Monday, October 27, 2008

Adventures in Japanese cooking

One of the things I want to do while I am living in Japan is learn how to cook Japanese food. Partly because I love Japanese food but mostly because I want to dazzle friends and family back home with my mad sushi-making skills.

So I decided to borrow a Japanese cookbook from the library last week. Unfortunately, there was only one cookbook in the entire library written in English. And it was published in 1977. But I liked the idea of cooking and kicking it old school at the same time.

I tackled my first '70s recipe yesterday. I made "gomoku gohan." This may sound fancy but it was really just rice with vegetables and chicken. Also, it was the easiest recipe in the book. I figured I could whip it together in less than an hour.

It turns out I was only half right. The cooking part was easy. Figuring out what the ingredients were and trying to find them in the grocery store was maddeningly difficult.

The recipe called for things I had never heard of before, such as "dashi," "abura-age" and "burdock root."

So before I even set foot in the grocery store, I sat down in my apartment and googled each of the mystery ingredients. I learned that dashi is soup stock, abura-age is deep-fried tofu and burdock root is, uh, burdock root.

I copied down the Japanese translation and Chinese characters for each of the ingredients in case I had trouble finding them.

At the grocery store, I went up and down every aisle, slowly, painstakingly reading every label on everything in the store. It was good practice for my Japanese reading comprehension. But it was also incredibly frustrating.

I simply could not find burdock root or dashi. Of course, it would have been easy to ask someone for help.

All I had to do was pick up the tube-shaped vegetable that may or may not have been burdock root and ask, "Sumimasen, kore wa gobo desu ka?" (Translation: "Excuse me, is this a burdock root?")

But it would have been like standing in the produce section of Safeway, holding a cucumber in your hand asking people if the vegetable you’re holding is a carrot.

I'm tired of feeling like a half-wit in this country. So I decided to figure it out myself. And by figuring it out, I really mean that I just decided to dump burdock root from the recipe altogether.

I found the dashi by accident in the salad dressing section. Just to the right of the salad dressing was a small box with a picture of a fish on it and the words "katsuo dashi" written underneath. Dashi! I had conquered the last of the mystery ingredients. Victory was mine!

Two hours later, I finally started chopping and cooking. I wasn't too sure about the dashi. It smelled strongly of fish, and fishy tasting chicken didn't seem too appetizing. But I figured Japanese people know what they're doing when it comes to food so I added it in.

Fortunately, and I say this with all modesty and humility, the dish turned out awesome. It was hearty, healthy, filling and delicious. The taste was super wonderful!

The photo of the final product, however, is not so super wonderful. It looks like vomit. I am not lying when I say it does not taste like vomit.

Next week, I am going to attempt to master miso soup (baby steps, people, baby steps).

No comments: