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Toshikoshi soba for vegetable fans

December 22, 2010

I don’t get sick very often and I almost never have a fever over 99, but at the end of December 2009 my husband picked up some sort of virulent influenza and passed it to me. With both of us too sick to travel to his family’s home, we spent the last few hours of 2009 listlessly partaking in the Japanese tradition of watching Kōhaku Utagassen, the lackluster singing competition that is held every year. At that point my fever was somewhere around 104, so I barely remember what bands appeared or what ridiculous costumes were featured. But I do remember the soba noodles that Tsuyoshi made, which were the only food other than English muffins and tea that I had consumed for several days at that point. I clearly recall carrots and enoki mushrooms atop a steaming bowl of chewy buckwheat noodles in a soy-tinged broth made from homemade dashi, accented by just a few pieces of yuzu skin to add a citrusy flavor and aroma. Despite the fact that this bowl of noodles was thrown together from things we had in the refrigerator even after days of no grocery shopping, somehow it made me feel like I might just survive to see 2010 after all.

Toshikoshi soba, which literally means “ending the old year and beginning the New Year soba,” is eaten after the clock strikes midnight on the first day of the year. Theoretically the reason people eat soba has something to do with the long noodles symbolizing long life and luck in the New Year (and according to this website it is also associated with severing the bad luck of the previous year), but it really takes very little to convince people to eat soba.

Most toshikoshi soba I’ve been served at the homes of friends has been fairly plain, with perhaps some green onions or kamaboko (cakes made from fish paste) on top. I had toshikoshi soba once at a Buddhist temple in the middle of the night, and their soba was served cold with wasabi and a soy-based dipping sauce. But soba is a pretty carbohydrate-heavy snack and I personally prefer my soba topped with plenty of vegetables to make it a more complete meal. (Unfortunately when I took the photograph up top, I had randomly bought some brown enoki mushrooms without considering that they wouldn’t look as pretty against the noodles. It would look nicer with the regular white ones.) This recipe for toshikoshi soba is not a traditional one by any means, but it’s a combination I like. I’m planning to eat it again this year, hopefully in much better health.

Toshikoshi soba with carrots and enoki

Ingredients (serves 2)

2 servings soba noodles (dry or fresh)
1/4 – 1/2 carrot (depending on size; add as much as you want)
1/2 package (90 grams) enoki mushrooms
Yuzu skin
Chopped scallions
1 liter dashi
2 tablespoons sake
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons usukuchi soy sauce
Pinch sugar
Pinch salt

  1. Use a knife to thinly remove the upper layer of the yuzu skin (about 1 inch square). Chop into thin slivers.
  2. Heat the dashi. Chop the carrot into half moons and cook in dashi until soft.
  3. Add seasonings to dashi, and taste. Add more soy sauce or sugar if necessary.
  4. Add enoki mushrooms.
  5. Cook soba in separate pot according to directions.
  6. Warm two serving bowls by pouring a little hot water into them and swirling it around. Pour out, then place half of the cooked noodles in each bowl. Add dashi mixture. Garnish with chopped scallions and yuzu slivers.
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Kinoko nabe (mushroom hot pot)

December 17, 2010

Nabe is one of those things that it’s almost ridiculous to use a recipe for. It makes much more sense to follow a simple formula: flavorful broth + vegetables + protein + starch = delicious. The broth is almost always based on dashi (although you could use chicken or vegetable stock if you liked) and can be flavored with soy sauce, miso, spices, or kept plain; the vegetables can be absolutely anything; the protein can be meat or soy; and the starch can be noodles, rice, or mochi (glutinous rice cakes).

Despite this, I found myself following my husband around the kitchen with a notepad in late November as he threw this nabe together. Part of the reason was that I wanted to post it here, but I also just wanted to have some kind of record. Tsuyoshi is the kind of cook who doesn’t like using recipes and therefore his nabe turn out slightly different each time, and I was curious to see exactly what he was doing differently.

Please consider this recipe a rough guideline to be tweaked as necessary depending on your preferences and what ingredients you can find. It can be easily modified to feed a large number of people if you simply increase the amount of broth, vegetables, and protein (which can be added in several batches at the table) and keep plenty of dashi on hand to add to the pot when the liquid is getting low. This meal is also very vegetarian friendly – I like to add a small amount of meat to make the broth more flavorful, but you can leave it out if you want.

A note about the nabe itself: we use a ceramic nabe that is a Japanese size 9 (approximately 23.5 centimeters in diameter). This is technically the size to feed four or five people, and provides two meals for us. If you don’t have  a Japanese-style nabe, you can make nabe in a wide pot– just make sure it’s shallow enough that you can arrange the ingredients inside without having them float around in the broth like soup. It’s also traditional to serve the nabe at the table atop a small tabletop burner sold for just this purpose. I’ve never seen an equivalent outside of Japan (although maybe something similar is sold for camping), but you can certainly keep the nabe cooking atop the stove and get up from the table when you want another serving.

Kinoko nabe (mushroom hot pot)

Serves: 4

Ingredients
1.5 liters dashi (more if necessary, depending on the size of your nabe)
2 tablespoons sesame oil
3 cloves garlic, sliced
Ginger, sliced (roughly the same amount as the garlic)
3-5 dried chili peppers, cut and seeds removed (depending on how spicy you want it to be)
1/4 onion, diced
White miso, to taste
1 package (180 grams) enoki mushrooms
1 package (100 grams) shimeji mushrooms
1 package (100 grams) maitake mushrooms
1 package (100 grams) Moyashi (bean sprouts)
1/4 Chinese cabbage
1 block tofu, any type, cut into large squares  (more if not using meat)
200 grams sliced pork
A few big handfuls of greens (seri, etc.)
Mochi, cubes or sheets (optional)
Ponzu, yuzu koshō pepper, sesame sauce, etc. for serving (optional)

  1. Drizzle sesame oil into your nabe. Cook the garlic, ginger, and onion over low heat to flavor the oil.
  2. Add the hot peppers and continue cooking while stirring constantly.
  3. Add the meat. Cook until no longer raw.
  4. Add ½ of the total amount of mushrooms. Cook while stirring until slightly softened.
  5. Add enough dashi to cover your ingredients. Simmer gently, using a wire whisk or other implement to remove the aku (scum) that floats to the top.
  6. After all aku is gone, use a miso koshi strainer to add the white miso (or remove some of the soup into a small bowl, mix the miso in there, then return it to the nabe).  Start by adding a few teaspoons, then taste. Continue adding miso until the soup tastes flavorful but not overly salty – the goal isn’t to make miso soup but to add another dimension of subtle flavor.
  7. Add the rest of the mushrooms, Chinese cabbage, tofu, and mochi (optional) arranging them nicely inside the pot. Add more dashi to cover if necessary, but you don’t want to submerge all the ingredients – they should peek out from the broth.
  8. Add a final drizzle of sesame oil for fragrance. Mound the greens in the center of the pot.
  9. Bring the nabe to the table and set it on the portable stove. Turn the stove heat as low as necessary to maintain a very gentle simmer.
  10. To serve, provide each person with a small dish and have them use chopsticks or a ladle to select their own vegetables, meat, tofu, etc. You can put ponzu or sesame sauce inside the dish to dip the ingredients in, or smear them with a bit of yuzu koshō pepper paste.

After eating, save all of the savory broth that remains as well as any leftover scraps of vegetables. If you are still hungry you can finish the meal with rice porridge. If not, save the broth and make porridge for breakfast the next morning. Just be careful not to add too much rice, since it tends to plump up and expand. You can either rinse the rice to remove extra starch, or add it to the broth as is to create a heartier porridge.

Left: Adding the meat to the mushrooms, onions, garlic, and ginger

Right: After adding blocks of mochi


Kinoko zōsui (mushroom rice porridge)

Ingredients

Leftover nabe broth
Cooked rice, any kind (about 1/2 cup-3/4 cup per person)
1 egg per person

  1. If rinsing the rice, place in a strainer and gently rinse under running water.
  2. Add the rice to the leftover broth in the nabe, and cook over medium-low heat until rice begins to plump and expand, stirring to make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.
  3. Beat eggs in a bowl. Gently pour into the pot, stirring to cook.
  4. Ladle into individual bowls and serve.

Seasonal spotlight: Yuzu

December 15, 2010
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There’s something I wait for every year, one thing that keeps me anxiously counting the days once that first autumn breeze makes itself felt. No, I’m not talking about New Year’s celebrations or Tokyo’s one yearly snowfall. Instead, the part of winter in Japan that gets me the most excited is the appearance of the fruit known as “yuzu,” which is sometimes called “citron” in English.

Yuzu is a round yellow citrus fruit that is smaller than an orange, with a unique smell that simply cannot be described in words. Unlike other citrus fruits, the flavor and aroma of yuzu are concentrated in its skin that is either zested or cooked and eaten. Yuzu skin is used to add a bright accent to many winter foods such as simmered root vegetables. It is also incorporated into many dishes that are part of traditional New Year celebrations, like the ozōni soup that is served on the first morning of the year.

If you were to taste yuzu juice by itself you probably wouldn’t think it was that worthy of notice since the juice actually resembles lemon juice a great deal. This is where some recipes go wrong – if your recipe calls only for yuzu juice and not yuzu zest, it’s always a good idea to put some zest in as well to ensure that you retain the real smell and flavor of yuzu.

Yuzu is also widely used in both beverages (many alcoholic) and desserts. I’ve had yuzu sours, yuzu soda with lemon, green tea with yuzu, yuzu cheesecake, yuzu candy, manjū buns filled with yuzu and white miso, candied yuzu skin, yuzu jam, yuzu white chocolate, yuzu shortcake, and many more delicious yuzu offerings. Yuzu is often made into ponzu, a citrus-flavored soy sauce that is used for dipping vegetables from hot pot dishes or made into salad dressing. The only way that yuzu is definitely not eaten is by itself like an orange. I’ve even bought yuzu shampoo and body soap. And speaking of bathing, yuzu are sometimes floated in hot bath water to perfume it (and the bather) with their fragrance.

This is the signal that yuzu season has arrived

I wasn’t always so crazy about yuzu, though. For me this particular fruit was an acquired taste. It took a few years for my nose to learn to appreciate the aroma of yuzu, which is somehow both flowery and a bit pungent at the same time. Now I like to keep a couple of yuzu in my refrigerator constantly from the time they come into season, so they are always at hand for garnishing vegetables or noodles, making pickles, or whisking into salad dressing.

Generally on this blog I will try to give suggestions for ingredient substitutions or encourage people to try making a Japanese-style recipe with familiar vegetables if something happens to not be available locally. Yuzu is an exception because I don’t think there is another citrus fruit that is even remotely similar. If you’ve never tasted or used yuzu, do yourself a favor and try one even if it means convincing your local produce guy to put in a special order. Yuzu is becoming gradually more popular out of Japan, so I bet that it isn’t that hard to find in most places with a decent selection of Asian food. And if you do get a hold of some yuzu, here are some recipes to start with.

Seasonal spotlight: Nabe

December 6, 2010
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A note before our regular entry: It turned out that I missed posting during the first week of December. The reason is that I had a job change that was long thought about but ended up happening somewhat suddenly – I left my job at the translation company I worked for and am now working as a freelance translator. It’s been a very busy few weeks for me but I’m slowly getting into more of a regular routine. I may miss a post here and there in December, but since I’m the kind of person who requires a schedule I’m going to do my best to keep things going according to plan!

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Nabe with mushrooms, mizuna, bean sprouts, and fried tofu

 

My husband Tsuyoshi grew up in Fukushima Prefecture, which is a few hours north of the Tokyo area. There’s not a whole lot of geographical distance between here and there, but there are plenty of linguistic and cultural differences (such as a whole different dialect that is still really difficult for me to understand).

Another big difference is that, unlike Tokyo, Fukushima winters are really, really cold. Or rather, Fukushima is significantly less cold than some places I’ve lived like Minnesota and Idaho, but like most rural areas in Japan the homes in Fukushima are not insulated. Nor do Japanese houses have central heating, meaning that people rely on space heaters that run on electricity or oil. The end result of this is that the temperature inside is usually only a few degrees warmer than the temperature outside, and everyone walks around wearing six layers of clothing when they aren’t huddled underneath a kotatsu (a type of low table enclosed in a blanket with a heater inside) or sitting in a warm bath.

Why don’t Japanese people insulate their homes nor have central heating? I don’t know, and I don’t think anybody else does either. I’ve heard a range of speculations including the theory that Japanese homes are made to let breezes through to be comfortable in the summer and prevent humidity and the theory that people are afraid that central heating will cost more. Maybe it’s a conspiracy headed by the companies that sell the popular heating pads that people stick to their bodies underneath their clothing. Regardless of the reason, even after five years here I still find it baffling to see people freezing in their own houses in a country where even the toilet seats are electronically programmed and kindergarten students use cell phones that are more advanced than the computers owned by most Americans.

There is one other thing to ensure that you survive the winter in a drafty Japanese house: nabe. The word “nabe” in Japanese just means “pot,” but if someone talks about eating “nabe” or “nabemono” they are referring to a type of communal cuisine in which a variety of ingredients are simmered – usually right at the table – in a broth that becomes more flavorful the longer the dinner stretches on. There is an almost endless variety of nabe out there that varies by cooking style, personal preference, and region. English speakers are probably most familiar with sukiyaki, in which beef and vegetables are cooked in an iron pot. Some other popular varieties are mizutaki (vegetables and chicken cooked in a mildly flavored broth), chanko nabe (a filling type of hot pot made with fish and meat that is the traditional food of sumo wrestlers), tōnyu nabe (nabe made with soy milk), motsu nabe (hot pot made with offal meat), and many others. Japanese people also love nabemono influenced by Korean cuisine, such as kimchi jjigae.

Common nabe ingredients include mushrooms, Chinese cabbage, tofu, bean sprouts, and long onion


When eating nabe, everyone gathers around the table and adds different vegetables and other ingredients to the simmering pot as the mood strikes. This causes the flavor of the soup to change over the course of the meal. The close to the meal is usually in the form of udon or other noodles that are added to the pot when most of the vegetables are gone, although some people instead add rice to make a savory and flavorful rice porridge.

During the winter months my husband and I eat nabe almost every weekend. Making the nabe is usually his job, but we almost always add some kind of protein (either pork or chicken), three or four types of mushrooms, green onions, Chinese cabbage, several varieties of tofu, some kind of noodle, and bean sprouts. We are also both fond of seri, a Japanese leaf vegetable that has a slightly bitter taste. Since there are usually only two of us eating at my house we like to make a lot of nabe so that we can have rice porridge for breakfast the next morning.

The casual nature of nabe makes it a great choice for party food, and there’s no better way to warm up than to gather a group of friends together for nabe and either beer or sake. Nabe have helped me live through many a Japanese winter, and I will be sharing several nabe recipes throughout this season. Until then, here are some recipes from other blogs and websites.

Kabocha pudding

November 24, 2010

When people hear that my husband is Japanese they sometimes ask whether it’s hard to cook for or eat with someone who was raised in a different culture. It’s a valid question – food is such an intrinsic part of our lives and is so dependent on the cultures we were raised in that I imagine that married people from different countries who couldn’t come to some sort of compromise in this realm would experience a certain amount of stress. But Tsuyoshi and I are really quite compatible when it comes to culinary matters. There are a few foods he likes that I refuse to touch (like sea urchin, offal meat, and shirako) and he doesn’t share my raging sweet tooth or quite understand my predilection for eating whole spoonfuls of peanut butter, but on the whole we manage to eat whatever the other cooks without much complaint.

Yet there is one ingredient that Tsuyoshi simply cannot stand: cinnamon. I suspect that most of you are probably shrieking in disbelief at the thought that there are actual human beings on this earth who dislike the taste of cinnamon (my dad’s comment was “but that means he doesn’t like cinnamon rolls!”). I know. I was shocked and appalled when I first heard this particular tidbit of information. For some time I just assumed that Tsuyoshi was insane until I happened to encounter a number of other Japanese people who felt the same way, which I can only attribute to the fact that they didn’t grow up eating cinnamon and thus aren’t accustomed to it. And if my husband’s lack of familiarity with cinnamon makes it taste even half as bad as shiso tastes to me…then I guess I can’t really argue.

Tsuyoshi’s vehement dislike of cinnamon is especially problematic to me this time of year because all of the fall desserts I love contain cinnamon. Seeing the word “November” on the calendar especially triggers my genetic longing for pumpkin pie. And while I could certainly make myself a pumpkin pie even if Tsuyoshi hates it, I promise you I have no self-control and would eat the entire thing by myself.

So to satisfy my pumpkin craving I decided to come up with a dessert that would still be good without the spices. Luckily, inspiration is all around me this time of the year because while Japan doesn’t have a lot of pumpkin, they do have a fantastically delicious squash called a “kabocha” (which is also available in American grocery stores) that is somewhat close in flavor and texture and is the star of many autumn desserts at restaurants and cafes. This year, Haagen-Dazs even has a kabocha flavored ice cream on sale. I’ve already eaten kabocha purin (custard pudding) a few times this year, so I decided to come up with my own version that is inspired by the many kabocha purin out there but also incorporates a few of my own touches.

 

Kabocha pudding from the Afternoon Tearoom restaurant in Shinjuku

By the way, Japanese people love purin, which is how they pronounce the word “pudding” but resembles a flan more than anything we refer to as “pudding” in English. It’s available at cafes, family restaurants, and convenience stores in a wide variety of flavors like almond and black sesame, and is a fantastic example of a Western dessert the Japanese have modified over the years to fit their own tastes.

This recipe involves kabocha puree, which can be obtained in a few different ways. Most Japanese recipes will tell you to microwave or steam the kabocha and push it through a piece of kitchen equipment called an uragoshi (a type of fine mesh sieve) but I prefer to cook the squash and then puree it in my blender, although it’s often necessary to add a bit of water. If you don’t feel like going to the trouble of making the pureed kabocha then by all means use regular canned pumpkin. It will be less Japanese but it will still be good.

Purin can be either baked or steamed, but steaming it ensures that a skin doesn’t form on top. If you have a steamer I suggest you use it, but if you don’t have one or don’t want to bother with a steamer just cook the pudding in a bain-marie until it is set but still jiggly (be careful not to overcook since the pudding can get rubbery). Instead of steaming or baking I cooked the puddings using the “steam oven” function of my Japanese microwave-slash-convection oven, which only took about twenty minutes. Either way, the main thing to keep in mind is not overcooking the purin which can destroy the creamy texture.

 

 

Kabocha custard pudding (Kabocha purin)
Serves: 4

This creamy custard pudding isn’t as overwhelming sweet as commercial purin, instead relying on fresh kabocha squash for flavor and sweetness. Inspired by flavors that are often used in combination with American pumpkin desserts, I’ve incorporated maple syrup into the caramel at the bottom of the pudding and infused whipped cream with a hint of ginger for a topping.

Caramel
Sugar 2 tablespoons
Maple syrup 2 tablespoons
Water 1 tablespoon

Pudding
Kabocha puree 300 grams
Milk ¾ cup
Cream ¼ cup
Sugar 50 grams
Vanilla ½ teaspoon
Eggs 2

Ginger-infused whipped cream (optional)
Cream
Ginger

1. If you plan to steam the purin, prepare your steamer. If you plan to bake the purin, preheat your oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit (149 degrees Celsius).
2. To make the caramel, heat water in a small saucepan over low heat. Add sugar and maple syrup and simmer, stirring constantly to prevent scorching until caramel has thickened. Divide into four 6-ounce ramekins and set aside to let the caramel harden.
3. Blend the kabocha puree, milk, and cream in a blender or food processor until smooth.
4. Heat, but don’t boil, the milk mixture in a saucepan over medium-low heat. When small bubbles begin breaking the surface, whisk in the sugar and turn off the heat. Add the vanilla.
5. Break eggs into a bowl and beat until smooth. Slowly pour in the milk mixture, stirring to ensure that the eggs are fully incorporated.
6. Strain the mixture through a wire strainer to remove any lumps.
7. Carefully pour the mixture into the ramekins, taking care not to disturb the caramel.
8. If you are steaming the purin, place the ramekins in your steamer and cook according to the directions for about 20 minutes. If you are cooking the purin in the oven, place the ramekins in a baking dish filled with water and cook until firm but still jiggly in the middle, checking the puddings starting at about 20 minutes.
9. To make the ginger-infused whipped cream (optional), cut several quarter-sized pieces of fresh ginger and cook them in cream at low heat for a few minutes. Let sit in the refrigerator for a few hours to further strengthen the ginger flavor, then whip as usual.

Seasonal spotlight: Chestnuts

November 22, 2010
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Thanks to Nat King Cole, most Americans associate chestnuts with Christmas. Up until I came to Japan for the first time, I did too. But in spite of the chestnuts=holiday season equation: I had never tasted a chestnut in my whole life. As far as I can tell, the main reason for this was the fact that I grew up in the Western United States where chestnuts simply aren’t a food you see very frequently on sale in stores or other places. The second reason is that my mother loathes chestnuts for some reason, so even if chestnuts were on sale at the grocery store they never showed up in my household since the person in charge of grocery shopping never would have purchased them (sorry Mom, but it’s true).

In any case, when I spent my first autumn in Japan I thought it was pretty interesting that Japanese people associate chestnuts (“kuri” in Japanese) with the fall season. They’re absolutely everywhere this time of year from bags of chestnuts sold at grocery and department stores to restaurant menus and in autumn-themed decorations. Just like an illustration of a turkey will immediately make Americans think “Thanksgiving,” a drawing of chestnuts (often nestled in their spiny coverings) unequivocally signifies “autumn” to Japanese people.

There are a variety of ways in which chestnuts are incorporated into Japanese food. They are used in kuri gohan (rice cooked with chestnuts), okowa (glutinous rice steamed with various things), and included in a range of simmered vegetable dishes. They are also made into candied chestnuts which are stirred into sweet potato puree to make kuri kinton, a sweet dish that is almost always included in osechi (traditional New Year’s cuisine, which I will talk more about next month). There are also many stands all over Tokyo and probably the whole country that sell whole roasted chestnuts.

A very crowded roasted chestnut stand in Ueno

Perhaps the most ubiquitous use of chestnuts in Japan is not, in fact, a traditional Japanese dish. Almost every bakery and cake shop sells its own version of Mont Blanc (pronounced monburan in Japanese), a French dessert made with chestnut paste. In true Japanese fashion the variations you will find on this one simple idea are endless. Most Mont Blanc have various types of cake in the middle, some are more like a tart or a pie, some contain candied chestnuts, and some are even made with kabocha squash or sweet potatoes instead of chestnuts. Japanese people are crazy about this dessert, but I’m not a big fan because I find most Mont Blanc to be way too squishy and sickly-sweet for my tastes. (Speaking of sweet, here’s a “cute” chestnut character and a sweet chestnut soft drink.)

Chestnuts, it should be noted, are a pain to peel. Some people recommend grilling them a bit to make them easier to peel but I prefer to just go at it with a knife and a great deal of patience. Here’s a video showing how to peel chestnuts with a knife in a much more neat fashion than I am capable of.

I’ve made chestnut rice a number of times but I’ve never been quite satisfied with the outcome so I’m not going to share my recipe until I refine it further. Instead, here are a number of recipes for Japanese-inspired chestnut dishes I’ve found online, including a couple for chestnut rice.

Danshi Gohan (Cooking for Men)

November 19, 2010

Last September I visited my family in Idaho for the first time in nearly two years. Getting to see my family after so long was of course the highlight of the trip, but there were as always some random elements of life in the U.S. that I enjoyed becoming reacquainted with.

This time one of these things I really enjoyed was being reminded of the wide variety of cooking shows available on the Food Network and Cooking Channel. Japan of course has its own cooking shows, but let me assure you that the American ones are of a whole different breed. Nothing on Japanese television can compare to the unique entertainment value of soft-focus shots of Giada De Laurentiis in a designer blouse talking earnestly about how much she likes piñatas. Or Paula Deen and her friend rendered speechless after eating a hamburger sandwiched between two glazed donuts. Please just take my word that you can’t fully appreciate this stuff until you move to a country where cooking shows aren’t a perfectly edited, exquisitely lit opportunity to sell Giada’s line of Target cookware and nobody talks about “EVOO” or “tablescapes.”

There’s only one cooking show in Japan that I watch with any regularity (and the fact that I do is especially remarkable since I generally dislike Japanese television and watch an average of about two hours a week). It’s called Danshi Gohan, which has no official English name but could be translated as “Cooking for Men.” If you’re in Japan you can catch it on Sunday at 11:25 a.m. on TV Tokyo. The show itself is fairly young (it only started in 2008) and seems to be aimed at a demographic of fairly young men who enjoy food and want to learn how to cook a number of things that aren’t so familiar to them like consommé soup, Indian curry, and quiche.

(Just as a note, Japanese corporations have a somewhat stricter understanding of copyright law than American ones and don’t usually consider blogs posting photographs and video as generally acceptable. For that reason when I mention Japanese television shows or other media I’m going to lean towards the side of safety and not post or embed anything that might not be allowed. For that reason, posts about Japanese cooking shows or food personalities will probably be quite heavy on the text.)

The basic premise is simple: two guys in an immaculate yet homey studio kitchen, cooking and then eating what they make on the veranda outside with at least one glass of beer. The person in charge of all things culinary is Kentaro, a slightly stocky and thoroughly nonthreatening man who almost always wears a hat (the shows website calls him the “Cooking Genuis”). Although he strikes you as one of those guys who lacks the motivation to do anything more strenuous than search vintage shops for old T-shirts, he’s actually a ryōri kenkyūka (which literally means “someone who studies food” but is basically a celebrity chef). He’s quite popular – I see his recipes in magazines frequently and his many books usually have pretty prominent positions on bookstore shelves (here’s one called Cooking Fish (Without any of the Difficult Parts). I suspect his popularity stems from his approachable personality and because his total lack of polish probably appeals to men (and women) who might want to learn to cook but aren’t attracted to anything overly complicated or fussy.

The second host is Taiichi Kokubun, who doesn’t know a whole lot about cooking but is sure willing to try (the “Eating Genius”). He watches Kentaro do his thing in the kitchen, posing timely questions and doing basic prep work such as cutting onions. The reason that Taiichi doesn’t know much about cooking is because he’s actually a member of Tokio, which is sort of like a Japanese version of the Backstreet Boys but with older members who play their own instruments. Sometimes Taiichi does get to share a recipe though, many of which come directly from his mother. Last year there was a particularly funny incident when Kentaro and Taiichi ended up telephoning Taiichi’s mother during the show to confirm that she really did mean for them to put a whole apple in the recipe for ozōni (a clear soup served on New Year’s) she had provided.

The highlight of the show for many is when Kentaro will share one of what he calls “Kentaro’s Points,” or “KP,” which are handy tips to keep in mind when making a given dish. Some of these are kind of silly but some are useful like the recent mushroom curry episode when he recommended simmering half of the mushrooms to add flavor to the broth and saving half to stir in before serving to add textural interest. But my favorite part by far is the tasting session at the end. They always show Taiichi taking a big bite of the dish of the day with a super-close shot of his face as he chews. Just like every other Japanese show, he always swallows, smiles, and exclaims “oishii!” (that’s so good!) But unlike other television personalities Taiichi is almost incapable of hiding his real feelings and I get a kick out of seeing whether he actually likes what he’s eating. If he breaks out into a huge grin, eyes shining, and starts raving about the flavor, that means he actually liked it. But if he chews for a long time, gives a wan smile, and says something roundabout like “wow, that’s such an unusual texture,” then you can be sure that he’s not taking another bite once the camera is turned off. It’s pretty entertaining.

As I mentioned above Japanese television networks are really strict about uploading clips online and YouTube didn’t have a single one, but several full episodes are available on Veoh (I found them by googling “danshi gohan”). And if anyone from the show happens to be reading this, I bet there are a bunch of English speakers who would enjoy a subtitled version…and I know just the person to do the translation!