I seem to be on a bit of a legume kick lately! First, I made lentil curry, which was soon followed by hummus, vegan chickpea “tuna” salad, and then chana masala. Today, though, it’s all about soybeans.
In traditional Japanese cuisine, beans are used very differently from in the west. In Canada and America we probably find them most often in things like chili, burritos or canned baked beans. But in Japan, beans are commonly used in sweets or in savory side dishes meant to accompany a bowl of rice, while soybeans in particular are used for making tofu, miso paste and natto.
Beans are also much pricier in Japan and are thought of as something of a delicacy to be enjoyed in small quantities, in contrast to the cheap image of beans that we have in North America. But on the other hand, the quality of the beans produced domestically in Japan is incredible. Each bean is often large, perfectly plump and bursting with flavor. I understand why they don’t choose to cover up the taste with garlic, spices and other heavily flavored ingredients!
In Japan, it is also not at all uncommon to buy precooked pouches of beans instead of the typical canned beans that I’m used to back home. I was recently gifted two such packs of soybeans so I decided to try my hand at making a Japanese-style side salad.
For this dish, I mixed together the following ingredients and let sit for a little bit before enjoying over a bowl of fresh rice.
one pouch of cooked soybeans (50 grams)
thinly sliced carrot
finely diced sweet Mayan onion
thinly sliced homemade pickled napa cabbage (optional, but adds a great crunch)
shichimi togarashi (a lightly aromatic Japanese mixture of spices, seeds and orange peel)
Remember that nice old lady who I bumped into at the library, and who took me out for the best cup of coffee ever? Well, amazing person that she is, she came and picked me up in her car and took me to a local art exhibit. It turns out her husband is an avid artist and sculptor so they have a lot of interest in this type of thing. The little figurines were so adorable! Their expressions, their clothes, their body postures…all the little details made them so much fun to look at.
After that, she took me to a folk museum that was displaying all sorts of household goods that were in common use during the early to mid-1900’s. So, this means that she would have been using a lot of these things as a child and young adult. I love this sort of museum because it gives you some insight into what everyday life might have looked like back then. Looking at the treasures and fineries of the aristocracy is of course fascinating, but getting some small glimpse of the life of the average person is somehow so meaningful to me.
A lot of these items look quite different from what was using during the same era in the West. Can you tell what everything is? Some are easier to guess than others!
On a weekend visit to Hitachi city, I happened to stumble across a festival right outside the main train station. It was an afternoon event with food stalls, live music, and stand-up comedians. There was also a performance put on especially for the kids, featuring characters from a hugely popular cartoon series called Crayon Shin-chan. (I totally forgot about this show. I haven’t seen it in years!)
Hitachi city is well known for being the home of the huge multinational company, Hitachi Ltd., and the festival was actually hosted by them as a way of thanking the company workers and their families for their constant dedication and hard work. The main goal of the event was to give everyone a place to gather together and relax (not to make money), so everything was ridiculously cheap and laid back. Almost everything was $1…even the beer!
For lunch, I enjoyed a bowl of miso ramen topped with corn, cabbage, and green onions. After hanging out at the festival for a couple hours, I walked down the street to see a performance by a local high school band. I had originally just planned to head to Hitachi to do a bit of shopping, but I guess I got really lucky!
When I visited Japan last year, I happened to meet a nice elderly lady one afternoon. It turned out that she had been very eagerly studying English for many years and we had a nice long conversation about it. I didn’t expect that I would have the chance to meet with her again. However, I when I went to the library the other day I was lucky enough to bump into her again! She took me out for coffee at one of the most authentic cafes that I’ve ever been to. The place is called Coffee Mame, which is a cute name because it actually translates to “coffee bean”.
They have a whole range of high quality beans that you can choose from, although each day there is a small selection of beans that are specially selected and circled in red on the menu. If you choose one of these, they will actually freshly roast and grind up the beans for your individual cup. It takes a while for the coffee to be made, but watching everything be prepared from scratch is a lot of fun, plus it goes without saying that the coffee is incredible.
Here are some photos of the grinder, the roaster, and the sacks of raw coffee beans. They’re all there out in the open when you first walk into the little café so that you can observe every step that goes into preparing your cup of coffee.
Have you ever heard of yakisoba? It’s a super popular street food in Japan, and a staple dish found at every festival you’ll ever visit. The streets will always be lined with food stalls where they have a big flat grill set up, and there’s someone frying up a huge pile of yakisoba noodles using these metal spatulas specially designed for flipping the ingredients.
The most classic yakisoba dish consists of hearty noodles fried together with cabbage, carrots, and onion. It’s then topped off with a savory sauce, shavings of aonori (a type of dried seaweed), and small slices of pickled pink ginger. Recently, some vendors have started to add on some other popular toppings like Japanese mayonnaise.
I don’t usually get to buy yakisoba at food stands because there’s sometimes a bit of meat thrown into the mix, but that doesn’t stop me from making it at home! Lucky for me, it’s fairly quick and easy to put together. I had this for dinner the other night, along with some slices of deep fried tofu that I picked up at the shops and then warmed up in the grill a few minutes before serving.
I’ve made a few posts before about kashiwa mochi, the amazing Japanese sweet that’s traditionally enjoyed on Children’s Day in Japan. Kashiwa mochi are soft rice cakes filled with sweet red bean paste and wrapped up in a special oak leaf. I’ve also talked about sakura mochi, another popular dessert made of a pink rice cake filled with red bean paste and folded into a salted cherry leaf.
Cherry blossom season is over, and Children’s Day was back in May, but if you go to a traditional sweet shop it’s still possible to get an interesting treat that blends together the best of both worlds…a pink kashiwa mochi!
I’d been very curious to try this for a while because of one unusual ingredient. Instead of the usual sweet red bean paste which tastes almost like chocolate and is insanely popular, this one is actually filled with a sweet white bean paste. White bean paste itself is fairly common in Japanese confectionaries, but the most interesting thing here is that the white bean paste is flavored with just a touch of miso!
I thought there was a good chance that I wouldn’t like the pairing of sweet and salty, but the miso flavor was so subtle and delicate that it just enhanced the sweetness of the white bean paste. Absolutely fantastic! I still have yet to taste a Japanese sweet that I don’t like. If you find one, let me know!
That’s right. We’re talking about sweet red bean paste again today…What can I say? It’s one of the best things in Japanese cuisine!
I made a post a little while back on a real old fashioned red bean donut that I bought from a traditional sweet shop in Mito. The shop has been around for over half a century, and a fellow blogger pointed out to me that they even have a handwritten sign in the window saying that they are rumoured to be the best red bean donuts in the city. These traditional style treats were made with a thick cake batter, making the donut dense and incredibly rich in flavor.
For the sake of comparison (that’s my excuse), I went to a modern upscale bakery and tried out their version of the red bean donut. Instead of using cake batter, they went with a sweet bread dough which they then deep fried and sprinkled with sugar. From what I’ve seen, this style of red bean donut seems to be more common nowadays. It’s a lot bigger and fluffier and tastes quite different, but it’s still awesome in its own way. If any of you have ever tried these different versions of the red bean donut, I’d love to hear what you think. Which do you like better?
After refueling at the bakery, I walked a few kilometers out to the famous and historical Kairakuen Park. It’s known as one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan, and it’s absolutely massive. There are gift shops and resting areas at the entrance, and once you enter the park there are many walking paths that take you through bamboo forests and a huge grove of plum trees.
There’s always so much more to learn about Japanese sweets. I thought I knew what mochi was…but it turns out I had no idea. When I’m home in Vancouver, I occasionally buy prepackaged mochi rice cakes from a local Japanese grocery store. They come in partly dehydrated rectangle blocks so that they last a long time on the store shelves. Before serving, you just wet them with a bit of water and heat them in the microwave. Or, you can put them in the oven and grill them until they get all crunchy and toasted on the outside, and all soft on the inside. So, don’t get me wrong, these are really delicious! …But, it’s just that they are totally different from fresh, handmade mochi.
While visiting a park in Japan, I came across an outdoor market and there was one tent where a lady was selling mochi and dango prepared that day. I treated myself to a package of mochi smothered in sweet red bean paste. It was incredibly soft and delicate, unlike the stretchy texture of the mochi that I am used to buying. And, since it had been pounded by hand, the mochi was uneven and still had little pieces of rice in it which gave it a lot more character.
I took some of the mochi home to use in oshiruko (a sweet soupy dessert). The mochi started to melt the second it touched the hot water, and I realized just how incredibly different it is from the packaged stuff. I feel so lucky to be finally able to see how these Japanese sweets were originally, before they started being replicated in big factories!
Imagawayaki are a classic Japanese treat that I have loved ever since I was a little kid. They are a staple item at festivals and fairs, although you can also find them pretty easily at other year-round food vendors and small sweet shops. Unlike a lot of other traditional Japanese confectionaries, imagawayaki are actually made fresh right there in front of you and you can usually buy them while they’re still piping hot.
I’ve tried buying imagawayaki (or something that looks a lot like them) back home in Canada a few times but they tend to substitute with pancake batter so the flavor and texture is way off. I don’t know exactly what they use for the authentic batter here in Japan, but real Japanese imagawayaki are unmistakably different. Nowadays, you can choose a variety of different fillings like custard, chocolate cream, and sometimes even local varieties like sweet potato, but I always go with the good old sweet red bean filling. These are so satisfying!
On another visit to Mito, I ended up stopping by a large department store. In Japan, the bottom floor of any department store is called the depachika, or in other words, it’s the food floor! Here you can buy a whole assortment of beautifully decorated and luxurious sweets, bento lunches, gift boxes, local specialties, and souvenir snacks. You can also usually get high quality fruits and vegetables. The depachika is loads of fun and it’s always my most favorite section of any Japanese department store!
On this visit, a gourmet doughnut stand caught my eye with its line up of free samples. In Japan, if you’re lucky you can find doughnuts made out of okara, or the soy pulp left over from making tofu. I prefer them to regular ones, as I find that they have a rich flavour and are very crispy on the outside. If you ever find an okara doughnut, definitely give it a try!
I got to sample a matcha green tea doughnut and a salt doughnut. The man also had a whole bunch of other interesting flavours like tiramisu, roasted soybean, strawberry, and black sesame. I settled for a good old fashioned chocolate coated doughnut. The amazing thing about this shop was that instead of using chocolate icing, he actually used pure melted dark chocolate.