Clever cooks use their noodles . . . in Japanese food

April 27, 1994|By Kenneth Wapner | Kenneth Wapner,United Feature Syndicate

While most people think of Japan as a land of rice, the Japanese are, in fact, great noodle eaters. There is a noodle shop around every corner in every village and city from Okinawa to Hokkaido. When I lived in Japan, I loved the "Tampopo"-like noodle shops with their rattling doors, rickety stools and round counter-tops. I can still smell the sweet-salty steam rising from the roiling vats of stock made from soy, bonito and kelp. In Japan, the type of noodles one eats depends on the region. Soba, a dark buckwheat noodle, is at the heart of Tokyo and northern cuisine. Soba invokes images of Tokyo street life, its broad humor and frankness. It is also the food of Zen monks and mountain peasants. The nutty taste, coarse texture and dark color add to its rough image.

Basic Japanese ingredients are not yet commonplace on supermarket shelves, but they have found their way into most health-food stores. These are some basic Japanese ingredients found in the recipes below.

* Hijiki: A dried, squiggly black seaweed high in flavor and calcium. To prepare, soak for 30 minutes in water, drain, then simmer in a lightly seasoned broth of soy, water and sugar for a minimum of 15 minutes. Hijiki triples in volume when it is soaked.

* Mirin: A sweet rice wine related to sake that is used for cooking, mirin adds an element of sweetness to Japanese recipes.

* Wasabi: This fiery green root is used in dipping sauces and goes right into some sauteed noodle dishes. Fresh wasabi is almost impossible to find. To reconstitute wasabi powder, place a teaspoon of the powder in a shallow bowl. Slowly add water, a few drops at a time, mixing until the powder forms a paste. Bunch into a mound. Store covered with plastic wrap.

* Umeboshi: The preserved Japanese plums (though closer to an apricot) have a mouth-puckering, salty-sour quality and are used as a condiment and a seasoning. The fruits are sold whole in plastic tubs, as a paste and as umeboshi vinegar.

* Miso: Miso results from salting, fermenting and aging soybeans with another grain. Red and barley miso have a robust flavor; yellow and white miso are more delicate. Look for it in the refrigerator case.

* Daikon: a radish-like Asian vegetable available in many large grocery stores, Asian markets and natural food stores.

Japanese ingredients can be ordered by mail from: Yoshinoya, 36 Prospect St., Cambridge, Mass. 02139, (617) 491-8221; or Anzen Importers, 736 N.E. Martin Luther King Blvd., Portland, Ore. 97233; (503) 233-5111.

Buckwheat noodles with hijiki and vegetables

Serves 3

1/4 cup hijiki

4 dried shiitake mushrooms

4 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce

1 tablespoon sugar

8 ounces dried soba noodles

1 tablespoon vegetable oil, preferably canola

2 cups thinly sliced Chinese (napa) cabbage

1 cup mung bean sprouts

1 carrot, julienned

4 scallions, sliced

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger, or more to taste

2 tablespoons mirin

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 teaspoon wasabi powder, made into a thick paste with 1/2 teaspoon water salt to taste

2 umeboshi plums, pitted and quartered

Soak hijiki and shiitake mushrooms separately in two small bowls of warm water for 30 minutes. Drain, discarding soaking liquid. Trim and discard the shiitake stems; thinly slice the caps. Set the hijiki and sliced mushrooms aside.

In a medium-size saucepan, combine 2 tablespoons of the soy sauce, sugar and 4 cups water. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to low. Add the reserved hijiki and simmer for 15 minutes. Drain, discarding cooking liquid, and set aside. In a large pot, bring at least 3 quarts water to a boil. Slowly add soba. When water returns to a boil, add 1/2 cup cold water. Repeat steps of returning water to a boil and adding cold water 2 or 3 times, until the noodles are just tender. (It will take 5 to 7 minutes total.) Drain and rinse well under cold water, working your fingers through the strands to separate them. Set aside.

Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add cabbage, bean sprouts, carrots, scallions, ginger and the sliced mushrooms; saute for 3 minutes. Remove from the heat. Add mirin, sesame oil, wasabi, salt, the remaining 2 tablespoons soy sauce and the reserved soba and hijiki. Toss to combine. Return to low heat and heat through. Serve garnished with umeboshi plums.

Soba with glazed salmon and julienned vegetables

Serves 4

1/2 cup hijiki

1 pound salmon fillet, skin on, scaled, cut into 4 portions 1/4 cup mirin

3 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce

2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger

2 tablespoons red miso

5 teaspoons sugar

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons sake (Japanese rice wine)

8 ounces dried soba noodles

1 teaspoon vegetable oil, preferably canola

1 cup snow peas, strings removed, julienned

2 carrots, julienned

1 small yellow summer squash, julienned

6 cups mung bean sprouts

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

reduced-sodium soy sauce to taste

1 cup grated daikon

Place hijiki in a small bowl with enough warm water to cover and soak for 30 minutes.

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