The ExPat Returneth

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Nabe: Simmering Japanese Soup for the Spring Chill

Now that we've had a little cold snap, it reminds us of one of our favorite cold-weather foods, NABE (nah-bay). NABE is a catch-all term for food simmered in a broth in an earthen pot, usually about 12 inches across and 3 inches deep. The best way to do it is NOT on the stovetop, but to use a little single burner and cook it on the table, right in the middle everyone.
Typical nabe pot with single burner stove

Ingredients for nabe include the following: cabbage, thinly sliced meat (beef or pork), mushrooms (esp. SHIITAKE, but also ENOKI [thin, white stringy things]), green onions, KONYAKU (a vegetable-based gelatin substance, either in cube form or noodles), tofu, spinach, sliced leeks. Really, you can put anything in NABE as long as it tastes good with the other ingredients.

For the broth, you can be really simple and use just water, or add a little DASHI or some other stock flavoring. has a great post on a classic nabe, sukiyaki, including lyrics for the most popular karaoke song of all time: Sukiyaki. For a chicken nabe, check this post.
My point is that it's simple. Put liquid in earthen pot/basin thingy, put on heat, and add ingredients to your liking. Simple, healthy, yummy, and participatory. 

After the ingredients have had some time to cook, pull out small amounts by tongs or chopsticks, place in little bowls that everyone should have, and go to town. We especially like to put a little PONZU (citrus-flavored soy sauce) in our bowls and zest up the broth. I also like adding a bit of TOHGARASHI (Japanese red pepper) to give it a kick.

Note: for the meat, we like to get pre-sliced frozen pork from the ever-awesome Buford Highway Farmer's Market in Atlanta, but you can buy pork loin or a cut of sirloin and cut as thin as possible, similar to the kind of sliced meat you might want to add to SHABU SHABU.
Note: partially freeze your meat before slicing thin for easier cutting

And, finally, a great night of NABE ends with a healthy dose of (pre-boiled) RAMEN or UDON noodles in the broth. This both takes advantage of the absorbed flavors of the broth and provides a nice little carbo kick at the end of the meal to ensure proper nutrition and absorption of the beer that was drunk during the eating of the NABE.
Adding the ramen

NABE: Japan's version of fondue that is as wonderful as it is flexible and delicious (OISHII!!!).


After getting his M.A. in Japanese Art History, Trey Hoffman eschewed university life for Japanese business. He's worked for four Japanese companies in the U.S.; for a U.S. state office in Japan; and for a Japanese City Hall in the JET program. A father and husband, Trey enjoys teaching his kids about other cultures and introducing them to bizarre foods.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Quick & Easy Taco Rice -- Japan via Okinawa -- Your Family's New Favorite Meal

I was going to write something pithy this week, but I'm not feeling the pithy vibe. I don't feel like cooking, cleaning, or anything house related. I'm almost finished with a first draft of another novel and all I want to do is write (except for my Pinterest and Facebook addictions).
Beautifully simple Taco Rice

So this week we are having Takoraisu: Taco Rice. I could make Taco Rice every week, and my family would happily kiss the rice cooker. We love Taco Rice so, so much. And you will, too, if you like tacos and rice. And since we're talking Japanese food, I don't mean octopus (tako in Japanese). 

But tacos and rice, you say? How can it be that easy? It can. It's not even saffron rice. Just plain ol' short-grained rice. But you can do the long grained thing if you're into that. 

Taco Rice is brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. The tasty dish hails from Okinawa. Presumably American marines brought it to the islands, combining the beloved American taco with the beloved Okinawan rice. Another reason to love the US troops.

Here's our little Taco Rice story. While living in Japan, our family happened on a restaurant called Yummy. (There are always restaurants named something like Yummy in Japan. It's how Japan works). Yummy served a variety of Okinawan and Hawaiian style food in a sort of fast food type setting. 
Yummy's Bible
I like their style
Eldest daughter scanned the menu hanging on the wall. "I want taco rice." 

"Remember, you don't like octopus," I said. "You said it tastes like erasers." 

"No, look," she replied, pointing to the picture of a bowl with something like tortilla chips, cheese, and salsa spilling over the rim. (In Japan, there are always pictures or plastic replicas of food at restaurants. Very handy).

We bought her taco rice because we are obliging parents and eldest daughter always eats well.

Of course, we tried her taco rice and loved it. And she will forever remind us that we are indebted to her for introducing taco rice to our family. 

Tasty Kitchen also has a post on Takoraisu with beautiful pictures. I took Yummy's idea and made it my way.

Taco Rice

Hot cooked rice
Your favorite taco ingredients minus the tortillas or taco shells
Add your favorite taco ingredients on top of the hot cooked rice

How simple is that? 

More specifically:
I usually make 2 go of rice in my rice cooker, which equals about 1 1/2 cups of uncooked rice. Make the amount of rice you normally use for a side dish.

Cooking the meat, onions
and seasoning
1 lb. of ground meat (turkey, beef, &/or pork)
chopped onion
taco seasoning

Cook the chopped onion and meat. Drain the fat. Add the taco seasoning as directed on the package.

Your favorite taco condiments (for example):
Adding the taco meat on top of the rice
shredded cheese
sour cream
sliced olives

chopped tomato
chopped lettuce
tortilla chips

Put whatever you like on top of the rice. It's not rocket science. 
Which is why I love Taco Rice. 
Enjoy! Salud! Kampai!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Cherry Blossom Viewing Yakitori (Grilled Chicken)

Only hard rain will deter the ohanami party
Down here in Georgia, the cherry blossoms have come and gone, but I know they are nearing their peak in my old stomping grounds in Japan. The weather tends to be iffy, but cherry blossom season is arguably the best time to be in Japan. Not only is the country covered in great swaths of billowy pink and white clouds, it is  one great national festival that begins in the south and works it way north with the opening of the blossoms. 

Ise City has 1,000 cherry trees
along the Miyagawa River
Ohanami is huge. You can follow blossom viewing reports on the news. Kyoto and other famous cherry blossom viewing areas become overrun with national and international tourists. Japan has an official travel site for cherry blossom travel at Japan Travel Info that has great information about the season. 

There are some amazing national spots to see the explosion of color, but almost every part of Japan has a particularly beautiful area -- usually a park -- with a lovely grouping of cherry trees. And under these trees you will find groups of people sitting and laying on blue tarps, drinking and eating. 

It's ohanami or cherry blossom viewing party. And IMHO, the best dang party of the year.
Note the blue tarps

Families will stroll under the trees and picnic. Night viewing with hanging lanterns or spotlights are popular. But what will catch your attention is the insane revelry of the company party. Office workers, still partially clad in suits, get hammered on warm canned beer, sake, and whatever other liquor someone brings. Earlier in the afternoon, the company sends out their junior workers to stake a claim under a tree with tarps, portable grills, coolers of food, and cases of beer. Workers leave the office at a reasonable hour or even early (unusual for Japan) and head to the spot. Then the real partying begins.

This is some of the craziness that
 happens at Ohanami parties.

Once we had children, my husband and I had to chill on the ohanami parties. We chose more family-friendly picnicking but still brought the tarp, portable grill, cooler of food and beer. Back in the U.S., we live in a city in Georgia that has quite a few cherry trees, including a neighbor's that hangs over our fence in our backyard. Having an ohanami party is still a must, although we tend to eat at our patio table and stare at the tree from afar instead of putting the tarp under the tree. 

This year hubby made yakitori (skewered grilled chicken), aspara-bacon (grilled bacon wrapped asparagus) and tomato-bacon (grilled bacon wrapped cherry tomato).

Dudes, you so have to make this. Especially now that we're entering prime grilling season. Shizuoka Gourmet has a nice post on the basics of yakitori. has a list of all the different types of yakitori you can get at a true yakitori restaurant. I'm offering a basic recipe of what many Americans might call terikyaki grilled chicken.

Festival yakitori in Japan
Basic Yakitori: grilled (yaki) chiciken (tori)

Chicken thigh (about 3 lbs), skinned and boned
2 bundles of green onion (white part only), if you like onion
1/3 c mirin (sweet rice wine for cooking, you can substitute cooking sherry)
2 T soy sauce
1/2 t minced fresh ginger (we use ginger paste, works nicely)
1 clove minced or pressed garlic
bamboo skewers soaked in water (so they don't burn)

Cut chicken into about 1 inch pieces, making certain the pieces are roughly the same size. If you're using onion, cut them into 1 1/4 inch lengths. The chicken will shrink.

Mix the marinade and soak the chicken. Some recipes will have you thread the chicken on the skewers and brush the marinade on while it's cooking. You can do it either way. Marinating is easier and you get a stronger sauce flavor. You know how I feel. It's your kitchen. Whatever.

Skewer the chicken alternating with the green onion if you're using the onion. 

Grill the skewered chicken on a grill or broiler. Cook, turning once, until meat is no longer pink inside.

Aspara-Bacon and Tomato-Bacon

Rinse the vegetables. Wrap a 1/2 piece of bacon around each veg.

For the asparagus use 2 skewers and thread about 4 aspara-bacon horizontally (will look like a ladder). 

Use bacon wrapped cherry tomatoes (grape tomatoes are too small, others are too big) and thread them on one skewer.

Grill or broil for about 15 minutes until bacon is crisp.
Asparabacon from Isekaya Ginji restaurant