A wok is a wonderful cooking utensil for the Japanese kitchen. Wok’s are bowl shaped, rolled steel pans that are perfect for stir frying, steaming, deep frying, and simmering foods. The high sides of the wok make stir frying easy without flipping ingredients out of the pan, and it takes very little oil to fry foods since there is less surface space to cover in a wok. Most woks come with a cooking spatula, ladle, cover, stand, and a rack (see picture), where you can place fried foods to drain.
Whether you’re cooking soba (buckwheat), or udon (white flour) noodles… you’ll want a deep pot and a colander (a large plastic strainer being the best). Fill the pot half way with water and bring to a rolling boil. Be sure to place the noodles in the pot only when the water is extremely hot. Stir occasionally to make sure the noodles don’t stick to each other (you can add a little bit of cold water to the pot when it threatens to boil over).
Be sure not to over cook the noodles… they should never be soft and soggy but firm. Have the hot water running in your sink and place the colander in the basin… pour the pot of boiling noodles into the colander and allow hot water to run over the strainer full of noodles until the water runs clear. This is the most crucial part of making good noodles, if improperly washed the noodles will be starchy and sticky. Allow the noodles to drain and then serve in hot broth or with hot dipping sauce.
To make noodles that you will serve cold (a real treat in hot weather), rinse your noodles in cold water until the water runs clear, then place in ice water for a few minutes, rinse again, drain and serve with cold dipping sauce.
PICKLE PRESS (tsukemono-ki)
This ingenious device consists of a clear plastic bucket and a spring loaded screw top lid. You place your salted vegetables in the bucket, put on the lid, and then screw the spring loaded “handle” down until the inner lid is placing pressure upon the food. I highly recommend getting one of these if you want to make Japanese pickles on a regular basis.
The simplest Japanese meal consists of a bowl of rice and a pickled plum. Boiled rice is the staple, the backbone of the Japanese diet, so knowing how to make it properly is necessary. When cooking rice for a Japanese meal never use the long grained rice common to Westerners, you must use only the short grained Japanese rice. Japanese rice has a soft sticky texture when cooked, making it perfect for sushi, onigiri (rice balls), and other quintessential Japanese dishes. To cook rice do the following…
Place one cup of rice in a deep bowl or pot and add about a quart of water. Stir gently with your hand and pour off the cloudy, white water. Add more water and stir vigorously, pour off the cloudy water. Repeat this process until the water is clear. Now place the rice in a colander and allow it twenty minutes to drain and expand. Place the rice in a cooking pot with two cups of water, bring to a boil, cover, turn down the heat to very low and in twenty minutes your rice will be done.
Most modern Japanese cooks use an electric, automatic rice cooker, and after you start using one you’ll begin to wonder how you lived without it. Simply place into your rice cooker a cup of rice and two cups of water, turn the rice cooker on… and some twenty minutes later you have perfect rice! A great utensil for busy people or students.
GRINDING BOWL (suribachi)
This traditional ceramic grinding bowl has a serrated inner surface and is used to make sesame paste. Toasted white sesame seeds are placed into the suribachi along with sugar and then ground into a paste. Suribachi can also be used to grind other foods. The bowl usually comes with a wooden pestle.
Dashi is a stock made from konbu (kelp) and katsuo-bushi (dried bonito fish). Along with shoyu (soy sauce), dashi is used most frequently in Japanese cooking in everything from soups to simmered vegetable dishes. Dashi is the foundation for innumerable dishes.
Place two quarts of cold water in a large deep pot. Take about 20 inches of konbu/kelp (about 1 1/2 oz.), and carefully and thoroughly wipe the konbu with a clean moistened cloth (do not wash kombu as it removes the flavor). Place the konbu into the pot and slowly bring the water to just before the boiling point, regulate the heat so that the water never actually boils. By simmering the konbu in this way you are releasing it’s flavor and once the kelp is tender (about fifteen minutes), remove the seaweed.
Add 3 cups of loose bonito flakes and turn off the heat. Once the flakes have sunk to the bottom of the pot (about a minute or two), strain the stock into another pot or receptacle using a colander filled with cheesecloth or a large coffee filter. The finished dashi should be a light golden color and free of any bonito flake particles. You can store dashi in the refrigerator for up to three days but it’s best to use as soon as it’s made.
BAMBOO ROLLING MAT (sudare)
This implement is called a sushimaki sudare and is used to make sushi rolls. The sudare is made of thin slats of bamboo tied together in order to make a flexible mat about the size of a standard sheet of writing paper (about ten inches square). You can also use the sudare to squeeze out the excess water from steamed spinach, cabbage, and other vegetables.
SAKE & MIRIN
Sake is not just the traditional drink of Japan, it is an essential cooking ingredient! Sake is used in everything from soup stock to dipping sauces so you should have a bottle of it in your kitchen. Mirin is a sweet sake especially for use in cooking. A small bottle of mirin should also have a place on your kitchen shelf.
SHOYU (SOY SAUCE)
Shoyu is the foundation of Japanese cooking, it is the essential ingredient. Shoyu is not only used as a condiment to flavor foods but it’s also used to cook with. There are many types of shoyu available and I highly suggest stocking your kitchen with a variety of them. Shoyu is made by fermenting a mixture of soybeans, wheat, salt and water. Once a bottle of shoyu is opened it starts to loose it’s flavor so it’s best to keep it refrigerated.
A good set of sharp knives is the best ally of any serious cook. The Japanese make an excellent knife called the hocho, which makes cutting vegetables a real joy. Invest in some good knives if you want to spend time in the kitchen.
Donabe are eathenware pots used in the cooking of stews and simmered dishes. A donabe pot is glazed on the inside and left unglazed on the outside bottom, it is heat resistant and meant to be placed directly on the burner. Donabe come in various sizes from small to large, the small pots can be used to cook a humble meal for one but a large pot is required to cook a family sized dinner.