When I order a meal in Japan, I am often surprised by a type of vegetable that is unfamiliar to my Western palate. Sometimes it’s a horrible surprise, but sometimes it can be surprisingly tasty! So what are these strange vegetables – what do they look like and how do they taste?
Here is my guide to all you need to know about the unfamiliar Japanese cuisine.
The first few times this appeared on my plate I was pretty convinced that it shouldn’t be eaten at all, but I was sooooo wrong. Usually accompanying sushi or sashimi, the perilla leaf is part of the mint family, although the flavour is entirely different.
Most of the time it’s used as a sort of bed on which to lay wasabi, or to decorate piles of glistening sashimi, but the leaf itself can indeed be eaten and is a tasty partner with a mouthful of sushi. The flavour is sort of like basil, sort of like coriander, but mostly it’s a taste unique to itself. A whole leaf can be a bit overpowering on its own – I like to dip it in soy sauce with a slice of sashimi for a powerful impact of flavour variety. In tenpura restaurant you can find tempura shiso which is the whole perilla leaf dipped in batter and fried. Besides that, you should try pork belly shiso skewers. It tastes absolutely fantastic!
The name translates as ‘big root’ which is entirely appropriate – these things can be huge, and more often than not they are the cheapest vegetable at the market. They look like giant anaemic carrots and don’t taste much better – basically they are just very mild in flavour, maybe not for everyone`s taste.
They’re pretty yummy if you put them in something where they can absorb all the flavour, like curry. Oden is also quite a famous dish in Japan that uses daikon, it warms you up and is very healthy and good for weight loss. Daikons are quite healthy as they are very low in calories and are high in pretty much everything good for you. There is even such a thing as a ‘Daikon Diet’… but let’s not get into it now.
While most varieties of yam need to be cooked before you can eat them, the Japanese yam is an exception in that it can be eaten raw. Nagaimo is often added to noodles, or to the batter of okonomiyaki to act as a binding agent. It is one of the ねばねば (sticky) foods in Japan and it is often grated and used under the name of とろろ(tororo) as a topping for soba (buckwheat) noodles. Some people love it, some hate it mostly because of texture, as the flavour is very simple and mild.
The renkon is a very traditional Japanese food – the flower and leaves are used for decoration, but the roots are edible. The texture of the root is crunchy, and it can be served in a number of ways. Karashi Renkon is a popular dish in Kumamoto, where the holes of the lotus roots are filled with a mixture of miso paste, mustard and honey. The whole root is coated in it too, and then it is fried in slices or whole.
Takenoko literally means “the child of bamboo”, or bamboo shoots. It iseaten all over Asia, and prepared in a variety of ways. The taste can be bitter if they are not cooked long enough. In Asian dishes bamboo shoots are often used in almost every ramen bowl, rice dishes, stir-frys etc, and of course, they are good for you as they come with lots of health benefits.
The bitter melon, also known as bitter gourd may look unappetizing at first, as it looks somethignlike a monster cucumber. But. it is rich in vitamins, zinc and magnesium, iron, calcium and is known as a super food! Goya is a vegetable essential in the Okinawan cuisine being used in the goya champuru stir-fry (soul food of Okinawa) and many other dishes.
You can also mix it in your smoothie, but be careful if you`re not on good terms with bitter food. I usually eat it in salads and sprinkle it with some lemon juice. There are apparently ways in which to cook it to make it less bitter and among many other benefits, it makes your skin glow and prevents fatigue !
When cooked briefly, and whole, the result is very different from cooking sliced okra – when sliced, the vegetable will become slimy and gooey. That texture might be very off-putting to some, but just like the sticky yam the taste is not very strong or weird. Okra’s form is very pretty as okra looks like lady fingers when whole (hence the nickname) and like little green stars when sliced, making it popular for food decorations.
Mitsuba is written with the kanji 三(san which means three)and 葉(ha which is leaf), so it literally means three leaves. The leaves grow on skinny stems and it resembles the parsley called Giant of Italy.
It can be added in soups, salads, pasta etc. What I like to do is cut the herb and either make a detoxifying mitsuba miso soup or mix it with my rice.
Sometimes I make Oyakodon (chicken and egg rice bowl) and put some fresh Japanese Parsley on top. Simply delicious and super healthy!
I think everyone has at least heard of wasabi. If by any chance you haven’t, wasabi is a plant that grows in Japan and its taste is quite similar to hot mustard.
The plant is usually grated using an おろし金(grated metal) or a tool made of dried Shagreen.
You can find wasabi anywhere in Japan and personally, I use it in my everyday meals. If you go to a sushi restaurant, you`ll find many people (not only foreigners, but Japanese residents too) mixing the wasabi with soy sauce to make it a sauce for dipping their sushi. However, the cheap wasabi paste is said not to be real wasabi and you are advised to try freshly grated wasabi straight from the root.
What is this? A branch? Wood for kindling fire? Decoration for that rustic aesthetics?
It is actually a root vegetable, like a more earthy carrot and it is very tasty. It is used in rice dishes, nabe, deep-fried, grilled, and there are also burdock root french fries!
Mushrooms are called Kinoko in Japanese (literally meaning “the child of the tree”) and I tell you, Japan has a wide-range of mushrooms!
They are frequently used in the Japanese cuisine and shiitake, maitake, bunashimeji, matsutake, enoki, hiratake, eringi, nameko are some of the most popular ones.
The Japanese kinoko can most of the times be used when making Takikomi Gohan(seasoned steamed rice with meat and vegetables), a very easy, nutritious and yummy dish to try out!
The most used types of mushrooms in Japan
Shiitake– are probably the most popular when it comes to Japan`s culinary world. You can use them in boiled dishes, soups, rice etc. and they are available either fresh or dried. You can find shiitake in most Japanese supermarkets, and for a very reasonable price. Oh, and those cross-cut mushrooms drawn in all maanga and anime – those are all shiitake
Maitake(the dancing mushroom) – also known as the king of mushrooms or hen of woods is very delicious. Eaten fried, in tempura, in nabe, in soba and so on, it is also well-known for its medicinal benefits as it can stimulate the immune system and is used in traditional medicine for treating hypertension or diabetes.
Enoki(the golden needle mushrooms)
Enoki is a very thin long type of mushroom usually used in soups or nabe (hot-pot), but you can go creative as their texture and taste go well with almost every dish!
Eringi– is a thick stem mushroom, very meaty that can be used in nabe or you can incorporate it in fried/grilled dishes, salads etc. Very mild in taste, it can actually assume other tastes easily, so if you fry it with bacon it will stat resembling bacon!
Hiratake– the oyster mushroom is quite a common type of mushroom that has quite a few varieties. You can use it in pasta, rice, soups etc.
Actually, this mushroom is known as quite a rare delicacy and can reach astronomical prices of hundreds of dollars!
Matsutake has a spicy aromatic fragrance and is not such a good idea to mix it with other types of mushrooms as this one has quite a peculiar taste. The flavor and texture is quite strange , but it goes perfect with the Japanese cuisine. Some of the dishes you can mix it with are rice, miso soup or you can simply grill the mushrooms or add it in your ramen!
Bunashimeji – crunchy with a firm texture and a nutty flavor, a very popular type of mushrooms here in Japan frequently used in noodles, hot pots etc. I like to mix it with tofu, mirin and soy sauce and a bit of greens in a fry pan and it makes a delicious Japanese style dish! You should try it out!
Nameko are mushrooms from the neba neba (sticky/slimy) series, like tororo yam and sliced okra. Although neba neba may not look attractive, the dishes with such a texture are famous for their healthy benefits and have been used in Japan for centuries. They are usually low in calories, easy to digest and despite the appearance, very tasty!
The nameko mushrooms also have this sticky texture and go well with miso soup or soba (buckwheat noodles). Besides nameko you can also add toppings such as tororo (made from grating yam), wasabi, tsuyu sauce, okra, natto and some greens in your soba noodles. Tororo soba is very easy to make and you can eat it either hot or cold.
Well, this is one food that is quite notoriously unpopular. It has become a running joke and many Japanese might ask you whether you eat natto or not (and they will be expecting a disgusted look on your face). This traditional food is made with fermented soybeans and the smell can literally knock you out! Natto has a strong flavor, but probably what most people dislike about it is the sticky texture and the powerful smell. For first timers, I recommend trying the 中chuu-middle and 大dai-big beans, mix the karashi mustard and the soy sauce only a little and add it as a topping for your rice. Natto sushi, toast or omelette are also 3 of my recommendations.
Natto is super healthy and super nutritious but is recommended not to eat more than two packs per day as it contains a lot of proteins. It is good for the skin, promotes weight loss and is a good source of iron, vitamin and Calcium, so you should at least try it once before saying no.
So what do you think? Better than you thought, right? Next time you encounter any, don`t hesitate and just try! Once you get the taste of it, you`ll broaden your nutrition horizons and enlighten your taste buds with new and unique flavors.