I visited Japan mid-last year for a week with my friend Michelle. Upon arrival, and slightly jetlagged from our red eye flight, we caught several trains, subways, buses and taxis up to the beautiful and mysterious Koya-san. The journey was very, very long, but it was worth it. Our time in Koya-san was perfect: a relaxing and peaceful start to the holiday, and much needed. We went to the eery Okunoin cemetery by night, visited an onsin, hiked in the woods in the mountains, visited temples and ate (and ate and ate). We ate nearly our body weight in tofu those few days, with the town featuring many tofu dishes as their specialty, and the highlight being a ten course dinner at our overnight stay at the Shukubo Temple, prepared by Buddhist monks. I never knew there were so many things to do with tofu, and it could be so creamy and delicious…
We then visited charming Kyoto for a couple of days. The bikes, the little streets, the friendly people, the shopping, the beautiful, cute and hip cafes, and quirky fashion, people and things! And the food – so much thoughtfulness, simplicity but delicate detail in every meal. I liked Kyoto so much I even considered whether I could move there, despite barely speaking a word of Japanese (so much for my Japanese lessons for over 2 years at high school – I blame Anna). Next stop was Tokyo, where the highlight was doing a food tour with Yukari Sakamoto, the author of Food Sake Tokyo, of depachika (the luxurious department food courts), which were enormous, tantalising, confusing and stocked almost everything you could think of (and lots more). Yukari showed us the highlights of the food areas, explained many of the local and regional specialities, patiently answered our many questions and helped translate and interpret our way through the markets and Japanese culture. She also took us to some less well-known areas of Tokyo, where we sampled local treats and showed us some great food stops.
During our visit, I was enchanted by the Japanese food, took photos or made notes on the delicious meals that we ate, and tried to learn as much, and buy as many samples or treats as I could. I came home with all kinds of things – random cat lollies and paper clips (another reason to love Japan), green teas, sansho powders, chilli, salted cherry blossoms, pickled vegetables (not sure how I snuck those through customs) and the like. I went on a frenzy of cooking weird and wonderful things, but over time I have forgotten what some of the ingredients are! As I was cleaning out my cupboard last week, I found at the back a heap of wonderful fragrant spices, so you may see them featuring on the blog over the next few weeks.
The first new re-discovery is shichimi togarashi, which means seven flavour chilli pepper, a blend of spices which the Japanese sprinkle on top of everything. I have used them to spice up some chickpeas which is not at all Japanese, but adds a lovely flavour to this veggie rice bowl. If you can’t find any of this spice blend, then you can replace with ground chillis, sesame seed, ginger and (if you can find it) my favourite pepper, sansho.
This meal is fairly quick to prepare, especially if you have cooked the brown rice in advance (perfect for batch cooking). Serves 2 as a main.
- 1 cup brown rice
- 1/2-1 cup dried chickpeas, soaked overnight (or 400g tin of chickpeas)
- 1 bunch radish
- 2-3 spring onions
- 1 bunch of rocket or spinach
- 2-3 large flat mushrooms
- A handful of mung bean sprouts
- Half a bunch of basil
- 1-2 tablespoons shichimi togarashi
- Olive oil, for cooking
Creamy tahini and miso dressing
- 1 garlic clove
- 1cm piece of ginger, peeled
- 1/4 cup tahini
- 1 tablespoon shiro miso
- 1/4-1/2 cup water
- 1 lemon, juiced
- 2 tablespoons cold pressed sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon mirin
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- If using dried chickpeas, drain the chickpeas from their soaking water and add to large saucepan with 1-2 cm of water covering the chickpeas. Cook for 45-60 minutes, checking regularly. Cook the brown rice.
- While the rice and chickpeas are cooking, prepare the dressing by mincing the garlic and ginger with salt in a jar. Add the tahini, miso, lemon juice and mirin and stir together. The dressing will be very thick. Slowly add the water and mix until the dressing is runny – you may not need all the water. Add the sesame oil and shake together. Set aside.
- Prepare the vegetables by thinly sliding the radish and spring onions, and removing the basil leaves from their stem.
- Cut the mushrooms into thick slices and sauté in the olive oil until cooked. Set aside with the other vegetables.
- Put the chickpeas in a frypan, heat them up and then add the shichimi togarashi and some salt and gently stir until the chickpeas are covered and have absorbed some of the chilli blend. Remove from heat.
- Assemble the salad by putting the rice in a large bowl and mixing through half of the dressing. Add the chickpeas and mushrooms and mix through salad, and then sprinkle the radish, spring onions and basil over the salad. Serve with the dressing on individual plates.