Carrot

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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Napa Cabbage Kimchi 배추 김치 (“Baechu Kimchi”)

The Korean term “Kimchi” 김치 is a general term for pickled vegetables, however when Koreans mention “kimchi” they usually refer to napa cabbage kimchi since napa cabbage (“baechu ” 배추) is the most common vegetable used to make kimchi.

There are no fixed recipes for kimchi, each family in Korea has their own recipe which may include additional ingredients apart from the primary ingredients i.e., napa cabbage, radish, chili flakes, garlic, ginger, scallions, salt and fish sauce. For instance, some families include green apples while some families leave out carrots.

Ancient Korean kitchens featured a “hakdok” 학독 – Korea’s version of a pestle and mortar in which the kimchi seasoning ingredients were ground into a fine paste. This clay-based, organic kitchen utensil has been used for centuries, however, modern cooks turn to a food processor. While food processors are considerably faster, easier and require less elbow grease, it is generally accepted that the traditional method of producing the kimchi seasoning pastes in a “hakdok” yields better results taste-wise and nutrition-wise, as the sheer speed of the food processor blades upsets the nutritional and flavor profile of the ingredients.

For centuries, Koreans made kimchi in “breathing pottery” known as “ong-gi” 옹기, which is a traditional earthen urn, made with clay and is porous, hence the description “breathing pottery”. Although used for a variety of purposes, ong-gi are primarily used for fermenting and storing bean pastes, pepper pastes, soy sauces and pickled vegetables (such as kimchi).

After the harvest, towards the end of autumn, large quantities of kimchi would be prepared in a communal tradition dating as far back as the 13th century known as “gimjang” 김장 in Korean. The ong-gi would be filled with the freshly-made kimchi and then buried underground, preserving the kimchi throughout the winter months. This process of burying the ong-gi underground maintains the ong-gi (and thus its contents) at a temperature that is higher than outside where temperatures often drop below freezing during winter. This underground temperature (around 32 – 35 °F or 0 – 1.5 °C) proved to be the optimal temperature to ferment kimchi over a long period of time (over a year or two is not uncommon) and thereby providing a reliable supply of food during winter. Before the invention of mechanical refrigeration systems, this was the method Koreans depended on for food preservation.

It is generally accepted among Koreans that kimchi fermented according to this ancient and traditional method is the most flavorful and wholesome. Modern day recipes may accelerate the kimchi fermentation process by placing the kimchi at room temperature for a few days before transferring it to the fridge. However, a slower fermentation at the optimum temperature of around 32 – 35 °F or 0 – 1.5 °C, as was practised in the olden days would yield a tastier and healthier kimchi. A minimum of 20 days would be needed for the kimchi to fully ferment and the longer it ferments in this constant temperature the more flavorful it becomes.

Nowadays, households have switched from these traditional vessels to modern-day kitchen containers made with materials such as ceramic, glass and plastic. While these containers are functionally adequate, it is generally accepted that kimchi produced in an ong-gi is superior taste-wise and health-wise than those produced in such modern containers.

Ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 kilograms (about 6 pounds) napa cabbage
  • 3/4 – 1 cup coarse sun dried sea salt
  • 2 cups Korean radish – julienned
  • 1/4 Asian pear – julienned
  • 7 – 9 scallions (aka green onions) – cut to 2-inch pieces
  • 1 cup carrots – julienned (optional)
  • 1 cup water dropwort (optional)

For glutinous rice flour mixture:

  • 2 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons sweet rice flour (also known as glutinous rice flour)

For kimchi seasoning paste:

  • 24 garlic cloves
  • 2 teaspoons ginger
  • 1 medium sized onion
  • ½ cup fish sauce
  • 4 tablespoons fermented salted shrimp (saeujeot 새우젓) with the salty brine – roughly  chopped
  • 1 3/4 – 2 cups hot pepper flakes

Method:

First, using a knife, cut a 3-inch slit at the base of the cabbage.

Using your hands, gently break open the cabbage to two halves.

Cut a 2-inch slit at the base of each half.

Repeat with all cabbages.

Immerse the napa cabbage halves in water for a while and then drain the water.

Apply salt onto every leaf of the cabbage, particularly to the portions closer to the root.

Set aside the cabbage leaves. The timing of this brining process varies depending on factors such as the temperature of the air and the size of the salt crystals; the colder the air, the longer the time required. Coarse salt crystals requires more time than fine salt crystals. The time could vary from as little as 6 hours to over 12 hours. The key is to check the cabbage leaves every now and then – if the leaves have wilted and can be bent backwards without snapping, the brining process is complete.

Every half an hour, turn the cabbages to allow a thorough and even salting.

In the meantime prepare the porridge. Combine the water and glutinous rice flour in a heavy bottom pot. Cook over medium heat until it starts to bubble and forms a thin paste, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon.

Stop heat and set aside to cool completely.

In a hakdok, finely crush the ginger, garlic and onion.

Add fermented salted shrimp. Mash it well.

Add fish sauce. Mix well.

Add hot pepper flakes and mix thoroughly with the pestle.

Pour the cooled sweet rice porridge. Mash and mix thoroughly into a fine, well homogenized paste.

Add the radish, Asian pear, green onions, carrots, and dropwort (if using). Combine well and set this mixture aside to allow the flavors to develop.

Check the cabbage leaves – they will have shrunk and turned limp. Bend one of the leaves backwards and if it doesn’t snap and is very pliable, the cabbage is ready. If it does snap or is not very pliable, let it sit for several hours more.

When the cabbage leaves are ready, wash the cabbage leaves thoroughly under cold running water. Tear off a piece from the cabbage leaf and taste it. It should taste saltier than what one would normally find acceptable. Similar to sauerkraut, as the kimchi ferments, this saltiness tends to decrease.

Tear apart the halves into quarters making use of the 2-inch slit cut at the base of cabbage.

Apply the paste into each and every cabbage leaf, this is best done with hands (use gloves to prevent hands from stinging from the salt and chili).

Fold the cabbage quarters to form individual pieces.

Place the folded cabbage leaves into the ong-gi that has been cleaned and dried. It is critical to ensure there is not a drop of water in the ong-gi.

Press down the kimchi to ensure the cabbage leaves are submerged in the liquid.

The kimchi can be eaten right away but tastes better if fermented slowly in a cool environment like the ancient Koreans did. Place it in the fridge and let it ferment slowly. Similar to the ancient Koreans’ underground fermentation method, once in the fridge the kimchi could last for months (about 6 months), but will get more sour (and more flavorful) the longer it sits.

 

Jiaozi (Dumplings) 饺子

A mainstay of Chinese cuisine, “jiǎozi” 饺子, which means “dumplings” in Mandarin, is a stuffed dumpling with origins in the Eastern Han Dynasty dating back 2,000 years ago.

Although widely consumed in China all year round, especially in the northern regions, these succulent treats are one of the most popular traditional foods consumed during Chinese New Year (also known as Spring Festival 春节 chūnjié) and is often prepared by family members on the eve on the new year. Jiǎozi’s importance as a Chinese New Year staple stems from its shape, which closely resembles the gold and silver ingots used as currency in ancient China and is thus consumed to usher wealth, good fortune and prosperity for the new year. Sometimes, a sanitized coin would be stuffed into a jiǎozi; the lucky one to land the coin-stuffed dumpling is believed to enjoy good fortune for the coming year.

Jiǎozi is also traditionally consumed by folks in northern China during the Dongzhi Festival 冬至 (Winter Solstice Festival), a tradition born out of the belief that eating dumplings helps prevent frostbitten ears.

As the story goes, during one particularly cold winter, Zhang Zhongjing 张仲景 , one of China’s most distinguished physicians who lived during the Han Dynasty, saw many local people suffering from frostbitten ears. In an effort to alleviate their situation, the kindly doctor mixed some traditional Chinese medicine, meat and other ingredients and made a new kind of food with vague resemblance to ears – dumplings. These dumplings were distributed to the local people who were cured of their frostbite. Word went around that consuming dumplings cured frostbite which grew into the tradition we see in northern China today. Zhang Zhongjing 张仲景 is also thus credited as the inventor of jiǎozi.

Jiaozi’s delicate wrapper or skin, known as “jiaozi pi” 餃子皮 in Mandarin is made with wheat flour. The wheat grain, a staple of northern Chinese cuisine (rice is the staple or southern Chinese cuisine) has been milled for thousands of years in China.
Initially, flour milling was a grueling affair where equipment such as the saddle quern were operated by hand to grind wheat grains into flour. Later, mechanized flour processes let to increased productivity gains; the Chinese were believed to be one of the first users of water powered milling equipment.
After grinding the wheat grains, the resultant flour needs to be sifted to separate the finer grains from the coarser ones (so the coarser grains could be discarded or reground). The Chinese again are believed to be the pioneers of flour sifting, having extrapolated the prevalent technology for weaving silk using a fine mesh. Evidence exists that the sieving of powders for human consumption was practiced in China before such processing began in the West.

The jiaozi wrapper is made by mixing the flour with an adequate quantity of water. The amount of water required would vary with the quality of the dough, humidity conditions etc. Thus, it would be difficult to specify a fixed ratio of flour to water and seasoned Chinese cooks rarely go by any recipes when making jiaozi dough.

Traditionally, boiling water is used to form the dough because it helps produce a softer and elastic dough (cold water does not produce the same qualities and hence results in an inferior dough). Needless to say, freshly ground floor produces a better quality dough resulting in a jiaozi that is superior taste-wise and nutrition-wise.

Jiǎozi’s versatility has given rise to a plethora of stuffings such as beef with celery, shrimp and eggs with leeks as well as vegetarian stuffings. Arguably the most popular traditional stuffing is a mixture of ground pork, Chinese cabbage, scallions, soy sauce, salt, sugar and monosodium glutamate (MSG).

Jiǎozi are traditionally boiled or steamed. When the dumplings are pan-fried they are known as guōtiē 锅贴 which in Mandarin literally means “stuck to the wok”.

Boiled jiǎozi, known as “shuǐjiǎo” 水饺 in Mandarin, is made by dropping the dumplings in boiling water and boiling them until they float and the skins turn somewhat transparent. The traditional method calls for boiling the jiaozi three times, each time after adding a certain quantity of cold water.
Steamed jiǎozi, known as “zhēng jiǎo” 蒸饺 is made by steaming the dumplings in circular bamboo steamers stacked over a wok of boiling hot water.

Jiaozi wrapper:

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups wheat flour
  • Boiling water as required to form a dough

Method:

Sift flour.

Bring water to a boil.

Slowly add a portion of the boiling water to the sifted flour.

Mix with chopsticks until the dough forms a crumbly texture. If the dough is too dry add more water.

When dough is cool enough to handle, take out and knead until it forms a soft, pliable and elastic texture. The dough should not be sticky. Add flour or water as required.

Wrap the dough with a damp cloth and set aside to rest for about 1 hour.

After an hour, divide the dough into quarters. Roll each quarter into a rope about 1 inch (about 2.5 centimeters) in diameter.

Cut the rope into 5/8 inch (about 1.5 centimeters) pieces.

Flatten each piece with your palms and roll into rounds with a rolling pin. Each round should be 3 – 3 1/2 (about 7.5 cm – 8.5 cm) inches in diameter and 1/16 – 1/8inches (about 0.1cm – 0.3 cm) thick.

Keep the skins covered to ensure they stay moist and don’t dry out. Ideally, assemble the jiaozi immediately after rolling out the wrapper.

Version 1 (Vegetarian filling)
Ingredients:

  • 1 cup Chinese black mushrooms- soaked in warm water, washed and chopped to cubes
  • 3/4 cup carrot – sliced thinly
  • 1lb (about 500 grams) medium sized Chinese cabbage
  • 1 inch sized ginger – minced
  • 4 green onions (white and green portions) – minced
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • Salt as desired
  • 1-2 tbsp peanut oil

Method:

Separate cabbage leaves and blanch in boiling water. Set aside to cool.

Once cooled, slice the cabbage thinly.

Heat a wok over medium high heat.

Add peanut oil and then add ginger.

Fry till fragrant.

Add chopped mushrooms and fry until mushrooms are tender.

Add cabbage and carrots. Fry till tender. Mixture should be mushy.

Set aside to cool.

Once cooled, add sesame oil, soy sauce, Shao Xing wine, salt and chopped green onions.

Filling is ready for jiaozi assembly.

Version 2 (Pork and cabbage filling)
Ingredients:

  • 1 lb (about 500 grams) pork with fat – minced
  • 1 lb (about 500 grams) medium sized Chinese cabbage
  • 2-3 green onions (white and green portions) – minced
  • 1 inch piece ginger – minced
  • 1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp sesame oil
  • Salt as desired
  • 1/4 – 3/4 cup pork stock

Method:

Separate cabbage leaves and blanch in boiling water. Set aside to cool.

Once cooled, chop the cabbage to 1/4 – 1/2 inch pieces.

Combine chopped cabbage with all other ingredients, except the pork stock.

Add the pork stock a little at a time, mixing continuously in clockwise direction, until the mixture turns wet and sticky. You may not require all the pork stock, so don’t add all at once.

Filling is ready for jiaozi assembly.

Assembling the jiaozi:

Take a jiaozi wrapper and set it on the working table.

Moisten the edge of the wrapper with water (this may not be necessary if the wrapper is freshly rolled out or has not been set aside for too long).

Place one tablespoon of filling into the wrapper.

Fold the wrapper, bringing the edges close together but ensure they don’t stick.

Starting from the right side, pinch one edge into pleats, pasting the pleat onto the other edge, thereby forming a crescent shaped jiaozi that is pleated on one side.

Cooking the jiaozi:

Boiled jiaozi:

Pour water to a large wok.

Bring the water to a boil over high heat.

Add as many jiaozi that would cover the base of the wok but don’t overcrowd it. Stir gently to ensure none of the jiaozi stick to the base of the wok.

When water comes to a boil, add about 1 cup of cold water. Cover and bring water to a boil. Repeat this process two times.

When the water boils for the third time, the dumplings are ready.

Steamed jiaozi:

Arrange dumplings in a bamboo steamer basket.

Pour 3 cups of water into a large wok.

Bring water to boil over high heat.

When water boils, place the bamboo steamer basket into the wok.

Steam for about 6-10 minutes.