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Recipe: How To Make Japanese Simmered Pork Belly – Buta no Kakuni

Japanese simmered pork belly is a rich, indulgent dish that is sweet, savoury, sticky and utterly sumptuous. Pork belly is a really fatty cut of meat but fat means flavour and the process of cooking the pork for a long time ensures that a lot of the fat will melt away. Any fat that remains is soft and juicy.

Japanese simmered pork belly recipe

In Japanese, buta means pork and kakuni derives from two longer words: kaku- to cut into cubes and ni – simmer.

It is traditional to serve kakuni with a drop of Japanese mustard called karashi (辛子 or からし). Karashi is a bit darker yellow than most other mustard. It does not really have much acidity in it (unlike other mustards) and very hot. It is perhaps closest to hot English mustard, which is a good substitute.

How to Make Japanese Simmered Pork Belly (Serves 2)

Ingredients

Portion of pork belly per person (allow around 150-200g per person depending on how hungry you are)

Water

Stock cube – dashi stock if possible or you can make your own

2 spring onions, sliced into 2-3cm chunks plus another for garnish

2 inches of ginger, peeled and cut into strips

16 tbs (1 cup) of water

4 tbs (1/4 cup) soy sauce

4 tbs (1/4 cup) cooking sake (if you can’t get sake, white wine will be a good substitute)

4 tbs (1/4 cup) caster sugar

4 tbs (1/4 cup) mirin (if you can’t get mirin, add a little more sake and sugar)

Generous splash of rice vinegar (we like this to counterbalance some of the sweetness of the dish)

simmered pork belly flavourings
glaze ingredients

Method

Place the pork belly in a frying pan and sear on both sides for a couple of minutes.

pork belly sealing

Place the pork belly in a pot and cover with water. Add the stock cube, spring onion and ginger. Turn on the heat and bring the water up to a simmer. Simmer the pork for 2 hours or until nice and tender. Alternatively, you can do as we do and use a pressure cooker. Just prepare the pork as above and cook at pressure for 40 minutes.

Japanese simmered pork belly recipe

When the pork comes out it should be wonderfully soft and close to falling apart (but not actually falling apart). Cut the pork into chunks – about 2cm length. We also decided to cut off the rind at this stage.

Japanese simmered pork belly recipe

Don’t forget to keep the stock – it will make a wonderful base for ramen noodles or soup. You can pop it into the freezer if you’re not going to use it immediately.

Japanese simmered pork belly recipe

Put the water, soy sauce, sake (or wine), mirin and sugar into a pan and bring to the boil.

perparing the glaze
preparing the glaze

Carefully place the pork chunks into the pan and press down so that the sauce completely covers them.

creating the glaze

(In retrospect we should have put the pork into a deeper pan – a casserole dish – because the sauce did splutter a lot and because there was sugar in it, it stuck to our hob which made clearing up a bit of a nightmare!)

pork belly glaze

Reduce the sauce until it has almost become a paste – it will have coated the pork and caramelised on the underside. It will look glossy and luscious.

Japanese simmered pork belly

Serve atop plain white rice garnished with chopped spring onion. It is often accompanied with a splodge of karashi. We like adding some pickled ginger as well.

Japanese simmered pork belly recipe

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RECIPE: Salmorejo

Andalusian Cold Tomato Soup

In Spain, cold soups are perfect for a hot summer’s day. Gazpacho is probably the most well known – a blend of fresh tomatoes and other vegetables, such as cucumber, peppers and garlic. Salmorejo is another cold soup, which also originated in Andalusia. We first tried it in a tapas restaurant when we visit Seville and absolutely loved it. It is a blend of tomatoes but has the addition of bread which thickens the soup. It’s a great soup that also helps to avoid food waste as it works really well if the bread is slightly stale.

In the UK tomatoes aren’t that great. Supermarkets often sell perfectly round, perfectly red tomatoes that basically taste of water. We go to our local market for our toms or grow our own. (And home grown always taste better.) What is great about Salmorejo is that even if the tomatoes are a bit insipid, the flavourings ensure that the dish will be delicious.

Our recipe for salmorejo is really easy to make but you will need a blender. This will serve four if part of a wider tapas meal/starter or two hungry people. Also, it’s the sort of soup that you can make first thing in the morning and let the flavours infuse during the day. It even tastes great after being in the fridge overnight.

INGREDIENTS

About 10 ripe tomatoes

3 slices of stale white bread

Clove of garlic (or another if you like garlic but we prefer subtle garlic here)

Good slosh of extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper

1 boiled egg per 2 servings

Couple of slices of ham

METHOD

First of all the tomatoes need to be skinned. The easiest way to do this is to cut a cross at the end of the tomato (the opposite end to the stalk). It doesn’t need to be precise and it doesn’t matter if you cut into the tomato’s flesh -it’s all going to be blended anyway.

salmorejo recipe tomatoes

Pour boiling water over the tomatoes and let them sit in the water for a couple of minutes. Then transfer them to a bowl of cold water.

tomatoes

Grab a corner where the slice was made and the skins should just peel away. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t get all the skin off.

peeled tomato

Put the tomatoes in the blender and give them a quick whiz.

Then tear the bread slices and add those, along with the garlic, oil, salt and pepper.

ingredients in blender

Blend again until you have a smooth, thick soup.

recipe for salmorejo

Pour into a jug then put into the fridge and let the flavours infuse.

Serve into individual bowls and garnish with chopped boiled egg and/or chopped ham.

recipe for salmorejo
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Fresh Wasabi – Hot Stuff!

Did you know that a lot of the time the fiery, nose-wince-inducing, slightly-eye-watering wasabi that you eat with your sushi doesn’t actually contain much wasabi? The wasabi powders and pastes that you buy in the shops or which are used in many restaurants are usually a combination of mustard, horseradish, green food colouring and just a hint of wasabi, probably from the stem or leaves. Eating fresh wasabi is a completely different experience.

wasabi rhizome
chirashi sushi bowl with fresh wasabi
Home-made chirashizushi with fresh wasabi paste and leaves

GROWING FRESH WASABI

Wasabi as a plant is similar to horseradish in that both belong to the Brassica family (which is quite a broad family as it also contains vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli and kale) and both have a fiery pungency but they are different species and offer very different flavours.

Horseradish is really easy to grow in the UK. It’s like a weed and grows rapidly in the wild. We regularly see horseradish growing by the roadside or in parks. (We would like to forage for it but although we could pick the leaves it’s against the law to dig up roots on land you don’t own.) It’s the long white root that provides the flavour. Wasabia Japonica’s flavour comes from its rhizome, which is kind of like a swollen stem.

fresh wasabi

Traditionally wasabi grows next to crystal clear gravelly mountain streams in rural Japan (a delightfully romantic image) but it is actually possible to grow wasabi in the UK (although our garden is significantly less romantic than a beautiful mountain stream). Water grown wasabi is known as sawa- or mizu-wasabi, soil grown is known as hatake-wasabi.

Our soil grown wasabi needs a little love. It likes relatively cool conditions and much prefers the shade to the sunshine. We once had to move our wasabi into a sunny spot temporarily and it wilted like the Wicked Witch of the West. (It recovered 24 hours later when it was back in the shade.) It also needs to be well watered, although it doesn’t like to sit in water. A cool, rainy British summer is ideal. We grow it in pots close to the north facing wall of our house. It takes a while for the rhizome to grow – you need to be patient for a couple of years – but the result is worth it. The cat was very impressed with our attempts.

plants growing
fresh wasabi
wasabi and cat

EATING FRESH WASABI

The first time we ate fresh wasabi, it was a revelation. It did have that amazing familiar pungency but it also has a sweetness that you don’t expect.  One of the advantages of growing wasabi is that the other parts of the plant are all edible: the lovely heart shaped leaves can be used as a garnish (and eaten), the stems chopped up like herbs and even the delicate flowers, which are especially good in a tempura. The other parts are much more mild and, while they impart flavour, don’t have the pungency of the rhizome.

flower

HOW TO PREPARE FRESH WASABI

Wasabi rhizomes can grow up to 100g in size, although some can be bigger. You would have to have a big sushi party to get through that amount but it is possible to store it.

The pungency of the wasabi fades somewhat when it is exposed to air, so it is best to grate it just before serving. There are various graters you can buy. Traditionally, a shark skin grater is used, although it is usually made from a type of ray. Purists prefer this, claiming that this is the one that ensures that the wasabi has the best creamy consistency and brings out the best flavour. But you can also get other types, including a metallic grater or, our preference, a ceramic grater.

Using a vegetable peeler, we just scrape off a small amount of the rhizome’s outer layer, up to the length we wish to grate, then grate the wasabi in a circular motion.

fresh wasabi

One useful little implement is a bamboo brush which you can use to gather up the grated wasabi. The stiff bristles are much more efficient at negotiating the grater’s bumps than our fingers. Gather the grated wasabi up into a nice little ball and serve. It’s worth grating slightly less than you think you will need – you can always grate more.

STORING WASABI

A fresh rhizome will store well in the fridge for a couple of weeks. We tend to keep it wrapped in damp kitchen paper and grate as much as we need. If we don’t get through an entire rhizome in that time, it tends to go a bit black, so the best thing to do is freeze it. The whole rhizome doesn’t freeze well but grated wasabi freezes brilliantly.

We tend to grate into portions and then store inside little plastic tubs – the sort you get sauces/dips in with a takeaway meal. Then we seal – in order to minimise exposure to the air and pop into the freezer. Take them out when you need them. The portions thaw in no time at all. Alternatively, you can wrap the grated wasabi into parcels of clingfilm.

storing and freezing

HOW TO EAT WITH SUSHI

Wasabi and sushi go together like fish & chips, salt & pepper and gin & tonic. Wasabi was originally used with sushi in the Edo period in Japan and was thought not only to help mask any smells from the fish it was also considered to have properties that help prevent the growth of bacteria.

The best way to eat wasabi with sushi is to mix it with a small amount of soy sauce in a little dish. Never dip the rice part into the dish – the rice will soak up the soy sauce and all you’ll get is a mouthful of nose-wincing salt, losing the delicate flavour of the fish. Instead, turn the sushi upside down and dip the fish side into the sauce. (It’s absolutely fine to eat sushi with your fingers.) If you are having an omakase meal, where the chef prepares the sushi for you, it is likely that they will add exactly the correct amount of sauce and wasabi, so you won’t need to worry.

We love making chirashizushi – a bowl of seasoned rice with a layer of seafood atop – which we serve with our own fresh wasabi and garnished with the lovely heart-shaped wasabi leaves.

chirashi sushi bowl with fresh wasabi

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RECIPE: How To Make Kimchi

We have never been to South Korea but it is very high on the (long) list of places that we would love to visit. We do, however, very much enjoy Korean food and have had more opportunities to try it over the last few years with an increasing number of restaurants opening up in the UK. Kimchi is one of our favourites and we love making it ourselves. Here’s a recipe for how to make kimchi. We reckon it’s much more delicious than shop-bought.

Recipe How to Make Kimchi

We first tried kimchi over 20 years ago and it was love at first bite – sour, spicy and crunchy, it has a unique flavour. It is Korea’s national dish and is usually eaten with most meals there. Being a fermented food it is also purported to have properties that are beneficial for your gut health but, far more importantly, it’s delicious.

It’s surprisingly easy to make but it does take a while to ferment and you do have to watch out for potential explosions but that is what makes it so exciting! (Don’t worry, we’ve been making it for years and have never had an explosion – we have some advice on the best equipment to use at the end of this post.) We have tried fermenting lots different foods over the years, including miso, and it’s a very satisfactory process.

Kimchi is made via a lacto fermentation process whereby good bacteria, known as lactic acid bacteria, convert the sugars in vegetables into lactic acid. The joy of fermentation is that it isn’t a precise art. You need a bit of patience while the bacteria do their thing but once fermentation is complete, the finished product will last for many months, if not years – that is, if you don’t eat it straight away!

Ingredients For Making Kimchi

1 Chinese leaf cabbage (also known as Napa cabbage)

1 carrot

2 spring onions (green onions)

A carrot’s length of daikon white radish, also known as mooli (optional)

2 fat cloves of garlic (3 if your garlic isn’t portly enough)

1 tbs fish sauce (vegetarians can use soy sauce)

1 thumb-sized piece of ginger

1 tbs Korean chilli red pepper powder known as Gochugaru (you should be able to find this in Asian stores). A variation is to use Korean chilli paste, known as Gochujang. Gochujang is fantastic in many dishes but we prefer the chilli powder for kimchi.

3 tbs salt. You want to use a salt that doesn’t have anti-caking additives. Table salt isn’t recommended. Equally you don’t really want to use really posh salt. We tend to use Himalayan pink salt.

How to make kimchi ingredients

How To Make Kimchi: Method

Slice the cabbage into chunks. You want to have easily pick-upable bite-sized pieces. One of the nice things about the Chinese leaf is that it has a lovely broad ribs which retain their crunch when the kimchi is finished which makes a nice contrast with the softer leaves.

Place cabbage into a bowl and sprinkle with the salt. Massage the salt into the cabbage and wait a couple of hours. It is a lot of salt but you will be washing it off later.

How to make kimchi

Prepare your fermentation jar. The size of the jar is important. You want to fill the jar up as much as possible and not have too much headspace. The jar size that suited our cabbage was 1.4 litre capacity. We recommend clip top Kilner jars as they have a good seal to keep air out but also let the liquid escape. There are some types of jar specifically designed for fermentation. We’ve had greater success with some than others.

The jar needs to be clean. We find the best way to clean the jar is to wash it in warm, soapy water and rinse. Then we boil a kettle and fill the jar (not forgetting the lid) with boiling water. After 10 minutes, drain and let the jar cool down. Some people put the jar into the oven on a low heat for 20 minutes but we haven’t found this step to be necessary for this type of fermentation.

After some time has passed, rinse the salt from the cabbage. You don’t need to pat the cabbage dry but have a quick taste to make sure it doesn’t taste too salty.

Julienne the carrot and daikon, if you are using it, slice the spring onions lengthways.

How to make kimchi

Put the garlic, ginger and fish sauce into a pestle and mortar and grind them together to create a paste. It will have quite a liquid consistency.

Add the vegetables to the cabbage.

Pour over the garlic-ginger-fish sauce paste and sprinkle the chilli powder over the cabbage and veg. Mix well. We find it’s easiest to do this with our bare (clean) hands.

How to make kimchi

Then you need to pack the jar. Pick up handfuls of cabbage mix and place into the jar, pushing down to squish it in – really pressing to make sure there aren’t any air gaps.

How to make Kimchi

You should try and aim for minimum headroom at the top of the jar. You also want to make sure the cabbage mixture remains pressed down. You can get all sorts of weights but a glass dessert ramekin type container (e.g. Gu) works well or, cheaper and less calorific than eating a chocolate dessert, fill a small plastic bag with water, tie at the end and squish into the top of the jar.

How to make Kimchi

Close the jar and place the jar on a deep plate or in a bowl to catch any liquid escaping.

Check The Ferment Over Several Days

Over the next few days the cabbage will begin to ferment. The time it takes will depend on how warm the ambient temperature is. You’ll see a liquid start to form in the jar and cover the cabbage and the lactic acid bacteria will start to form lactic acid and C02. It is because of the C02 that you need to keep an eye on your ferment. If you are using a specific fermentation jar you should be fine. If you are using a conventional jar you will need to ‘burp’ your ferment, at least once a day. Open the lid – very briefly – and close immediately, just to let the C02 out. This will ensure that the pressure doesn’t build up. If you don’t burp there is a risk of the jar exploding. We’ve never had a glass jar break but there have been numerous occasions when I’ve burped the jar and ended up with a brine shower!

The kimchi should be ready within a week to 10 days. You can leave it much longer if you wish and this will ensure further development of the flavours.

Recipe How to Make Kimchi

When the kimchi is ready you can store the jar in the fridge or decant it into smaller jars (just go through the process of cleaning them, then adding boiling water and letting them dry). The kimchi will store in the fridge for months as long as it is airtight.

Recipe how to make kimchi

Beware

The two greatest issues with fermenting food is risk of explosion (which can be reduced/eliminated if you use the right equipment) and mould. When the ferment is exposed to air there is the potential for mould to develop. If you open your jar and see fuzzy mould of any colour you should discard the ferment. It’s heart-breaking but the safest thing to do as the mould could make you very ill. (It’s not advisable to scrape off the mouldy bits – by the time the fuzz has appeared the spores will have permeated the whole jar.) Obviously this creates something of a dilemma – you need to open the jar to burp but don’t want to let the air in. So, the key is to open the jar very quickly to release pressure then close immediately. With some types of fermentation jar you don’t need to worry.

Some Notes On Fermentation Equipment

You don’t need too much specialist equipment to ferment food.

This type of kilner jar is perfect. Round rather than square are preferable
as they take the pressure more easily.
This type of jar allows C02 to escape via a valve. We find it’s better for
shorter ferments.
We like this gochugaru powder. It’s pretty fiery.
We like this type of salt for fermenting.
More Tasty Recipes on VTW

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Cooking with the Tharu in Chitwan, Nepal

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.

Chitwan National Park river boats

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.

Chitwan National Park boat trip

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!

Chitwan National Park 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.

Chitwan National Park Tharu Village

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.

Chitwan National Park Tharu Village rice 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.

Chitwan National Park Tharu Village cooking pot

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.

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RECIPE: How to Make Vietnamese Spring Rolls

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

Ingredients

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.

2 carrots

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.

Vietnamese spring roll pickled garlic

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.

Vietnamese summer roll spring roll

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.

Vietnamese spring roll summer roll with dipping sauce

How to make Vietnamese spring rolls summer rolls

These are some of the tools and ingredients we used to make the summer rolls:

Please note that this post contains affiliate links. If you click the link and decide to make a purchase we will earn a small commission, at no cost to you, which helps towards running this site.

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Japanese New Year Traditions – New Year in Tokyo

Visiting in Tokyo in December is a great way of understanding Japanese New Year traditions, 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.

Shibuya Tokyo

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.

Hachiko statue Shibuya Tokyo
Japanese New Year Tradition

Japanese New Year Traditions –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.

Japanese New Year Tradition

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 noodles

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.

New year soba

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!)

New year soba dipping sauce

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 a family time and one particular Japanese new year tradition is that people 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.

Japanese New Year Traditions – 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.

Japanese New Year Tradition

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.

Japanese New Year Tradition

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.

Japanese New Year Tradition at Meiji shrine

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.

Japanese New Year Tradition Hatsumode

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.

New Year Food

New year is a time for feasting and there are some dishes that are particularly associated with celebrations. Osechi-ryōri comprises lots of little dishes beautifully presented. Much of the food 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. New year mochi is called kagami mochi and comprises two mochi balls one set on top of the other, with a tangerine on top.

Mochi 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 a 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.

Japanese New Year Tradition food Kazunoko herring roe

Kobumaki is a piece of kelp seaweed. It will have been simmered for a while to soften and is one of the Japanese new year traditions is to present it 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.

Japanese New Year Tradition Kobumaki kombu

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.

sushi selection

Japanese New Year Tradition – Retail Therapy

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.

Japanese New Year Tradition shopping

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RECIPE: Vietnamese Pickled Garlic

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.

Ingredients

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.

Method

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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RECIPE: How to Make Japanese Dashi stock

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. Here is our Japanese dashi stock recipe

Japanese Dashi Stock Recipe

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 not very pleasant 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.

Ingredients

3 sheets of kombu kelp seaweed

EITHER

40g bonito flakes

OR

5 dehydrated shiitake mushrooms (for vegetarian or vegan version)

1 litre of water

Method

Make the dashi: Put kombu and bonito flakes (or shiitake mushrooms) into a saucepan of water.

Bring to a simmer. Skim off any froth.

japanese dashi stock recipe

After 15 minutes, turn off the heat. You should have a clear broth

japanese dashi stock recipe

Sieve the solids from the broth.

japanese dashi stock recipe

Keep the solid ingredients. You can dry these out and use them again to make a secondary dashi.

japanese dashi stock recipe

This Japanese dashi stock recipe is so easy to make and can be used in many delicious dishes.

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RECIPE: How To Make Moo Larb

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 , where it holds the status of national dish, but we 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 feed four as a starter or two hungry people.

INGREDIENTS

300g pork mince. (The ‘moo’ of moo larb is pork.) Chicken mince also works really well and quorn mince or mushrooms can provides a vegetarian alternative. Lamb isn’t recommended as it’s quite fatty and the fat tends to congeal a little when it cools, 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

1 or 2 juicy limes

Generous splash of fish sauce (vegetarians can use veggie fish sauce or a combination of soy sauce with a dash of vinegar) – around half a tablespoon

Optional: chilli flakes, toasted rice, teaspoon of sugar, Thai basil leaves for garnish

METHOD

You need to allow enough time for the mince to cook and cool before assembling the dish. It’s 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 and add to the mince.

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. It’s fine to make in advance and let the flavours infuse.

Serve with steamed rice and a salad garnish.

Moo Larb Recipe
Pork moo larb
Moo Larb Recipe
Vegetarian version using quorn mince

VARIATIONS

One of the lovely things about this dish is that you really can adjust it to your taste. There are some variations. If you like heat, add chilli flakes (flakes are better than fresh chilli). This was one of the dishes we tasted 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 an important and popular 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, moving about in the pan 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.)

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