Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Persian cooking class: Kashk-e bademjan, gheliye mahi, chelo and saffron-scented almond brittle

This month's Persian cooking class was another beauty! The theme was the food of the Persian Gulf (Khalij-e Fars). Unlike the food of other parts of Iran, the food of the Gulf area is spicy, with detectable Indian and Arab influences. Our instructor, Reza Rahbar, is from this part of Iran, and I was super-excited to take this class for a couple of reasons: 1. The food of this area is not so well known, even to this avid Persian cookbook collector, and 2. we were going to make the absolutely mouth-watering stew of fish with herbs, chillies and tamarind (yes, all in one dish!!) that Reza demonstrated on NHK's Asia Crossroads program back in April. Also on the menu were kashk-e bademjan, a starter of fried eggplants topped with a yogurt and feta sauce; chelo steamed rice and sahan asali, an almond brittle perfumed with saffron.

I arrived early and, after having rosewater poured into my palm to refresh my face and hands, enjoyed a nice chat with Reza and his charming wife, who keeps the dialogue going during our lessons when Reza is busy at the stove. A photographer and designer in her own right, she designed the recipe sheet for this month's lesson, and was kind enough to say that my not-so-secret love of the colour orange was an inspiration for the design!

The eggplant starter was a bit of a revelation. There are many eggplant dips in the canon of Middle Eastern cookery, but here was one where the eggplants were pan-fried in oil, rather than grilled over a direct flame. You don't get the smokiness of, say, a mutabbal (baba gnanouj), but with the garlicky-dairy topping, drizzle of hot olive oil and a garish of mint, you certainly don't miss it. The kashk of the recipe name refers to a salty paste of whey, which is a bit of an acquired taste. It's not so easy to get here in Japan, and may not be to the taste of a most Japanese, so creating a similar flavour profile with yogurt and feta cheese was a good option. (Also helpful for those without a Persian grocer's nearby).

I was intrigued by the name of the fish dish, "ghalieh mahi". Mahi is fish in Persian, but what about ghalieh? I asked my dear Iranian friend Hw, who hails from the mountains in the north of Iran. He'd never heard of the word, so I flipped around my Persian-English dictionary till I came up with "qalieh," which was defined as "dish like a fricassee" (don't you hate it when a bilingual dictionary defines a word with another from a third language!). Stew, in other words. Later, I read in my latest Persian cookbook acquisition, A Treasury of Persian Cuisine, that Persian stews were called gholyeh for several centuries under the Arab influence, but the indigenous term, khoresh has once again become the standard term used in most parts of the country, "except for those nearer to the Persian Gulf..." I am now pretty sure that ghalieh, qalieh and gholyeh, are variant spellings of the same word, which translates as stew in English.

If you've had Iranian food before, you will know that there are one or two dishes that are so chock-full of fresh and dried herbs that they take on a worrying dark green tinge. I'm here to tell you that should certainly try any dish like that that you come across, as the odds are that it will be one of Iran's most fabulous dishes, like this one!

Reza's Ghelieh mahi was brimming with fresh coriander and parsley and dried fenugreek leaves. You are not likely to come across fresh fenugreek leaves just anywhere, but it's good to know that Persian and Indian grocers usually have the dried. Ask for shanbalileh if you're getting it from a Persian grocers or kasoori methi from an Indian one. The leaves need to be soaked in water for 10 min, then stir-fried for another 5. To me this seems to defeat the purpose of the soaking, but I am assured that this step does make a difference to the taste in the end.

Although there are many, many fabulous rice dishes in the Persian kitchen, Reza made plain steamed chelo to serve with the ghelieh mahi, which has enough flavour going on not to need a fancy accompaniment. The lovely Afghani (I believe) pottery dish that he served the rice in (photo above) gave the table a festive touch.

As we were all ooh-ing and ah-ing over the unusualness of this dish at the table, I mentioned that the word tamarind in English and Japanese comes from the Arabic for "Indian date". It's a slightly different word in Persian, so our host didn't know this, either, but serendipitously, he had some fresh dates for us as our take-home gift of the day!

Later we had cardamom tea (with a splash of rose water in my case), the almond brittle (which our hosts had made in advance) and a Persian snack of grains scented with what seemed to me to be violet and rose. Delicious! I was so into the food by this time that I forgot to take a picture, but you won't be far off the mark if you let your mind conjure up something from The Arabian Nights (g).


Friday, 9 July 2010

Shiomomi nasu: Salt-massaged eggplants with Japanese aromotics

I have been addicted to nasu (Japanese eggplants) this last while. They are everywhere at the moment, and the cooking magazines (which I really have to stop tempting myself by looking at) have 101 different ways to use them. The "Mighty Nasu" indeed (to paraphrase one of my foodie heroes Ottolenghi).

Yes, the eggplant/aubergine/patlican/baademjaan/badinjaan/baingan/ brinjal is beloved to many cuisines, but have you ever had it raw?? Most of the world makes a fuss about removing the bitterness from eggplants before cooking them, but here in Japan, it couldn't be easier: Just squish around in a bag with salt! The dark, bitter juices come right out, and you don't even need to cook them. How good is that?

This quick side dish recipe is from the June 17, 2010 edition of the Japanese food fortnightly Orange Page (don't ask; I'm as mystified by the name as anyone...). I thought it not bad, for my first attempt at salt-massaged eggplants, but with the Japanese big three aromatics shiso (perilla leaves), myoga (myoga ginger) and raw fresh ginger, it may be a bit "medicinal" for some tastes.

The trick to this dish is to make sure that all the eggplant slices get massaged well, and to slice the aromatics very finely.

I haven't tried this with the larger eggplants that you tend to find outside Japan, which are called bei-nasu (American eggplant) in Japan. For now, I suggest you seek out small, round Japanese nasu, which weigh about 80-100 g each.

Salt-massaged eggplants with Japanese aromatics

Serves 4 as a small side dish with other Japanese dishes

2 nasu Japanese eggplants (about 160 g total), sliced into 2 mm thick rounds
2/3 tsp salt
3 shiso (perilla) leaves, rolled and sliced very thinly
1 myoga (myoga ginger) bud, halved lengthwise and sliced thinly
1 thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped into thin shreds
splash of Japanese soy sauce (to taste)

1 Place the eggplant slices in a small polythene bag and add the salt. Press out all the air and hold the opening of the bag tightly closed with a thumb. With both hands, gently squeeze the eggplant slices until they loose their juices, most of their bulk and become pliant. Make sure not to miss any of the slices. Tip into a colander and rinse with water. With your hands, squeeze out as much of the water as possible.

2 In a small bowl, toss the shiso leaves and myoga. Add the salt-massaged eggplant, sliced ginger and a splash of Japanese soy sauce. Toss again and serve in tiny bowls as an accompaniment to other Japanese dishes.


Thursday, 8 July 2010

Harumi's summer: Rice bowl with stir-fried veggies & teriyaki chicken

I must not buy cookbooks and foodie magazines, I must not buy cookbooks and foodie magazines, I must not buy...

And the reason I must not buy them is that I have been asked by the landlady to move out of my rented apartment after 15 years, as she wants to move in! I really don't know who she thinks she is! It is a terrible imposition, this not being able to buy cookbooks and--- (you get the picture).

I know it in my mind that I need to be shedding rather than adding to my foodie hoard, but heart wants what it wants. All of which is to say, I couldn't resist the latest edition of Haru-mi magazine, Harumi Kurihara's eponymous quarterly featuring, this time, izakaya-style recipes for summer.

Surprisingly, summer cooking in Japan does not necessarily mean light food. The humidity and high temperatures here can really zap the energy, and quite often people want a hearty meal to get them through the dog days of summer. Grilled eel is a case in point: Some enterprising eel purveyor back in the 1800s hit upon the idea of flogging his oil-rich catch as just the thing for boosting flagging energy levels during the summer. And just like that, a connection was made between eel eating and Doyo no ushi no hi (the hottest day of summer by the traditional Japanese calender; July 26 this year).

But I digress.

As I was saying, Japanese people often seek out substantial, well-seasoned food when the temperatures soar, so it is no surprise that quite a few of the dishes in the summer edition of Haru-mi are fairly hearty. This rice bowl being a case in point.

With a soy-and-sugar seasoned mince topping AND slices of teriyaki chicken, you might expect this to be stodgy, but the herbs and lemon keep this meal-in-a-bowl on the right side of the line.

The recipe does require some Japanese groceries, so do read it through first.

-- Mirin is a sweet sake used extensively in Japanese cooking. If you can't get it, you could try this substitute, just a plain sugar syrup or a dash of sugar at a pinch (but I wouldn't recommend this in this recipe).
--Katakuriko (dogtooth violet or more commonly potato starch) is used for thickening sauces and, as in this recipe, to give a distinctive mouthfeel.

On the other hand, you won't need store-bought teriyaki sauce for this recipe. Yay!

Rice bowl with stir-fried veggies & teriyaki chicken

For the ground meat topping

200g beef or pork mince
2 tbsp Japanese soy sauce
2 tbsp mirin
1 tbsp sugar

For the stir-fried veggies
100 g bean shoots, roots removed
1/2 small zucchini, cut into 4 cm long batons
1 small red (bell) pepper, halved and cut into thin slices
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1/4 tsp powdered chicken stock
salt & pepper

For the teriyaki chicken
4 chicken fillets
salt & pepper
Katakuriko or cornflour (cornstarch), for dusting
2 tbsp Japanese soy sauce
2 tbsp mirin
2 tsp sugar

steamed rice
lemon halves
coriander leaves, mint leaves and toasted sesame seeds (optional) to garnish

1 Make the ground meat topping. Heat Japanese soy sauce, mirin and sugar in a small pot, add the mince and stir, breaking up with bamboo cooking chopsticks, until most of the liquid has evaporated. Remove from the heat and allow the meat to absorb the remaining liquid.

2 Prepare the bean shoots, zucchini and red pepper.

3 Make the teriyaki chicken. Remove any fibrous parts from the meat, place between layers of cling film and flatten with a rolling pin [Saffron: lazy folk, like me, can just flatten the fillets right on the chopping board with the heel of their hand (I won't tell, if you don't)]. Cut each slice in three width wise. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and dust each piece with katakuriko or cornflour. Heat oil in a frying pan and fry chicken on both sides. Remove from the pan.

4 Wipe out the frying pan and bring the Japanese soy sauce, mirin and sugar to a boil. When it becomes glossy, add the cooked chicken and toss well to coat. Remove from the pan.

5 Heat a little more oil in the pan and toss the zucchini and red peppers until slightly softened. Add the bean shoots and toss until heated through. Add powdered chicken stock and salt and pepper to taste.

6 Place a single serving of rice in each of 4 domburi or pasta bowls. Top each bowl with a layer of vegetables and a layer of the ground meat topping, sprinkle with coriander and mint leaves, and place the chicken slices on top, sprinkling over any teriyaki sauce that remains. Squeeze lemon over and garnish with sesame seeds, if desired.