liquid against a table of humidity. Far more techie than I was expecting.

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The rolling technique was something I was really looking forward to. Of course, Inouye-san’s rolling pin flew around like a crazed ninja; making it look so very simple. Soon after the big “axe” appeared (the soba bocho) and we had a plethora of noodles.

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At this time we broke for lunch, tasting the noodles that Inouye-san had prepared. We helped put together the accompaniments and had a delightful lunch of both Soba in hot broth with scallops and cold Soba with dipping sauce. Quite frankly at this stage my wife and I were ready for a nap having felt that we had absorbed Soba noodle culture both mentally and via the stomach, but we were here to learn, it was now our turn.

We both made 80/20 and pure Soba flour noodles over the next couple of hours with constant supervision from the master. The results were quite good with our major flaw being the variable width of our noodles as we tired out. At one stage Inouye-san suggested my last handful might be reserved for use in a fettucini recipe 😉

The rolling was more of a challenge for me, I think I probably need to break both my thumbs to get them into the position required for smooth and constant rolling.

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We walked away from this awesome day with great memories, a new friend and about 2 kilos of Soba which kept us going for a couple of weeks. Some were distributed to Japanese friends for their opinion and they were quite impressed. Looking now it seems the school has expanded it’s courses to a wider selection of Japanese food so I can see myself going back for more learnings this year. If you check the site there is a link to a site that sells all sorts of cooking gear around noodle making also.

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Got ice?

I love the way you can still get hand crafted ice balls in many Japanese bars apart from the quality of the ice and the slow melting times (low drink dilution scale), if you plant yourself in a good spot you are in for a great show. Fortunately the bartenders tend to drink less than you do and I am yet to see any real injuries.

This one comes from my most recent trip to Japan (Feb 2013) as I sat for a quiet meal up at the bar of an Izakaya in Yoyogi-Hachiman near Shibuya.


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shiso update – 1

Well, for a start it’s still alive!!!

We have managed to keep this baby alive now for over a week with simple watering every day and adding a small pile of grains of slow release fertiliser. Overall has perked up since its liberation from the Japanese Grocery Store I purchased it from. The older leaves look ready to pick and the new growths have sprung to life and are more visible as shiso rather than small pointy green things

Like a pair of lunatic new parents we also ran to the local hardware store and purchased it a “crib”. For a mere $30 we grabbed a simple greenhouse structure which sits on the dormant brick barbecue structure in our yard. We have also planted some seeds for a further experiment in ingredients which I will report on later.

So now the two larger leaves are going to end up being used in tonight’s dinner and I am going to pick one of the most healthy leaves and try my hand a raising another plant from a clipping. Sounds a little complicated to me; the things you do for rare ingredients!


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shiso (not the japanese word for green plastic)

For years I was amused by the little green pieces of plastic that were put in take away boxes of sushi and sashimi, often used to separate items. Once I had visited Japan I realised that this was meant to be a substitute (?!?!?!) for a Japanese leaf known as Shiso (紫蘇 or シソ in Japanese).

Shiso is used as a separator in dishes, a receptacle for wasabi or other condiments as well as used in dishes themselves. When used in dishes I have experienced it rolled as part of sushi, chopped up as a garnish for everything from soups to noodles. It is claimed to be a relative of the basil plant and it does have a delightful peppery taste.

Firstly, I don’t know what the crazy plastic making people were thinking, but a rectangular piece of green plastic with one serrated side looks nothing like an actual shiso leaf. Secondly, it doesn’t taste anywhere near as good ;). It is one of those ingredients (like the Japanese citrus Yuzu) that I have found out of reach until recently. On the weekend I went to Tokyo Mart to get some supplies and they were selling little seedlings of Shiso near the registers. My wife thought it would be a great idea to get one and it was added to the basket along with 4 litres of Shocho and some miscellaneous items we had run out of.

This might seem reasonable but we are both notorious “black thumbs” when it comes to anything growing. It is thought that my wife can kill plants using only her mind. The truth lies somewhere in between and probably more to do with neglect than anything. So it will take some serious thought processes to try to keep this thing alive.

Looking around on the internet, my worst fears were realised. While it is apparently quite a hardy plant, it does die off once it flowers so for us to keep a constant source of shiso there will need to be cuttings taken and seeds harvested. Oh bugger.

Let’s see how our new little friend lives over the coming weeks. It will be worthwhile if I can keep it alive to have one of the rarer Japanese ingredients available from the back garden!