A seasonal sensitivity known as “kisetsukan”Permeates Japanese food culture. The choice of what to serve and how it should be presented is closely linked to the cycle of seasons and cultural symbolism.
Many of the seasonal motifs used to enhance the dining experience are inspired by nature. An ordinary carrot can evoke autumn when it is cut out to look like a maple leaf. The same carrot can evoke winter time and New Year holidays when slanted to look like a plum blossom.
Plum, bamboo and pine are known in most Asian cultures as “sai kan no san yū”(Winter’s three friends). Originating in China, where these hardy botanicals symbolize resilience and determination, they entered the Japanese encyclopedia during the Heian period (794-1185 AD). In Japan, the three friends of winter are known as “shō chiku bai”(Pine, bamboo, plum): Evergreen pine means steadfastness, bamboo suggests both strength and flexibility, while plum blossoms that unfold on snow-filled branches mean hardiness. Combined, this trio is emblematic of the Japanese New Year.
A slow, soy-braised dish known as nishime, is a favorite at the end of the year in Japan. This cooking style builds a deep, complex flavor little by little as the ingredients are added one by one to the pan. Shiitake mushrooms and bamboo shoots are cooked with shoyu and get a polished look. Other vegetables such as carrots, lotus root and green beans are blanched and then soaked in a broth spiced with usukuchi (light) shoyu so they retain their bright colors.
Although making this dish takes time (preparation and cooking) and patience (waiting for the food to cool off naturally), nishime can be made days ahead. Stored at cool room temperature frees up valuable refrigerator space for other more perishable items. Since it is enjoyed at room temperature, there is no need for a split second when it is served.
Soy-braised winter holiday vegetable stew
- Serves 4
- Preparation: 40 min. (12 hours if mushrooms are soaked)
- Boil: Under an hour
First vegan fund
- 4 dried shiitake mushrooms, preferably the thick-capped ones donko variety
- 2½ cups water
- -one 5 centimeters piece of konbu (seaweed)
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 tbsp guilt
- about 150 grams bamboo shoots, bought already cooked,
- 1½ tbsp shoyu
Other vegan fund
- 1 cup water
- -one 2.5 centimeters piece of konbu
- 1 tsp usukuchi shoyu
- 185 grams Lotus rod
- 2 cups water
- 1 tsp riseddike
- 12 slim green beans
- 12 carrot “flowers” (see article below)
- Make a (vegan) broth for cooking. Soak the dried mushrooms and seaweed together in water for at least 40 minutes; soak them overnight for a deeper, more pronounced taste to the foundation. When you are ready to continue cooking, pull the softened mushrooms from the foundation and cut off the stems and discard them. If gritty material appears to be trapped in the bands of the mushroom caps, rinse them briefly. Strain the broth through a cloth or paper towel to remove any gravelly pieces.
- Cut each softened mushroom cap in half using the oblique cut (sogi-giri). Place the blade of your knife almost flat on the mushroom cap and cut it through at an angle. This will produce pieces with more surface area than a straight cut would do, allowing for greater flavor transfer between the mushrooms and other ingredients when cooking.
- Place the sifted broth in a saucepan with the softened mushroom caps; add sugar and sake. Bring the stock to simmer over low heat – you will slowly extract the flavor. When you heat the foundation, fungi and konbu will produce large clouds of foam. This is completely normal. Foam the foam away and cover the mushrooms with a wood otoshi-buta (drop lid). Or improvise with baking paper cut into a circle and place directly on the simmering mushrooms (this keeps them moist during cooking). Set one hour to five minutes while preparing your bamboo shoots.
- Pair-cooked bamboo shoots are typically packed in a bit of liquid in transparent, vacuum-sealed bags. Open the bag and drain. Cut the shoots into eight or 12 comb-like pieces. If any white, gritty material is trapped in the “teeth” of the combs, remove it with a toothpick. Rinse quickly and pat dry before adding the bamboo shoots to the pan with the mushrooms. Tires with wooden lids. Reset your timer for 15 minutes and continue to simmer over medium-low heat. (If at any time the vegetables appear to be in danger of burning, add a little water).
- Add the shoyu and cover the mushrooms and bamboo shoots with the lid; continue to simmer for five more minutes to mix flavors and cook the vegetables further. Let the braised vegetables slowly cool in the pan, covered. It is in the process of cooling down that spices are drawn into the food and mixed, giving a better balance between salty and sweet flavors.
Now it’s time to focus on the lotus root, green beans and carrots.
- Make another (vegan) broth to pull parboiled vegetables. Put the konbu in a saucepan with a cup of water, and slowly bring the boiling to a boil over low heat. Cook for a minute. When foam comes in, foam it away. Season the seaweed stock with a teaspoon of usukuchi shoyu and set aside.
- Prepare the lotus root: Bring two cups of water to a boil and add rice vinegar (this prevents the lotus root from becoming discolored). While waiting for the water to boil, use a vegetable peeler to remove the outer skin of the lotus root – this is an obstacle to taste transfer. Cut the peeled lotus root in half lengthwise with a sharp knife. Place the cut edges of the lotus root on your cutting board and cut each half across to make a total of 12 semicircle slices. Add the lotus root to the boiling vinegar water. Cook for five to six minutes over medium heat. Test for soreness: a spear or toothpick should easily pierce the lotus root.
- Drain the lotus root: Do not freshen with cold water. Instead, immediately transfer the slices to the pan with the broth for soaking. When the blanched lotus root cools in the foundation, it will absorb its flavor.
- Prepare the green beans: Break off the stem end and pull down towards the flowering (tapered) end to remove any tough “string”. Bring a small pot of water to a boil, add the green beans and blanches for 90 seconds. Drain, but do not freshen the green beans with cold water. Instead, let them cool in the soak fund. Once cooled, cut the beans on the diagonal into slender 2½-centimeter lengths to enhance the illusion of pine needles.
- Prepare the carrot plum blossoms by slicing, slicing (see article below) and blanching them. Add the carrot flowers to the pan with the mushrooms and bamboo shoots and let them simmer together for a minute to mix the flavors.
- If you want to serve the nishimen more than a few hours after cooking, transfer the vegetables to a container with a lid for storage at a cool room temperature. Store mushrooms, bamboo shoots and carrots with the remaining braising liquid after the final cooking. Similarly, transfer the lotus root and the green beans with the remaining bleeding fluid and place them in a cool place for storage. Residues of nishime will keep for two or three days at cool room temperature.
- When ready to serve, you can serve several individual portions or arrange in a single container. The Japanese typically serve nishime in one jūbako (stacked box). The vegetables can be spread randomly, grouped in groups or adjusted in rows.
All that remains is to wish everyone a happy and prosperous 2022. Enjoy your meal!
Washoku Essentials is a series focusing on the building blocks of Japanese cooking wisdom. For more information, visit tasteofculture.com.
Cut your carrots into plum blossoms for the flair of the season
A sweet, crimson-colored variety of carrot called “kintoki ninjin”Will hit markets across Japan in December. Most of them are grown in Kagawa Prefecture, although a variety known as “kyō ninjin”Is associated with Kyoto. When it comes to making carrot flowers, the chubby carrots will be easier to cut and slant. Ideally, each serving of nishime will have at least one red and one (plain) orange carrot flower.
There are special vegetable cutters to help you shape your carrots. The decorative cutters come in a wide range of prices – from a few hundred yen to several thousand yen (the more expensive ones will have sharper, more robust cutting edges). Professional quality products from Aritsugu, a Kyoto-based supplier, are sold in many department stores throughout Japan and online.
To enhance the New Year holiday table, you will shape your carrots into plum blossoms (ume), a five-leafed flower that has rounded edges. The five-leafed flowers with chopped petals are sakura (cherry blossoms, which would be nice for a lunch with spring flowers, but not appropriate for the end of the year).
- -one 5 centimeters segment chubby carrot (about 85 grams)
- -one 5 centimeters segment chubby kintoki ninjin (approx. 85 grams)
- Scrub or peel your carrots. Cut each segment into four rounds. Place your cutter in the center of each round. Place a towel or potholder over the top of the cutter (to protect your palm) and press down to punch a plum blossom shape from each carrot round [the top left image in the above photo]. The surrounding carrot can be used in other dishes.
- To make your carrot flowers more attractive, you need to slant them. The Japanese call these three-dimensional carrots “neji-ume”(Twisted flower). Hold a flower in your non-dominant hand and make a slit between each petal with a small sharp knife in your dominant hand from the edge of the flower towards the center [top right image]. Ideally, the slit is deeper in the edge and quite low in the middle. I find it easier to hold the knife still while I rotate the carrot into the leaf.
- When there is a gap between each petal, go back and shave a splinter from the adjacent petal [bottom left image]. Repeat until all five petals have become slanted [bottom right image].
- Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Add the sliced carrots and cook until barely tender (about two minutes). Drain and allow to cool naturally (do not “refresh” the carrots with cold water). Or, if you have seaweed fondue to pull, let the carrots cool in it.
- When you are ready to finish your nishime, add the carrot flowers to the pot with mushrooms and bamboo shoots and let them simmer together for a minute to mix the flavors.
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