Essentials of Japanese Cooking:  Sugar & Salt

Japanese cooking is rich in tradition and precise technique. Whether creating obanzai-style meals at home or high-kaiseki cuisine at the finest restaurant, Japanese cooking tradition, or washoku, is based on five sets of thoughtful principles–five colors, five flavors, five senses, five methods, and five viewpoints. As we begin 2016, we’re introducing the five ingredients of Japanese cooking that serve as the foundation for these principles: sugar, salt, vinegar, soy sauce and miso. satou

These five ingredients, known collectively as ryori sa shi su se so, are stocked in almost every Japanese kitchen pantry and are added to foods in this precise order. Herbs and other light seasonings are used to enhance the flavors of these essentials, creating light and tasty dishes. The technique for adding seasoning to food is based on the type of preparation method used for the component of the meal, which traditionally includes rice, soup, broiled fish, poultry or meat, simmered vegetables, a salad and pickles.

In a simmered dish of vegetables, the ingredients are cooked in a liquid that infuses them with savory umami, enhancing and drawing out the natural taste of the vegetables. The vegetables are placed in a pot, water or stock is added, and the sa shi su se so ingredients are added one at a time, building a mixture that is rich, yet delicate.  The first ingredient to be used during cooking is sugar, or sato, as its molecules are larger than those found in salt. Adding sugar before any other ingredient allows the sugar molecules to infuse the food, creating a base upon which all other flavors are balanced.sukiyaki

Once sugar is added to the simmering liquid, salt, or shio, is added to temper the sweetness of the sugar and to build complexity on the palate. Salt is a preservative, and prevents chlorophyll from breaking down, keeping green vegetables green during cooking. Salt begins the process of osmosis, allowing bitter liquids to drain out of ingredients. When used in the correct proportion, salt satisfies the palate.

Sugar and salt are only the beginning in Japanese cooking, and with the addition of vinegar, soy sauce and miso, a Japanese dish truly blossoms. In our next post, we’ll discuss how vinegar and soy sauce are used… and how our simmered vegetables continue to develop! We’d love to hear back from you about your experiences as a beginner with Japanese cooking, so leave us a comment below.

 

Zojirushi’s New Stainless Steel Food Jar–SW-GCE36

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Our new food jar is here!

Now available in Cherry Red and Nut Brown colors, the new SW-GCE36 stainless steel food jar is vacuum-insulated to keep foods hot or cold for a long time, and an electro-polished SlickSteel® interior to repel foreign substances and prevent odors. The wide mouth and easy-to-disassemble lid make eating and cleaning simple.  The lid is specially designed with your everyday use in mind:  A tightly-fitted lid seal minimizes leaks, and a valve gasket mechanism allows you to release pressure from heat buildup for effortless lid removal.

This food jar makes it easy to enjoy breakfast, lunch or any meal right out of the container. Oatmeal mixed with hot water becomes perfectly cooked on the way to work. Soup stays warm and delicious.  The SW-GCE36 is perfect for the winter months!

What is Rice Really? …The Plant

 

Rice is an integral part of human food culture–no matter where in the world you travel, rice is eaten in homes and restaurants, as main courses and as snacks, by rich and poor.

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Our deep relationship with rice dates back to almost 10,000 BCE, where the rice plant that we know even to this day, Oryza sativa, was domesticated from its wild progenitor, Oryza rufipogon. A grass that produces a flower and a grain, the domestication and annual planting of rice originally occurred in the Pearl River Valley region of China, along the mid-Yangtze River. Cultivation, tools and techniques spread down the Yangtze River and the Huai River over the next 2,000 years, and were shared with India, Sri Lanka, Japan, and countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea as both trade and conflict comingled cultures. Transfer and cultivation in the Americas began during the European Age of Exploration, and in modern times, rice is grown on all continents except for Antarctica.

The rice plant, while hearty, only produces a crop once in areas with abundant water. In arid zones, the plant survives as a perennial, producing new tillers following harvesting. It is a small semiaquatic grass, comprised of a main stem and multiple tillers, or shoots, that produce either a flower or panicle. The plant matures in stages over 3-6 months, from the vegetative state, to the reproductive state, to the ripening state.

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The plant is initially germinated from the seeds of unrefined, unprocessed rice. Roots and shoots sprout from the seed, the order depending on what type of soil the seed has been planted in. Wet conditions will see the growth of the shoot first, so that oxygen can be supplied to the plant, whereas in dry conditions, roots will emerge so that the plant will have a healthy supply of water. During the vegetative state, the plant stem grows, becoming strong enough to support tillers – branches that grow from the main plant stem to bear grain–and leaves, which multiply every 3-4 days.

The rice plant becomes ready to reproduce about 2 ½ months after sowing, when a panicle begins to form. The panicle, which bears the fruit (in this case, the rice grain), pushes through the leaves and as it fully emerges, produces a flower that can be pollinated. The grains ripen over the next three months, and when ready to harvest, the entire plant is picked from the soil.

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Rice plants are lightly dried in the sun following rainy conditions or after harvest, and are threshed to remove the stems and leaves from the grains. The unprocessed, unrefined grains go on to be cleaned, polished and packaged before they are used to create the many dishes human society all over the world relies on for nutrition and sustenance.

Rice is such an integral part of the Zojirushi community, that we’ve planned a series of posts about this incredibly versatile and important plant. Stay tuned for next month’s post about the types of rice grains and how rice goes from the seed of the rice plant to the grain you find in your market.

 

Deliberate Customs:  Tradition of Toshikoshi Soba

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“May you live a long, thin life.”

As 2015 comes to an end, we hope you have a moment to be a part of the quintessentially Japanese tradition of enjoying toshikoshi soba on New Year’s Eve. For hundreds of years, Japanese families have shared this tradition as part of a year-end festivities. Toshikoshi means “jump from the old year to the new”. In the days leading up to the end of the year, families clean their homes from top to bottom, sweeping out the old and worn and stale to make room for a fresh and clean new year. Business dealings are finalized, loose ends tied and financial matters are settled. And, in between parties and revelry, families gather at home on the final day of the year to be close, enjoy a warm bowl of thin buckwheat soba noodles in broth, watch TV together and reflect, listening to the sounds of the bells from Shinto shrines ringing 108 times, banishing the traditional 108 evils.

According to Japanese tradition, eating toshikoshi soba noodles on New Year’s Eve is rooted in legend. One story says that the tradition began during the 13th or 14th centuries during the Kamakura or Muromachi periods, when wealthy feudal lords would feed their citizens the last meal of the year to represent their power and strength. Another legend states that eating toshikoshi soba began during the Edo period in what is now Tokyo. During that time, the merchant class began eating soba noodles that were made with the same type of fine soba flour used by goldsmiths to gather leftover gold dust. Eating soba noodles made from the same type of flour signified wealth and prosperity. Eating toshikoshi soba at the end of the year symbolized strength and resiliency, as the buckwheat plant would survive rain and wind. The thin noodles were also thought to represent a long life and the ease with which they were eaten represented the ease of cutting off troubles from the past year.

Regardless of the basis of the tradition, sharing a bowl of soba noodles is a treasured experience, full of comfort and warmth.

As the New Year approaches, we wish everyone a “long, thin life… full of good fortune and peace.” Happy 2016!

 

How to… Use a Takoyaki-ki

Street food is some of the most loved in the world… Middle Eastern gyros, American hot dogs, Indian chaat… and Japanese takoyaki!

Traditionally, takoyaki are fried octopus balls, made using a specialized pan and bamboo skewers. The crispy-on-the-outside, succulent-on-the-inside snacks are served piping hot and topped with lots of savory sauces and condiments.

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Takoyaki are made using a takoyaki-ki, or specialized takoyaki pan. The pans are generally made of heavy cast iron or a lighter coated aluminum so that they retain even heat. Takoyaki-ki are heated over a gas flame and seasoned batter is poured into the deep, round wells. As the batter cooks, small, 1-inch pieces of octopus, or even meat and cheese, are dropped into each well. Once the outer edges of the batter have cooked, the piece is turned ninety degrees with a bamboo skewer and allowed to cook again. The piece is turned over and over until the balls are round and golden brown on the outside. Each piece is served hot out of the pan, and garnished with green onions, okonomiyaki sauce, seaweed powder, bonito flakes and mayonnaise.takoyaki03

Drooling yet?

One of the best parts about getting fresh takoyaki is watching the cooks prepare dozens at a time, their bamboo skewers working steady and fast as each well of batter is turned into delicious snack balls!

Have you made takoyaki before using this pan? We’d love to hear your stories!

 

Good Taste: Shungiku

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Shabu shabu or sukiyaki wouldn’t be complete without Japanese shungiku. Called Garland Chrysanthemum in English, or Tong Hao in Chinese, shungiku is a dark leafy green that is an essential ingredient in hot pot-style dishes. The greens are slightly bitter in taste, and very delicate, easily burned and over-cooked. When added to hot dishes, they are generally added last in order to retain their flavor and dark green color. Many modern chefs use shungiku in salads to add just the right amount of crunchy sharpness. The greens can be paired with seafood, persimmons, eggs, mushrooms, poultry, and even stuffed into gyoza (or Japanese style dumplings), or mixed into stir-fries.

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The plants are easily recognizable, bearing daisy-type flowers. They are hardy annuals that grow in mild or slightly cold climates. The greens are also nutritious, containing potassium, carotene, antioxidants and lactobacillus casei, the probiotic widely used make yogurt and support intestinal health.

Originally brought to Japan from Greece and primarily used in Asian cuisines, including Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean dishes, these vegetables are readily available in the United States in Asian grocery stores and farmers markets. Try our recipes for sukiyaki and add shungiku to your mix!

 

The Zojirushi Holiday Gift Guide is Here!

Holiday Gift Guide

Our 2015 Holiday Gift Guide is here and we’ve got great recommendations for all of the special people in your life!

Take our clever Yes/No questionnaire and by the time you’re finished, you’ll know exactly what type of Zojirushi product you should be getting for that special person.  The best part, is that no matter what kind of gift you end up choosing, there are no wrong choices!

Good Taste: Yuzu!

 

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Yummy for the palette and yummy for the skin!  Yuzu is a gorgeous, cold-hardy citrus fruit used in Japanese cooking, cocktails and beauty treatments. Yuzu is popular in dishes…as an ingredient in dipping sauces like ponzu and in spicy pastes like yuzukosho. It’s even more popular muddled into cocktails like the Yuzu Sour, which is mixed with rum, vodka, triple sec, soda and simple syrup.

The yuzu fruit is small, about the size of a large lime. It’s tart and a little bit bitter, citrusy as if a grapefruit and a lemon were mixed together. Very little juice can be extracted from the fruit, since the fruit has a very thick rind and large seeds relative to its size, but the juice that is available has a concentrated flavor, and zesting the peel releases the fruit’s aromatic oils. Yuzu seeds were also used medicinally.

Yuzu zest in chawanmushi

Yuzu zest in chawanmushi

The hardy yuzu plant is able to thrive in diverse planting zones, and can even survive temperatures as low as 5°F. In April and May, the trees flower with delicate white blossoms. From June through August, the trees remain dormant, laden with dark green fruit. Even though the fruit is not yet ripe like it will be during the winter months, the rind of the green fruit is grated and served with salads and sashimi to add a citrus spice to these dishes. During the winter months, the fruit turns golden and aromatic, and is used fresh and preserved. Yuzu marmalade is extremely popular, and can be used in desserts and teas. Marinades for chicken and fish, as well as dipping sauces for vegetables and beef are also commonly used. We love the Baked Sea Bass with Yuzu Pepper recipe on our website… give it a try!

One of the best uses of yuzu is on Winter Solstice, or Toji. A hot bath is drawn and whole yuzu fruit or sliced fruit bundled in cheesecloth is added to the water. Bathing in this water is said to ward off colds and flu during the winter, and to rejuvenate dry, chapped skin as the aromatic oils are released into the water. The nomilin in the fruit’s oils also produces a relaxing effect and increases circulation.

Luscious and appetizing, yuzu is a treat at this time of year!

How to… Use a Deba Bocho

As we’ve been showcasing, Japanese kitchens are equipped with simple, elegant tools that serve multiple purposes and are made to withstand constant use. Japanese knives are key to the culinary tradition, with the deba bocho being an important piece of the cook’s knife collection.

The deba bocho is one of the five basic knives that are part of most traditional Japanese kitchens. Along with funayuki bocho, nakiri bocho, wabocho or santoku, and the sashimi bocho, the deba bocho, which means “pointed carving knife” has a unique shape and heft that has evolved over time to become task–specific and task-expert.

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The deba bocho, also called a sakana bocho, is a thick-bladed, heavy knife with a sharp tip. The length of it can vary, but in general, the deba bocho is a medium to large (23-31 cm, or about 9-12 inches) knife that is used to hand-fillet fish, carve whole poultry and cut through larger chunks of meat, especially when the cook needs to cut through small bones.

The various parts of the blade are extremely useful for specific cuts. When filleting a fish, the broad, long edge of the blade is used to cut through the flesh along the edges of bones. The tip is used to sever fillets from the carcass and the corner edge is used to cut through larger pieces. The knife can also be used similar to a Western carving knife, useful for carving a chicken along the joint lines and along the breasts. The knife, especially if maintained correctly and sharpened regularly, makes precise cuts and will last the cook for many, many years.

Have you used this type of knife before? Share your stories!

 

Delicate Customs:  Japanese Gardens

Japanese gardens are some of the most beautiful and tranquil spaces in the world. Imparting a sense of unspoiled beauty, Japanese gardens are stylized, yet natural, representations of nature… idealized versions of landscapes that evoke serenity, meditation, harmony and grace.

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From the smallest backyard to the largest park, Japanese garden traditions revolve around six aesthetic principles, including point of view (or perspective), miniaturization, concealment, ‘borrowed’ scenery, asymmetry and artistic form. The earliest documentation of these principles can be found in the Sakuteiki (or Notes on Gardening) written during the Heian period of Japan’s history, from approximately 794-1185 CE. According to these principles, the Japanese garden is a miniaturized and often, abstract, version of a larger natural landscape, where fine sand or gravel can represent water or large rocks represent islands. The designed landscape is meant to be viewed from a particular perspective, whether a seated position, such as in traditional meditation gardens, or from elevated platforms, such as in pleasure gardens. These perspectives inform the scale of the garden, along with the types of flora, fauna, water and rock elements used in it. In this landscape design tradition, plants, animals and hardscape are deliberately chosen to tell a subtle story, sometimes of mythological or religious beings, and sometimes of the passage of seasons in an area fondly remembered. To that end, Japanese gardens are not constrained to a grid of a symmetrical design axis, like the formal Western flower gardens at Versailles. Elements flow in natural patterns, often placed according to Buddhist geomancy principles.

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Ryoan-ji Hojo rock garden

Traditional Japanese gardens have survived the many periods of Japan’s history, beginning in the Heian and Muromachi periods, then experiencing a resurgence during the Edo and Meiji periods and again in current, modern times. Today, large-scale urban parks incorporate the main styles of Japanese gardens into their landscapes, including the tsukiyama, karesansui and chaniwa styles. The tsukiyama style focuses on showing nature in miniature, using small-scale trees, rocks, waterfalls, streams and ponds. The karesansui, or “dry”, style uses sand and gravel to represent flowing water, and is most often seen in zen or meditation gardens because of the simple elegance of the garden. Chaniwa-style gardens are adjacent to a teahouse, and are designed to be utterly natural and simple, while at the same time meant to prepare a guest for entering the teahouse for the chanoyu or tea ceremony. A garden path denoted by tobi-ishi, or stepping stones, guides guests to the teahouse, along with stone lanterns called ishidoro. Small round stone bundles bound with straw are placed along the paths so that guests will know where they are not to step. A tsukubai, or stone basin and ladle, are placed at the end of the garden path, and water from an elevated bamboo pipe, or kakei, is poured into it so that guests may wash their hands and mouths prior to entering the teahouse.

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These three styles of traditional gardens are seen in spectacular public spaces, and one particular garden not to be missed is the Ryoan-ji Hojo Temple Garden in Kyoto.

Japanese gardens are now famously available to people all over the world, and even if you don’t live close to one, designing your own garden space, however large or small, can be a beautiful, artistic and fulfilling endeavor.