Friday, January 17, 2014

Mirin and joys of Japanese cooking

by aleks
I used to think that I do not like Japanese cuisine:  several trips to Japanese restaurants left me thinking that a cup of nice miso soup and bowl of rice (I do not eat meat or fish) could hardly be called a meal. No veggies, which I covet so much.  Weird pickles (and I generally looove pickles) -  kind of ok, but eaten by itself?  I couldn't get the concept. Raw fish sushi? Yuck. So I gave up.

Several times our Japanese born guides brought food to our different functions, which I thought was very nice, especially NAMASU (slightly pickled daikon radish and carrot salad)  and Keiko's amazing AMAZAKE drink (an ancient Japanese fermented rice beverage), but all too mysterious for me to figure out….   Until.

Until an early spring 2 years ago,  when our film non-commitee met at Shizue's house, that is. Shizue shared with us a simple lunch:  shiitake mushroom udon noodle soup, fried tofu pockets filled with rice and Japanese salad plus tiny dish of pickles.  Now, that THAT I definitely could eat! Lots of veggies - especially the udon noodle soup, laced with spinach, carrots, snow peas or whatever you have in the fridge. Shizue gave me her basic recipe (soak dried shiitake mushrooms, cook it, then augment the broth with soy sauce, mirin, and maybe a dash of toasted sesame oil).

I  have been tinkering with it and mastering it ever since, adding ginger, garlic and making my own dashi (soup stock). So far so good - I have been making a lot of Japanese fat noodles udon soup, eating it, making it for friends, and recently 3 gallons for the Nickelsville village, too.  Everybody loves it!

Somewhere along the way another Japanese-born guide, Hiroko, opened my eyes to a very good commercial soba soup base (no msg, which I'm unpleasantly sensitive to): she poured it over cold soba/buckwheat noodles, before adorning it with cilantro, green onions and wasabi paste for a terrific, refreshing cold pasta dish for the plant committee group meeting.  I don't know its name, but made the dish several times since, adding green edamame (soy beans) and red pepper for color, took it to different outings and it was always a blast, going very fast.

Now I accumulated  THREE Japanese dishes that I eat often: 1.) shiitake/veggie  udon soup, 2.) cold soba noodles  dish  and 3.) daikon/carrot namasu salad…  Make it FOUR dishes, with carrot/ginger/miso salad dressing, which I often eat straight out of the jar after making it. Ok, next I bought three Japanese cookbooks, started watching Japanese cooking videos, and hoped that maybe the mystery is over. Next yet,  I discovered that the commercial soba soup base goes phenomenally well with my shiitake soup stock, and faster than messing with mirin and soy sauce: just combine mushroom stock with the soba base: voila.

Except that I eat udon soup very, very  often. Like 3 times a week often. The commercial soba soup base contains bonito flakes (dried tuna), which gives the soup a deep, exciting oomph (without the fish taste or odor), but I knew I want to think of alternative vegan soup base, before I break out with another unpleasant food sensitivity - I do not think I was meant to eat bonito flakes so often, after never having them before (my msg intolerance came on suddenly, after some years of digesting  it with no problem), plus I generally prefer mostly a plant-based food.  So I read more about udon stock, and enter shiitake/kombu soak water  for a really good, vegan dashi. Now I  remembered that Shizue did mention kombu (edible sea weed), of course, except that I had no clue what it was then.

So far so good, except for mirin - Japanese cooking wine.  I read a lot about mirin, trying to make sure that I'm  using the right stuff:  the content should be just cooking wine. What do you mean American laws do not allow to sell real mirin here, because of some alcohol tax laws? What?  Like adding salt or sugar will change the tax ideas and allow it to sell as 'condiment' and not 'alcohol'?

By the time you face the law, mirin in USA is some sugared water (or worse, GM corn-sirruped water).   It's not really fermented, so it is dead. I looked in my cupboard: yup!  No real mirin there, just sugar and corn-sirruped junk.  Two different bottles, one even contained NO fermented alcohol, just corn sirup, vinegar, salt and some chemicals 'as preservatives'.  Fermentation process IS preservation, but there was nothing fermented in my bottles - no wonder that the commercial soup base tasted better that my home  attempts: it probably contains real mirin. I ended up pouring the fake mirin down the drain and ordering a real mirin from across the country, from NC company that imports from Japan.

I ate all of my udon soup, or gave it away before thinking of getting a pic of it. Which is why you have some generic internet pic of udon soup above.

The video below shows how to make kombu dashi; I also soak shiitake and maitake mushrooms with kombu overnight - the mushrooms give the dashi a wonderful depth ('umami' = a savory taste).  After soaking, cook it on low for an hour or more (take the kombu out before the water comes to boil), and continue cooking shiitake mushrooms for another 20 minutes or so, until they are really soft.  I used to throw away shiitake at this point, because I didn't like their chewy texture, but nowadays I cut them into small pieces, throwing away just the center, where the tough steam is,  and put the pieces back into the soup, with mirin/soy sauce mixture + noodles and veggies.

The kombu/mushroom dashi stock is also great in miso soup.  Making dashi has a very mediative effect on me, and I developed a routine: soak before going to bed, cook in the morning, strain through paper towel, use for dinner later. Happy winter cooking Japanese soups! BTW, udon and miso soups are also very healthy for you - it's a LIVE, fermented food with many nutrients. But I'd it eat even if it wasn't…

If you don't have time to soak/cook your own dashi, just dilute commercial soba soup base (about 1part soup base : 2 part water; there are NO directions on the bottle, just my experience; use straight concentrated stock out of the bottle for cold noodle dish), heat it up, add veggies and noodles, and garnish with cilantro and scallions. Mniam mniam (Polish for  yum, yum, yum!).

Yay, Keiko found an episode of 'cooking with dog' for Nabeyaki Udon; I just brought it up here from the comments section, so everyone can click!  Thanks Keiko!  Powdered dashi!


  1. Aleks, Thank you for your yet another fun post. I went ahead and searched Cooking With a Dog on Youtube. Fabulous! I now crave udon.

  2. thanks, Keiko, i just copied your link up into the post, so everyone can see it. i loved adding an egg!

    i wish i could talk you into writing a post on making amazake - Francis the dog and the mysterious cook didn't cover it (i looked)

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