Japanese Cooking?
February 23, 2013 5:28 AM   Subscribe

I am in Japan. I can not read or speak Japanese. I am a beginner cook. I have a limited budget; I can experiment but my first attempts better be stupid proof & edible. I am also a goat in that I am willing to eat just about anything (squishy squid, large amounts of raw egg, & crayfish that stare back seem to be at or near my limit; however, I love raw fish of many types & I often eat mystery meat on the streets of Asia). Help me master a few Japanese recipes?

I'm already addicted to Japanese food...which is getting to be an expensive addiction on the weekends. The flavorful fish, the fresh veggies & fruit, the weird sweet meats, & sauces you just shrug at & dip your food into. I've been to a Japanese grocery store twice now and all of those mysterious packages & raw fish & tofu packages & little cutlets & veg aisles make my mouth water. I like seaweed & semi-scorn those Americans who need a steak or pork in order to survive here; I'm in a foreign country & want to eat what they eat & cook what they cook.

Help a beginner cook (I can make a pie, a messy shredded chicken rice dish, shrimp, ground hamburger, and anything that involves a can of beans + rice + hot sauce. And eggs + cheese) create a few Japanese staples to build off of? These websites of "create these basics!" are confusing for one who doesn't know her intimate way around a grocery store here & who's not used to shopping for meal planning at all, much less daily fresh food shopping as is prevalent here.

If you tell me to follow this guide first, make this dish, etc, I will practice that dish every other night until it's perfect. I just need to know where to start & what not to waste my money on.

I have a rice cooker, rice scoop, & other sundry utensils. Just make a point to mention it & otherwise assume I have it, because I soon will.

posted by DisreputableDog to Food & Drink (20 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I learned some good recipes from 100 Recipes From Japanese Cooking. It's called 英語で日本料理 (Japanese cooking through English) and is also on Amazon Japan.

It has Japanese on one side and English on the other, so you can point to ingredients in the supermarket and get someone to show you where it is (or read it yourself, of course). It's mostly not fancy food, but tasty and pretty easy to make.

I've made the Oyako-don, a very tasty chicken cooked in the rice cooker dish, fish teriyaki and spinach with sesame. Loads of good recipes in there. They tell you how to make rice without a rice cooker, how to make your own dashi (neither of which I'd actually bother with), how to make Sukiyaki and Oden and a great Niku-Jaga.
posted by nevan at 6:01 AM on February 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

One of the great recipes in an askme of mine was this delicious, easy and nutritious tofu/avocado salad recommended by paperback version. It's like sexytime for your taste buds
posted by Foci for Analysis at 6:02 AM on February 23, 2013

I have learned delicious, simple stuffs from just bento and its sister site just hungry. I also like the background information on the methods and ingredient.
posted by jadepearl at 6:18 AM on February 23, 2013 [6 favorites]

I've enjoyed watching Cooking with Dog on youtube. Gyudon is my favorite to make. It's super simple and tastes delicious.
posted by E3 at 6:52 AM on February 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'm so envious! Because this book is brilliant (simple, clear, authoritative, and explains one view of why things are cooked in the way they are), but I have real trouble finding the ingredients over here.
posted by cromagnon at 7:30 AM on February 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

This book is by a woman who's sort of like a higher-class Rachel Ray in Japan, and I found her recipes really simple. (It also looks like yes, you CAN get the English versions of her books through Amazon.jp.) The gyudon she has is also pretty simple - beef simmered with onions in a broth of wine and mirin and a couple other things, over rice. She also has a salad recipe that's nothing more than shredded carrot and a little tuna fish.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:02 AM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with jadepearl: what you want is just hungry. The author is wonderful and I love the miso I learned to make from her site! She's even just announced a "fundamentals" introductory set of lessons: http://www.justhungry.com/japanesecooking101.
posted by theredpen at 8:05 AM on February 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

E3 has it. Cooking with Dog ftw.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 8:29 AM on February 23, 2013

Cooking With Dog
posted by KokuRyu at 8:35 AM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oooh! You could try focusing on various Hot Pot stews and things. Author's blog here.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:52 AM on February 23, 2013

Cooking with Dog is good, though I really prefer having actual recipes at my side when I am cooking, as opposed to videos.

I would strongly recommend the Japanese recipes posted by Setsuko Yoshizuka, who did most of the Japanese recipes for About.com a few years back. She grew up cooking in her family's restaurant, and her recipes are both traditional, simple, and authentic. Most importantly, the ingredients aren't Americanized and just taste right... though she did occasionally throw in a Westernized Japanese restaurant dish, such as California rolls, in order to please her audience.

I''ve had Japanese guests tell me that I cook like their mom, so she must be doing something right.
posted by markkraft at 11:07 AM on February 23, 2013

I like seaweed & semi-scorn those Americans who need a steak or pork in order to survive here

There is no shortage of Japanese pork dishes such as buta kakuni, tonkatsu, tonjiru, and so on. If you are in Okinawa, pork is everywhere anf we used to enjoy wild boar stew in the winter. Similarly, wagyu beef exists for a reason. I think you are fetishizing a little bit.

I am sure that you've receive a lot of great cookbook suggestions thus far, but all the recipes in the world are not going to be of much help if you cannot read anything in the grocery store. We're all heard the stories of the westerner who bought some rolls only to find that they were full of sweet bean paste, and some of the things at the store might not make your mouth water if you knew what they were. For example, that creamy-looking package of 塩辛 in the seafood section? It's squid and squid guts in a salty, spicy sauce and tastes about as good as you'd think. So, until you can read and speak some Japanese, I recommend a book like the one nevan suggested that is completely bilingual. Otherwise, you will have a hard time knowing what you are buying. (I recommend the Bilingual Book series in general for foreigners will minimal Japanese who are interested in introductory materials about Japan)

As to a simple recipe, I recommend tonkatsu, which is a pork cutlet coated in panko and then fried. Chazuke can be made by adding tea/hot water and a flavoring packet to leftover rice. Curry rice can easily be made with store-bought roux. Tamago yaki is also good and easy.
posted by Tanizaki at 11:11 AM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

"all the recipes in the world are not going to be of much help if you cannot read anything in the grocery store."

Not necessarily. I don't read Japanese, but I have been buying all sorts of rather non-English labeled items in Japanese markets for years.

Soba noodles look surprisingly like soba noodles. Soba sauce looks different in shape than Soy Sauce. Wasabi looks hot and traditional... Panko looks like panko. Tofu looks like tofu. Mirin looks like mirin.. a less pure sake-like cooking wine... and if you're out, you can probably use diluted sake. Miso paste looks like miso paste. Dried shitake looks like dried shitake. Seaweed looks like seaweed... rice flour looks like rice flour... You probably get the idea. And most of them have pictures of the kind of foods you'd eat them with. And, of course, fruits, vegetables, and meats look like they should.

In short, there's a kind of language of food and packaging that you can help piece together with the stray bit of linguistic information you have. You don't need to know that much in order to prepare the essential heart of Japanese cuisine. Just stick to the basic ingredients and steer clear of the weird little packaged things. It's healthier and tastier to eat that way, too. You can even pay quiet attention to what someone who buys a given ingredient you know is part of something basic that you like also buys.

The language of food really isn't that hard to learn. You just have to be sure to study a bit and soak it all in.
posted by markkraft at 12:06 PM on February 23, 2013

You probably get the idea.

I have been to supermarkets in Japan several hundred times.

Which one of these sauces is for soba? What do you make of this? In this photo, find the mirin bottle(s). Does this look "hot and traditional"? Konbu, hijiki, wakame, and other seaweeds do not look alike and tend to come in "little packaged things". Yes, miso looks like miso, but so does tobanjan. Does this look like rice flour?

You get the idea. While bananas look the same just about anywhere you go, the writing on food packaging is not purely optional. This certainly applies to various cuts of fish and meat. The story about the westerner who buys this dinner roll and finds a surprise is well-known for a reason.
posted by Tanizaki at 1:13 PM on February 23, 2013

Are you learning Japanese? If you live there, I hope you are. My answer ties in to Tanizaki's in that sometimes the best way to learn is through a bit of struggling. My two recommendations are thus to find
1) a Japanese language website you can browse through google translate. I like cookpad.com
2) a Japanese language cookbook with lots of pictures, where you can use the pictures and numbers to guide you through the recipe. Japanese books with lots of pictures are very much de rigeur, but for a specific recommendation I can give 10分でごはん.

Both methods mean you get your recipe done, learn some Japanese, and can pick out the right ingredients at the grocery store (I can read Japanese and still get surprises sometimes where I mis-read or didn't correctly interpret some kanji or another, resulting in buying the wrong product or preparing it the wrong way or getting the wrong packaging/portion).

As for a specific recipe, I loooooove making okonomiyaki at home. Once you get the basic recipe down, it is fast and easy to make. There are many varieties depending on what you feel like putting in it (go outside the pork and embrace the kimchi or 4 cheese versions!). Most of the ingredients last quite a while (cabbage, eggs...) so you do not have the burden of seriously planning the meal.
posted by whatzit at 2:04 PM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are lots of cooking classes for Westerners in Japan, I recommend looking into that. I did a great one in Kyoto, but don't know if you're around that area.
posted by smoke at 3:13 PM on February 23, 2013

Seconding cooking with Dog (the dog is the host though the name did worry me the first time I watched it), it's a cute show but it makes a lot of Japanese dishes feel very approachable with very clear explanations. It often times gives you the ingredients with their Japanese names and English names and includes recipes in English and Japanese which might help in your ingredient hunting.

Just Hungry which someone else mentioned has just started as serious on Japanese Cooking 101, and their sister Bento site is doing the same for Bentos. The author is very good and gives clear and friendly instructions. I highly recommend them both
posted by wwax at 6:00 PM on February 23, 2013

i don't have any recommendation for food but it seems the major problem is identifying ingredients rather than cooking with them. I went to a Asian store here and couldn't identify ingredients , so i started using google translate on my phone to start identifying them(you can take pictures). If you have an android phone with a data connection, that might be helpful.
posted by radsqd at 9:13 AM on February 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Smoke may or may not be referring to this class. I did Emi's cooking class and it was great. We made sea eel and shiso leaf tempura, baked mackerel with japanese green peppercorns that make your tongue tingle, and asparagus salad with dressing made from sesame seeds ground up in a suribachi. We even made our own dashi for dipping tempura out of katsuobushi and kombu. If you're in Kyoto, I recommend it.
posted by univac at 9:56 AM on February 24, 2013

First thing to know: depending on where you are, you could be spending way to much on groceries. Hanamasa is a chain of grocery stores that's oriented towards small-medium restaurant supply but doesn't require a membership or anything - you can save a ton of money on meat and vegetables shopping there. Their logo is a cow head.

If you are seriously strapped for cash, learn to find bags of Moyashi (もやし), or bean sprouts. 29Y is a common price on those; the only catch is they go bad very quickly, so use them fast.

Just Hungry and Cooking with Dog are both good resources.

There should be an aisle in the grocery store with a bunch of boxes of curry, sold as blocks of roux. In addition to the curry there will be boxes for Hayashi Rice (like curry, but with demiglace sauce and caramelized onions) and various kinds of stew. Again, probably no English on the boxes, but the labels make the contents obvious, and the instructions are always "add vegetables and enough water, cook until everything is soft". Anything in that aisle, besides being easy to make, can be made in large quantities ahead and will keep pretty well.

Village Vanguard is a goofy store with novelty stuff, but they're also a bookstore and carry a lot of cookbooks with big photography budgets targeted at young hipsters who won't cook anything too serious. They probably won't have English, but the recipes will be designed to be really simple and there'll be a ton of pictures. This is one example of the format - it's just about steamed cupcakes, but there are others that are focused on pasta, or eggs, or things you microwave, or anything.

Basic recipes include:

Throw meat/vegetables in a pan, cook with soy sauce and garlic/ginger, put on top of rice. Works with anything, one common variation is Gyuudon (mentioned upthread).

Gyoza (dumplings) are tedious from scratch but available for cheap prepared and ready-to-fry at any grocery store. Hanetsuki or "feathered" Gyoza just involves putting a little flour in the water you pour over them so it fries into a crispy shell.

Cabbage goes with anything.

Soboro is any kind of ground or broken-up meat, fried with soy sauce, ginger, and garlic until just a bit moist and eaten as a layer on top of rice. Easy to make a huge batch and eat it through the week, and impossible to screw up. Canned tuna works beautifully.
posted by 23 at 8:31 PM on February 24, 2013

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