January 2018 is upon us. With the excesses of Christmas behind me, I’m thinking once more about healthy foods. Indeed, the overarching theme for this month so far has been: getting as many nutrients as possible, and getting them piping hot. Two of the healthy Japanese dishes I’ve been eating – clear soup and rice porridge – fit the bill perfectly. So today, I’d like to share some information about these two simple dishes and their roots in Japan’s high and low cuisine.
healthy Japanese dish #1: clear soup / 吸い物
Many sources on traditional Japanese cuisine make a big deal of clear soup, or suimono (吸い物). Clear soup might not seem all that exciting, but I suppose many foods that are basic in appearance gain special status precisely because of their unassuming nature. In short, the simpler it looks, the better it has to be to impress anyone. Indeed, in French cuisine, mastery of the omelette is touted – stereotypically at least – as the sure sign of a true professional in the kitchen. This is despite the fact that nobody ever orders an omelette in a fine dining restaurant. In Japan, however, the exulted clear soup often finds its place in kaiseki, the formal set meal of Japanese haute cuisine.
In kaiseki, a clear soup often comes partway through the meal, before the grilled dish, and is served in a small bowl with a lid to trap the heat and fragrance. For this reason, the course is referred to – in typically oblique style – as the ‘lidded thing’, or futamono (蓋物). When you ease off this lid, you find a piping hot, perfectly clear stock containing three or so carefully chosen seasonal items. It is somewhat like being presented with a personal rock pool of treasure. For the chef, achieving the perfect balance between ingredients is supposedly no mean feat.
At home, nothing I make will approach the sophistication of these soups. But I can take a similar approach by making proper dashi, seasoning it carefully and combining it with a few ingredients, cut to just the right size. Perhaps I can pick one type of herb or citrus as a garnish, if it goes. If I’ve learnt one thing from sampling the more delicate kinds of Japanese cuisine, it’s that that even the most commonplace (and non-Japanese) vegetables can take on imaginative forms. Hence I’ve found myself thinking of broccoli as tiny trees, carrot rounds as flowers, and finely-sliced celery as translucent plant cells viewed under a microscope. If nothing else, it makes eating vegetables a little more fun.
healthy Japanese dish #2: rice porridge / お粥
For some, o-kayu might at first glance bring back memories of rice pudding. Other than the rice element, it shares the status of being one of those foods you’re forced to eat as a child. However, being absolutely devoid of sugar, dairy and fun, o-kayu has more in common with the austerest variety of a certain Scottish breakfast food, which is why I call it ‘rice porridge’. The equivalent dish in other Asian cuisines is often Anglicised as ‘congee’ (supposedly after the Tamil ‘kanji’), but Japanese o-kayu, with its intact rice grains, is actually closer in texture to oat porridge than to most kinds of congee. Once a frugal and easy way to use leftover rice, o-kayu survives today as the staple breakfast of Japanese Buddhist monks, the first food fed to infants, and a restorative dish for poorly folk. Because my wife insists on rice porridge whenever she’s unwell, I consider it Japan’s answer to toast and Marmite.
Of course, aside from being slightly creamy in texture, such a dish has little going for it unless you jazz it up somehow. At the end of the New Year period in Japan, rice porridge is prepared with early spring herbs as a kind of antidote to the heavy eating of the festive season. The way I enjoy it is the most common way: topped with a single umeboshi, a salt-pickled and dried Japanese apricot coloured with red shiso (perilla) leaf. The intensely tart, salty, plum-like flavour of the pickled fruit gives this bland dish the kick it needs. Moreover, umeboshi have an almost legendary reputation in Japan as a health-giving food, which is another reason to pair them with o-kayu.
It’s hard not to find this dish strangely symbolic. White rice and red umeboshi together resemble the flag of modern Japan. Simultaneously, they hark back to the everyday cuisine of Japan’s distant past, when the wealth of lords was measured in rice (or koku) and salty pickles were probably an essential source of vitamins rather than mere garnishes.
Although I will always revert to toast and Marmite in times of need, a bad cold at the start of the year (combined with my wife’s insistence) has finally taught me the virtues of rice porridge. Why not try it? If you ever make too much perfect steamed rice, it’s the logical next step. As for me, I’ll continue enjoying hot soups and grains until we’re safely out of the cold weather. I hope you’ll join me as I explore more hearty and healthy Japanese dishes over the coming weeks!