Cherry Blossom Season in Japan

April is a very popular time to visit Japan. The weather is usually mild, at least in Tokyo and Kyoto (the two most popular tourist destinations). When I lived in Osaka in the early ‘90s, April was usually cloudy, with occasional gorgeous blue-sky days like gifts that let you know winter was really over. The cherry trees burst into bloom all over the country, and for about 3 or 4 weeks, whenever the wind blew, the falling pale pink petals would swirl in the air like snowflakes.

Cherry blossom viewing parties (hana-mi) are traditional. Almost all groups plan one, whether it’s the elderly neighborhood ladies’ sewing circle or the computer sales office staff. I think most Americans have a romantic notion of these events as quiet tea ceremonies under the trees, with the participants contemplating the falling petals and writing haiku with traditional brushes. Nothing could be further from a modern hana-mi. The parties are usually held in public parks and can be quite noisy and raucous. Companies jockey for the best spaces by sending out junior members of the firm to stake them out and “save” them all day until the party, which usually takes place at night. Most groups bring along their portable karaoke machines and plenty of beer and sake. My friends and I used to joke that since “hana” also means nose in Japanese, instead of “flower-viewing”, hana-mi should really mean “nose-viewing” as in “looking at the reflection of your nose in a sake cup”!

Here are some traditional Japanese dishes to serve during your own hana-mi if you are lucky enough to have a flowering cherry tree. If not, plan a party under some flowering dogwoods instead. Feel free to make it as romantic or as raucous as you like. Most of the ingredients can be found at Sevanada. If you can’t find something there, however, check with the Dekalb Farmer’s Market or any of the numerous Asian markets on Buford Highway.

These Asian markets are also a good source for inexpensive Asian dishes. Japanese food is usually served in a lot of mismatched tiny ceramic or porcelain dishes, and each dish is only filled about 1/3 or 1/2 full, so that you can admire the dish as well as the food in it. Have fun with your table settings. Mixed colors and patterns are very Japanese.

I just found out that Soy Dream makes a delicious vegan green tea ice “cream”, so you might want to serve that for dessert. Yum!

While researching recipes for this article, I came across an excellent article about miso soup here:

I’m including two of the recipes, but there is a lot of great information on the website, and several other variations on the miso soup theme. Miso soup truly is one of the most ubiquitous of Japanese dishes. The Japanese eat some form of it almost as often as they do rice; which is to say, for breakfast, lunch, and supper.

Basic Japanese Soup Stock
(Vegan Style dashi)
(Serves 4-5)

Though Japanese usually make soup stock with kombu and katsuobushi (shaved dried bonito fish), or niboshi (small dried fish), this Zen Buddhist style soup is satisfying enough. Kombu (kelp) seaweed and dried shiitake mushrooms are great for making tasty soup. I recommend keeping dashi in the refrigerator or freezer, to use anytime you want.

5 cups water
5 pieces kombu seaweed (each about 1-inch long), cut in thirds crosswise, and cleaned with a slightly damp paper towel or cloth.
5 dried shiitake mushrooms, cleaned and rinsed

Place water in a saucepan. Soak the kombu and shiitake mushrooms in the water for at least 15 minutes, until they become tender. (If time permits, it’s better to soak them longer. Overnight is best.) Heat the water over high heat and reduce heat once it boils. Remove kombu just as the water begins to boil.

After about five minutes, remove saucepan from the heat. Remove the shiitake mushrooms from the water, and save them for use in other recipes.

Notes: Kombu and dried shiitake mushrooms are available in Asian stores.

If you can’t find both kombu and dried shiitake mushrooms, or if you prefer a simpler stock, you can make a soup stock with either one. In this case, double the portion of the chosen ingredient and soak longer. For making thick (strong) dashi, increase the ingredients or soak them longer

Miso Soup with Tofu and Wakame
(Serves 4)

This is the most basic style of Japanese miso soup. Master it first!

4 cups vegan style dashi (first recipe above)
1 ounce wakame (dried seaweed)
10 ounces tofu (any type), diced
1-3 teaspoons of miso (any type except shiro miso)
Recommended suikuchi (garnishes): Thinly cut long green onion or welsh onion, grated ginger, thinly cut Japanese basil (shiso), yuzu (Japanese citron) peels, shichimi (seven-spice chili), or roasted sesame seeds

Place dashi in a saucepan and boil. Add wakame to dashi. Next, put tofu into dashi. When dashi boils, reduce the heat and add 1 teaspoon of miso at first. Taste, and if you need more miso, add it little by little. Remove the pan from the heat before the miso soup boils again. Put a pinch of suikuchi on miso soup. Serve hot.

Recommended arrangement of ingredients: Tofu and snow peas, tofu and chopped green long onions, tofu and chopped Chinese chives, wakame and snow peas, wakame and potato, wakame and onion, wakame and green onion, wakame and bean sprouts, wakame and spinach, wakame and daikon, wakame and Chinese chives, etc.

Nori-Maki Sushi

Recipe adapted from Vegetarian Celebrations, by Nava Atlas
Serving Size: 6
Preparation Time:15 minutes prep, 30 minutes to cook rice, 2 hours to cool, 15 minutes to make rolls.

Contrary to common American usage, “sushi” doesn’t mean “raw fish”. (That’s “sashimi”, and it is often added to sushi.) “Su-Shi” means, literally, “Vinegar-Salt”, and refers to this preserved rice originally designed to be eaten on long voyages. Sushi is a popular picnic and box lunch food even now. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a Japanese party where there wasn’t at least one tray of sushi available.

If you’ve never made sushi before, read through all the directions first, but relax! It’s easy!

Sushi Rice
2 cups sticky rice
1/3 cup rice vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons granulated unbleached sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Nori and Vegetables for Sushi Rolls
8 sheets nori (use pretoasted nori especially made for making sushi)
***Choose from the following vegetables***
pickled daikon radish
OR raw daikon radish
Cucumber, peeled if waxed, seeded and quartered lengthwise
Avocado (ripe, but still firm enough to slice neatly)
carrot strips, steamed until barely tender
asparagus, steamed lightly
dried shitake mushrooms, soaked in hot water and drained
zucchini, quartered lengthwise
green onions
toasted sesame seeds
umeboshi plum paste

3 tablespoons wasabi powder, divided
pickled ginger
tamari soy sauce

Many different types of sushi are commonly prepared for New Year meals in
Japan. Here is a relatively simple variety consisting of sticky rice and
vegetables rolled in sheets of the sea vegetable nori. One note: Please
don’t substitute rice of any other type, not even short-grain – your sushi
rolls simply won’t hold together. (Lisa’s note – This is the one time when I would definitely NOT recommend brown rice. Even short-grain brown rice makes terrible sushi.)

Using a bamboo mat made expressly for rolling sushi (called a sudare) will
make the task considerably easier. You’ll find this inexpensive item at
the same places where you shop for your other supplies for this meal. If you don’t have access to a sudare, you can use a clean tea towel instead, but the sudare is a bit easier to control.

Vinegared rice for sushi: Soak the rice in a bowl of cold water. Swish
around with your hands and drain when the water becomes cloudy. Fill with
water again and repeat the procedure until the water remains clear.

If you have a rice cooker, use it to cook the rice in the usual fashion, and allow it to stand for 15 – 20 minutes after cooking is complete. If you don’t have a rice cooker, place the washed rice in a heavy 4-quart saucepan. Add 2 1/4 cups of water and
cover with the lid. Bring the water to a boil without lifting the lid
(watch for the lid jiggling). Reduce the heat to medium-high and cook for
5 minutes. Listen for a hissing or crackling sound to indicate that the
water has been absorbed. Remove from the heat, and, still without lifting
the lid, let the rice stand for 20 to 30 minutes.

Transfer the rice to a large bowl. Toss with a Japanese paddle or a wooden
spoon until it stops steaming.

In a small bowl, combine the vinegar, sugar, and salt. Stir until the
sugar is dissolved. Sprinkle into the rice, a little at a time, and toss
in. Cover the vinegared rice mixture with a clean damp tea towel and set aside to cool at least 1 hour, or until needed – no more than 4 or 5 hours. Don’t refrigerate it or it will get too hard to use.

Nori and vegetables for sushi: Use one sheet of nori as a guide for
cutting the vegetables. The vegetables you use should be cut into very
thin, very long matchsticks: their length should match the width of a sheet
of nori. The exception to this is avocado, which won’t be long enough, but
this isn’t a problem because of its soft texture. Just cut the strips
lengthwise. The idea is to use about 6 strips of vegetable in each sushi
roll; you may use one type of vegetable in each roll, or combine two or three, for
example, cucumber, avocado, and green onion (my favorite! – I call it “Three Jade Sushi”).

Place a tablespoon of the wasabi powder in a very small bowl and combine it with
enough water to make a thin paste.

Place a sheet of nori, shiny side down, on the bamboo mat discussed in the
introduction to this recipe. Dampen your hands and spread 3/4 cup of the
vinegared rice over the surface of the nori, leaving a 1/2-inch border on
the end nearest you and a 2-inch border on the end farthest away.

About 1 1/2 inches from the side closest to you, paint a stripe of wasabi
paste (use very little!) across the rice (see note). Lay 6 or so strips of vegetable
atop the stripe. Lift the side of the mat closest to you and roll it over
so the nori is tightly rolled over the rice and vegetables. (Make sure that you get the mat out of the way and don’t roll it into the sushi!) Wet the far end
of the nori and continue the rolling motion until the result is a snugly
closed roll.

Lay the rolled nori seam side down on a board, and repeat with the
remaining sheets of nori.

You’ll need a very sharp, thin knife to cut the rolls. Wet the knife lightly and
cut each roll into 6 equal sections. Arrange on a large platter.

In a small bowl, combine the remaining wasabi with enough water to make a
fairly thick paste, thicker than what you made for the sushi rolls. Guests
should take a small dab on their plates to be mixed with their tamari sauce for dipping their sushi if they’d like. Put some pickled ginger in another small bowl. Let each
guest take a slice or 2. This is to be eaten between sushi bites to clear the palate, not with the sushi.

Dipping sauce for sushi: Give each guest a small individual soy sauce dish so they can mix their own tamari (soy sauce) and wasabi mix to their preferred level of hotness.

Note – if you or your guests are sensitive to hot foods, you can leave the wasabi out of the rolls (just use a little water to seal them), and just offer wasabi on the side. Wasabi will cause your nose to burn and your eyes to water (like Chinese mustard) if you overuse it. Also, the sushi will taste of nothing else, which is kind of boring.

For a fun dinner party, let each guest roll his or her own sushi. Set out the sushi rice in a large bowl, and set out several filling choices from the list above (or your own choices). Each guest takes a piece of nori, adds rice and fillings, and rolls it into a shape like an ice cream cone. This is called “te-maki” or “hand-rolls”, Serve with tamari and wasabi, as above.

Easy picnic dish: Chirashi-Zushi (“Scattered Sushi”) – this is a sushi salad. In a large bowl, spread out the seasoned rice, then top with your choice of chopped vegetables. Add a little picked ginger (diced very fine), and crumbled nori. Serve with tamari for guests to add as they like.

Vegetable Tempura
Yield: 10 appetizer servings or 6 entrée servings

2/3 c unbleached white flour
2/3 c arrowroot or cornstarch
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup ice water
Vegetables of your choice, such as:
carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, bell pepper, parsnips, mushroom, onion wedges. Even firm but ripe bananas are delicious!

Unbleached flour for dredging the vegetables
Cooking oil for deep-frying the tempura vegetables

Cut the vegetables into manageable pieces. For example, use florets of broccoli and cauliflower; cut carrots, potatoes, and parsnips into slices of about 3/8 inch; cut bell peppers into 1/2-inch wide strips, and so on. Drain the vegetables, dredge in flour, and dust off the excess.

Mix all of the dry ingredients together. Add the ice water gradually until the mixture has the consistency of a light batter. The batter can be left a little lumpy. Don’t over-mix it or the tempura will be tough, not light and crisp.

Fill deep fryer with cooking oil or pour about 2 inches of oil into a deep frying pan and begin heating it. The oil should be about 375 degrees F to fry the vegetables.

Dip the floured pieces of vegetable into the tempura batter to coat thoroughly. Deep-fry the vegetables until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately, accompanied by a dipping sauce, or simply flavor with salt.

Tempura Dipping Sauce

Recipe By: Max Jacobson, “The Art of Japanese Vegetarian Cooking”
Serving Size: 10 as appetizer, 6 as entrée

1/4 cup dashi (see recipe above)
1 tablespoon sake
2 tablespoons mirin (sweetened rice cooking wine)
2 tablespoons tamari soy sauce
freshly grated daikon radish

Mix all ingredients except daikon. Serve in small dishes, one per diner. Each guest adds as much daikon as desired.
Notes: Daikon is said to help digest fatty foods. Properly fried tempura shouldn’t be greasy, but it *is* fried after all!

Okra Salad
This really surprises people in the U.S., but the Japanese love okra. They think it’s native to Japan! Of course, it’s actually native to Africa. My guess is that African-American merchant sailors took the seeds with them when they sailed to Japan in the 19th century.

The other surprising thing about this salad is that the okra is served raw. Try it – it’s delicious!

Small, tender okra pods (about 10 per serving)
Tamari soy sauce
Nori flakes (about 1 tablespoon per serving) or freshly grated ginger (one pinch per serving)

Slice the okra into bite-sized pieces. Divide into small individual dishes. Drizzle with tamari and add a pinch of nori flakes or freshly grated ginger – your choice. Eat with chopsticks and enjoy!