A couple of interested readers have posed the question to me, “do you cook Japanese food”?
After all, I am the Gochiso Gourmet though if you do peruse my columns, I frequently describe
the vast array of foods from other cultures. Maybe I’m actually the Mangiare Bene Gourmet or
the Je Mange Gourmet or the Vivir Para Comer Gourmet. Then I thought about it. I was raised
in a traditional Japanese family so I should have been raised with traditional Japanese foods.
Hmmm. We do eat short grain rice and it is cooked in a traditional aluminum rice pot (Mom
always hated the mucus-like brown stuff that often remains at the bottom of the pot in electric
rice cookers). We do enjoy traditional Japanese tsukemono with said rice but then again that’s
store bought. Was I actually raised on traditional Japanese cuisine?
The Literal Melting Pot
Hawaii consists of more than a melting pot of people and cultures. It also consists of a blending
of the various cultural traditions and foods. During the plantation era Chinese, Japanese,
Hawaiian and Portuguese workers were usually segregated in “camps” but during the workday
meal breaks, they could observe (and even share) each other’s food. As time progressed, the
various specific cultural foods crossed into other cultures and became ingrained as if they
originated in their adopted culture.
For instance, attend any authentic luau in Hawaii and you’ll find kalua pig or whole pig cooked
in an underground oven or imu which is a traditional Hawaiian cooking method. You’ll also find
lau lau or beef, pork and/or chicken wrapped in taro leaves and steamed until done. What you
may also find in lau lau is salted butterfish which is probably Japanese in origin. You may also
be served chicken long rice which probably has Chinese or Japanese roots and lomi lomi salmon.
I’m not sure where lomi salmon originated but I don’t believe the early Hawaiians had salted
salmon, tomatoes and round or green onions when they first settled in Hawaii. And this culinary
crossover isn’t unique to just Hawaiian food. Japanese style shoyu is probably used as often in
Chinese and Filipino dishes as Japanese. Chinese style noodles – both round and flat – have
found their way into Japanese and Filipino dishes and Filipino fish sauce or patis probably has
integrated into other cultural foods as well.
Not by Choice but Necessity
Sometimes these cross cultural food choices were made more out of necessity. Even after the
plantation era ended, fresh meat wasn’t something many families consumed on a regular basis.
Young families often resorted to canned meats like Vienna sausage, Corned Beef and Spam.
These salty alternatives to fresh meat allowed meals to be “stretched” with the addition of
vegetables. One can of these meats could often feed a family of five for one or two meals if you
added enough filler like potatoes, vegetables and lots of cooked rice.
My favorite meal as an adolescent actually was Vienna sausage cooked with sliced green beans
and scrambled eggs. I know that doesn’t sound anything like haute cuisine and probably not
whetting your appetite but it was my soul food growing up.
Any Japanese Food on the Menu?
There was one specific dish that does seem Japanese in origin that I still enjoy till this day;
Nishime. With similar ingredients but cut smaller and with less broth than oden, nishime is best
described as a Japanese vegetable based stew. Like traditional American stews, I’m sure there are
as many variations of nishime as there are stews and chilis. Unlike American stews and chilis,
nishime is low is saturated fat since the only animal protein is usually chicken breast and
Along with chicken and fishcake, the base of nishime is usually root vegetables or hasu (lotus
root), daikon (long white turnip), gobo (burdock root), carrots and konnyaku (gelled konjac
potato) as well as shiitake, various forms of tofu and takenoko (bamboo shoots). Since the
protein is lean, the vegetables are low calorie and fiber rich and there’s no added oil or fat,
nishime is also a natural health food to boot… and ono (delicious) too!
As mentioned, there are probably a multitude of recipes for nishime so add ingredients based on
your own likes (or disregard based on your dislikes). Just be forewarned that you need to start
with a large pot or Dutch oven (at least 5 quart) as a seemingly simple recipe can soon exceed 8
quart capacity (unless you want half can leftover takenoko and assorted ingredients in your
refrigerator). The following ingredient list approximates about 1 to 1 & ½ cups of each
ingredient so it doesn’t have to be followed to exact quantities. The seasoning from the
following recipe comes from the Favorite Island Cookery II cookbook series printed by the
Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin. This gets as close to Japanese soul food to me as possible…
other than Mom’s Konbu Chicken recipes… but that’s another column.
1 large piece of dashi konbu
2 chicken breasts cut into bite sized pieces
1 stick kamaboko, quartered lengthwise then cut into bite sized pieces
1 can bamboo shoots cut into bite sized pieces
1 piece of gobo (about 15 inches) peeled and cut into bite sized pieces
1 medium hasu, peeled and cut into bite sized pieces
1 large carrot, peeled quartered lengthwise and cut into bite sized pieces
1 medium daikon, peeled quartered lengthwise and cut into bite sized pieces
2 blocks konnyaku, parboiled then cut into bite sized pieces
8 dried shiitake, rehydrated and cut into bite sized pieces (save soaking water)
2 blocks of fried tofu cut into bite sized pieces
2 aburage cut into bite sized pieces
1 can drained gingko nuts
1 can drained mizuni cut into bite sized pieces
1 package of pre-knotted dried konbu, soaked in water
12 araimo (taro potato) cut into bite sized pieces
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp Hondashi
2 tsp shoyu
1 tsp mirin
1 tsp MSG (optional)
Soak dashi konbu then drain. Place in bottom of 7 to 8 quart pot and add about 3 cups of water
and bring to a simmer. Add chicken and kamaboko and simmer until chicken cooked. Add rest
of solid ingredients and gently toss with chicken and kamaboko. Add shiitake soaking water and
seasonings then cover and simmer until vegetables are cooked soft but not mushy trying not to
stir pot (if it seems bottom ingredients are sticking to pot then stir gently). Simmering time is
usually about 30 to 45 minutes.
Japanese Soul Food