FOOD – Japanese homecooking

You think the Japanese diet revolves around sashimi, sushi, soba and ramen? Not so according to mother of four and food columnist, Tamako Sakamoto. Globalisation has influenced home kitchens around the world, bringing to dining tables flavours of distant lands.

We’re not talking about gourmet ingredients like langoustine or kurobuta pork but of paella and Sangria being served in an Asian home or a Thai salad and lemongrass tea as part of an Aussie barbecue. Sometimes, it’s a mish-mash of cultures so comfortably adopted that we think of it as our own.

For instance when I saw Tamako’s recipe for Simmered Layered Cabbage which she describes as a Western-style dish, it immediately brought to mind the Cabbage Rolls served in Singapore Eurasian homes. Layering mince and cabbage and leaving it to simmer until cooked, yields an attractive cake-like main dish in a tasty broth. Compared with cabbage rolls, this is almost effortless to cook but rich and so meaty that my son’s girlfriend asked whether it was dog food.

Needless to say, dogs love it but a doggie version should exclude bacon, salt, soy sauce, stock cubes and onion. And for humans, I reckon I should use much more cabbage and cut back on meat.

From Tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlets) to Korean pancakes and Pumpkin Pudding, Tamako’s repertoire is just what you need if you are feeding children of any age. Her dishes are wholesome, hearty and appealing.

She inspires mums to cook for their family because you only have so much time to do so.

“As my children grow up and leave home, the amount of food I prepare will gradually be reduced. The days of struggling to prepare incredible amounts of food will not last for the rest of my life. So, I’ll enjoy these days of cooking for great appetites and be thankful for the joy that we are able to share around the table.”

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I also tried her Japanese Potato Salad (look for newly published cookbook – Cook Japanese with Tamako, Marshall Cavendish Cuisine). Potato salad is pure comfort food but be sure to use Japanese mayo like the Kewpie brand. For carnivores and hungry teenagers, try –

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Simmered Layered Cabbage

Serves 6-8

1½ medium cabbage

60 g (2 oz) panko breadcrumbs

120ml (½ cup milk)

1 onion

900 g (2 lb) minced pork and beef mixture

1 egg

1½ teaspoon salt

Ground black pepper

3 bouillon cubes

1 tablespoon Japanese soy sauce (I used Chinese light soy sauce)

600 ml (2½ cups) water

2-3 bay leaves

5 slices bacon, roughly chopped

Herbes de Provence or other herbs, optional

  1. Carve out the hard core of each cabbage and discard. Peel the cabbage leaves carefully and parboil for 2-3 minutes or until pliable. Drain, then slice off the hard veins. Soak the panko in the milk. Peel, then slice off the hard veins. Soak the panko in the milk. Peel and mince the onion. In a bowl, mix the minced meat with the onion, panko and egg. Season with salt and pepper and mix well.
  2. Spread one third of the cabbage leaves flat in a flat-bottom pot. I usually use an oval pot measuring 27 x 22cm (10 x 8½ inches). Place half the meat mixture on top of the cabbage leaves and spread out evenly. Smooth the surface. Repeat the process to make cabbage and meat layers, ending with a layer of cabbage. Press down with your hands to compact the layers and smooth the surface.
  3. Add the bouillon cubes and soy sauce to the 600 ml (2½ cups) hot water. Pour the liquid over the layers of cabbage. Place the bay leaves and bacon on top. You may add a sprinkling of herbs, such as herbes de Provence for a tasty touch. Simmer covered on the stovetop for 50-60 minutes. Slice and serve.
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