Japan Eats

Recipe: Spicy soboro salad

Soboro is an ideal topping for rice, noodles or even salads.

Soboro is seasoned ground meat that’s usually eaten on rice (soborodon) or in noodle dishes such as tantanmen. It has a salty-sweet flavor, with some recipes calling for the addition of chopped ginger to balance the flavors.

For most Japanese, the word soboro conjures images of torisoboro, made from chicken which is then spread over rice and served as part of a bento. However it also makes an excellent addition to salads, particularly when they contain sprouts like those of radishes, broccoli or kale. The sprouts add a sharpness which cuts through the flavor of the seasoned meat. The following recipe uses pork and a seasoning that includes both soy sauce and doubanjiang, a Chinese paste made of fermented fava beans.

It’s important to cook the soboro immediately before preparing the salad. Mix into the salad when the soboro is still warm. It will slightly soften the leaves of the vegetables and help bind the ingredients together.

Soboro Salad

Soboro Salad

Ingredients (serves 4)

  • 200 g of red cabbage
  • 50 g of red-leaved chicory
  • 50 g of red radish
  • 100 g (1 package) of radish sprouts

Soboro

  • 100 g of pork mince
  • 1 tablespoon of sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon of garlic (finely chopped)
  • 1 teaspoon of doubanjiang (Chinese chili bean paste)
  • 1 teaspoon of douchijiang (blackbean chili paste)
  • ½ teaspoon of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of soy sauce

Dressing

  • 2 teaspoons of soy sauce
  • ½ teaspoon of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of rice vinegar
  • 3 teaspoons of sesame oil

Garnish

  • 2 tablespoons of white sesame seeds
  • 2 tablespoons of roughly crushed peanuts

Method

First, prepare the vegetables. Rinse the red cabbage and red-leaved chicory then slice into pieces 1 mm thick (cut against the grain). Rinse the red radishes and slice them thinly. Cut off the root part (sponge bed) of the radish sprouts, the cut them into half, leaf and stem. Use leaves later as a garnish.

Fill a large bowl with enough ice water to cover the red cabbage, red-leafed chicory, red radish and radish sprout (only the stems) and rinse the vegetables for 5 – 6 minutes before draining.

While you are refreshing the vegetables, prepare the soboro. Place a frying on the stove with a tablespoon of sesame oil and 1 tablespoon of finely chopped garlic.

Turn the heat to low and saute for 1 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon of doubanjiang (Chinese chili bean paste) and 1 teaspoon of douchijiang (paste) to the pan and saute till they give you the spicy aroma. Then add pork mince and turn the heat to medium, fry them till they cooked and crumbly. Finally, add ½ teaspoon of sugar and 1 teaspoon of soy sauce and mix thoroughly.

Now for the dressing. Mix ½ teaspoon of sugar and 1 teaspoon of rice vinegar in a cup, then add 2 teaspoons of soy sauce and mix again. At the end of this process, add 3 teaspoons of sesame oil. Stir thoroughly.

Prepare the garnish by placing a frying pan on a low heat and roasting the sesame seeds slowly for 5 minutes.

Place the vegetables in a large serving bowl, then sprinkle the roasted sesame seeds and crushed peanuts over the leaves. Next, place the soboro and radish leaves on top the vegetables. Finally pour the dressing over the vegetables. Mix the whole salad evenly before eating.

Book Review: The Just Bento Cookbook

Marcus Lovitt reviews Makiko Itoh’s The Just Bento Cookbook

The Just Bento Cookbook

The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches To Go by Makiko Itoh

Through her sites Justhungry.com and Justbento.com, Makiko Itoh celebrates the many facets of Japanese cuisine, describing ingredients, detailing cooking techniques and offering recipes to an international audience. The first of these sites, Justhungry, has been up and running since 2003 and contains Itoh’s musings on the rudiments of Japanese cooking; how to make dashi, the way in which to prepare sushi rice, and so on. It is Justbento, however, for which Itoh is particularly well known. Here, she writes on the humble Japanese lunchbox, demonstrating both its versatile flavors as well as the health benefits associated with a balance of ingredients.

With her first book, The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches To Go, Itoh brings her passion for the bento to an even wider audience. “A bento-box lunch is really just a packed lunch – but it’s a packed lunch prepared with a little extra care, for your family and loved ones, or just for yourself” notes Itoh in the introduction. “Bento-box meals are satisfying to the eye and the soul, as well as the body. They do not have to be overly cute or take hours to prepare. With minimal effort and a splash of creativity, they can be things of simple beauty that not only bring a smile to the recipient’s face but can be as pleasurable to make as they are to eat”.

Born in Tokyo, Itoh is particularly well suited to the role of bento evangelist – she has lived in several countries and is as much at home in English as she is in Japanese. Western readers will have little trouble grasping explanations of how to prepare tamagoyaki (“a rolled omelette that is savory yet slightly sweet”) or chicken kara-age (“deep-fried marinated chicken”). Not that more experienced cooks will find the book too prefatory – there’s plenty here to interest even those who already have a good knowledge of Japanese cooking basics.

Indeed, Itoh understands her audience. A frequent complaint of those living outside Japan is that it’s often difficult (if not impossible) to source Japanese ingredients when following Japanese recipes. Here, Itoh gets around this problem by offering two types of recipes: “Japanese style bentos” and “Not-so-Japanese Bentos”. The former includes such standards as ginger pork bento, soboro bento (“ground meat, fish, egg, or vegetables, seasoned and served mixed in with or sprinkled onto rice”) and soba noodle bento. Throughout the text, Itoh explains whether or not ingredients are commonly found outside Japan, and offers possible substitutes for items not available.

Itoh really mixes it up in the second part of the book dealing with bento inspired by other cultures. Recipes include “Everyone Loves A Pie Bento” (containing pies made from a yeasted dough of wheat flour and olive oil), “Spanish Omelette Bento” and a “Mediterranean Mezze-style Bento” (the use of edamame in place of chickpeas when preparing hummus is particularly clever). Prescriptivists will no doubt bristle at all this freewheeling creativity, but Itoh recognizes that not everyone is going to be satisfied with a noriben or the richness of unagi no kabayaki.

In addition to the recipes, the book carries helpful information on the various types of bento boxes and a glossary of Japanese ingredients. There’s a section on safety tips (“Cool down cooked food before packing into a bento box”, “Use an ice pack for certain foods, and in hot weather”) and another dealing with practical tips for speeding up the bento-making process. Throughout the text, Itoh also discusses the nutritional benefits of her recipes, choosing low-calorie accompaniments for rich meat dishes and offering vegan alternatives where possible (not something you’ll come across in similar Japanese cookbooks!)

The Just Bento Cookbook thus contains a wide variety of recipes and practical information – 150 ‘easy-to-prepare, original, bento-box-friendly’ recipes, according to the introduction. Curious then that the design of the book feels somewhat underdeveloped. Given the glut of cookbooks heavy on the food-porn photographs and light on actual recipes, it seems odd that Kodansha didn’t furnish Itoh with a larger budget for the images. It matters little, though. Itoh’s writing is enough to sell readers on what to expect from each recipe.

In sum, The Just Bento Cookbook is a well-written introduction for those new to preparing Japanese lunch-boxes, and a useful reference for anyone who already knows the classic Japanese recipes and is looking for fresh ideas. Best of all, Itoh is clearly unafraid of experimenting with surprising combinations of flavors and ingredients. What matters is not what’s authentic but what’s practical and tastes good. Her readers will no doubt appreciate Itoh’s efforts to render the bento a practical lunchtime alternative and follow her example.

The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches to Go
by Makiko Itoh
Kodansha International, 2,000 yen, 127 pages

Inarizushi

Inarizushi are commonly served as part of a sushi bento (Japanese lunchbox). They are also great for picnics, or as finger food for guests. This particular recipe uses roasted sesame seeds to flavour the rice, but you can also add finely sliced ginger that has been pickled in sweet vinegar. In summer, use boiled edamame (green soybeans) to flavour the sushi rice.

Inarizushi

Throw a couple of these into your next bento!

Ingredients (serves 4)

  • 2 cups of rice
  • 8 sheets of deep-fried tofu
  • 2 tablespoons of toasted sesame seeds

Sushi vinegar

  • 3 tablespoons of vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons of sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt

Soup

  • 1 and 1/2 cups of water
  • 4 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 5 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons of mirin
  • 2 tablespoons sake

Method

Cook the rice, but use less water than usual. It should still be slightly hard (you’re going to be adding more moisture with the vinegar). Next, pour all the ingredients for the sushi vinegar into a pan. Warm it over a low heat until both the sugar and salt have completely dissolved. Leave the mixture for 10 to 15 minutes, allowing it to cool.

Transfer the rice to a wooden sushi bowl moistened with water. Sprinkle the sushi vinegar all over the rice. Toss the rice with downward cutting strokes until the rice cools. Add the 2 tablespoons of toasted sesame seeds, quickly mixing them with the rice.

Now cut the deep-fried tofu sheets in half. Be careful to slice these halfway down the long side, forming what should be two squares. Carefully open each of them to form a pouch.

Next, boil 1 liter of water in a new pan. Place the deep-fried tofu into the pan and boil them for approximately 1 minute to remove any oil. Once this is done, wash them in cold water and then carefully squeeze each of them to remove any excess water.

Place all the soup ingredients into a new pan and boil them. Put the deep-fried tofu pouches into the pan and cook them for 25 – 30 minutes on a low heat. The tofu should soak up all the soup.

Once the deep-fried tofu has cooled, again squeeze the pouches gently to remove the excess soup. Holding the pouch in one hand, scoop the rice into the pouch with your other hand. Shape the tofu pouch into a small cylinder, sealing the opening by folding the two sides over.

Your inarizushi are ready to serve.

Greasy Spoons (and Chopsticks): Waseda-no-Bentoya (Wase-Ben)

greasyarticleimage copyOld Nicky’s a classy guy. Classy like the swinging casino for Chinese tourists in Pyongyang, when the best in rhinestone-studded Bolex watches and shiny, double-breasted rayon suits mix with a bit of the real thing so’s not even Sam Spade himself could tell the difference.

Classy like the green MOS Burger,  instead of the regular red one.

Most of the time, there’s even time and money enough for stools and napkins, if not chairs with backs and printed menus for each table.

Sometimes, though, even old Nicky’s on the run. And sometimes even old Nicky, classy guy that I am, just wants as much dough of the eatin’ kind for as little dough of the spendin’ kind as I can get.

And that means the best ambience in town: Take-Out. Read more