The plums are coming along nicely. No water is added to them: just plums and salt. Once the “plum vinegar” has oozed out they are generally safe from mould and bugs. The next step is to colour the plums, using red shiso leaves.
The leaves are cured in salt before being added to the ume pot. After just one day they turn the ume juice a most amazing red colour. The lid keeps the leaves and plums under the surface of the liquid so they do not come into contact with air. The plums will remain in this state until August, when they will be laid out in the sun to dry on bamboo frames during the hottest days of the year. It is currently the Japanese monsoon here and we have rain every day – no doubt the rain is doing my tomatoes, cucumbers and chillies good but it is not conducive to ume-drying nor fishing.
or, takenoko. The edible shoots of the big bamboo species generally come up in Spring. There are many ways to eat them: lightly simmered in dashi stock, deep-fried as tenpura or stir-fried with other seasonal vegetables. However, my family favourite has always been the homely takenoko gohan, or bamboo shoots cooked with rice. No matter how you cook the shoots, they need to be prepared the same way before they are edible.
First the shoot is topped and peeled, and then simmered in water to which has been added some okara (soy bean residue) and a touch of chile pepper. The shoot is simmered gently till a wooden skewer passes through its thickest part nice and easily. It is then removed from the stew-pot, rinsed, further peeled and left to cool at room temperature.
The shoot can then be chopped and is ready for cooking.
In this case, the bamboo shoot pieces are mixed with sliced abura-age (thin layered deep-fried tofu) and then mixed with washed rice and dashi, and cooked as regular rice – pressing a button, in the lazy case of using a domestic rice cooker. The rice is ready in about 45 minutes, and the dish completed by placing one small branch of kinome (sansho pepper tree) on each diner’s bowl of hot steaming rice.
old gyotaku appearing whilst clearing out my old stuff. Whilst none of the fish were spectacular in size, each gyotaku lists the date, boat and place the fish was caught, and its particulars, and each one has a story to it. Just fingering through them brought back a host of memories: the first madai I ever caught; the first madai I caught on a rig entirely of my own construction; the marbled flounder I caught in Iwate when it was minus 7°C and nobody else caught anything; the young suzuki caught on a mebaru line that tasted so good when grilled; the giant aji (38cm) I snagged whilst caught in a genuine squall during Golden Week; the Pacific cod so big I had no washi paper that it would fit on, so I ripped up my bedsheet and printed it on that…happy, happy memories. The genuine good fish gyotaku are of course, still on my wall.
Infant conger eel, eaten raw with just ponzu and the orthodox accompaniments (chilli-grated daikon radish and little green onion tops). In Japanese these are called noresore.
This time culinary rather than angling: “collapsible” screw-in chopsticks. These I bought with the screw fittings already set in the raw wood and the whole cut down to the right size; I just sanded the wood smooth, shaped the chopsticks a little and then lacquered them. This time I used a technique called “Rubbed Urushi” which looks a little different to the kind of finish you get on bamboo fishing rods.
Most restaurants here in Japan will be happy for you to bring your own chopsticks as it saves them the expense of a pair of wooden ones, which are thrown away after use. If you eat out just one meal out of 21 in a week, in a year that is a saving of more than 50 pairs. Some restaurants these days in fact try to cut down on their use of wood chopsticks and have changed to plastic washable ones, but unfortunately here in Japan in the snootier higher-end eateries, conspicuous consumption and conspicuous waste is a mark of status and rank and prestige, and these places will almost invariably serve out throw-away wood chopsticks, invariably contained in equally wasteful decorated paper wrappers. It always amuses me to whip out my chopsticks, in restaurants high or low, to see the reaction of the proprietors and other customers. My local bar and also my local sushi restaurant gladly take my chopsticks away and rinse them clean for me at the end of my meal. For those who can’t/won’t lacquer their own chopsticks, there are several stores in Tokyo which specialise in chopsticks, for the gourmand. They make excellent presents for friends and family, and if you can persuade even five of your acquaintances to carry their own chopsticks when they eat out in Japan, you are making a considerable difference.
Anyway, these chopsticks break down into halves 11cm long, so when wrapped up in their little printed bag can be easily stowed in one’s pocket or hand-bag. The design of the bag print is a traditional Japanese motif called asa no ha, or ‘cannabis leaf.’ Before the Allied powers took control of Japan in 1945 and proscribed it, cannabis grew all over Japan, both cultivated and wild: in particular, its fibre was used to make clothing, twine and sandals, and its oil was used in traditional remedies. The more enterprising among GIs stationed in rural areas amused themselves to soaring levels as they helped eradicate the ‘dangerous drug’ from Japan. They were not entirely successful however, and to this day cannabis finds many uses in Japan. My rod-making work clothes are made entirely from hemp fibre as it is tough, light and cool – the last being particularly important when so much time is spent sat in front of a charcoal brazier, and the many occasions where physical exertion is necessary. A quick examination of festival-goers’ sandals will show they are made from wound hemp twine. And even one of the seven ingredients of the traditional Japanese hot pepper powder shichimi (lit. “Seven Tastes”) is cannabis seed!
New Year’s Day without a fire-exorcism at the local temple, followed by hot sake and stewed chitterlings, and the takoyaki octopus-tentacle; all before 9am? From Tokyo, wishing you big catches, safe journeys at sea and all the best for 2013.
Not forgetting grilled ayu sweetfish on a stick…
Sri Lankan cuisine became one of my favourite foods ever since first visiting in 2007; I ate very well this time round too.