A Taste of Culture

12 Sep

Edible Pleasures of the Season

In Japan, the choice of what to serve for a meal, and how to present it, is intimately linked to nature and embellished by cultural nuance. Each month in the kitchen, and at table, has a distinct seasonal identity, complete with its own legends and festivals, and the motifs and color schemes associated with them.

Trying to decipher Japan’s culinary code can be challenging. I know that when I first came to Japan I struggled to grasp the meaning of what everyone around me thought was obvious. To enable others who have not been brought up with Japanese traditions to better understand and appreciate indigenous culinary references to each season, I have been posting essays every few months to the SEASONAL JAPANESE KITCHEN page at this website. Topics in the past have ranged from wildly expensive melons (and summer gift-giving practices) to symbolism at the New Year dinner table. The previous installment focused on WAKAME (Undaria pinnatifida), a nutritious, briny-sweet aquatic plant that enlivens springtime menus. This issue of the Seasonal Japanese Kitchen page is devoted to JUNSAI, a summertime delicacy, often called “water shield” in English (its scientific name is Brasenia shreberi J.F. Gmel).

A Summertime Delicacy

A member of the water lily family, junsai grows in clumps in natural ponds and irrigation reservoirs. A perennial water grass, junsai’s flower is a deep maroon-red. It is the young, unfurled sprout covered in a slippery, transparent jelly, which is the culinary item prized by so many Japanese. Fresh sprouts come to market early in the summer.

Junsai and related Brasenia water plants grow in lakes, ponds and slow streams in many parts of the world, including much of North America and Europe. Yet only in Asia (primarily Japan) does the plant have a long history of cultivation as a food, and consumption for its medicinal properties (in particular delaying the growth and spread of certain cancers, and as a detox agent).

Junsai is a rhizome that can germinate to produce numerous plants from a given “mother” plant and it can easily become the dominant botanical species in a given area. Once established, it tends to cover the entire water surface inhibiting growth of other plants and impeding small boat navigation.

Today, Akita Prefecture (in the northwestern region of Japan’s main island, Honshu) is the center for commercial junsai production. Harvesting begins in April and continues through to September with the highest quality (“first sprouts”) and greatest volume (more than 300 tons!) picked in June.

Words of the Season: KIGO 季語

What the Japanese refer to as kisetsukan, a seasonal sensibility, has a language of its own. Seasonal markers called kigo (literally “words of the season”) evoke a specific time and set of circumstances, much as the mention of “chilled watermelon” might suggest a hot summer day to most Americans or a “bubbling stew” on a supper menu would hint at a chilly winter night. In Japan, junsai is one of many linguistic emblems of early summer. The archaic name for junsainunawa, is a kigo used in numerous eighth century documents including a famous anthology of poetry called the Manyoshu.

I recently discovered that in Osaka the word junsai, can be used in a less than complimentary manner, to describe someone who avoids/evades responsibility and duties: a “slippery” creature. Yet the expression itself seems to dodge a single definition; it can also describe an accommodating, easy-going (tephlon-coated) type for whom worry slides away.

Enjoying junsai… its a TEXTURE thing

Mouth-feel (the way a food feels when in the mouth) is as much an aspect of food culture as flavor symmetry (balance of sweet, salty and sour tastes). We often speak of people who have “acquired a taste for” a food that was at first culturally alien to them; acquiring a “(mouth) feel” for a food is perhaps the greater challenge.

Many non-Japanese have acquired a taste/feel for sushi and sashimi overcoming their initial reluctance to try raw fish. The distinctive texture of fresh fish – usually silky, often unctuous, though it can be springy at times – is decidedly different from the flaky quality of tender-cooked fish. The notion of consuming raw flesh may be intellectually demanding to some but the real challenge to immediate enjoyment is more likely to be mouth-feel than philosophy.

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Most Americans love crunchy (think potato chips, crisp apples, corn flakes and granola) and creamy things (especially ice cream). And, many take satisfaction in sinking their teeth into thick steaks and juicy chops. The Japanese, however, tend to favor slithery, slippery stuff that can be easily slurped: kudzu-kiritokoroten and most wheat noodles are meant to slide about the mouth and throat while being eaten. Most Japanese adore sticky, viscous items such as sliced okra, and natto fermented soy beans) that get stringy. And the Japanese are mad for chewy, gooey, gummy foods such as omochi (rice taffy) or raw, grated yamaimo (mountain yam) or slithery raw egg.

Frequent travel from Japan (where I have lived for many decades) to the United States (where I have business and still maintain family ties) can induce food cravings in me. After days of bagels, muffins and cold cereal breakfasts in America, I am desperate for an early morning rice “fix” of okayu with umeboshi pickled plums. And, after weeks of soy food-deprivation I am overcome by a sudden desire to gorge on tofu dengaku (slabs of coarse-texture bean curd slathered with pungent miso paste, broiled until bubbly and aromatic).

Occasionally, I experience a texture-craving – a wild and seemingly irrational longing for slippery, slimy dishes made from foods the Japanese refer to as neba neba (the word “nebari” is used to describe sticky, tacky things) and tsuru tsuru (slick, polished). These words in Japanese are perceived as appetizing, unlike their English language equivalents that tend to turn Americans away from the table in disgust. I personally don’t care for eggs that much (firm-cooked, raw or loosely set), though everything else about this bowl of thick, slick chilled udon noodles topped with a generous quantity of (viscous) grated yamaimo, (tacky) natto and okra seems mighty appealing.

And, on a hot summer’s day, this simple “salad” of junsai topped with grated ginger and served with a sweetened soy broth is wonderfully refreshing.

Preparing and Cooking Junsai

Junsai is available ( in bottles at many Asian groceries outside Japan. I urge you to try this distinctively textured Japanese delicacy. Here are some general guidelines for preparing dishes with junsai and a recipe for a chilled savory pudding topped with it.

USING fresh junsai: Rinse gently in cold tap water, being careful not to wash away the jelly. Drain. Bring fresh water to a rolling boil and briefly blanch the junsai until the sprouts turn green. With a fine mesh skimmer remove the junsai to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. When chilled, drain the junsai and eat as is, or cook according to recipe instructions. Store any left-over junsai in a covered glass jar for up to 2 days in the refrigerator.

USING bottled or packaged junsai: Drain the junsai discarding the liquid from the package or bottle. Briefly rinse to remove the vinegar (used as a packing liquid). Be careful not to wash away the jelly clinging to the sprouts. Drain, and eat as is, or use as called for in any recipe.


Adapted from WASHOKU: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen© Copyright 2005, Elizabeth Andoh


Tamago-dofu, Junsai-Zoe

Chilled Savory Egg Custard Topped with Water Shield

This ginger-infused, savory custard is served chilled, and topped with slithery junsai(water shield buds). Prepared in the cool of an evening and refrigerated to serve up to 48 hours later, this silky, slightly spicy custard is particularly welcome on a muggy summer’s day.

Serves 4

  • 3 large eggs
  • 2/3 to 3/4 cup cold dashi (Basic Sea Stock, see recipe below)
  • 1 teaspoon mirin (syrupy rice wine)
  • Pinch of salt
  • Pinch of sugar
  • Dash of usukuchi shoyu (light-colored soy sauce)
  • 1 teaspoon ginger juice, extracted by pressing grated fresh ginger

    • 1 teaspoon usukuchi shoyu (light-colored soy sauce)
    • 1 teaspoon mirin (syrupy rice wine)
    • 1/2 teaspoon ginger juice, extracted by pressing grated fresh ginger
    • 1/4 cup fresh or packaged junsai, briefly blanched, drained and chilled

    Break the eggs into a glass measuring bowl. Beat them well to mix whites and yolks. Let the foam settle a bit before reading the measurement; you should have 2/3 to 3/4 cup beaten eggs. Add an equal amount of sea stock. Stir the eggs and stock before seasoning with the mirin, salt, sugar usukuchi shoyu and ginger juice. Stir again to mix all well. Strain the seasoned egg mixture through a fine meshed strainer into another bowl to ensure a smooth, foamless liquid.

    In professional kitchens the custard is often steamed in a special metal mold called a nagashi-bako. Individual ceramic, or other heatproof, ramekins work very well, instead.

    Slowly pour the seasoned egg mixture into these containers, removing any bubbles that might mar the surface or form at the edges. The easiest way to remove bubbles is to drag them with the tip of a toothpick up the sides of the container.

    Fill the bottom of your steamer with water and set it over medium-high heat. The lid of your steamer should be fitted with a cloth cap to prevent condensation from onto the finished custards.

    When steam begins to flow in a strong, steady manner, place the four filled ramekins in your steamer, replace the lid, and steam them for 2 minutes. Then lower the heat and steam for about 8 more minutes. (After the initial stage of high heat, the lower the temperature you can manage without interrupting the flow of moist heat, the silkier the texture will be in the final custards.)

    To test for doneness: Place a toothpick in the center of each custard. If no liquid fills the puncture point, your custard is cooked. Remove the ramekins from your steamer and let them cool on a rack for 5 minutes, or until steam no longer rises from them. Cover with clear plastic wrap and refrigerate until well chilled, or up to 48 hours.

    When ready to serve, remove the clear plastic wrap and if condensation has formed on the surface, carefully pour it off.

    Make the sauce: mix the light-colored soy sauce, mirin and ginger juice, then combine this mixture with the junsai. Spoon the sauce over the custards. Serve with a spoon to eat.

    Basic Sea Stock, Dashi

    Dashi is a subtle broth with the capacity to enhance and intensify the flavor of those foods with which it is cooked or blended. That ability is locked within kombu (kelp) and katsuo bushi (smoky bonito fish flakes), the two ingredients used to make this basic sea stock: Both are both rich in water-soluble glutamates.

    Although it takes only a few minutes to make dashi, timing and temperature control is important. To extract the full potential of the kelp’s flavor-enhancing properties, you need to start the stock from cold water, slowly bringing it barely to a boil – the point at which small bubbles begin to break on the surface, and around the rim of your pot. Then, to prevent the broth from becoming murky, and to hold possible bitterness at bay, you need to remove your pot from the stove before adding the fish flakes. That way, the smoky, full-bodied flavor of the flakes can seep into the broth.

    Makes about 1 quart.

    Place the kelp in a pot with the water. If time permits, let it soak for 10 to 15 minutes before placing the pot over medium-high heat. Remove the pot from the burner as soon as small bubbles begin to break on the surface and at the rim of the pot. Add the fish flakes, scattering them across the surface of the broth. After several minutes the fish flakes will begin to sink. The larger the flakes, the longer it will take. Those at the top of a freshly opened bag might take 5 or 6 minutes, while the powdery bits that settle at the bottom of the package could sink almost immediately. To keep the stock from tasting “fishy” it is best to strain the broth through a cloth or paper-lined colander within 3 or 4 minutes of adding the flakes.

    Dashi looses its delicate aroma and subtle flavors when frozen, so its best to make it fresh when you need it. Any unused dashi will keep well for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator. Depending on the type, and quality of kombu used, a sediment sometimes forms at the bottom of the container – it alone, is not cause for concern. Signs of spoilage include a sweet, rather than smoky, smell, a film forming on the surface or around the edges of your container, or stickiness when pouring.

    Original article Here 


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