Have you referred to yourself as a disaster in the kitchen? Don’t worry, not everyone is a master chef, but what anyone can be is capable of feeding themselves. Of course, you can feed yourself by ordering pizza, picking up some take out, or simply buying bento lunch box from the convenience store. But there are as many scenarios where cooking comes in handy – maybe you’re tired from take out, you need something fresher than prepacked meals, or you want to save money. Whatever the reason, cooking is a great skill to have.
Graduating from frying an egg, or buttering a toast, how about moving up to a meal, and a Japanese one at that? One of the world’s most famous and tasty cuisines has plenty of comfort foods that can be made at home.
Japanese curry rice or as it is known as ‘kare raisu’, is a staple dish that can be found in school cafeterias, cheap eateries, specialized curry place, hotel buffets and so on. Even cautious skeptics wary of the ‘Japanese’ + ‘curry’ combo thinking curry is not Japanese food have been known to change their minds. Japanese curry is Indian-inspired but completely transformed and unique dish, grouped in modern Japanese food often known as ‘yoshoku’.
This hearty curry is super satisfying and easy to make. The basics are: vegetables (potato, carrot, onion – usually sold in a set like this in Japanese supermarkets) + meat (pork, beef, chicken – anything you want) + the spices/curry roux. All ingredients but the roux are staples that are available anywhere. The roux is sold everywhere in Japan, small concentrated cubes of it that you add to transform the dish. The curry can be completely mild, or any of the several spiciness levels available. You just toss everything together, saute for a bit, cover with water and let it stew. The rice in the meantime cooks itself in the rice cooker.
Even easier: In Japan, one can buy pre-made curry pouches that you either heat up in the microwave or boil in a pot. Rice as well can be bought cooked, and just heated up. Combine the two and you have tasty warm curry rice, cheaper than any curry rice meal anywhere.
Customize the classic: In addition to switching beef for chicken, you can ditch meat altogether and add more veggies like eggplant, mushrooms and so on. You can also dip some bread in the curry instead of rice if that’s what you prefer.
Omurice is a word blend of ‘omelette’ and ‘rice’, but that’s not telling you enough. Imagine tasty spiced up fried rice covered by a fluffy egg blanket. There’s probably 0.00001% of chance finding someone who hates omurice – it’s considered a safe choice and the easiest thing to make at home. It’s also great for using leftover rice and any leftover veggies and meats.
The rice is fried up with some chopped onion, mushroom and cubed chicken. The crucial ingredient is KETCHUP!. Sounds too simple, but it does transform the flavours. The egg blanket can be done in two ways. You scramble the egg and then either add rice on top of it as it’s frying and then folding everything like a classic omelette, or the easier way is to cover the rice with a separately cooked egg. It’s topped with more ketchup, potentially a smiley face drawn with ketchup to brighten up your day.
Even easier: As mentioned above, cooking the egg separately and laying it on top of the rice is easier, removes the possibility for errors. Pre-cooked rice also makes this dish even easier.
Customize the classic: Chicken can be omitted, or swapped with other pre-cooked meats like bacon (as the dish is quickly stir fried together, you need to make sure your meat is cooked). You can add more veggies – bell peppers, carrots, peas, just don’t overdo it as too many flavours can result in something weird for the tongue. You can also swap ketchup with tomato sauce or marinara. Japanese restaurants often have omurice varieties like these, and special toppings like cheese.
Similar ingredients to Japanese curry, yet completely different flavour. Nikujaga simply means ‘meat and potato stew’, from ‘niku’ 肉 (meat) and ‘jaga’じゃがいも(potato). The meat is usually pork or beef, and in addition to the potatoes, onions and carrots are a must. Finally, there’s shirataki noodles (or konjak noodles) and the spices and sauces (soy sauce, mirin, sugar).
This soul food is often associated with someone’s family cooking, so many families will have different tweaks on it, while many restaurants menus don’t have nikujaga. Which makes is even more nostalgic and special. It’s easily thrown together and stewed, with most ingredients very easy to find anywhere.
Customize the classic: Shirataki noodles are the hardest to find, and honestly the least flavourful, so cutting them out is not a big deal. If you cannot find mirin, just some soy sauce and vinegar does the trick for getting the primary flavour of nikujaga. The thin strips of beef or pork are not everyone’s favourite, so feel free to improvise with cubed meat, especially chicken. Many recipes add snowpeas with you can also omit without losing a lot of flavor.
Japanese fried noodles are best represented by this dish. It’s a dish that is the closest thing Japan has to street food today, being sold at food stalls during festivals and fairs. As most easy dishes to cook it’s done with a few ingredients that are easy to buy, quickly tossed together without much cooking prep, and apart from pre-boiling the noodles, it’s a one pot affair.
‘Soba’ stands for noodles, but these are usually NOT soba noodles. Ramen noodles are the classic in yakisoba, although there are buckwheat noodle and udon noodle versions, however less common. Cabbage, carrots and soybean sprouts are the must have veggies, usually onion too. Thin pork belly strips are the protein of this dish. It is all brought together by special yakisoba sauce, which if you cannot buy you can make it from scratch. Yakisoba is usually topped with seaweed powder, bonito fish flakes and pickled ginger.
Customize the classic: You can play around with different noodles, different meats, and add veggies to the mix. Meat can be omitted, as it is added in a smaller quantity in yakisoba anyway and the main flavours do not come from there. However, the more you stray away from Japanese staples, the less yakisoba taste, and mixing too many different vegetables may result in a weird flavour. In other words, I would add mushrooms maybe, but say no to olives for instance.
This one might seem daunting at first, but think about it – if it’s that difficult why is it most often a do-it-yourself dish in restaurants? They give you the broth and you just add veggies and protein! A big pot of nabe is a great fridge cleaner too, you can use up leftover meat and veggies, and you can make a bit batch that will last longer too.
The veggies usually used are napa cabbage and various mushrooms like shiitake and enoki. You can also always add onions, leeks, spinach, carrots and so on. Firm tofu and some kind of meat are a staple of nabe, and mixing different meats is no problem too. From pork and beef, to meatballs, to chicken for chanko nabe, there’s even deer nabe and fish nabe. The trick is to have everything cut small or thin so it cooks thoroughly.
When it comes to flavours, this dish also relies on trusty staples like soy sauce, sake, mirin, ginger, garlic etc. All of these can be combined to make the nabe broth, or in Japan you can buy ready-made nabe sauces/broth. And there are so many broth varieties! Miso nabe and kimchi nabe are winter favourites, and there’s also sukiyaki, soymilk base and so on.
: AC photo/