Eubios Ethics Institute
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Notes for Soba (Read before the other Soba pages!)
*Nori is an indispensable Japanese food. We can’t make the sushi roll without this ingredient! It is a marine plant being classified as a kind of red algae. In the Edo Period, nori growing flourished along the western coast of Edo Bay, from Omori to Shinagawa. It was the biggest nori producing region until the middle of the Showa Period (from 1926 to 1989), when the nation decided to reclaim the natural coast for industrialization.
The harvesting season of nori is from winter to spring. The harvested nori is chopped finely, and then some water is mixed in. The mud-like liquid is poured into a wooden square frame (about 20 cm on each side) a little at a time; a reed mat is laid under it to drain the water. The nori on the mats is dried in the sun till it dries completely and becomes like a sheet of black paper.
*Japanese yam is a unique Japanese root vegetable. It belongs to the tuber plant: the yam grows underground, and the thin climbing stem spirals up out of the ground and displays heart-shape leaves. The yam looks like a log covered with a few scattered hairs. The color of its cross section is pure-white. It can be eaten both raw and cooked, but the Japanese people prefer to eat it raw. They think that raw yam contains a lot of active enzymes, and thus is good for health. When raw yam is shredded or cut into dices, its texture is crunchy and slimy. When it is grated, it becomes like a slime, which is eaten mixed with food such as chopped raw tuna, or liquids such as miso- or soba-soup. When yam is heated, its texture becomes flaky.
*Wild duck is a more traditional source of animal protein than beef, pork, and chicken in Japan. It was eaten long before the Meiji Period when the ban on eating quadrupeds was officially removed. Wild duck is a migratory bird that flies to Japan in winter. Therefore, soba using wild duck used to be a winter special. But with advancements in farming, refrigerating, and transporting technology, wild duck became available throughout the year. Because it is a wild animal, the smell of its meat is relatively strong. Leek is considered to be the perfect partner when cooking wild duck.
*Tempura flakes are a byproduct of making tempura. It consists of tempura batter which separates from tempura itself when putting it into hot oil. The main usages of these flakes are; as a topping for soba, and mixing them into the batter for making a Japanese-style savory-pancake.
*Deep-fried tofu is a soybean product made by deep-frying thinly sliced tofu at least three times in a row. The color of tofu is white and its texture is creamy. But deep-fried tofu is golden-yellow, and its texture is like the outside of a cream-puff (although it is oily); inside it is white and soft; and both outside and inside, there are traces of many bubbles which were produced while deep-frying. It might be difficult to tell that deep-fried tofu is made from tofu from by just looking at it: they are so different.
The freshly-fried tofu is crunchy. A simple dish, which is made by just heaping it up with finely chopped leek and pouring some soy-sauce over it, goes well with sake. Generally, deep-fried tofu is sold cold, so its texture is not crunchy anymore. It is then used as an ingredient for miso-soup, or boiled in rice with other ingredients. One traditional dish which cannot be made without this food is “oinari-san”: the fried tofu is simmered in soy-sauce & sugar-based soup, and it is stuffed with vinegared boiled-rice. Also, the simmered fried-tofu is one of the basic soba toppings.
*Tempura is one of the traditional Japanese foods, and it was invented in the Tokyo area in the Edo Period. Tempura is an independent cuisine but it is also an indispensable food for soba. In the Edo Period, both of soba and tempura were a kind of fast-food, and small stalls (sometimes movable) sold them. Someone at that time found, probably by chance, that tempura went well with soba. I wonder who it was? A customer who bought both soba and tempura? A soba shop-person who bought tempura? A tempura shop-person who bought soba? Anyway, the wonderful encounter - soba and tempura - soon became very popular. Eating only plain soba is sometimes unsatisfying; it is just like eating only a bowl of rice or a piece of bread. Tempura is a greasy food that perfectly makes up for the simplicity of soba by completely satisfying people’s appetites.
When you dine at a tempura restaurant, you can enjoy a variety of tempura such as seafood, vegetables, mushrooms, and ginkgo nuts. But the word “tempura” at soba restaurants usually means prawn tempura (it used to be tempura of “shiba” shrimps at the early stage), which has been a tradition since the late Edo Period. Considering that tempura shops sold several varieties of tempura at that time, it is hard to know the reason why the soba shops chose only shrimps out of them.
At some point, soba shops started to prepare prawn tempura at their shops, probably because they thought that hot & fresh tempura is better. Present-day soba restaurants still keep this tradition, and we can enjoy high-quality tempura at soba restaurants. Prawn is, of course, the very basic necessary ingredient for tempura. But some soba restaurants serve seasonal seafood or vegetables as a special menu.
*Kakiage is a type of tempura, in which small size ingredients are used. These, along with the tempura-batter, are dropped into the hot oil using a spoon, and are then deep-fried. Compared with the ordinary type of tempura, the ratio of tempura batter used in kakiage is larger. As a result, the texture of kakiage becomes crispy rather than crunchy. The “sakura-ebi” shrimp “kakiage”, whose color is a beautiful pink, is a local specialty on the coast side of Shizuoka prefecture.
*Fish Cakes are a processed product of seafood. It is quite a popular food for the Japanese nationwide because the nation is surrounded by the ocean. Seafood is abundantly caught in Japan, and people have developed many delicious ways to eat seafood. Fish cakes are one of them, and its first documented in 1115 A.D.
Filleted fish are minced finely, and then some sugar, salt, sweet rice-liquor, and egg white are added. The mixture is kneaded thoroughly until it becomes like a sticky paste. After that, the paste is formed into shapes, and cooked. A variety of shapes (dome-shape, whirlpool-shape, leaf-shape, tube-shape, and so on), a variety of cooking methods (steaming, grilling, boiling, deep-frying, and so on) differentiate the names of the final products. Also, their textures are different: firm, soft, crunchy, chewy, skin-like.
Fish cakes, especially the one called “kamaboko”, are indispensable for the New Year’s festive dishes. The dome-shape kamaboko comes in two different colors on its round surface: red and white. For the auspicious preparation, each of the colors is sliced in about 8 mm width, and then the slices are arranged so that reds and whites come alternately. This color scheme is considered to be propitious, and this combination is seen on the ceremonial occasions such as weddings, commencements, graduations, and opening. On the table, kamaboko fish-cakes play this role. Also, during the New Year’s, some regions use fish cakes as one of the toppings for a traditional clear-soup with rice cakes.
Fish cakes are good both raw and cooked, and you will find them in a variety of dishes in Japan. If you are interesting in fish cakes, I recommend that you visit Odawara in Kanagawa Prefecture. It is renowned for dried fish & fish-cake products, and there is a nice museum dedicated to Kamaboko!
*Rolled omelet is one of the standard & indispensable foods for the New Year’s Special Dishes. Actually, its correctly translated name is “rolled omelet mixed with fish paste”, and it is a kind of fish cake rather than an egg dish.
Paste of white-meat fish or shrimp and eggs are put in a Japanese-style mortar, and is mixed well along with sticky-rice liqueur, sugar, and broth. The alternative ingredient of fish paste, which is recommended for the easy home-cooking, is a fluffy fish-cake “hanpen”. The mixture of fish-paste & egg, which contains a lot of bubbles (like a batter for a sponge cake), is poured into a shallow square container, and then baked slowly in the oven at a low temperature. The batter rises and its surface turns brown while remaining yellow inside. After being baked, the batter is picked up, and it is placed on the rolling mat turning the brown side downward. Then, it is rolled as if it were a sushi roll, and is sliced thickly when being served.
As the sticks which compose the rolling mat are much broader than that which is used for rolling sushi, the surface of the rolled omelet becomes ribbed, and when it is cut, its cross-section is shaped like a gear, having a whirlpool pattern of brown and yellow. Mostly, it is served cold. An interesting combination of fish & egg provides a fluffy and moist texture, and a sweet taste. Some soba restaurants use it as a topping of hot soba.
*Wheat-gluten products are very traditional ingredients, which are especially important for the vegetarian cuisine (at temples) as a source of protein along with the soybean products. Wheat flour, to which some water is added, is kneaded well so as to make the gluten in the flour stick together. The dough is then washed several times to rinse away the starch for obtaining the pure gluten. The fresh pure gluten is white-beige in color. It is very elastic and also sticky to the touch. When it is chewed, it is exactly like a chewing gum without any taste although it can’t form a bubble.
With this gluten as a basic ingredient, baked wheat-gluten is made. It is added to high-gluten wheat-flour and baking soda, and then the mixture is kneaded well. The dough is rolled to form a cylindrical shape, and is baked in the oven for a while until its surface becomes brown. Very different from fresh gluten, the baked gluten is dry, hard, and puffy; it is crushed into powder when you grasp it tightly. By being dried completely, the baked-gluten can be preserved longer.
Baked wheat-gluten is usually put into the soup dishes, such as miso- or clear-soup, and noodles. It soaks up the hot soup fully, like a sponge. Depending on the type, some of the baked gluten (such as “komachi” baked wheat-gluten) obtains a smooth, velvet-like texture. It is also a healthy alternative to meat when used in a popular dish to cover over ingredients simmered in broth with beaten eggs.
Another popular product using the pure fresh gluten is wheat-gluten cakes; they are a specialty of Kyoto, and Ishikawa Prefecture. There are many things to be said about this food, so I will leave it till later.
*Curry, which originates in India, was introduced to Japan as an English dish of curry and rice during the Meiji Period (from 1868 to 1912). It was a symbol of the Western civilization for the Japanese, who considered themselves to be at a lower level than the West. First, it spread to the higher-classes, military personnel, and restaurants. Gradually, Japanese people began to prepare the curry in their own way: using vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, onions, which are cut into characteristically chunky pieces, and some meat. The Japanese-style curry became a very popular, tasty modern menu which everyone liked. This popularization enhanced further development of the Japanese-style curry: the invention of “curry-roux”. It is the Japanese original, which is like a consommé cube with a curry taste: it consists of several curry spices, broth, and starch. All people have to do is to stir-fry the vegetables and meat, fill up the pan with water and boil them for a while, put the “curry-roux” into it and stir it until it melts. That’s it! Nowadays, curry and rice is one of the best-loved national dishes in Japanese, along with sushi.
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