Unohana 卯の花

A bowl of Unohana, alongside a pair of chopsticks.

Unohana 卯の花 – a good source of protein for vegetarians

A feature on Japanese dinner tables since ancient times, unohana 卯の花, is a wholesome Japanese side dish of “okara” おから sauteed with mixed vegetables and seasonings. “Okara” おから (which literally translates into “beancurd refuse”) is the mushy pulp which is left over after making soymilk or tofu. It is believed to be highly nutritious, low in fat, rich in proteins, calcium, fiber and other nutrients such as iron, riboflavin and niacin. Its high fiber content could potentially prevent some types of cancer such as intestinal cancer.

Okara is gluten-free and a good source of protein for vegetarians. Okara is very susceptible to spoilage and hence should ideally be used fresh. Even under refrigeration, its shelf life is usually no more than 2-3 days.

Unohana should be sweet rather than salty. Like most traditional dishes, there are no strict recipes for unohana. While the key ingredients (okara, carrots and “negi” 葱 which refers to scallions or Japanese leeks) are usually unchanged, other ingredients are added or omitted (such as shiitake mushrooms, konjac, burdock root, chikuwa and abura-age) and the quantities of each ingredient (such as the vegetables) tends to vary based on individual preference and is usually estimated rather than strictly measured out. Some families traditionally do not use onions to make unohana, while others enjoy the additional flavor onions contribute.

Used for over a thousand years in Japanese cuisine, konjac, known in Japanese as “konnyaku” こんにゃく, (also known as konjaku, devil’s tongue, voodoo lily, elephant yam) is a flavorless, jelly-like starch made from a plant bearing the scientific name Amorphophallus konjac. It is believed to have a host of health benefits such as controlling diabetes, cholesterol levels, eliminating toxins and helps maintain a healthy digestive system hence the Japanese moniker “broom of the stomach” 胃のほうき (“i no houki”).

An equal quantity of dashi だし, can be used in place of the “shiitake water” or a 50/50 combination of both can be used. Vegetarians can use the “shiitake water” and omit dashi altogether.

Okara is quite flavorless on its own so dried shiitake 椎茸 mushrooms (“shii” 椎 is the Japanese name of this particular type of mushroom while “take” 茸 means “mushroom” in Japanese) are preferred over fresh as the dried ones have a stronger flavor and aroma.

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1 cup tightly packed fresh okara
  • 1/2 medium-sized onion – sliced (optional)
  • 3-5 dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 1/2 carrot – chopped, diced or julienned
  • 4-5 tablespoons konjac – chopped or julienned
  • 3 tablespoons shoyu
  • 2-3 tablespoons honey
  • 1 tablespoon mirin or sake
  • Pinch of sea salt – optional
  • 3-4 green onions or 3/4 Japanese leek – julienned or thinly sliced

Other optional ingredients:

  • 1/2 burdock root – scrubbed and cut to thin shreds
  • 1 chikuwa – cut to short strips
  • 1 abura-age – cut to short strips

Method:

Soak dried shiitake mushrooms in 1 cup spring water for about 3-4 hours.

Drain shiitake mushrooms and reserve the “shiitake water”.

Slice shiitake mushrooms.

Mix shiitake water (or dashi if using), shoyu, mirin or sake and honey in a bowl.

Heat oil in a pot over medium heat.

Cook sliced onions until translucent. If not using onions, proceed to next step.

Add shiitake mushrooms, carrots, burdock root (if using) konyaku and saute.

Add okara and cook until crumbly.

Add chikuwa (if using), abura-age (if using) and the mixture of shiitake water (or dashi), shoyu, mirin or sake and honey.

Reduce heat and cook until liquid evaporates, stirring to prevent the mixture from sticking to the pot.

Add salt (if using).

Add sliced scallions or Japanese leek and turn off heat.

Serve either at room temperature or cold.

The unohana tastes better if allowed to sit in a refrigerator for 6 hours or overnight to let the flavors develop.

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