Cooking Tharu Chitwan Nepal
The Chitwan area of Nepal is a national park that is located around 100km from Kathmandu. It takes around two to four hours to travel there from the capital (sometimes much longer if the roads are busy – our return journey took 10 hours!) depending on the route. But it’s a pleasantly scenic drive across the Nepalese countryside (we travelled there after spending a night at the Neydo monastery) once you have escaped the busy roads of the capital city. It is possible to fly from Kathmandu but this is a more expensive mode of transport. Although Chitwan is best known for its wildlife, it is also possible to meet the local Tharu people and learn to cook with them.
Wildlife Walking Safari in Chitwan National Park
Chitwan is best known as a wildlife reserve where you can undertake a boat or walking safari and – if you are amazingly lucky – you may be able to see wild elephants, rhino, bears or even a tiger. If you’re merely lucky you will catch a glimpse of monkeys, deer and birds. And maybe chance upon some rhino poo to prove that they really were somewhere in the forest, honest.
We caught a jeep from our hotel to the river early in the morning and climbed aboard a long boat, so we could float serenely downriver.
There were lots of birds to see, including brightly coloured kingfishers, and we passed by a crocodile, who was almost as long as our boat, also enjoying a leisurely time in the river.
After around an hour we disembarked and met our guide for a walking safari.
We were given a pep talk whereby we learned what to do if we were to encounter any of the amazing, but potentially dangerous, creatures. Basically, they can all outrun you, so:
Rhinos – Stand still if you are downwind from them, they have appalling eyesight and probably won’t see you. Back away. If they charge, run away in a zig zag pattern, climb a tree if you can.
Bears – Do not run, avoid eye contact, back away slowly.
Tigers – Stand your ground. Don’t run, all cats love a chase.
Elephants – If they’re in a strop, you’re doomed!
Sadly, we weren’t amazingly lucky and didn’t get to try any of these techniques as the wildlife had decided not to come out to play, but that’s okay, that’s why it’s called wildlife.We did see a strutting peacock, a monkey and some deer.
But whether you see spectacular creatures or not, walking through the forest or floating along the river makes for a very pleasant morning.
And did meet one tiger!
Cooking With the Tharu People in Chitwan
A less well-known excursion is one which takes you to a nearby Tharu village where local people welcome you and are happy to introduce you to their traditional way of life. This trip can be arranged via your hotel who will organise transport to the village, which is located just a few kilometres from the national park. All the villagers are very welcoming and are happy for you to wander round. Some of the local women have recently set up a home stay so that you can experience the local way of life first hand. If we were to return to Chitwan we would absolutely love to stay with them.
Even if you’re not staying overnight, you can spend a very pleasant afternoon learning to cook traditional dishes with them. We met our lovely hosts who made sure we had a hands-on approach to cooking, right from the start.
The first element of the meal to start cooking is the rice. First of all, get water. There is no running water in the houses so you have to go to the local pump. Wash the rice then add water to the urn. Next, start the fire. The Tharu use an outdoor clay oven fuelled with wood. The oven is located between the houses.
Some kindling starts the fire and then the wood burns slowly to create an intense but steady heat. Pop the rice into the water vessel, put it on the fire and let it start cooking.
We then went for a walk in the local area to find ingredients. The Tharu grow a lot of their own vegetables on land adjacent to the village. These include onions, rice, beans, wheat and corn. It was particularly interesting to see lentils growing – we’d only ever seen them dried and they only ever came in packets from the supermarket.
Then we started preparing the vegetarian dish that accompanied the rice which was boiling away merrily on the fire. Beans were sliced using a knife by steadying the handle with a foot and – carefully – slicing the beans using the inside of the blade. Other vegetables were added.
We then went onto flavouring and this was something of a revelation. At home we’re very accustomed to using gadgets to process our food. There’s nothing wrong with that – with busy lives, a food processor can save a few seconds with all sorts of routine kitchen preparation jobs. But, actually, crushing garlic with a stone on a rock took no time at all and produced a smoother paste than any garlic crusher we’ve come across.
We removed the rice, which remained piping hot inside its pot and cooked the main dish over the fire. We started by quickly frying off the garlic and then added the vegetables and a bit of water to simmer.
The other thing is that we are also very used to buying powdered spice mixes. Pick up a packet of garam masala, sprinkle into your cooking and… instant flavouring. But so many of us buy spice mixes that are often never fully used before their ‘best before’ dates and languish in a cupboard slowing turning into tasteless dust. And it really isn’t that much more effort grind whole spices. Again, we used a stone. In this instance some dalchini (cinnamon bark), a few peppercorns, a dried cinnamon leaf and a cardamon pod were quickly ground into a masala. And doing it this way also gave us the freedom to change the spice combination. We added this to the dish at the last moment to provide a very aromatic flavour. Which, of course, was delicious.
We shared it with our host family in their home.
The trip also included an opportunity for Mitch to dress up and dance with the local ladies. Photos of her wearing traditional dress and – shock, horror – make-up do exist, but we’ll spare you those. What was lovely about the trip was not only getting the opportunity to cook and taste delicious local food but also to meet so many lovely people. Our hosts were absolutely charming and the whole village was delighted to see us.
The afternoon with the Tharu was delightful but it also changed the way we think about using spices. After our visit we decided that we would buy whole spices and then we could develop our own flavourings. Much as we’d like to have a grinding stone and a rock it’s not very practical in a suburban English house, but we do use a good quality granite pestle and mortar. It gives us the opportunity to experiment with spice combinations as well as textures – sometime we want a fine grind, other times we prefer a coarser texture. The whole spices can be stored more easily and keep for a longer period of time – especially as we use an airtight container.
How to make Vietnamese Spring Rolls Summer Rolls
Vietnamese cuisine is amongst the most delicious in the world. It is also amongst the prettiest. While most people think of spring rolls as being deep-fried, gỏi cuốn are actually served cold – at room temperature. In Western countries they are referred to as spring rolls, salad rolls or even summer rolls. They have slightly different names depending on the region of Vietnam: they are gỏi cuốn, meaning salad rolls in the south and nem cuốn in the north. Apparently they are called “rice paper” rolls in the central regions of the country, which is a simple description but accurate.
Gỏi cuốn comprise cold vermicelli noodles, salad, protein such as prawns or pork and herbs all wrapped up in rice paper, known as bánh tráng. They are usually served with a dipping sauce. Unlike fried spring rolls, these are really fresh and, like so much of Vietnamese food, full of flavour.
Makes 12 rolls
For the Rolls
Rice paper wrappers (you can get these from Asian supermarkets)
100g vermicelli rice noodles
36 king prawns (3 per roll, or one more each if you are feeling greedy), cooked and peeled.
Shredded lettuce or cabbage
Handful of fresh mint and/or coriander (or a herb of your choice)
For the Dipping Sauce
2 tbs sweet chilli sauce
Juice of ½ a lime
Splash of fish sauce (or soy sauce for vegetarians)
HOW TO MAKE VIETNAMESE SPRING ROLLS METHOD
Prepare the noodles. Pour boiling water over the vermicelli and leave for 5-7 minutes until they are soft. Drain and allow to cool.
Prepare the filling. Shred the lettuce/cabbage.
Finely slice the carrot. There is a tool that you can buy easily in South East Asia which is a little like a vegetable peeler that juliennes the carrot. If you don’t have one of those you could use a mandolin. And if you don’t have a mandolin a grater will do just fine.
The packaging on the paper skins – and many other recipes – states that you only have to soak them in warm water for a couple of seconds. We found that actually some of them need quite a bit longer soaking time. (And some just didn’t go soft at all- those should be discarded, these are not crunchy rolls and will not only not taste very nice, they will have a horrid texture and be really difficult to roll.)
When the paper is super-soft and totally translucent take it from the water and lay it flat on a clean surface. The skins are much more robust than they appear.
Start placing your filling onto the paper. You want to place it around 1/3 to 1/2 of the way up from the bottom of the paper and leave about 2 cm space on each side. Because the papers are partially transparent you can take your time to make the rolls look pretty. To do this make sure that the colourful items such as the prawns, herbs (try to keep the leaves whole for extra prettiness) or carrot are on the bottom of the pile, so that they can be seen through the wrapper.
Add a small handful of vermicelli, remembering that less is more – you don’t want to overstuff the rolls.
Variation: We also added some slices of home-made pickled garlic to some of the rolls to add an extra zingy flavour.
Now the tricky bit: the rolling of the rolls. It’s not as difficult as it might appear. Firstly, pull the filling together and fold the bottom of the paper over it, pressing gently into the filling so that the wrapping is tight.
Next, fold each side in towards the centre of the wrapper to form a little parcel.
Then roll forwards to complete the spring roll, trying to keep the filling inside as tight as possible. The paper is soft so will stick at the end easily. When the rolling is completed, keep the seam on the underside which will also help it stick.
There are a variety of dipping sauces. A popular one is hoisin and crushed peanuts but we made a sweet chilli dipping sauce.
We used sweet chilli sauce, half a lime and a splash of fish sauce to give us that characteristic sweet, sour, salt and spice flavour. Just mix the ingredients together in a bowl. Then it was simply a case of serving the rolls, dipping and enjoying.
How to make Vietnamese spring rolls summer rolls
These are some of the tools and ingredients we used to make the summer rolls:
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Spending New Year in Japan is a great way of understanding the traditions associated with one of the country’s most important celebrations.
While Christmas Day is a normal working day in Japan (albeit one where it has become a custom to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken of all things – there’s a really interesting programme on the BBC World Service about this tradition), many businesses tend to close down for the new year period, usually from around the 28th December to the 4th January. Certainly most will be closed on the 1st to the 3rd January but some businesses may close for longer in order that proprietors and employees can spend time with their families. This means that if you are sightseeing, some ryokan may not be receiving guests and some museums and attractions will be closed.
We were in Japan around new year 2019-2020, our last trip before the world changed so dramatically.
See the Lights in Shibuya
Shibuya is a vibrant, bustling district in Tokyo which has loads of shops and restaurants. Its most famous features are found close to the station.
Its road crossing is possibly one of the best known in the world as it has featured in numerous films and adverts.
Apparently its nickname is ‘scramble’ because at its busiest time over 2,500 people can cross the road in the two minutes that the pedestrian lights allow.
As new year approaches, the crossing is the place to join the celebrations if you want a party. We visited in the afternoon as preparations were underway and also got to see some of the lights in the surrounding area.
The statue of Hachiko is a famous Shibuya landmark. Hachiko was an Akito dog owned by a professor in the 1920s. The professor used to go to work and each day his dog would wait for him to return at the station in the evening. The professor died in 1925 but Hachiko would still wait for him every evening for a decade until his own death. It’s a very moving story of canine loyalty and a statue was erected to the dog outside the station in 1934. Of course, he is dressed for the occasion at this time of year.
Noodles in Shinjuku
One of the traditional things to do on New Year’s Eve is to eat Toshikoshi Soba – year-end noodles. The principle is that long noodles equate to a long life, so they represent longevity and good luck. This is a popular tradition and soba shops are likely to be busy on New Year’s Eve. We had a wonderful meal with a dear friend at lunchtime at the food hall in Takashimaya Times Square, the vast department store just south of Shinjuku station, which has a variety of wonderful restaurants located on the top two floors. We chose the soba restaurant there. We had to queue for around 40 minutes which wasn’t a problem – it had such a nice atmosphere.
Once seated you are not rushed to finish your meal, even though there will be people waiting outside. If you want to dine on noodles in the evening your wait may be much longer – we saw very long queues in Shinjuku later that night.
We ordered the set menu which came with tempura and other treats. It wasn’t cheap but it wasn’t bank-breakingly expensive and the entire meal was simply divine.
The noodles are presented on a traditional platter and appear to arrive in the most enormous mound but, on closer inspection, actually have been cleverly placed on a conical tray.
Soba are buckwheat noodles that can be served hot or cold – on a winter’s day, hot was definitely the best way to enjoy them.
You are provided with a broth which you can season to your liking and then you dip the noodles in the broth. It is polite to slurp in Japan! (Which, when you’ve been brought up not to slurp your soup, is surprisingly difficult!)
As we were finishing the restaurant staff came around with a small teapot filled with a hot, white opaque broth. This was sobayu, the water that that the noodles had been boiled in. We mixed it with our leftover sauce, added any further condiments and drank it – it’s a very satisfying way to finish off the meal.
Back To The Hotel to Watch TV
New year is traditionally a family time in Japan and many families stay home to see the new year in together. Kōhaku Uta Gassen is the NHK (the national broadcaster) TV channel’s new year show which has been running since the 1950s. It is a national custom to watch Kōhaku on New Year’s Eve. The format of the show is that popular singers, musicians and bands are invited to join and each are assigned to one of two teams – red and white. They each perform throughout the evening and the audience and judges decide which team was the best. Quite often western performers will take part as well. At the end of the show, just before midnight, everyone sings Hotaru no Hikari, a song similar to Auld Lang Syne. We spent some time in the early evening at our business hotel to catch some of the songs before heading out to see in the new year.
Seeing in the New Year
There are several choices depending on how you are feeling. Shibuya is the place to go for a party atmosphere. The famous road crossing is usually filled with people waiting to see the new year in (pre-Covid) and the atmosphere is guaranteed to be lively. Other possible places include Tokyo Tower, which has a countdown to the New Year, and Tokyo Disney and Disney Sea which have fireworks displays on New Year’s Eve. There will also be celebratory countdown events in hotels and izakaya across the city.
We chose to visit the Meiji Jingū. It’s one of Japan’s most important shrines, a Shinto shrine, just a couple of stops from Shinjuku, where we were staying. Meiji Jingū is a lovely place to visit at any time. It is set in a large, forested park which is very pleasant to wander through and is a completely serene contrast to the hustle and bustle of neon urban Tokyo. There are several JR stops that you can use to reach the shrine. We disembarked at Harajuku, the district where the cool kids hang out, and followed the crowds heading towards the shrine. We arrived at around 11:30 pm and were by no means the first people there. It’s a pleasant stroll from the beautiful wooden Torii at the entrance.
You need to bear in mind that it’s a one-way system as you walk through. You will see traditional lanterns and rows of sake barrels along the way.
Then we stopped at the barrier which had TV screens showing pictures of the crowd as it assembled and the shrine itself. We weren’t too far from the front but were still some way from the shrine. Even though the area was very crowded, everything was typically well-organised and there was a quiet buzz of excitement.
As the new year dawned 108 bells rang out. This is actually a Buddhist (Japan’s other main religion) custom, the number represents 108 temptations and the bell ringing is to reject 108 worldly desires. The bell is actually rung 107 times on the last day of the old year and just once after midnight. The bell rings aren’t uniform in length – some of the bells are rung in quicker succession than others.
We were reasonably close to the front at the Meiji shrine but it still took us around 45 minutes to reach the Naien, the inner area, which contains the shrine buildings. Marshalls were present wielding signs in both Japanese and English and beckoned visitors either to approach, or to ‘wait a short while, please’ before coming forward. This means that smaller groups of visitors were able to visit the shrine and offer prayers without it becoming over-crowded. It was an excellent system, especially as everyone co-operated beautifully.
When it was our turn, it wasn’t really possible to undertake the full Hatsumōde but we threw our coins, bowed, clapped and made our wishes and prayers for the new year. The Meiji shrine is the most famous shrine to visit and apparently attracts over three million visitors in the first three days of each year. A lot of people don’t quite make it to the very front of the queue.
Outside the main temple area there are stalls with refreshments and it’s possible to hang out and enjoy the atmosphere. We then walked back to Yoyogi station, where we knew the platforms were likely to be less crowded than Harajuku, and we hopped onto a very full, but joyous, train on the Yamanote line, just one stop back to Shinjuku. As we arrived back at our hotel, a barrel of sake had been opened in the lobby and we were invited to partake of a cup. We greeted the hotel staff, ‘Akemashita, omedetou gozaimasu!’ – meaning: the new year has dawned, congratulations!
Hatsumōde – Visiting a Temple
Another Japanese new year tradition is visiting a temple within the first three days of the year. Although we had been amongst the first to undertake Hatsumōde at the Meiji shrine the night before, we met up with our friend in Kichijoji. (Also, because we were out at the shrine to see in the new year, we hadn’t found out whether the red or the white team had won Kōhaku, so she was able to update us with this important information.)
Hatsumōde is considered to be a very important part of welcoming the new year and there will be queues at temples. We met quite early and had to queue for around 30 minutes. It was all very organised and the atmosphere lively.
There is a certain ritual that one undertakes when visiting a Shinto shrine. It is absolutely fine for anyone from any religion, or none, to visit a shrine and make an offering. First of all, it is important to purify oneself before entering the shrine. This is called ‘temizu’.
Approach the chozuya, which is a small pavilion which contains a purification font filled with water. There are multiple ladles laid next to the basin. Holding the ladle in your right hand, pour water over your left. Change hands and repeat. Change hands and then pour a little water into your left hand and take it into your mouth. You aren’t supposed to swallow the water but to spit it delicately into the drain.
Then walk up to the shrine itself and make an offering by throwing a coin. The monetary value isn’t important but 5 yen and 50 yen coins are considered to be lucky. Go-en (5 yen) sounds like ‘goen’ which means ‘good luck’ in Japanese.
Then you should bow deeply, from the waist, twice, then clap your hands twice, to show reverence to the kami-sama (the god; kami can also be interpreted as a spirit). Keep your hands together for a silent prayer.
We were delighted to be invited to our friend’s family home to enjoy osechi-ryōri, traditional new year foods.
Traditional New Year Food
New year is a time for feasting and there are some dishes that are particularly associated with celebrations. Much of the food in osechi-ryōri is prepared in advance so that the whole family can eat together rather than spending loads of time in the kitchen.
The quintessential new year food is mochi. These are rice balls made by pounding steamed sticky rice with a big mallet in a large wooden container to achieve a stretchy and slightly sticky consistency. This is then formed into little rice dumplings. They have an unusual texture – very soft and delightfully squidgy. They may be flavoured and/or filled with all sorts of ingredients. Matcha green tea, milk flavouring and azuki bean paste are popular fillings. Sometimes the mochi will have a sesame coating.
Matcha mochi with azuki bean filling is delicious:
Kazunoko is another popular new year dish. It is marinated seasoned herring roe. The roe is yellow in colour and comprises hundreds of eggs all bound together. The texture is surprisingly crunchy and the flavour slightly salty. It is usually marinated overnight in ingredients such as dashi (Japanese stock), soy sauce and sake. We were lucky to enjoy home-made kazunoko marinated in sake lees and it was delicious. The multiple eggs in the roe are symbolic of a large family. The kuzunoko can be served on its own or with other delicious ingredients, in this case, with prawns and a scallop on top of cucumber.
Kobumaki is a piece of kelp seaweed. It will have been simmered for a while to soften and is often presented in the shape of a bow. An alternative serving is a roll of kombu tied with a strip of dried daikon (a white radish); this is called hoshi daikon. Further variations include wrapping the kombu around a piece of meat or fish. The word ‘kombu’ also means ‘joy’ in celebration of a joyous day.
Sushi is not usually part of osechi-ryōri but it is a celebratory food and is often eaten on special occasions. It would be unusual for Japanese families to make their own sushi – they would leave it to the experts and buy some in.
Another Japanese new year tradition is Fukubukuro. When the shops reopen many will offer lucky bags – sealed bags or boxes – containing random merchandise. The value of the goods inside are greater than the price you would normally pay and sometimes you may – by sheer luck – end up with some very cool products. We met up with a dear friend in Nakano Broadway the following day and found a Lucky Box stall. At just 300 Yen we didn’t have high expectations but it was fun seeing what was in the box.
We were in our favourite local Vietnamese restaurant recently and, while eating a delicious bowl of Bún Bò Chân Giò Huế – Beef, Pork Hock, Meat Balls in a vermicelli noodle soup (Bún means vermicelli and the dish originated in Huế, a coastal city in central Vietnam that used to be its capital), the restaurant staff brought out a jar containing pickled garlic to be used as a condiment. It was delicious – it added another dimension to the dish – a zap of sour garlic with just a hint of spice from the chilli infused vinegar. It’s a really popular condiment and apparently some of the restaurant’s customers will devour the whole jar when it’s brought to the table. We figured it probably wasn’t too difficult to make ourselves so we did some experimenting and, indeed, it’s a really easy recipe.
We had grown a bunch of garlic earlier in the year – planted in the late autumn we harvested it mid-summer. We also have a habit of keeping empty jars for preserving purposes, so had most of the ingredients and equipment to hand. It’s very flexible to make and the quantities in the recipe really depend on the size of your container. You will need a clean empty jar – you can use any old jar. Just wash it out thoroughly and fill it with boiling water, which will make sure it’s clean enough to store pickles, then let it cool down. Our jar was around 300 ml capacity.
Several bulbs of garlic (the quantity will depend on how large the bulbs are and how finely you wish to slice it)
Two red chillies
White vinegar (you can use rice vinegar if you are feeling decadent but the garlic has a strong flavour and we feel it would dominate the subtle flavour of the rice vinegar)
2tsp white sugar
1/2 tsp salt.
Peeling the garlic is the most time-consuming part of this job. Garlic is one of the stickiest substances known to human kind but you don’t realise this until you start peeling lots of it.
Once peeled, you have a number of choices. You can keep the garlic cloves whole, you can slice them with a knife or you can slice them wafer-thin using a mandolin. We prefer the very thinly sliced garlic because when you add it as a condiment the flavour enhances rather than dominates the food.
If using a mandolin, be really careful. Being clumsy cooks, we use a knife glove which means that you can slice the garlic very close to the blade without risking sliced fingers. Bloody garlic pickle is not a good idea.
Place the sliced garlic, slice the chillies and add everything to the jar.
Top up with the vinegar. Add the sugar and salt.
Shake the jar.
Leave to infuse for at least a week. The pickled garlic will last for months… but is likely to get scoffed much sooner. Also, because the vinegar is acidic you can add additional sliced garlic or another chilli as you use up the existing condiment.
Although this dish goes really well with Phở and Bún Huế dishes, we’ve also used it to add a bit of zing to Vietnamese summer rolls.
And this condiment isn’t just for Vietnamese cookery. We use this pickle to garnish soups – this is a home-made vegetable soup.
Or it can be used in a meat dish – these are glazed pork belly bites. Just a slice or two atop really cuts through the richness of the meat.
This is the mandolin we use. It’s adjustable so you can get different thicknesses of slicing and you can julienne vegetables as well. The cut-resistant knife gloves are excellent and have saved us from multiple sliced fingers over the years.
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Dashi is a Japanese soup stock which is really easy to make and very delicious indeed. It is a fundamental component of many Japanese dishes, such as miso soup, surinagashi and noodle dishes such as ramen and udon. It’s a very simple stock but provides a huge amount of flavour and definitely puts the “mmm” into umami, the fifth flavour. You can buy instant powdered dashi and just add water but if you can find the ingredients in your local Asian supermarket it’s really not much effort to make. The process is very simple and much quicker than traditional stock making in European cuisines, which generally require ingredients such as meat, vegetables and herbs to be boiled for several hours.
Dashi usually only uses a couple of ingredients. The dashi we made used konbu (kelp – a seaweed) and katsuobushi (bonito flakes, which are skipjack tuna flakes that have been simmered and smoked, then dried in the sun to ferment and finally shaved to wafer thin slices). Katsuobushi, like many fermented fish products (think nam pla – fish sauce from Thailand), smells somewhat stinky and rather unpleasant when you open the packet, but somehow it adds a magical quality to the finished stock. Other dashi ingredients could include dried shiitake mushrooms or dried anchovies.
3 sheets of kombu kelp seaweed
40g bonito flakes
5 dehydrated shiitake mushrooms (for vegetarian or vegan version)
1 litre of water
Make the dashi: Put kombu and bonito flakes (or shiitake mushrooms) into a saucepan of water.
Bring to a simmer. Skim off any froth.
After 15 minutes, turn off the heat. You should have a clear broth
Sieve the solids from the broth.
Keep the solid ingredients. You can dry these out and use them again to make a secondary dashi.
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Moo Larb is the perfect dish for a hot summer’s day. It’s incredibly easy to make and really refreshing. It’s kind of a meat salad which hails from South East Asia; we first tried it in Lao but have also eaten it in Thailand, and quickly became hooked. Even better, all the ingredients are really easy to find in our home country. There’s a tiny bit of preparation needed prior to assembling the dish, so worth thinking about making it ahead of time. The following recipe will easily feed four as a starter or two hungry people.
300g pork mince. Chicken mince also works really well and quorn mince provides a nice vegetarian alternative. Lamb isn’t recommended as it’s quite fatty and the fat tends to congeal a little which doesn’t provide a very nice texture.
1 large red onion (or 2 small)
Generous handful of fresh mint
Generous handful of fresh coriander
Freshly milled black pepper
Generous splash of fish sauce (vegetarians can use veggie fish sauce or a combination of soy sauce and vinegar) – around half a tablespoon
Optional: chilli flakes, toasted rice, teaspoon of sugar, Thai basil leaves for garnish
You need to allow enough time for the mince to cook and cool before assembling the dish. Its’ the perfect ‘make in advance’ dish.
Cook the mince. Pour a little oil into a pan and fry until the meat is cooked through. Allow it to cool.
Finely chop the onion, coriander and mint.
Add the fish sauce, lime juice and black pepper to taste. We really like coarsely ground black pepper so grind ours in a pestle and mortar. This is really where you can adapt the flavour to your personal taste.
Mix well. Serve with steamed rice and a salad garnish.
There are some variations. If you like heat, add chilli flakes (flakes are better than fresh chilli). This was one of the dishes we had in Lao that wasn’t searingly hot, the spice coming from the pepper rather than chilli, but it’s fine to add more heat if you like it. If you’d like to add some sweetness, sprinkle in a little sugar and mix in. There is also a variation where you can add roasted ground rice powder for an additional nutty complexity to the flavour and texture. It’s very simple: place a handful of uncooked Thai rice in a dry frying pan and roast the rice for 10 minutes or so, until the rice is brown. Then transfer to a pestle and mortar or a spice grinder and grind to a powder.
(You can actually toast more rice to make a greater quantity of this powder; it will keep for a couple of months in an airtight container.)
One of the great things about travelling around Japan is getting to sample the regional variations in the food. We had visited a miso/soy sauce factory in the western city of Kanazawa but, on our way, we had taken a detour to visit the snow monkeys at Yudanaka and also had the opportunity to visit the nearby town of Obuse in Nagano prefecture.
Obuse is a pretty little town with some interesting museums – notably an exhibition space dedicated to artist and printmaker Hokusai who was famous for his ukiyo-e (floating world) pictures from the Edo period. His best known work is probably The Great Wave off Kanakawa, one of the 36 views of Mount Fuji series. When we visited, they had on an exhibition which contrasted the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji with the One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji series.
We were pleased to discover that the town also had a shop dedicated to miso.
The delightful owners were very happy for us to sample their wares and it was great to be able to compare flavours of the different types on offer. We bought some packets of miso to take home with us.
We had long wanted to experiment with making miso but, while it’s easy to get hold of soy beans, obtaining rice koji is more difficult in the UK. We were able to buy some inoculated koji in Japan and have later discovered a number of suppliers in the UK and EU from whom koji can be obtained. We used pre-inoculated koji. If you are really hardcore, you can obtain the spores, then steam the rice and let the mould grow on it to create your own koji.
That is for another time though. We started with the simple approach using koji that we had bought in Kanazawa…
The best book in the world for learning how to make Japanese preserves, pickles and ferments is Nancy Singleton Hachisu’s Preserving the Japanese Way: Traditions of Salting, Fermenting, and Pickling for the Modern Kitchen. We have tried and tested loads of recipes from this book and can wholeheartedly recommend it. We followed the miso recipe.
Organic soy beans were soaked overnight and then boiled for a couple of hours until soft.
One thing we realised that we needed to obtain – a bit too late at this stage – was a proper blender. The soy beans were mashed by any means necessary – in the end a combination of a potato masher and hand blender produced the best results from all the available gadgets in the kitchen but the beans were still a bit chunky – we didn’t achieve a really smooth paste. But that was okay, miso doesn’t have to be totally smooth. In fact, chunky miso has a very pleasant nutty texture. But a blender was duly ordered for future use.
After the beans had cooled we mixed in the rice koji and salt – giving everything a really good squash together. It’s a very hands-on approach. (Make sure hands are clean, of course, a good way to do this is to spray them with white vinegar.)
Then you get a big container, in this instance we found some food-grade plastic tubs, which we cleaned thoroughly and wiped with (cheap) vodka, grab a ball of mixture and throw it into the container. You need to have a good aim. The point of the throwing is that the mix splats together and doesn’t allow air bubbles. It’s really important that the mix is compact. If your splatting ability isn’t as accurate as it could be, make sure you really pack the miso together afterwards – a good squish with your fists will help.
When the mixture is thoroughly squashed and compacted, sprinkle salt over the surface of the mixture, find some heavy weights and crush the miso to push it all together.
Then it’s simply a matter of time. Miso production in Japan is usually started in spring when temperatures are low. We started in April. The hot, humid summer is essential for the maturation of the miso and this is quite difficult to replicate in the UK, which has summers that can best be described as variable. However, we are lucky enough to have a greenhouse in our garden so our miso spent several days at a temperature that tried to emulate Japan’s summer heat although it didn’t get close to its oppressive humidity. It worked though – after the summer, on opening the lid we could definitely get that distinctive miso aroma. We knew we were on the right track.
We waited a few more months – until late October – and finally plucked up the courage to scrape the scary-looking surface of the miso and dive in.
An initial taste revealed it to be really delicious – salty and savoury with a heady aroma. We do a lot of food preservation via a lacto-fermentation process and are generally a bit scared of mould which is considered to be a Bad Thing. If food goes mouldy, it is dangerous and should be chucked. With the miso, the covering of the weight did develop some mould so we were cautious. But it hadn’t affected the food, so all was well.
It turned out that we had managed to ferment about 3kg worth! That will keep us going for a while. We carefully washed some old plastic tubs from takeaway food – these are brilliant for storage – decanted the miso from the tub and put it into the fridge for future use. As a fermented food, it should have a very good shelf life.
The first thing we made with the miso was soup – the traditional accompaniment to many Japanese meals. Our miso was so delicious that it was possible to make a nice drink by simply pouring boiling water onto the paste, mixing and devouring, but that was too crude an approach.
The very best miso soup starts with a dashi, which is a soup stock. There are several types of dashi. You can get instant powdered dashi and just add water but it’s really easy to make your own using ingredients that are generally easy to find from Asian supermarkets. The process is very simple and much quicker than traditional stock making in European cuisines, which generally require ingredients such as meat, vegetables and spices to be boiled for several hours. And it’s definitely worth the not very considerable effort.
Dashi usually only uses a couple of ingredients. The dashi we made used kombu (kelp – a seaweed) and katsuobushi (bonito flakes, which are skipjack tuna flakes that have been simmered and smoked, then dried in the sun to ferment and finally shaved to wafer thin slices). Katsuobushi, like many fermented fish products (think Thai nam pla – fish sauce), smells somewhat stinky and rather unpleasant when you open the packet, but somehow it adds a magical quality to the finished stock. Other dashi ingredients could include dried shiitake mushrooms or dried anchovies. Dashi definitely puts the “mmm” into umami.
We simmered kombu and bonito for 20 minutes, skimming off any froth from the surface of the broth. Then we sieved the broth and kept the solid materials. A bit like olive oil, this was the primary dashi, but it’s possible to resuse the dried base ingredients to make another dashi.
When the dashi is ready add a tablespoon of miso paste and bring to the simmer.
Miso soup usually has some additional ingredients such as negi (like spring onions), tofu, mushrooms or wakame seaweed.
You can find our detailed recipe for making miso soup here.
And here is a link to the highly recommended Preserving The Japanese Way book.
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