Japanese Street Food: Tachigui Soba!

tachigui02What’s better than slurping hot soba noodles when you’re out in the cold? Slurping them when they’re hot, fresh, cheap and at a tachigui-style restaurant!

Tachigui, which means “eating standing up”, is a popular style of eating in Japan, especially for quick meals while traveling, commuting or going out for the evening. Tachigui-style eating was first introduced in what is now Tokyo during the Edo Period (1603-1868). During that time, restaurant owners catered to laborers and working class people who needed inexpensive yet nutritious, fresh and flavorful food… the perfect setting for serving soba noodles in soup broth. To minimize costs for space and service, tachigui shops offered standing areas for people to just eat and go.

This style of eating spread across Japan and in modern day cities, tachigui-style restaurants can be found in close proximity to rail stations and commuter areas. Soba noodles in hot soup broth are still the most popular dishes served at tachigui restaurants, but hungry people can also find sushi, barbeque and takoyaki at tachigui stalls.

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Customers eat at a tachigui soba shop in a train station (photo by Nesnad)

Dining at tachigui restaurants is an experience. Since many are located at or near train stations, they offer only counter space for diners. Diners purchase meal tickets called shokken for the type of dish they want from vending machines located at the stall. Meals range from the barebones noodles and soup to various toppings such as tempura, kakiage, eggs, fish cake and more. Once a diner purchases a ticket, they hand that to the server, and wait a few minutes for their bowl to be delivered. Tea and condiments are served freely on the counter.

Meals are inexpensive yet incredibly fresh. Soba noodles are parboiled and freshened before being served to patrons. Basic soba soups start at around 250 yen or $2.50 and soups with many toppings won’t cost more than 500-700 yen or $5.00-7.00. Regardless of price, people from all walks of life and economic circumstances eat at tachigui stalls.

Soba noodles are the perfect dish for a cold December going into the New Year and whether you’re eating tachigui-style soba noodles or toshikoshi soba, we hope you stay warm and have a great New Year!

Japanese Street Food: Winter Oden

oden02With the cold months of winter beginning, it’s time for oden.

Oden is a one-pot dish full of vegetables, fish cakes, tofu, eggs and konnyaku, all simmered in seasoned dashi broth. It’s pure comfort food, full of savory ingredients that have soaked up hot seasoned broth, perfect for the cold months of winter.

Oden is enjoyed by everyone in Japan, from children on their way home from school to homeward bound working professionals stopping at street vendors for oden and sake. When made at home, oden includes special ingredients loved by each family member. One of the characteristic ingredient is konnyaku, a jellied yam cake. Those who enjoy oden choose the ingredients to add to their bowl, sometimes adding chikuwa (fish cake), ground fish balls, kinchaku (fried tofu pouches), daikon radish, boiled eggs or vegetables like cabbage and potatoes. Oden is best when garnished with hot Japanese mustard.

Oden is a cross between a nimono, or simmered dish, and nabemono, or hot pot. The name oden is derived from dengaku, which refers to pieces of tofu and konnyaku skewered, basted with miso paste and grilled. Dengaku was typically served during colder months, and around the time of the Muromachi Period (1336 – 1573), the dish was modified to be simmered in seasoned broth.

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A shop advertises oden

Oden is prepared with variations depending on the region in Japan. In Tokyo and its environs, the broth is made from dashi and koikuchi shoyu, or dark soy sauce, and is typically salty in flavor. In the Osaka area, broth is made from dashi and usukuchi shoyu, or light soy sauce, with hints of sweetness. Oden from the Kyoto area has a sharp and sweet taste and in Nagoya, the broth is miso-based.

No matter what style of broth oden is made with, the warmth and savoriness of the ingredients characterize comfort during the coming winter. Oden can be found at street vendors, izakaya restaurants, and even at convenience stores where the clerks will either assemble your oden for you or let you make your own creation at the self-service counters.

One of our favorite oden recipes can be found here, and we hope you will try it out during this winter season.

Until next time, stay warm and don’t forget to look out for our last post about Japanese street food for 2016!

Essentials of Japanese Cooking: Wagashi

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Throughout the year, we’ve focused on the essentials of Japanese cooking, from basic pantry items to the principles of washoku, Japan’s culinary tradition. From the basic ingredients of sa shi su se so (sugar, salt, vinegar, soy sauce and miso) to the more complex creation of dashi and umami tastes, we’ve explored how to prepare appetizers, soups, pickles and main dishes. This month, our post focuses on wagashi, or traditional Japanese sweets.

Wagashi, which literally means “Japanese sweet snack”, are bite-sized confections. They are traditionally made with simple, plant-based ingredients. The simplicity of the ingredients, however, is deceptive, as wagashi are created based on washoku principles of the Five Tastes and the Five Senses and take into account the seasonality of the natural world.

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Dorayaki, or sweet pancakes filled with red bean paste

Wagashi is said to have originated in Japan during the time Japanese emissaries returned to the country from visiting China in the 8th century.  The first truly Japanese form of wagashi was a mochi and azuki bean dumpling sweetened with the juice of various vines. As this delicacy became more popular and spread to cities influenced by the aristocracy along the west coast of Japan, such as Matsue and Kanazawa, wagashi creation and design flourished. In the 12th century, wagashi became part of formal tea ceremonies and was paired with bitter matcha tea. When sugar was introduced to Japan in the 16th century, wagashi became easier and less expensive to produce, making it available to the general population.

The variety of wagashi is vast, and it is classified using a few criteria: formal vs. every day, production method, moisture content and shape.

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Girl’s day wagashi

Formal wagashi are served at tea ceremonies or special events and are sculpted to represent a seasonal motif for the particular event, such as cherry blossoms in the spring to celebrate Girl’s Day. Every day wagashi are found at street vendors and shops and come in the form of dumplings or cakes or specialized shapes, with various fillings and toppings, usually made in the morning to be eaten that day.

Some of the formal wagashi are crafted based on the seasons. Their base flavors include the five tastes–sweet, salty, sour, bitter and spicy–with a particular taste emphasized according to what is seasonally available. For example, in the spring, when people gravitate towards sour flavors, wagashi are flavored with oranges. Each piece is also crafted to appeal to the five senses, from the seasonal motifs of each shape, to the fragrance of the ingredients, to the taste, to the texture to the sounds of nature that are evoked when eating a piece.

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Mizuyoukan, or soft sweet bean jelly

Making wagashi is considered a craft, and wagashi makers can be awarded the title of “Contemporary Master Craftsman”. Wagashi craftsmen take pride in creating confections that balance seasonal flavors and motifs, from traditional cherry blossoms to modern Santa Clauses, appealing to the tastes of all generations. Going to a wagashi shop will make you anticipate the season or special event or festival to come!

Modern wagashi are made with eggs, milk and chocolate, and also come in beautiful shapes and colors.

One type of wagashi commonly found in the United States is called daifuku, which can be made at home. Pair it with Matcha Tea and you have your own homemade snack break!

We’d love to hear about your wagashi experiences, so be sure to leave us a photo and a note in the comments below!

Japanese Street Food: Yakiimo!

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“Ishi yaaaaaakiiiiimooooo! Ishi yaaaaaakiiiiimooooo!”

Anyone who has spent autumn or winter in Japan knows how exciting it is to hear the sound of the “yakiimo man” driving through their neighborhood in his mini-truck. His iconic call to come enjoy a hot sweet potato has children eager and adults nostalgic for the days when they ran out into the cold to get these stone-baked treats. Whether the yakiimo man sings his own melancholy song or broadcasts it from the loudspeaker mounted on his truck, the wintery tune brings smiles even in the coldest weather.

Yakiimo is a sweet potato, most typically of the satsumaimo variety found in southern Japan. These sweet potatoes were brought to Japan from Central America by way of China in the late 16th century. Their cultivation was limited to the subtropical southern region of Kagoshima Prefecture for many years, until a widespread rice famine struck the country in the mid-18th century. In heavily populated areas, especially near modern-day Tokyo, crop failures led to major food shortages, starvation and civil unrest.  Konyo Aoki, a local scholar, experimented with growing satsumaimo in the Kanto region in order to help feed the hungry Japanese people. This colder northern area was traditionally thought to be inhospitable to growing satsumaimo, but Konyo was able to help them flourish, and their popularity soon spread.

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Satsumaimo have reddish-purple skin and cream colored flesh, starchy and sweet. The yakiimo man bakes them in hot stones placed inside a propane-powered, steel stove in the back of his mini-truck. He bakes the sweet potatoes until their skin is browned and wrinkled and the insides are soft, giving them to hungry people wrapped in paper. You might hear those same hungry people say “Achi! Achi!”, or “Hot! Hot!” as they hold the fresh sweet potatoes.

Yakiimo can now be found in many convenience stores, but nothing replaces the experience of breaking them open and taking the first savory-sweet bite from the one purchased directly from the yakiimo man.

Until next time, stay warm and don’t forget to look out for next month’s post about Japanese street food!

 

Essentials of Japanese Cooking: Kaiseki Ryori & Shojin Ryori

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Refined, delicate, purposeful, seasonal, healthy, flexible… all of these words describe the essence of Japanese cuisine, or washoku. As part of our exploration of the essentials of Japanese cooking, we’ve learned about the ingredients and foundational foods at the core of this cuisine. This month, we explore the principles of the washoku tradition that guide kaiseki ryori and shojin ryori.

Washoku is often translated to mean harmony (“wa”) and food (“shoku”). According to Elizabeth Andoh, one of Japan’s premier chefs, in her book Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen, “washoku, or the “harmony of food” is a way of thinking about how we eat and how [food] can nourish us. The term describes both a culinary philosophy and the simple, nutritionally balanced food prepared in that spirit.”

This philosophy is best illustrated by an ichiju sansai meal, which consists of a bowl of rice, a bowl of soup and three side dishes, typically comprised of a piece of grilled fish or meat or tofu, pickles and simmered vegetables. An ichiju sansai meal is the typical meal served at lunch and dinner in Japanese households and is loosely translated to mean “well-balanced meal”. Both kaiseki ryori, Japanese haute cuisine, and shojin ryori, Japanese temple food, rely on this framework.

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An example of ichiju sansai

Kaiseki ryori (as seen in the title image) offers a richer, more elaborate but no less balanced version of an ichiju sansai meal. Kaiseki meals were originally prepared as part of formal Japanese tea ceremonies, and were later served to nobles as a sign of wealth and class. A kaiseki meal consists of four courses or “sets” offered in a prescribed sequence. The starters set includes an aperitif course (skokuzen-shu) in which a small cup of sake or wine is served, followed by an appetizer course, consisting of decoratively prepared bite-sized appetizers served on a long dish called a hassun. The starters are followed by the main set, which consists of a soup course (suimono), a sashimi course (otsukuri), a simmered dish (nimono), a grilled dish (yakimono), a deep fried dish (agemono), a steamed dish (mushimono) and a pickled dish (sunomono). The third set, called a shokuji set, includes a bowl of white rice, miso soup, and pickles (tsukemono). Finally, the meal is concluded with a small dessert of fruit, confections, sorbet or ice cream.

Though there are many dishes in a kaiseki meal, each dish is served in small proportions, slowly and with great attention to detail, and with the utmost in hospitality. Even seating, tables, flowers, quiet and privacy are considered in the preparation of a kaiseki meal! Today, kaiseki meals are served in Michelin-starred and fancy Japanese-style restaurants and high-end ryokan, or Japanese-style inns.

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Shojin ryori

Devotional or temple cooking, known as shojin ryori, hones the concept of “harmony of food” into a set of offerings that are based on Buddhism’s inherent respect for living a life that eschews doing harm. This type of cuisine became popular in the early 11th century when Buddhist monks used this way of “earnest commitment” to procure, prepare, serve and eat their meals. At its most fundamental nature, shojin ryori is vegan, consisting of no animal products, uses gentle seasonings and reduces waste as much as possible. A typical meal consists of a few vegetables such that all parts are used, the leaf, the root, the skins, prepared using simple techniques like blanching, simmering and braising, along with rice, soup, pickles, beans, legumes and tofu. Each item is prepared simply, without strong tastes such as garlic, chilies or wasabi. The entire meal is prepared with quiet thoughtfulness and eaten with reverence. Restaurants that serve shojin ryori meals offer more creative versions of this honest, simple food and are becoming more popular as people are gravitating towards a plant-based diet.

Both kaiseki ryori and shojin ryori style meals make a conscious effort to use seasonal ingredients, taking care to respect when foods are most fresh and full of their inherent flavor. These two styles of cuisine are also deeply concerned with how food is presented, including how ingredients are cut, arranged, plated and served.

The utter refinement of washoku in these cooking styles shows you the wonderful variety of Japanese cuisine. Which ones have you tried? Which one is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!