Japan Eats

Video: Sumashi-jiru (clear soup)

Keiko Inomata and Yutaka Yasuda explain how to prepare sumashi-jiru (Japanese clear soup)

We’re pleased to present this video by the talented folks at Yasuda Photo Studio.

Keiko Inomata is a researcher and lecturer focusing on kaiseki cuisine. Born in Tokyo, she is a registered nutritionist and consults on menus for the food service industry.

Yutaka Yasuda is a photographer/videographer who in 2001 established the Yasuda Photo Studio in Nakano. He specializes in food photography.

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

April ’10 Magazine Roundup

This month three of Japan’s top culinary magazines focus their attention on things Italian. Also, Dancyu tells aging ramen lovers it’s time to go back to basics and Otona no shumatsu presents yet another lengthy best-of list. Its all here in this month’s magazine roundup.

When Hollywood studios simultaneously release similar films (think Deep Impact vs Armageddon) its difficult not to suspect nervous producers spy on each other in search of original film ideas. Similarly, when three of the major Japanese food magazines decide to feature Italian cuisine on their April covers, one has to wonder if it’s more than a coincidence.

Dancyu April 2010

This month, Dancyu courts those in their 40s and 50s

This month’s Syokuraku (860 yen) features what the editors describe as “Italian food and restaurants from a man’s perspective”. They posit that Italian restaurants are not just places for dates and quiet conversation, but can be places for guys to get together and hang out. Our advice: ignore the cultural analysis and enjoy the food porn.

Ryori Tsushin (980 yen) also stretches the bounds of thematic credibility with an edition focusing on the role flour plays in Italian food. Put differently, the magazine’s editors want to discuss pasta and pizza, and to hell with that other stuff.

April’s Cuisine Kingdom (970 yen) is the last in our trio, the magazine exploring  “the Italian mode”. More cultural background than recipes, this issue covers luxury brands as well as restaurants. The editors also ask where Italian cuisine is headed.

Ramen nerds rejoice! Dancyu (850 yen) has you in its sights. The April edition of the magazine is a veritable cornucopia of ramen, specifically aimed at self-appointed ramen experts in their 40s and 50s. April’s issue features 14 ramen shops – 12 in Tokyo, 1 in Osaka and 1 in Kobe. Urging readers to go back to basics, the magazine also discusses Tokyo’s trademark soy-sauce ramen and recommends 10 restaurants in which to sample the dish.

And where would we be without another best-of list? Otona no shumatsu (580 yen) lists the magazine’s “best 102 restaurants in the past 5 years”. The editors claim to have visited some 18, 000 restaurants in the past 5 years, and to have introduced 3600 in the magazine. Of these, they write, 350 were rated highly . After what must have been much soul-searching at the Kodansha offices, they finally whittled this list down to a (curiously unrounded) 102. All were tested in secret and come recommended for taste, price and great service. They are in Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka and Nagoya.

And also…

Nakameguro is Tokyo’s version of Little Italy? So say our friends at Shokuraku. They map 25 Italian restaurants within walking distance of Nakameguro Station. Worryingly, this figure includes the local Saizeriya. What do you think? Is Nakameguro Tokyo’s answer to Mulberry Street? Leave your thoughts below in the comments.

Kizami Udon

This dish is a particularly healthy combination of deep-fried tofu, udon noodles and green onion.

There are two kinds of udon dishes that use deep-fried tofu as a garnish. One is kitsune udon – in which the deep-fried tofu is soaked in a soup of sweet sauce before being used to garnish udon in dashi soup.

The other is kizami udon, where the deep-fried tofu is toasted rather than soaked in a sauce. The result is a light, fresh and textured dish – the crispyness of tofu balancing the soft udon.

Kizami Udon

Kizami Udon

Ingredients (serves 2)

  • 2 portions fresh udon noodles
  • 1 piece of deep-fried tofu
  • 1/3 of a naganegi (green onion)
  • 4 to 5 stalks of asatsuki chives

Udon soup

  • 4 cups of water
  • 10cm of kombu (kelp)
  • 30g dried bonito flakes
  • 3 tablespoons sake
  • 1 and 1/2 tablespoons of light soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 2 tablespoons of mirin


First, we’re going to cook the udon soup.

Pour the water into a pot and add the kombu (kelp). Bring the water to the boil over a medium heat. The kombu must be removed from the pot immediately before coming to the boil.

When it comes to the boil, add the dried bonito flakes. Boil these briefly and then turn off the heat.

When all the flakes have set on the bottom of the pot, strain the mixture through a cloth. Pour this strained stock (dashi) into a pot, then bring it to the boil. Add the sake, soy sauce, salt and mirin and boil it briefly.

Cut the green onion (naganegi) into very thin diagonal slices and place them into a bowl of cold water for one minute . When they have finished soaking, drain them and put them aside.

Next, finely chop the chives and put them into a small bowl. The chives, together with the onion, will be used later to garnish the dish.

Put the dried-tofu into an oven toaster and toast it for 3 minutes until the surface is browned. Slice the crispy dried-tofu into rectangles.

Next, boil the water in a pot and warm the udon based on the recipe printed on the package and then drain the noodles.

Place the udon in the serving bowls and pour the soup over the noodles. Now lay the sliced tofu on top of the noodles and garnish with the green onion and chives.

Finally, sprinkle shichimi togarashi (a mixture of red pepper and other spices) over the dish before eating.


Chirashizushi is the perfect thing for your next party or celebration. It’s best known as a dish with which to celebrate momo no sekku or hinamatsuri (the Japanese Doll Festival).

Every year on the 3rd of March, Japanese parents display dolls for their daughters – a tradition dating back to the Heian period (1200 years ago). At that time the (then) paper dolls were viewed as a talisman – evil spirits were thought to possess the dolls and they would be destroyed in order to protect the health of young girls. The tradition continues to this day, although Japanese now display dolls in their homes, no longer watching them float out to sea.

Here, maguro (tuna) can be used instead of salmon. You can also add ikura (salmon roe) or cubed cucumber as a garnish.


Party food: chirashizushi


Sushi rice (learn how to prepare this here)

Egg garnish

  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon of sugar
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • vegetable oil

Mushroom garnish

  • 4 dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 1/2 cup dashi soup
  • 2 tablespoons of sugar
  • 1 tablespoon of mirin
  • 1 tablespoon of soy sauce

Gourd garnish

  • 10g dried gourd (kanpyo)
  • water
  • 2 pinches of salt
  • 1 cup dashi soup
  • 3 tablespoons of sugar
  • 2 tablespoons of soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons of mirin

Burdock garnish

  • 1/3 burdock
  • 1/3 cup dashi soup
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon mirin
  • a small bowl of cold water with 1 tablespoon of vinegar

Lotus root garnish

  • 40g lotus root
  • 3 tablespoons dashi soup
  • 2 tablespoons vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • a small bowl of water with 1 tablespoon of vinegar

The part about the snow peas

  • 8-10 snow peas
  • Hot water
  • 1 pinch of salt

And the salmon

  • 100g salmon (sashimi-grade raw fish)


Cook sushi rice according to the inarizushi recipe.

Egg garnish: beat the eggs with cutting strokes and add the sugar and the salt. Coat a frypan with a mall amount of vegetable oil. Warm the pan on a medium heat.
Pour 1/4 of the beaten egg into the pan and cook it like a crepe. Repeat the process 3 more times. When the sheets of egg have cooled down, fold them and cut them into very thin strips.

Mushroom garnish: soak the dried shiitake mushrooms into a small bowl of cold water to soften them. Once they have become soft, cut the stems off. Put 1/2 cup of dashi soup, sugar and the mushrooms into a pan and place it over a low heat for 5 minutes. Add mirin and soy sauce, then simmer until the sauce has almost evaporated. When they cool down, cut the mushrooms into thin (2-3mm) strips.

Gourd garnish: briefly wash the dried strip of gourd (kanpyo) in cold water and rub it with salted hands. There’s no need to be gentle, and you should have about 2 pinches of salt in your hands. Once this has been done, wash away the salt in cold water. Next, put the strip into a pot with plenty of water and boil it. When the strip becomes soft (you should be able to leave an impression with your fingernails) wash them again in cold water. Next, put the dashi soup, sugar and gourd into a pot and cook it on a low heat for 5 minutes. Add the mirin and the soy, simmering until the sauce has almost evaporated. When it has cooled down, cut it into 1 cm lengths.

Burdock garnish: scrape off the skin of the burdock using the back of a knife. Make a lengthwise cross-shaped incision about 5cm deep at one end, and cut it from that end (as if you were sharpening a pencil). Bleach them in a bowl of cold water with a tablespoon of vinegar for 5 minutes and drain them. Place the dashi soup, sugar and burdock into a pot and cook them over a low heat for 5 minutes. Add the mirin and soy sauce, simmering until the sauce has almost evaporated.

Lotus root garnish: peel the lotus root and slice thinly. Cut the slices into quarters. Bleach them in a bowl of cold water with a tablespoon of vinegar for 5 minutes and drain them. Boil them in hot water for 1 minute and drain them. While hot, soak them in the sauce made of dashi, vinegar sugar and salt. Submerge them in the sauce then let them stand until they cool.

String the snow peas, boil them in hot water for 30 seconds and put them in cold water (so as to maintain the color). Cut them diagonally into pieces 1-2mm thick.

When the sushi rice has cooled to room temperature, mix it with the toasted sesame seeds, followed by the mushrooms, gourd, burdock and lotus root.

Sprinkle the snow peas and the salmon (cut into 1cm cubes) onto the rice. Finally decorate with the egg and serve.


This wonderfully fresh pickled ‘salad’ makes an excellent winter side-dish. I like to serve this together with any kind of nabe (Japanese hotpot) or beside salmon or mackerel, the yuzu-flavored pickles helping to balance the oiliness of the fish. It also makes excellent otsumami (Japanese tapas) served alongside beer, shochu or sake.

This particular recipe calls for Chinese cabbage, but you can also use a mixture of Chinese cabbage and the regular variety.

Flavored with yuzu, a citrus fruit found in China, Korea and Japan.

Flavored with yuzu, a citrus fruit found in China, Korea and Japan.

Ingredients (serves 8 as a side dish)

  • 300g Chinese cabbage (3-4 leaves)
  • 80-100g cucumber
  • 150-200g kabu turnip (with stem and leaves still attached)
  • 1/2 a yuzu, sliced into strips
  • One 10cm by 10cm piece of kombu (kelp)
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons of salt
  • 1 teaspoon of kobu-cha (kelp tea)
  • 1 dried red pepper


First cut the Chinese cabbage into large pieces. The leaves should be roughly 3-4 cm in size, while the hard white stem section should be sliced into pieces 5-7cm in width, following the grain.

Next, slice the cucumber into pieces 2-3mm thick.

Cut the stem from the top of the turnip, leaving about 1cm. Boil the stems in a pan of water for about 10 seconds, then place them into a dish of cold water. Quickly wash them and squeeze any moisture out. Cut the stems into sections 3-4cm in length.

Now, wash the turnip, using a toothpick to clean the remaining stem section. Peel the turnip, being careful to leave the remaining stem in place. Finally, slice the turnip into 1mm thick pieces, again following the grain.

Prepare the kombu by cutting it into 2-3mm pieces using a pair of kitchen scissors.

Finally, slice the red pepper into two halves and discard the seeds inside.

Seal all the ingredients in a double plastic bag, making sure there’s still some air trapped inside. Now shake the bag, so that all is mixed well.

Squeeze the plastic bag so as to let all the air out. Refrigerate for 3-4 hours (or even overnight) before serving.

A note about serving asazuke

It is important that when you serve the dish, you drain any excess water by using both hands and squeezing the vegetables.  Asazuke should not be served swimming in liquid.

Nabe party!

As winter approaches, Mieko Higano shares her recipe for kimchi nabe.

Kimchi nabe is just the thing for winter. Not only does this spicy hotpot taste great, many believe it can help ward-off colds and other ailments. In Japan, its common for friends to gather and cook some kind of nabe together.

And best thing about this dish is that its not about exact amounts of particular ingredients – just throw what you like in the nabe and enjoy!

Nira (chives) and Enoki mushrooms in the nabe.

Nira (chives) and Enoki mushrooms in the nabe.

‘Luxury’ version (serves 4 people)

  • Japanese ‘nabe’ (hotpot) with a diameter of roughly 25cm and depth of 8cm
  • 5 cups of water
  • 300g kimchi
  • 200g sliced pork (butabara style is best)
  • 350g of tofu
  • 3 to 5 shiitake mushrooms
  • 180g enoki mushrooms
  • 1 negi (Japanese onion)
  • 1/2 package of nira (Chinese chives)
  • 5 tablespoons of miso
  • 2 tablespoons of kochujan
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons of Red pepper powder
  • 1 clove of grated garlic

Before you begin cooking, slice the kimchi, pork and tofu into  into bite-sized pieces.  Be careful chopping the kimchi as you’ll have juice left over on the cutting board.  Be sure to add this liquid to the nabe, not just throw it away.

Next, divide the shiitake mushrooms into halves. Cut away the root section of the enoki mushrooms, and slice these too in half (if desired – I prefer not to). The negi should be cut diagonally into slices 1cm thick, and the nira into 10cm long sections (or whatever length fits into your hotpot).

Now put 1 to 2 tablespoons of sesame oil into the hotpot and cook the sliced pork together with about half the kimchi.  Once the meat begins to change color, add 5 cups of water, the rest of the kimchi and all the spices. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes (1 to 2 minutes after it has begun to boil).

Now add the tofu, shiitake, negi, enoki and cook for a few more minutes, until the tofu becomes hot.

Finally, put the nira into the nabe, boil for 1 minute and turn the heat off with the lid still on the hotpot. The idea is to cook the nira with the steam coming off the rest of the mixture.

‘Simple’ version (serves 2 people)

  • Japanese ‘nabe’ (hotpot) with a diameter of roughly 18cm and depth of 6cm
  • 2 or 2 1/2 cups of water
  • 150g kimchi
  • 1/2 tofu
  • 100g enoki mushrooms
  • 1/4 to 1/2 a package of nira
  • 2 tablespoons of miso
  • 1 tablespoon of kochujan
  • 1 tablespoon red pepper powder
  • 1/2 to 1 clove of garlic


Follow the instructions as per the “Luxury” version, minus the directions for cooking the pork. Be sure to add the tofu, shiitake and nira last.

A few extra tips

  • I always use my monther’s homemade miso, but the usual miso you buy at the Japanese supermarket is also fine to use.
  • As just about every Korean cookbook will tell you, try to use old kimchi. It should taste almost sour.
  • Udon noodles can be added to the ‘luxury’ version, space permitting.

Osaka-style okonomiyaki


Okonomiyaki is one of Japan’s most recognizable dishes. Often referred to as a Japanese pancake, the name okonomiyaki literally means ‘whatever you like’.

There are two main types of okonomiyaki. The first, usually associated with Kansai is simply a savory pancake made with cabbage, egg, flour and negi. Seafood or pork is usually added.

Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, on the other hand, has a filling of fried noodles. This type of okonomiyaki is usually referred to as Hiroshimayaki and the ‘pancakes’ themselves are thinner, like crepes.

How to make Osaka-style okonomiyaki:


  • 200g Cabbage
  • 1 Egg
  • 1 cup plain flour (or okonomiyaki powder if you’re in Japan)
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 3tsb grated sticky potato
  • Sliced pork (or seafood if you prefer)
  • 1/2 of a Japanese Negi, chopped
  • Marinated Ginger (benishouga) to taste
  • 1tsb Tenkasu (adds flavour and an oilyness)
  • 1tsp Dried shrimp
  • Dried bonito


Mix everything but the bonito roughly, leaving the egg until last.

Preheat the pan and pour in 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil, swirling it around to make sure the bottom of the pan is covered.

Pour about a cup of the mixture onto the frypan, as you would a pancake. Flip the okonomiyaki over after a few minutes so that it is evenly cooked on both sides. Serve when golden brown.

Okonomiyaki is usually served with okonomiyaki sauce (I recommend ootafuku), aonori (a kind of seaweed) and mayonnaise. Use a squeeze bottle and a spoon to spread the sauce across the surface. Finally sprinkle a large pinch of bonito on the top of the okonomiyaki and watch ’em dance.