Imagining plates of cool sashimi and delicate confectionery, we Brits don’t often associate traditional Japanese cuisine (washoku) with comfort food. With the ubiquitous exception of ramen, most of the winter warmers well known in Japan are not yet familiar here. In fact, with winter temperatures rarely rising above freezing in some regions, Japan is home to many hearty meals and steamy hotpot-style recipes. Shabu-shabu, oden and yudōfu are just three Japanese winter dishes that I’d love to see more of in the UK.
It’s fair to say, however, that we have plenty of our own traditional comfort food. We certainly need it; this week it was revealed that the optimal outdoor temperature for growing well-adjusted humans is 22°C, a level of warmth which no British city reaches on average. Particularly now that Christmas is drawing near and the cold is starting to bite, it seems everybody is gravitating towards the heavy, familiar recipes of tradition. Even I am following suit. As a result, we have recently enjoyed some interesting fusion dinners such as this one.
On my table today:
- miso soup with shiitake, sweet potato and chives
- soy simmered squash (follow link for the full recipe)
- asparagus karashizu
- cottage pie
Notes after the jump!
miso soup with shiitake, sweet potato and chives
This miso soup is based on a simple, vegan-friendly shiitake dashi. In fact, this is a common substitute for regular dashi, especially in the Japanese Buddhist cuisine known as shōjin-ryōri. Because the mushrooms yield an intense flavour, I opted for blocks of sweet potato for contrast. Chives, meanwhile, add a delicate onion note.
soy simmered squash
While my original recipe called for chestnuts and chives, here I topped the simmered squash with pickled parsnip and black sesame seeds. Many further variations are possible, of course.
I had to try this after discovering the combination of mustard and asparagus in a previous ‘on my table’ post. While that dressing was egg-based, this karashizu consists of a ‘modern’ nihaizu spiked with a touch of mustard powder. For more on this zingy variation, read my introduction to nihaizu and other vinegar-based dressings.
What is the secret to a cottage pie worthy of the title ‘comfort food’? For me, it’s these two tricks:
- A half-and-half sweet and ordinary potato mash. As much as I like sweet potato for its mood-lifting colour and superior nutritious value, I find it rather too sweet and moist as a topping on its own.
- Added extras. It seems to me that every successful meat sauce is led by a triumvirate of aromatics: onion, celery and carrot. Beyond that, my magic formula includes mushrooms or mushroom stock, tomato paste, red wine and of course… good soy sauce!