Okonomiyaki and more!
Peasant food - three favourites
It's a fairly robust rule of thumb that peasant food is the basis for all great world cuisine. The peasants were the ones wallowing around muddy fields in the wind and the rain; they were the ones who needed the maximum out of their food - energy, taste and comfort value. Never mind about two roasted fronds of pygmy goats cheese with a poached quayle's egg with raspberry coulis, we're here to look at and celebrate real food for folk who've done a hard day's graft.
There's a quiz at the end to check where you fit in the social strata in relation to your food habits....
So food from Japan....sushi yada yada, sashima yada yada; yes beautiful, deilicious, chefs can dissect fish flesh to millimetre accuracies but not every salariman has 5000 yen to spend on lunch. What does he chow down on? Well, in my observation, lasting 365 days exactly, at lunch time he took himself and his mates down to the local ramen shop and slurped up those noodles. After work, usually after doing a couple of hours overtime, he would be tempted by one of the old geezers with the steamy stalls at the railway station. I'm going to relate to you three of the dishes Mr Salariman may have chosen today on his long days march from home to work and back again.
1) At the noodle ramen shop: miso ramen. A wholehearted, warming bowl of peasant goodness. Main ingredient miso. Miso is fermented rice, barley and soy beans; it creates a thick, fairly salty paste that dissolves to make a soup by itself or with other ingredients into a soup base for ramen - you can't get much more Japanese than this stuff. Ramen are egg noodles, they're not like the ones you find in your instant noodle plastic soup cup thing at the 7-11, these are more on the way to home made pasta. Thrown in with the miso and ramen is a little chicken and chicken stock, then there's bean sprouts, spinach, garlic, ginger and those white and pink pretty Japanese things...my recommendation would be to have this with a cold glass of Japanese beer - Asahi, Sapporo or Kirin (my favourite).
A salariman slurps. It's not pretty to hear and to look at but the soup might be hot and it just tastes better to inhale a little air with the food.
2) Gyoza: pork dumplings - filling and tasty; cabbage, garlic and chives add to the taste of the pork. Go to an izakaya and pour in a little soy sauce in the little sauce plate provided then pour in chilli sauce and admire the way the chilli sits with a touch of osmosis in the soy sauce; next get your throw away wooden chopsticks, pick up one of these bad boys dip it in the sauce and enjoy.
3) Okonomiyaki: fantastic name. I had okonomiyaki on my very first night in Japan. Unfortunately, it was in a restaurant where you had to cook it yourself. Having no idea what I was supposed to be cooking, I can't say my first impression of okonomiyaki was all that great....but then I bought it from a professional and the lights were turned on. Sort of a pancake stuffed with cabbage, squid, octopus, vegetables and noodles...well, okonomi means 'what you like', 'yaki' is 'grilled'. It also comes with a special okonomiyaki sauce. There are regional variations - mainly in whether you get noodles with it or a fried egg. Later, I used to buy it from an old gent with a stall at my local station. After I had sussed the pronunciation and he started to know my face (not that difficult given the context) he'd give me that look as if to say,' go on son you get your chops round this lovely grub, you keeping eating this and you'll turn Japanese'....well at least that's what I like to think he was thinking but what I can say for sure was that he had that splendid old fashioned simple pride in doing his work right - he was spot on and his food tasted gorgeous everytime.
I've put some videos on below, so if you feel tempted to try cooking this stuff you can see how it's done; worth watching anyway just to meet the Japanese cookery presenter who is a dog in the okonomiyaki and gyoza video....anyway long live peasant food!