beloved foods of manga and anime…
Watching boys grilling yakiniku at the table, munching on the mysterious “melon bread” (was it really melon-flavored?), joking about curry-flavored soda, how could I keep reading those scenes and not become curious about food in Japan?
Driven by this curiosity, I gradually learned about Japanese foods, which quickly led to cooking them. Honestly, the ingredients, cooking techniques, kitchen toys, and appropriations of other world cuisines… everything about Japanese food is interesting.
Oh, and of course, there’s the Japanese-food-eating. I’m quite fond of that bit, too.
an American’s Japanese food
Prior to my days of all-things-yaoi, I had a relatively stereotypical American’s knowledge of Japanese food. Growing up, I ate instant ramen. For breakfast. No, really. I begged for it almost every day, and my poor mom frequently humored me, probably out of the desperate desire to shut me up. She’d make either “Oriental” (is that really still a flavor?) or pork Top Ramen with ham. “Oodles of noodles” — I love that phrase; it burbles on the tongue.
In college I was introduced to sushi. Frankly, not being a big fan of fish, I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not, but my dorm-mates and I would go downtown to a hole-in-the-wall sushi restaurant that would serve us oversized bottles of Japanese beer, and as a 17 year-old, I thought that was pretty fantastic.
So I drowned my sushi in wasabi and soy sauce, and I ate a lot of California rolls and deep-fried-anything rolls, because anything tastes good when it’s deep-fried.
along came yaoi
Many years later, when BL started taking over my life, I quickly became captivated the sights and sounds of impossibly good-looking guys eating Japanese foods I hadn’t heard of before, like onigiri, omurice, and nabe. I also started to wonder what might be different about Japanese versions of curry, hamburgers, and pudding.
It’s been a few years since then, and, being highly motivated, I’ve managed to eat all those foods at one time or another, some of them in Tokyo. In fact, I’ve learned to make all of them except for melonpan (melon bread). Honestly, I’m just lazy when it comes to bread.
Going in, I expected Japanese food to have a lot more fishy and bitter flavors than what I’m used to, and it does. I’ve discovered that I love the bitter but am still less able to love the truly fishy. What I guess I didn’t expect was how often J-food combines sweet and savory: omelets with sugar? Curry that’s both spicy and sweet? Those, my friends, are spine-tinglingly wonderful combinations.
what about you?
Has manga or anime food stirred your curiosity or sucked you in?
What have you tried? What do you want to try?
How about trying some really, really easy Japanese cooking?
recipe #1: very quick pickles
One of the first Japanese dishes I learned how to make is quick, easy, and not usually talked about in manga or anime. However, I guarantee you’ve seen some variant of it. In fact, you’ve seen it many times.
Have you noticed those little dishes of veggies scattered on the table when there’s a spread set out? As it turns out, the side dishes in a meal with traditional Japanese food always include pickle dishes of one kind or another. They’re a basic staple, and this recipe — instant pickles — is an invaluable standby for the busy cook.
Here’s the first instant pickle I learned to make, this version adapted from Makiko Itoh’s The Just Bento Cookbook (she has a link to the cookbook and more complex instant pickles on JustHungry). If you’re already making Japanese food, you’ve probably learned this one along the way — it’s just that basic and that easy.
Why is this un-talked-about recipe the one to start with? Well, the beauty of these instant pickles is that they require absolutely no special ingredients, and you don’t even have to do anything fancy — just slice, toss, and squeeze. And yet, if you’re used to Western pickles, you end up with a new flavor experience, because Western food is pickled almost exclusively with vinegar. A lemon-flavored pickle is a different kind of tangy.
instant Japanese pickles
You will need:
- 1 large green cabbage leaf (or napa cabbage leaf)
- 2 inches of an English, Japanese, or other long, thin-skinned cucumber
- 1/2 tsp. sea salt
- squeeze lemon juice (to taste)
That’s it! If you only have cucumber or cabbage, just one is fine, too. Other veggies (like eggplant) can also be used, but cukes and cabbage are the most common ingredients.
Why is the quantity so small? Quick pickles are meant to made and be eaten within a day or so; you can’t keep them longer like vinegar pickles. If you need more, though, the recipe is easy to scale up.
Here’s what you do:
- Cut out the cabbage leaf’s thick vein (it’s too dense for instant pickles). If you’re using a napa leaf, you can use the whole thing, except for the very thickest part at the base. Then slice the leaf into narrow strips.
- Slice the cucumber thinly (as thinly as you have the patience for).
- Toss the two in a bowl with the salt, massaging them by hand until they start to release their water and go limp (or, if you prefer, you can toss the two in separate bowls).
- Let them laze around in the bowl for at least 5 minutes (thicker slices may need to rest longer).
- Pour out the salt water that’s collected at the bottom of the bowl.
- Then add the lemon juice and toss again.
- Taste to check the saltiness (you can rinse with a bit of water to decrease it, if necessary). Adjust the lemon juice and salt to taste.
- When it’s time to eat your instant pickle, just squeeze out any liquid and pile on a small plate.
Voila! You’re done! You are now ready to crunch and munch on your very own Japanese pickles and have become a bonafide manga-inspired Japanese cook.