24 October 2012

A Japanese take on salads.

I love having people visit. I love the company; I love seeing the usually-far-away faces sitting in my living room drinking coffee; I love the special tingly feeling I get in my stomach to know people care so much as to fly across the world to come and see Amos and me. Ah, it gets me, guys, right to my core.

Perhaps what I love most of all is showing people Japan. The way people line up for the subways. The izakayas full of salary men. The fabulousness of Japanese ramen. The efficiency and ease of the Shinkansen. The green soft mountains that somehow look exactly as I pictured them before we moved here. The watermelons that cost $35 and the pearl headbands that also have (pearl) cat ears attached.

When I have visitors, I get excited about Japan all over again. I re-fall in love with matcha and daikon, with department stores and their asiles of mini-sized kitchenware, with the bento boxes and fake eyelashes, with the fish markets, and the Alps, and the fall leaves. It wakes me up from the monotony of living here and reminds me: Dude, you live here.

Sometimes visitors stump me. They ask questions that I used to ask and have since forgotten. They innocently wonder where to get such-and-such, or, wow, don't I miss this-or-that. Suddenly, I'll have a hankering for those things, which is unfortunate since I usually can't get this-or-that over here, and such-and-such requires a 6km bike ride and is five times the price it is back home. (I'm looking at you, peanut butter.)

The thing is, I don't want to fight Japanese food. I don't want to spend all my time wishing I could have a, b, and c, instead of really appreciating the x, y, and z that exist here (I'm looking at you, sashimi grade tuna). I've jumped into Japanese cooking, with miso and mirin in the cupboard, and I'll grown to love things like onigiri and wasabi peas.

But then, these delightful visitors of mine, they ask these innocent questions. About apples. And salads. And once these ideas are planted in my brain, they are oh-so-hard to get out. Which is explain why I went on a wild goose chase for apples this week. Crisp, tart, fall-has-arrived apples, and I needed them to be less than $4 each.

It took a couple days and a fair amount of kilometers logged on my bike, but I've found them. (At this point, let me officially profess my love for the Lawson 100 Yen shop. It's kind of like the dollar store, but so much better.) Not quite as tart or crisp as I'd like, but perfect for Apple Ginger Carrot soup I had for lunch yesterday and a yet-to-be-made coffee cake. I now feel poised to officially welcome in the fall season.

Then there are the salads. My dear friend Emily, a semi-pesco vegetarian who doesn't really like fish and to whom soy gives a mildly upset stomach, innocently asked about salads. The big, hearty, an-entire-meal-in-one-dish salads that are one of the best things to come out of of American cuisine.

In this country of extremely healthy, trim folk, salads seem surprising scarse. Vegetables are juillined into miso soups, lightly pickled as a garnish, or tempura'd next to white fish. All of these are all -- frankly -- delicious, but none has the uumph of a robust salad. One dish meals aren't very Japanese. One dish meals full of raw vegetables seem even less Japanese. I used to hunt for them when we first arrived in Nagoya, then I slowly stopped.... right until Emily planted that seed in ma' brain. It went something like this: salad. salad. salad. apple. salad. salad. salad. apple. salad. salad.

My little Sun Ace grocery store has lettuce, but it never looks that good. I've gotten it before, sure, but it always tastes a little watery. I dunno. The cabbage, however? Fresh. Cheap. The bean sprouts? Stocked every time I'm there. Carrots? Giant and plentiful. Green onions? Oh so many, and some are even pre-washed and chopped for you. Yes, please.

I combined all of this with my newest obsession of soba noodles. (Seriously. I am eating them about 3 times a week. Poor Amos.)

I threw them together, and Amos had regular soba noodles with a bit of cabbage, carrots, bean sprouts, and the like. I, on the other hand, had cabbage, carrots, bean sprouts, and the like with a bit of soba noodles thrown in on the side. Soba salad. BAM. Look at me go.

A couple days later, I was flipping through my newest cookbook and came upon -- you guessed it -- a soba noodle salad. It had chicken in it, which sounded pretty good, and red cabbage instead of green, but it seemed pretty similar to mine.

Just like that, I felt very legitimized. Soba Noodle Salad! It's a thing!

It's what we ate last week. It's what I'm eating for lunch today. I made my friends eat soba noodles about five times during the two weeks they were here, and -- for that -- I hope they forgive me. The soba salad seems a way to keep the my salad itch scratched while really enjoying the food that's available here.  I know that whenever we end up back in the States, I'll be well and good until someone mentions something deliciously Japanese (miso! okra! persimmons!) and I'll be off on another wild goose chase. Just wait for it.

Soba Noodle Salad

8 ounces soba noodles
2 blocks fried tofu (my way) or 2 chicken breasts (Real Simple's way)
3 Tbsp rice vinegar
3 Tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp freshly grated ginger
1 tsp mirin
Squeeze of siracha, wasabi, or shake of red pepper flakes
2 cups cabbage, thinly sliced (I like a mix of red and green. Fancy!)
1/4 cup scallions
1 1/2 cup julienned crunchy vegetables, such as carrots, cucumbers (with seeds scooped out), bean sprouts, radishes, or bell peppers

Cook the soba noodles according to the package directions. Mine package directions are in Japanese, so it's a guessing game of what looks right and what I think the pictures are trying to convey. Basically, bring a (unsalted) pot of water up to a boil. Gently drop in the soba noodles and press down with a pair of chopsticks (Japanese cooking, yo! Get into it!). Cook at a gentle simmer (not a roiling boil) for 6-7 minutes. Drain the noodles and fill the pot back up with cold water. Dump the noodles in and stick your hands in there to wash the noodles. Rub each noodle in the cold water to remove any extra starch. Surprisingly this makes a big difference, so don't skip this step. Drain the noodles again, and give them a final wash in running water. 

If you're using the tofu, slice it up finely and reheat in the oven for about 5 minutes while your soba is cooking. If you're cooking chicken, put some olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Wait a tick, then add the chicken. Cook until each side is golden brown and the chicken is cooked through. Remove for heat, wait another tick, then slice into strips. 

In a small bowl (or mug, if you're classy and low on dishes), mix the vinegar, soy sauce, and ginger. Sometimes I add some wasabi or hot sauce to this. Taste it as you go along and adjust. It's pretty hard to screw up.

Spread it all out on the counter, and go to town. I'm a fan of more cabbage, less soba, and Amos is the opposite. Add the dressing on top and mix it all together. If you round out the meal with a cold Sapporo or some sake, you have my blessing.

Serves 4-ish.

1 comment:

  1. Oh man... I discovered soba salad a while back and I LOVE it. I throw broccoli slaw (shredded broccoli stems, carrots, cabbage, etc) or just cole slaw mix in there with ponzu or whatever I have on hand (and ALWAYS lime juice) and go to town. So effing good. And you can always go Vietnamese with cucumbers, rice noodles, sprouts, cilantro, carrots, tofu, and fish sauce. Nomz.


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