this post is going to start with a little bit of unadulterated praise.
most chefs who prepare washoku in a restaurant setting have a truly incredible attention to detail, which can encompass everything from the taste of their dish to the geometry of their plating. as is the case with a lot of facets of life in japan, there seems to be a tried and true method behind most japanese recipes. some of these methods are easily explained and demonstrated, while others seem, for lack of a better word, almost magical.
i often find myself in childlike awe when watching a few of my japanese friends cook their specialty dishes. watching pros prepare foods like slow-simmered fish heads, deep sea angler hot pot, or dozen-egg rolled omelettes is mind-blowing. of course the end product tastes great. but the freshness and simplicity of the ingredients they use necessitates a borderline superhuman culinary sense. a culinary sense which can only be acquired through (what i assume to be) trial and error.
that being said, i am not japanese. i have the attention to detail required to cook complex japanese food, and on occasion i even use it. but i like to cook on the fly. i’m not much one for patient measuring, complex kitchen tools, or difficult techinques. i have a very deliberate personal style when it comes to cooking.
sometimes, that style involves getting drunk, nearly cutting off my fingers, forgetting that the stove is on, and starting a fire in my kitchen.
am i forever doomed to fail at japanese cooking so long as beer and i remain friends? is it only a matter of time until my entire local fire department shows up uninvited to my apartment for a blind dinner date? should i just bandage my maimed fingers and bury the proverbial sushi knife? i may be a pro when it comes to burning things, but i’m not so quick to burn my washoku bridges. because i’ve got an ace up my sleeve. i’ve got nimono.
nimono 煮物, directly translated as “boiled stuff,” is a style of japanese cooking so rife with umami you’ll think you died and went to heaven. it is a subgenre of japanese food which, believe it or not, i am actually really good at. the beauty of nimono is two-fold:
- nimono uses exclusively common seasonings (namely soy sauce, rice wine, mirin, and fish broth) plus whatever ingredients you deem appropriate. pick a meat/fish and a few high nutrient veggies, and you are ready to go.
- if you forget the stove is on while cooking, it actually turns out better.
much like slowcooker beef stew and chilli, nimono is stupid drunk poor man-proof. and so i began the search for a nimono recipe i could practice, modify, and add to my repertoire. when i finally found one, it just so happened to hail from the southern island of kyushu. i gathered my ingredients, poured my beer, and steeled my mind for clinical testing. empty glass after empty glass flew by, but despite my best efforts, it turned out unfathomably delicious.
chikuzen-ni (chicken thighs and veggies simmered in sweet soy broth)
- 300g of chicken thighs
- 1 large carrot
- a few handfuls of snap peas in the pod (not canned)
- about 100g lotus root
- about 100g konnyaku noodles (a.k.a. shirataki)
- a handful of dried shiitake
- chikuwa (optional)
- 2 small potatoes (optional)
- about 4 cups of fish broth (katsuo dashi is best)
- 4 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 1/2 tablespoons mirin
- 3 1/2 tablespoons rice wine
- slice them veggies. if you managed to get a whole chunk of lotus root, make sure to cut slices so as to preserve the beautiful pin wheel shape of its interior. cut the carrot into thick rounds, then slice each of those rounds into thirds to create beautiful, evenly sized wedges.
- get out a nice sharp knife and lop those chicken thighs into bite-sized pieces. i like to cut mine a little bigger, but it is totally up to you. add a little bit of oil to a deep pot, bring it to medium high heat, then add the chicken. saute it for a few minutes, then add all veggies except for the peas.
- saute for a few more minutes, then add the dashi, rice wine, and dried shiitake. give the pot a stir, then turn up the heat.
- once the contents of the pot reach a strong boil, add the soy sauce and mirin, and cover the pot. reduce the heat as low as possible. the contents should be barely simmering.
- after one or two minutes, add the chikuwa and konnyaku noodles. make sure they are fully submerged in the broth, then cover the pot once more and allow everything to simmer together.
- here is the key to excellent chikuzen-ni: kill the heat, remove the lid, and let everything cool. letting the contents cool allows the broth to intensify and the flavors to mix more completely. once everything has reached room temperature, turn the heat back on low and bring everything to a simmer again.
- replace the lid and continue to simmer for anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour.
- while the everything is simmering, break off the stem and remove the strings of the peapods using your hands. put them into a steamer and steam them for just a few minutes. it is very important that you do not overcook the peas. if you do, they will lose their texture and color, both of which are very important to the dish.
- when everything is ready, add a few pieces of each item to a deep bowl, then ladle a liberal amount of sauce over the top. serve alongside a piping hot bowl of rice and a fresh cup of green tea.
- savor the flavor of japan.