Japanese food for the home cook

in Food and Drink · 13-03-2020 01:00:00 · 0 Comments

Intimidated by the thought of cooking Japanese meals at home? Kimiko Barber talks to Ella Walker about why we should all give it a go.

The cherry blossom has always had its petal-hunting pilgrims, but Japan is really having a moment right now. The country is becoming increasingly popular with travellers, and is seemingly the ultimate sporting destination, hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2019, and the Tokyo Olympics this summer.

Back in the West, meanwhile, Japanese cuisine is arguably more prevalent than ever. "I never dreamt of seeing takeaway sushi," says cook and food writer Kimiko Barber, who has watched the slow diffusion of Japan into the cultural food stream, adding with a laugh: "They're not that good, compared to what you can get in Japan - but that's not fair."

Despite later being side-tracked for a while by an investment banking career, Barber had always loved food, having been inspired by three of her grandmothers, each influenced by their homes in Kobe, Kyoto and Shikoku.

Barber ended up giving banking the slip and wrote a practical guide to making sushi before going on to write a slew of cookbooks - she is now celebrating her latest, Japanese In 7.

A nifty manual for straightforward Japanese dishes, each recipe uses just seven ingredients or fewer, alongside a basic larder of Japanese ingredients. It means you can get in from a long day and cobble dinner together without much bother, and without relying on that takeout sushi (however revolutionary it may be).

The key, explains Barber, is that what gives any dish its "identity or nationality - its seasoning". And there are roughly five "very, very Japanese" seasoning ingredients that can be used to easily add a "Japanesey taste or flavouring". They are: miso, soy sauce, sake, mirin and rice vinegar. If you have those in the house - and they handily don't need to be refrigerated, keep for quite a long time, and are found almost everywhere in supermarkets - you're pretty much set.

She often encounters people who say, 'Oh I love Japanese food', and then immediately add, 'But I can't cook it'. "Compared to Chinese or Indian food, British people really don't have the colonial history with Japan, and so it really hasn't penetrated into home kitchens," notes Barber. "That's what I'm trying to - not change, that's a big word - but to encourage people."

So while a traditional Japanese meal would ordinarily consist of rice, soup and a few tiny dishes, all served in small or bite-sized portions designed to be eaten with chopsticks, no one is going to tell you off for dispensing with the individual bowls and grabbing a fork.

"We're all busy, and it shouldn't be stressful," says Barber magnanimously. "[Just] put everything on the plate, you don't have to cut it up, and also don't start thinking, 'Oh god, I've got to make this, I've got to make that, and two more side dishes'. Don't. Just take one recipe, one dish and serve it with potatoes if you want to!

Hand-rolled sushi


(Makes 8 hand-rolls)

4 sheets of Nori, halved

400g prepared sushi rice (recipe below)

4 spoons wasabi paste

200g fish of your choice, cut into 6-7cm long, pencil-sized strips

200g vegetables such as cucumber, avocado, blanched carrot, fine green beans, cut into 6-7cm long thin strips, rocket or mustard cress

For the sushi rice:

(Makes 800-840g)

400g short-grain rice

1 postcard-sized piece of dried kelp

6tbsp + 1tsp sushi vinegar (info below)

For the sushi vinegar:

Sushi vinegar is a blend of rice vinegar with sugar and salt. There is a huge range of different formulas and each sushi bar jealously guards their secret recipe. But the most general guide is, using the dry weight of rice as the base measure, 10% of vinegar, 5% of sugar and 1% of salt as shown below.

(Adjust the amount of sugar or salt as preferred)

200g rice

220ml water

20ml rice vinegar

10g sugar

1/2tsp salt


1. Make the sushi rice. Wash the rice under cold running water, drain and set aside for 30 minutes-one hour to let it absorb the moisture.

2. Put the washed rice and 440ml of water in a heavy-based saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Make some slashes in the kelp to release more flavour and place it on top of the rice, then wait for 10-15 minutes before turning on the heat. Cover, bring to the boil over a high heat and, when it just begins to boil, remove and discard the kelp. Reduce the heat to medium and continue cooking for six to seven minutes, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 12-15 minutes, or until steam stops escaping. Turn off the heat and leave it to steam, with a tea towel wrapped around the lid to stop condensation dripping down on the rice, for 10-15 minutes.

3. Moisten a hangiri (see Cook's Tip below) to stop the rice from sticking. Spread the hot rice in a thin layer in the tub. Sprinkle the sushi vinegar over the rice, then, with a moistened rice paddle or a flat spatula, toss the rice using cut-and-turn strokes (the lateral motion separates and coats the grains without bruising or mashing) and at the same time cool it quickly by fanning. This is a bit tricky to do by yourself, so either get someone else to fan the rice or, if you are on your own, alternate tossing and fanning rather than juggling both.

4. Sushi rice is ready when it has cooled to room temperature and the grains are fluffy and glisteningly shiny. Try not to overdo this as the rice will become sticky and heavy. To keep sushi rice from drying out, cover it with a clean, damp cloth until needed, but use it up on the day it is prepared.

5. Fold the sheets of nori in half across the grain and pinch along the folded edge, then pull them apart in halves - you should have four rectangular half nori sheets.

6. Hold a piece of halved rectangular nori in your left hand. Put a generous tablespoonful of rice on the top left corner of the nori and flatten it slightly. Dab a small amount of wasabi paste on the rice. Arrange your choice of fillings on top of the rice so that they point diagonally to the top left corner of the nori. Then bring the bottom left-hand corner of the nori towards the top side centre, wrapping it around the rice and fillings, forming a cornet. Repeat to make eight rolls in total.

COOK'S TIP: A hangiri is a specially designed shallow wooden tub, made of Japanese cypress and hooped with copper. Hangiri are expensive, even in Japan, so you can use any wide, shallow, non-metallic tub instead.

Moon Udon


(Serves 2)

200g dried udon noodles

300ml all-purpose noodle sauce

2tbsp mirin

4 slices of kamaboko, fish paste cake (optional)

2 very fresh eggs

1 spring onion, finely chopped to garnish

Shichimi- togarashi (seven-spice chilli powder) to serve (optional)


1. Cook the noodles and portion between two warmed bowls. Keep warm. Preheating the bowls is particularly important for this recipe as you need all the retained heat to semi-cook the eggs.

2. Meanwhile, heat the noodle sauce and mirin in a saucepan with 400ml of water to just below boiling. Pour half a ladleful of hot broth over each noodle mound and keep the rest on a simmer.

3. If including kamaboko, arrange two slices at the side of the noodles. With the back of a ladle, make a hollowed nest in the centre of the noodles. Crack an egg and gently place the whole egg in the nest and ladle the remaining broth around it, then immediately cover each bowl with cling film to 'poach' the egg for one minute. The egg white should turn opaque white from the heat of the broth, but if you prefer the egg more cooked, microwave (800W) for 10-12 seconds.

4. Remove the cling film, garnish with the chopped spring onion and a sprinkle of shichimi-togarashi, if liked, and serve immediately.

Kyoto tiramisu


(Serves 8-10)

4 eggs, separated

150g caster sugar

300g mascarpone cheese

1tbsp matcha (green tea powder) plus extra for dusting

36 small sponge finger biscuits

300g sweet adzuki bean paste

3tbsp sake


1. Whisk the egg whites in a large, clean stainless steel or copper mixing bowl using an electric hand whisk, until soft peaks form.

2. In a separate large bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar using an electric hand whisk, until the mixture is light and fluffy and leaves a ribbon trail when dropped from the whisk. Add the mascarpone and blend until the mixture is smooth. Fold the egg whites into the mascarpone mixture.

3. Sift the matcha into a medium-sized bowl and whisk in 200ml of warm water, little by little. Dip half the biscuits, enough to cover the base of a 6-7cm deep, 25cm square dish (about 2L capacity), into the tea - they should be fairly well soaked but not so much that they break up. Arrange in a tightly packed layer in the base of the dish.

4. Mix the adzuki bean paste with the sake to soften. Spread half the bean paste mixture over the biscuit layer as evenly as possible using the back of a spoon. Then spread half the mascarpone mixture over the adzuki layer. Add another layer of soaked biscuits and then another layer of the remaining adzuki bean paste and mascarpone, smoothing the top layer neatly. Put about a teaspoon of matcha in a small sieve and dust over the top just before serving.

5. Serve in small portions as this is a very rich dessert.

Japanese In 7 by Kimiko Barber, photography by Emma Lee, is published by Kyle Books.


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