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I’m one of those weird people who gets all funny about ketchup. I like it, don’t get me wrong, but I have certain rules about it – which I’ve never really examined in too much depth, to be honest. For example, it is never to be squirted onto food – makes it soggy. Better to go on the side, by itself, so it can be dipped into. Also, it is never to be mixed in with things to create some hideous Frankenfood of soggy ketchup and ‘other stuff’. That’s just wrong.

So, with that in mind, it’s very strange that one of my most favourite and comforting foods should be omurice: the dish that breaks my cardinal food rules and somehow manages to rise above its offence:

Omurice bento

Omurice is basically rice and veggies cooked with some ketchup, then coated in an omelette and served with another drizzle of ketchup on top. It’s comfort food for children, which makes it all the more weird how strangely nostaglic the dish is for me, a 28-year-old woman who has never lived in Japan… But nevertheless, there’s something very universal about its combination of starchy carbs, eggy protein, and lashings of tomato sauce.

This recipe makes four portions:

Ingredients

  • Butter
  • 2 chicken thighs, boned
  • 1 onion
  • 50g carrot
  • 1 green pepper
  • 2 shiitake mushrooms
  • 1 tbsp parsley
  • 4 cups cooked Japanese rice
  • 3 tbsp ketchup
  • 1 tsp sake
  • Dash Worcestershire sauce
  • 8 eggs
  • Ketchup to serve

Method

  • Finely chop the onion, carrot, mushroom and parsley.
  • Debone the chicken and remove the skin. Cut the thigh into small pieces, around 1cm in size, then season with salt and pepper.
  • Heat 1 tbsp butter in a frying pan and sauté the onion until slightly softened. Add the chicken and fry until the outside has gone white. Add the carrot, pepper and mushrooms and cook until soft. This could take as long as ten minutes. You need to ensure the carrot is tender, as it will not be cooked again. Add the parsley and remove from the heat, reserving the mixture and wiping out the frying pan.
  • Melt 1 tbsp of butter in a frying pan and add the hot rice, stirring well. Add the fried mix along with the ketchup, sake and Worcestershire sauce. Season if needed, and keep warm. Do not over cook as this will dry out the rice.
  • In another, shallow frying pan, heat 1 tsp butter. Beat two of the eggs, season with salt, then pour into the frying pan, spreading to cover the base. Put a quarter of the rice in the middle of the pan while the egg is still slightly raw. This helps to stick the rice mixture to the omelette.
  • When the eggs are slightly set, wrap the edges over the top of the rice and turn out onto a warm plate. Don’t worry if you pierce the egg as you do so, as the edges are tucked under. Using a paper towel, shape it as in our photo, then squirt tomato sauce on the top. Continue with the rest of the eggs and mixture until you’ve made four omelettes.

You can also keep this for the following day, and serve it in a bento ala the picture!

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This recipe is a pretty good ‘un, in my opinion (I know, I know, who asked me?). Not only does it taste good, but it’s got veggies in it and it’s a way of naturally colouring your food without using chemicals. Now, there’s no way anyone could suggest I’m not up for dying food whenever I get the opportunity, but somehow it seems wrong to dye savoury food. Don’t know why! When you introduce sugar, all the bets are off…

Also, once you’ve softened your veggies, you bung the whole lot into rice cooker and let it cook. Easy! Obviously, you don’t have to eat this in a bento – it makes a great addition to a hot meal, too.

I really like this bento box – I have a thing for single tiered boxes. I also love Animal Crossing. I don’t know if the box is still available, but I bought it from J-List. (If you click that link, you’ll be taken to the J-List site, so if you buy anything, it earns me pennies to buy new bento stuff! Thank you!)

Teriyaki burger and carrot and onion rice

Recipe for carrot and onion rice

Ingredients

  • 2 cups raw rice
  • 1 carrot
  • ½ onion
  • Butter
  • Splash soy sauce
  • Seasoning

Method

  • Process the onion and carrot until they are finely chopped, then sauté in butter until softened – but not browned. This will take around five minutes. Season and add the soy sauce.
  • Add to a rice cooker with washed rice and an equal amount of water, and cook as normal.

Late to the party again… here I am with scattered summer sushi in October. To be fair, I did come up with this recipe in May, but also, you can eat this any time of year, whether the weather’s sunny, or not. It’s the kind of dish that works better when it’s hot, but it’s still pretty nice around here even in autumn…

And yes, I did get carried away with decorating this, but it was worth it. So pretty! And not too much hassle to prepare, in the grand scheme of things.

Scattered summer sushi

Ingredients

2 cups Japanese rice (around 430g)
6 tbsp sushi rice vinegar (or check label)
1 tbsp sake (optional)
1 piece dried konbu (optional)
2 eggs
1 egg yolk
2 tsp cornflour
Large pinch salt
Pinch sugar
Vegetable oil
1 Cucumber
1 Carrot
Handful mange tout (cooked)
4 tofu pouches (optional)
16 large prawns (shrimp)
1/2 cup edamame beans (cooked)

Method
Make your sushi rice – I recommend you buy a rice cooker, as it takes all of the guesswork and stress out of cooking rice. Mine cost me about £10 three years ago and is still working fine. Firstly, wash the rice thoroughly and leave it to soak for half an hour. Then, drain and add your sushi rice to the same quantity of water in your rice cooker. Add the sake and konbu if using, then switch on and leave to cook. Once it has finished, leave it to rest for 15 minutes.
Turn the rice out into a damp, flat container (like a Pyrex oven dish) and add the sushi rice vinegar. Using a damp wooden spoon, turn the rice gently to coat it in the seasoning. At the same time, fan the rice to cool it and help it to absorb the dressing. Continue until no visible steam rises from the rice, and place it under a damp kitchen towel.
Make thin Japanese omelettes by combining the eggs, egg yolk, salt and sugar in a bowl. Add the cornflour dissolved in 4 tsp water. Heat the oil in a frying pan, and add enough oil to coat the base. Thinly cover the pan with the egg, and heat until almost set. Then, turn the omelette over to finish it off. Do not allow it to colour. Continue until all the egg has been cooked, then roll the omelettes up and shred them finely.
Prepare the carrot by peeling it and cutting it into thin discs. Then, using a flower-shaped cutter, cut the discs into flower shapes.
Use your cucumber to make a pretty garnish. A simple method is to cut the cucumber thinly on a diagonal, cut through it to the middle, and then twirl the ends in opposite directions (see picture).
If you’re using them, drain the tofu pouches and shred finely. Cut the mange tout at sharp diagonals.
Divide the sushi rice into four bowls. Scatter over the shredded tofu, omelette and edamame beans. Finally, arrange the carrots, cucumber and prawns.

I love the penguin pick in this bento. I bought it from J-List in a pack of sea-creature food picks, but I think the penguin is my favourite.

Inside this bento is a mixture of different recipes I was trying out for the first time. I think the sweet potato was a recipe from Wagamama, and included a honey and lime juice dressing. I’m not big on sweet potato, to be honest, and this one didn’t really sway me to the cause. This bento picture was actually taken over two years ago, and as you can see, I’d still not really perfected the art of packing onigiri… Ah well.

The orange bento box is from Daiso, and even though it’s one of the cheapest ones around, it’s still my favourite because it’s such a nifty oval shape. The front tier contains soy-balsamic chicken and spicy green beans, both adapted from Harumi’s Japanese Cooking – both of her English cookery books are great, although I prefer the second one!

Green bean, sweet potato and balsamic chicken bento

Recipe for spicy green beans


Ingredients

150g green beans

75g minced pork

1 tbsp garlic oil (or use olive oil and some garlic puree)

Pinch dried chilli powder

1 1/2 tbsp soy sauce

1/2 tsp sugar

Method

If making for the bento, trim your green beans (or French, or fine…whatever you call them!) into halves or even thirds, so they can be picked up easily by chopsticks.

Boil for about four minutes, then drain and refresh quickly in very cold water. This is to retain their colour. Drain again, and shake off excess water.

Heat the garlic oil in the pan and add the pork, stirring to break up. Now add the chilli pepper and stir well to coat, then add the soy sauce and sugar.

Mix well, ensuring the sugar has dissolved, and then serve the beans with the mince on top.

Note

You can increase or decrease the chilli powder according to your tastes, just ensure it’s all mixed in well or someone will be getting a surprise in their bento box…

Recipe for soy and balsamic vinegar chicken

Ingredients

Six chicken thighs

4 tbsp dark soy sauce

2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

2 tbsp sugar

1 tbsp oil

Method

Mix the soy sauce, balsamic vinegar and sugar in a pan, then simmer. Allow to cook for several minutes, reducing the sauce until it’s thick and glossy.

Now wash and dry your chicken thighs, and place them in a hot pan with the oil, and allow to brown on one side. Turn them over and pour over the sauce, then cover and cook for five minutes, taking care not to let the sauce burn over too high a heat.

Remove the chicken and test it’s cooked by slicing a piece in half. Return to the heat if it needs longer.

For a bento, allow to cool before slicing and dressing with some extra sauce.

Note

You will need about one or two chicken thighs, depending on size, per person for a bento lunch.

These recipes originally appeared in 501 Bento Box Lunches, published by Graffito Books.

I love making Japanese pickles – unlike western pickles, these aren’t preserved vegetables, but are soaked in a preservative liquid for a couple of hours, or overnight. This recipe produces a spicy delicious pickle that goes really well with rice and gyozas.

Gyozas and cucumber

Recipe for hot soy sauce cucumber

Ingredients

1/2 cucumber

1/4 tsp salt

1 tsp mirin

2 tbsp soy sauce

1 tsp English mustard

Method

Halve the cucumber and scoop out the seeds. Cut the cucumber into half moon chunks, salt and leave to stand for 20 minutes in a covered bowl.

Take a plastic bag and add the remaining ingredients, mixing well so that the mustard is dissolved. Add the cucumber and mix well, then refrigerate until needed – leaving for at least 10 minutes. Drain well before adding to a bento – best used the same day or the day after.

This recipe originally appeared in 501 Bento Box Lunches, published by Graffito Books.

This pretty little bento is one of my favourites – it’s elegant and healthy… completely unlike me! Inside is sesame vinegar aubergine and spicy soy sauce cucumber, as well as soy sauce and balsamic vinegar chicken.

Inari sushi bento

Recipe for inari sushi


Ingredients

2 cups hot, cooked Japanese rice

3 tbsp liquid sushi seasoning

1 tbsp black sesame seeds

6 inari skins

Method

Pour the sushi seasoning over the rice, then turn and fan until cooled and no longer steaming. Leave to get completely cold before stirring in your black sesame seeds.

Open your packet of inari skins, and slit open along the longer side, carefully pulling the edges apart to make a pocket. Fill with the rice and place in the bento rice side up.

Notes

You might want to trim the inari skins down so that they fit in your bento, as some can be taller than your bento is deep. Generally, cutting them in half will make them the right size. Or, you can simply lay a full size piece on its side.

This recipe originally appeared in 501 Bento Box Lunches, published by Graffito Books.