Theory Teacher's Blog

Food Innovations 2: Nihon-teki

As I mentioned in my Food Innovations 1 blog post a couple weeks ago, I decided that, from time to time, I should blog about food to show how one can relate literary theory to food and also to offer some practical tips for my busy students for how to make simple but delicious food quickly. So, this blog will be about how I innovated a Japanese style (nihon-teki) for a few dishes.  

But first, some back-story. The funny back-story to this blog is that when I lived in Japan, it didn’t really occur to me to learn how to make Japanese cuisine (yoori). The food was all around me in restaurants, shops, and supermarket, not to mention the school where I taught, so I didn’t have much incentive to make it myself. Most of the time I was too busy working anyway, and those rare moments when I did want to really cook up a storm, I prefered to make Mexican food since back in 1997–99 there weren’t any good Mexican restaurants in Tokyo. Being the Southern California boy that I am, it was the one food that I sometimes missed and desired to share with my Japanese friends. (Luckily, the international grocery store in Tokyo had everything I needed.) But after I returned to the United States, I quickly became nostalgic for Japanese food and sadly discovered that most of the Japanese restaurants in America did not make the things I craved. I wished I had taken the time to learn more, but it was too late.  

So, what did I crave? Takoyaki, okonomiyaki, oden, plain soba noodles, and ordinary boiled vegetables. Plain noodles, boiled vegetables, and grilled fish might sound a little boring and ordinary, which is probably why few Japanese restaurants in American serve them. They are not so exotic or fascinating, but actually those are probably the three most common dishes eaten there, and they are delicious. Sadly, American restaurants tend to all emphasize the exotic, which generally boils down to the same four things — sushi, steak, teppenyaki, and udon noodle soups. If you’re lucky, you might be able to get some good tofu dishes like Agedashidofu. I’ve noticed that a lot of Americans seem to like places that specialize in ridiculous “Hibachi grill” performances of chopping stuff right at your table (called teppenyaki) — something I never once saw in Japan for the obvious reasons that all this flashy performance is really annoying and makes it hard to have a conversation.  How can you socialize with all the knives, food, and noise flying about right in front of your face? In Japan, all the ingredients are carefully prepared in the kitchen (which is where things should be prepared, duh), and then brought out for you and your friends to quickly cook them on the grill that’s in the center of your table. It’s more enjoyable for you and your friends to cook it as you are eating and talking. The essential distinction I’m trying to make here is between food as a spectacle and food as a social activity, and it’s perhaps not surprising — as theorist Guy Debord suggested in his classic book Society of the Spectacle — that the American capitalist-consumer culture would emphasize the spectacle while the more community-oriented Japanese culture would emphasize the social. (Along with this, another difference would be the loud music in American bars compared to the loud conversation — but no music — in Japanese bars.) Anyway, the point of this paragraph is that American Japanese restaurants only serve a very narrow slice of Japanese cuisine and tend to emphasize the most fetishistically exotic or (to use the theory jargon) other. In fact, Japanese cuisine is incredibly varied and diverse, sometimes fabulously ornate but often pretty ordinary, and I often found myself craving the more ordinary, day-to-day kind of food. Theorizing more broadly about culture (and not just about food), my sense is that this is pretty standard for most so-called “intercultural experience” which tends to fetishize the most exotice elements of a foreign culture at the expense of the more ordinary, rational, and typical aspects of daily life.

One might think that to solve this problem of my nostalgia for certain foods, I’d go buy a Japanese cookbook, but I haven’t used a cook book since 1996 when I was 24 years old. I have a lot more fun just figuring things out for myself. Also, I’m way too lazy, and those cookbook recipes are always so pretentious and showy — I just don’t have the time to spend on them. Instead, I innovated a few quick and easy dishes so that I could get my Nihon-teki-na yoori fix without too much headache.

First and easiest, soba is a buckwheat noodle that you can serve three ways — in a soup, stir-fried with vegetables and meat (yakisoba), or just boiled and plain to be served with a simple dipping sauce. I like soba not only because it’s healthy, but because if you’re in a hurry, the noodles only take 4 minutes to cook. The soup is a hearty option for dinner for oneself, though I don’t think its a good choice if you’re trying to host a dinner-party, and therefore I don’t think one needs to get hung up on what’s “authentically” Japanese. Just put whatever vegetables and meat or fish in the pot, boil it up, add some mirin (rice wine for cooking) and some soy sauce, and finally add the noodles. Typically, Japanese people use katsuobushi (or dried bonito fish flakes) for the broth, but it doesn’t really matter what you use. Some pieces of fish, chicken, or beef, or a vegetable bouillon cube all work fine. If you want, you can add spice (red peppar, coriander, whatever.) Similarly, for fried noodles (yakisoba), just stir-fry the vegetables and chicken or whatever in a little oil and add some pepper and/or grated fresh ginger. While that’s going on in your frying pan, boil the noodles in your pot. Then, strain the noodles and throw them into the frying pan along with a bit of mirin. Fry this together for a few minutes on medium heat, then turn down the heat to low, and then add a little soy sauce. The trick here is to not add the soy while the heat is high, because then it burns and doesn’t taste as good. If you’ve ever had Asian food at a school cafeteria and wondered why it tastes so bad, it’s probably because they overcooked everything and burned the soy sauce. I usually add the soy sauce last when the heat is as low as possible.

If one wants to opt for plain boiled soba noodles served with a dipping sauce, this is simple. Just boil the noodles and strain them. Serve with the dipping sauce. It takes no more than ten minutes to make this. Most Asian stores sell bottles of “soba sauce” already prepared, and that’s what Japanese people generally eat. (Only posers make their own dipping sauce, though I guess I’m kind of a poser because I invented my own out of soy sauce, mirin, sesame oil, and grated ginger. But mine tastes totally different from the “authentic” sauce you get in the store, and I innovated it because I love ginger and sesame oil.) If you like the nostril-clensing power of wasabi, it’s common to add the wasabi to the dipping sauce or let your guests do it themselves. You can buy little tubes of wasabi anywhere, even an American supermarket. To be authentic, you should also chop up a green onion and sprinkle that along with some shredded dried nori strips on top of the noodles when you serve it.  

soba noodles with dipping sauce

Before I go on to the other dishes, I should mention that the quality of the soy sauce is important. Soy sauce is brewed, so just like wine and beer the quality can vary quite a bit. For instance, the La Choy brand is really aweful, but most Kikkoman produces are pretty good. If you are uncertain, look at the ingredients on the package. The ingredients should be simply soy beans, roasted wheat, water, and salt. If you see a bunch of other ingredients like caramel color and whatnot, don’t get it. I hate to offend my Chinese and Vietnamese friends, but generally speaking, in American stores, the Japanese-made soy sauce is pretty good, and the Chinese and Vietnamese soy sauces aren’t. (The American-made soy sauce brands, often pretentiously calling themselve tamari, are usually just silly and overpriced. Good soy sauce doesn’t have to be expensive.)  

oden

Oden is basically boiled vegetables and fish sausages that sits in a broth. It was one of my favorite bar foods. Imagine the length of a bar with a trough of broth and delicious food floating in it. I have fond memories of going out with these two elderly Japanese men twice a month to discuss literature and help them with a translation. We’d eat oden, drink sake, and get pretty drunk. In my opinion, nothing tastes better together than oden, sake, and literature.  

packaged oden

And happily, almost every Asian store I’ve ever been to in the United States has frozen oden mix already prepared, so you don’t even really need to work very hard to make it. It comes with the flavor packet for the broth. However, it does taste better if you make the broth yourself and add some vegetables, though preparing oden from scratch is a quite a lot more time consuming. The broth is simply katusobushi, dried kelp (or kombu), mirin, and soy sauce (which are the most essential and basic ingredients for the broth that seasons most Japanese cuisine) all boiled together for a while. After you’ve strained all the detritus out of the broth, put the liquid in another pot, boil it again, and add the daikon (big white radish, which you should chop into somewhat large disks.) I also like to add lotus root (which comes in bags in the frozen food section of most Asian stores) and konyakku (a very healthy, zero-calorie, gelatinous substance made from a special kind of yam). After all the vegetables have been put in the pot, add the pacakge of frozen fish sausage and tofu mentioned above. Boil all this for a while. If you’re cooking from scratch and including the daikon and konyakku, I’d let it simmer for an hour, but if you’re only boiling the stuff from the frozen pacakge, you can prepare it in just a few minutes.  

I hope you’re noticing as you’re reading this blog post that I rarely mention measurements or time. That’s because those things aren’t really important. Recipe books always include very detailed information about quntities of this or that and precise minute-by-minute details, but that’s just there to make you feel like you need the recipe book. Don’t worry about it so much. Following recipe books take a lot of time and energy, and often produces unncessary anxiety. In contrast, just throwing the stuff together is quick, easy, and usually even more tasty since you’re using the intuition of your taste buds.  Don’t believe the hype of the recipe book — that’s my culinary motto. The two most important people to trust when you’re cooking are your mother (or someone else’s mother) and yourself.

Mori-Nu Tofu

Another thing I like to serve is simply raw tofu (hiyayakko) with a sauce made out of soy, rice vinegar, sesame oil, and grated ginger. (I am a ginger freak, as you can tell, but hey — it’s good for you.) This takes all of five minutes to make. A lot of Americans might be grossed out by raw tofu, but that’s probably because they ate crappy tofu. Ideally, you’d be able to get it freshly made, but that’s almost never possible in the United States, so you have to settle for the next best thing. The trick is which tofu to buy. If you get tofu that’s packaged with water, it will taste really awful. That’s because as it sits in the water, it sours a bit and gets a little crust around the edges. That kind of tofu is good for stir-fry and soup, but not for eating raw. The solution some Japanese food companies came up with is to vacuum-pack it. Most supermarkets in the United States sell the Mori-Nu brand, which is pretty good and comes in soft, firm, and extra-firm. For hiyayakko, you want the firm or extra-firm varieties.  

okonomiyaki

Last but not least is my favorite — okonomiyaki, which is a food often prepared at an outdoor stand during festivals in Japan. I really can’t understand why I’ve never seen a restaurant in America serve this, because I think it would be quite popular. Okonomiyaki gets a bit controversial, since every region of Japan has its own version, but I created my own Steve-style (Steve-no-teki-na okonomiyaki). The key ingredient is the special flour which you have to get at a Japanese grocery store. (Pictures of all the special ingredients to buy can be seen here.) Chop up some cabbage and some green onions, and thaw some frozen little shrimps in the microwave. (If you’re more adventurous, you can also chop up some octopus.) Put all this in a mixing bowl with the flour. Crack an egg into it, and stir. Add a little water as necessary to make a thick pancake batter, or add some more flour. It’s easy to add more of whatever until you get the consistency you want. Typically, Japanese people fry this on a pan with oil the same way we’d fry a pancake, but I think butter tastes better than oil. (And for that matter, frying in butter is better for American-style pancakes too.)

okonomiyaki sauce, photo by FotoosVanRobin

After you’ve cooked both sides (flipping it like a pancake, which is always fun), squirt on some special okonomiyaki sauce on the top and spread it over the surface. (I use a basting brush, but that’s unconventional. As you can see from the photo above, it’s usually just squirted around.)  You can buy this sauce at most Asian stores. In addition to the sauce, I like to also add katsuobushi (the bonito fish flakes) and aonori (a special kind of “blue seaweed” that’s not really blue, but can be bought ground-up in a little bottle in most stores.) What’s fun is to sprinkle the katsuobushi and aonori onto the okonomiyaki pancake while it’s still in the pan (with the stove turned off of course), and for some reason, the residual heat from the pan causes the katsuobushi flakes to wave at you. It’s very cute. 

So, those are my recipes. What’s my theoretical point? Not much of one, but simply that a little innovation can produce a nice quick meal and satisfy one’s cravings for whatever ethnic food one has some sentimental feelings about. There’s no need to get all anxious and worry about authenticity or the exact recipe. Only pretentious posers care about that nonsense. As cultural theorists such as Gilles Deleuze and Paul Gilroy point out — and as I argued repeatedly in all my blog posts about my trip to Japan last summer [here] — there is no original, authentic culture. Rather, all culture constantly innovates and adapts in transformative ways. (Their fancy jargony way to think about this is to say that all culture is rhizomorphic.) For instance, consider that some Japanese people eat their oden with mustard and their okonomiyaki with mayonaise (both of which came from Europe and which I personally don’t like on my oden and okonomiyaki). So, my culinary motto is to experiment, experiment, experiment, and as you do so, trust your own intuitions.

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February 21, 2010 - Posted by | food

6 Comments »

  1. Well now that I am thoroughly “homesick” for Japan I think I’ll go out to United Noodles and give this cooking thing a try. 🙂

    Comment by Megan | February 21, 2010 | Reply

  2. Great post, and thanks for the recipes. Now I’m craving some soba. I do object to one thing you say though, specifically that “Only posers make their own dipping sauce…” Perhaps posers do, but so do sensible people who don’t want to eat MSG and high-fructose corn syrup, which are found in every store-bought dipping sauce I’ve ever looked at. Real mirin is brewed too, like soy sauce, and it shouldn’t have corn syrup as the first ingredient.

    Comment by Jean | February 22, 2010 | Reply

    • Point taken, Jean, about the MSG and corn syrup. You’re quite right, and as I said, I often make my own… though to be honest, I make it not because of the MSG, but because I am too cheap to buy all the different kinds of sauces. I usually just make dipping sauce out of mirin and soy, since I always have those two things in my fridge. However, what’s missing in my half-assed innovation is the kombu and katsuobushi flavor. It’s much too time consuming if you want to make the sauce with all that (which is why no Japanese person I ever met would ever bother), and I’d rather spend my time doing other things (like writing this blog) and I’d rather my students spend their time doing other things (like finishing their papers for my classes.)

      As for the mirin, most Japanese people prefer the seasoned mirin rather than the unseasoned because it enriches the flavor of whatever you’re cooking. (As I’m sure you already know, but other readers of this blog might not, one can get rice vinegar and mirin both seasoned and unseasoned — the seasoning basically being a little salt and a little sugar.) So I like the sugar. Sugar is good. And in small quantities, sugar or corn syrup or whatever is not unhealthy at all just like the little bit of alcohol in the mirin is not unhealthy. Of course in large quantities, it is. So, moral of the story, drinking a bottle of cola and a fifth of Jack Daniels is bad, but some oden or dipping sauce with a few molecules of corn syrup and alcohol is no problem. I might venture to guess that the excess anxiety one might have worrying about stuff like corn syrup is more unhealthy in the long run than the corn syrup itself (unless of course one is deriving some pleasure or self-satisfaction from one’s neurotic worrying, which is a fine and noble thing that I whole heartedly endorse and myself practice regularly.)

      Comment by steventhomas | February 22, 2010 | Reply

  3. I loved reading this, Steve, and now I am dying to try okonomiyaki. How do you feel about natto? I came across this blog –http://thenattoproject.com/–which documents the attempt of two Americans to get over their intense natto revulsion. Which of course makes me want to try it immediately. 🙂

    Comment by Sheila | February 22, 2010 | Reply

    • Natto takes some getting used to. Some Japanese people eat natto and rice for breakfast. Personally, I could never eat just plain natto. The first time I ever tried natto, the guy just gave me some plain stuff without telling me what it was, and I nearly threw up. The way I now like to eat it is in the form of natto-maki, which is basically a sushi roll with natto instead of fish. I think the combination of nori, natto, rice, and soy sauce with just a touch of wasabi is quite delicious. So, next time you’re at a sushi restaurant, try the natto roll and see what you think. That’s the most palatable form, I think, and that’s what I’d recommend you start with.

      For those of my readers who don’t know what Sheila and I are talking about, natto is basically fermented, gooey soybeans. The taste is hard to describe, kind of bitter and sour, and the texture really reminds you that this is essentially rotten food, which is why Americans are often grossed out by it. Of course, cheese is also basically rotten food, so we shouldn’t be so prejudiced against natto. See my previous blog “food innovation 1” post about raw, cooked, and rotten food.

      It’s supposed to be pretty healthy, but soybeans in general are healthy, so I don’t know if there’s anything special about natto. I prefer edamame (which directly translates as “twig bean” because traditionally it got served still on the branch.) Edamame was once upon a time a spring-time food (and still kind of is in Japan.) My guess is that natto was developed long ago as a way to preserve the soybeans for the winter time. But now we have refrigerators, so we can just buy a bag of frozen edamame (no longer still on the twig and not nearly as delicious as the fresh stuff in the spring time, but still good.)

      Comment by steventhomas | February 22, 2010 | Reply

  4. The things left out: tempura and sukiyaki.

    A friend of mine who read this blog pointed out to me that I forgot to mention tempura. This is a big oversight, especially since it is actually a perfect example of my own point. Although tempura is one of the most famous and quintessential Japanese foods, it actually emerged from the Portuguese community living in the Japanese port city of Nagasaki in the 16th century. Not just tempura, but a whole diverse range of food emerged from this interaction, but tempura is the only one that travelled to America. Basically, the Portuguese introduced their Catholic custom of eating fried fish and vegetables for Lent. The Japanese word itself is written in their special alphabet that they reserve for foreign words and animal noises, and it probably derives from the Latin “quattuor tempora” which refers to that time when the Portuguese Catholics don’t eat meat. But I’ve also seen websites that claim it comes from the Portuguese word “temperar” which means cooking. But Japanese tempura is not simply a borrowing of Portuguese food and vocabulary; rather it’s an innovative improvement on it. In my opinion, it’s easy to make mediocre tempura, which basically tastes like fish and vegetables in greasy batter. But it’s really difficult to make good tempura the Japanese way which is light and crispy, and the crispy batter is so delicate and ornate that if it’s done right it looks almost like snowflakes.

    What’s the theoretical point here? Just what I said before, that there is no authentic, original culture that one has to copy when one cooks. It’s always about innovation, experimentation, and practice.

    I tried making tempura once and it didn’t turn out all that great, but ironically my failure probably more closely resembled the original tempura made in Nagasaki back in the 16th century than the more refined form it acquired later. So much for originality. All I discovered that I’m too lazy to practice the art of tempura, and I don’t like it enough to care. When I lived in Japan I was lucky enough to have a housemate who loved to make it, so I could just eat hers.

    Here are a few websites about tempura to confirm what I’m saying:
    http://foodportraits.com/food-culture/history-tempura-japan
    http://www.kikkoman.com/foodforum/thejapanesetablebackissues/06.shtml
    http://www.syl.com/travel/tempurajapaneseinvention.html

    I also realize that I forgot to mention sukiyaki, and I probably should since literary theorist Roland Barthes wrote an essay about it in his book Empire of Signs, which is all about “Japan” (in quotes, since in Barthes book Japan seems almost like something he imagined rather than a reality described.) In my view, this dish relates more to my previous post about rawness.

    In Americam restaurants, sukiyaki often just looks like grilled or boiled meat with some onions and egg on rice. Totally boring and somewhat tasteless. But in Japan what they do is bring really thinly cut meat and vegetables to your table, and then you yourself put it in the simmering broth in front of you. The meat is cut so thin that it only takes a minute to cook in the hot broth made of the same thing all Japanese broth is made of: soy sauce, mirin, and sugar (yes, Jean, that’s right–sugar!) After it’s cooked, you take out a mouthful of meat with your chopsticks and dip it in a cup of raw egg so that the meat or vegetable is coated with raw egginess. It’s very delicious and usually very expensive since the meat is of a quality that I’ve never even seen in America. Of course restaurants in the U.S. are probably too afraid of a lawsuit to let their customers anywhere near hot broth or raw egg. Americans are always afraid they’re going to get diseases but yet don’t seem motivated enough to require the agricultural industry to abide by any standards of quality or decency. In Japan they are quite comfortable with raw fish, raw egg, and even raw meat, but the Japanese government subsidies of their agriculture are meant to ensure quality. What all the American subsidies are supposed to ensure, I have no friggin’ idea — just helping some rich dudes get richer, I guess. Anyway, the point being, Levi-Strauss was right that rawness is a sign of high social status. But I might also add that it’s an effect of good social infrastructure.

    http://japanesefood.about.com/od/beef/a/aboutsukiyaki.htm
    http://asiancuisine.suite101.com/article.cfm/sukiyaki

    Comment by steventhomas | February 23, 2010 | Reply


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