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The REAL star of Japanese cuisine
How this humble plant made it to the top of my list of Japanese foods
It could be the fresh ingredients. You can’t get any fresher than straight out of the ground. It could be the water the rice for the sake grows in. It could be the fertile soil, the ample sun, or the tender love and care of the farmer. Or, more likely, at least in my case, it could be my mother-in-law.
When people ask my favourite Japanese food the tatemae face-saving (read: convenient) answer is always sushi. Sushi is a safe answer. Sushi is the answer that makes any Japanese person stroke their chin and exclaim yappari, that’s a given. Sushi is much easier than having to confess my honne, my true answer:
Moso-jiru. Moso soup.
I bet you’ve never heard of it.
Many Japanese people haven’t even heard of it. And not because Moso is a homonym for delusion. Most Japanese simply haven’t come to Yamagata or other rural parts of Japan at the right time, let alone at all.
But it’s so good! It needs to be on the list of 100-best-Japanese-exports.
At number one.
What is Moso-jiru though?
Moso-jiru is Miso soup infused with sake lees, an offshoot of sake production, and the shoots of Mosodake A.K.A. Moso bamboo. Here in the Shonai region of Yamagata we enjoy it with pork, fried tofu (atsuage), and shiitake mushrooms.
And let me tell you, it doesn’t get any better.
Moso-jiru epitomises that most Japanese of Japanese flavours: umami. Combine giant rounds of bamboo shoots complete with stringy texture and subtle astringency with the umami from sake lees, and you have yourself an umami explosion.
The early bird gets the bamboo
The key to good Moso-jiru is getting the right bamboo. Or, I should say, bamboo at the right time of day. As the world’s tallest grass, bamboo grows pretty fast. So fast, in fact, it’s visible with the human eye (see Eating Wild Japan by Winifred Bird, p. 116).
I’ve only ever been out foraging for it once, but it was enough for me to know the difference between bamboo shoots that are just popping out of their holes, and those that have been out for a few hours already. If too much sun gets on them, they become too astringent for us humans to enjoy.
Heaven in a humble lacquer bowl
I still maintain that autumn is the best season in Japan. The leaves are out in full, the humidity of summer has gone, and the mountain trails are there for the taking.
All things considered though, Spring is a close second. And it’s all thanks to my favourite bamboo soup.
Moso-jiru is the true highlight of spring. Even more so than the snow melting enough to go for a hike without having to worry about getting cold feet (Jikatabi yamabushi split-toed shoes have that problem).
The best part of spring is when my mother-in-law brings around all the ingredients, and that giant gold pot. That huge pot so large you can make enough for 10 or more servings. Not only do you get to savour the sights, sounds, the smells, associated with making Moso-jiru, you get to enjoy a bowl of it too!
So the next time you’re in Japan in the spring, forget the cherry blossoms. Find yourself somewhere that serves the real star of Japanese cuisine.
Just don’t expect me to share any of my 10 or more servings.
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Eating Wild Japan
An Australian Yamabushi friend of mine recommended the book Eating Wild Japan by Winifred Bird to me, and I must say, it is an intriguing read. If you’re interested in Japanese cuisine at all, Sansai, mountain vegetables (which includes mushrooms), are where it’s at.
Even before Kaiseki Ryori, the lives of Japanese people depended entirely on what could be foraged from the mountains. For example, did you know that the Japanese Horse Chestnut (Tochi-no-Ki) has been eaten for centuries to ward off famine? Eating Wild Japan gives an amazing first-person account of the state of Sansai in modern Japan, and is a must-read for anyone with even the slightest interest in Japanese food.
This Week on The Blog
This week, my most popular blog post was this short piece called Shut Up and Breathe.
Being obsessed with obsession is one way to get things done.
I was thinking back to a simpler time when I wrote this one about what to do when at a crossroads.
Lastly, I was at the pool the other day, and a lady walked right into my lane, just as I was about to make an all-important turn. Here’s how I reacted.
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Mountains of Wisdom: Tell Your Mum!
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Ka kite ano.