In which the world of culinary hedonism is explored with a cup and a half of curiosity, a heaping tablespoon of passion and a dash of clumsiness.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Post 114 ~ A once-in-a-lifetime experience... recreated. (sorta.)

It's been a while, fair readers, and the reason is because I am currently teaching four classes, with over two hundred and fifty students (263, but who's counting?) and am facing a life change that I will write about in a separate post soon on my Singapore blog. But until then, let us focus on the present.

Singapore is on its final day of Chinese New Year celebrations. For the fourth year in a row, I have been generously hosted by my "Japanese Mom and Dad" for the holiday break. As you'll remember, last year we went to Nagano to see the snow monkeys, the year before that took us to Hokkaido for the Winter Festival, and the year before that saw my very first visit to Japan with my mom and dad to visit my Japanese mom and dad, the latter of whom took us on such an incredible tour of Japan, we believe we saw a month's worth of sites in eight days.

But again - back to the present. 

This year, my incredible hosts took me up through the mountains, on planes, in trains and automobiles, to Shirakawago, a 300-year-old village nestled in the high northern mountains. The air is a clear, crystalline variety one would expect to find in the Alps. The houses, too, have an alpine feeling, as they are structured with an A-frame not unlike their European cousins, only the Shirakawago variety is in a nearly perfect equilateral triangle. The village has survived, to my understanding, for centuries due to the following reasons:
  1. The village is extremely remote. I cannot imagine a neighboring, hostile clan saying, "Let's cross these mountains in the sub-zero temperatures so we can capture those twelve houses over there."
  2. The houses were built with nothing but solid wood beams, thatched roofs and rope. So, during the inevitable earth quakes - picture a rope bed - the frame shifts, but settles back into place.
  3. The fires kept burning in the center of the dwelling served not only to warm the premise, but also to effectively carbonize the wood.
  4. Miso.
A woman selling miso (in the barrels) to patrons.
Alright, the fourth reason is not historically proven, but I think miso helps. Miso, for the uninitiated, is fermented soybean paste prized for its versatility, health benefits and "umami" flavoring (a secretly distinct flavor that our tongues cannot quite compute - a mix of savory, sweet, and something... else...). Miso is used in soups, cooking, and is as versatile as regions that make it.

The miso in these high mountain regions is characterized by its sweet, nutty flavors, created by sugars and sake. Mmmmm... sake. See? I told you there was a reason these people have survived centuries in freezing temperatures.

Our server is demonstrating the proper way to cook hoba miso.
One evening while traveling through the region (more on this entire trip in a blog post to come in LeftorRight), Tetsuji took us to a small, local restaurant that specialized in hoba miso - a magnolia leaf on which miso was spread, and meat was cooked, over an open flame. 

Naturally, I'm game for any new dining experience.

There are those moments in life where you taste something and you know you'll never taste anything quite like it again. It might be a perfectly prepared family dinner. A glass of rare wine. And sometimes, it's a travel experience (my first and only experience with clotted cream in Cornwall, England comes to mind). This was one of those times.

The miso is sweet, but savory. The famed Hida beef that is cooked in it is melt-in-your-mouth delicious. I admit to shamelessly scraping my chopsticks across the singed leaf to get every. last. bit.

And then Tetsuji said I could buy some in a market the next day.

We went to a morning market at a sleepy, quaint village on a blindingly bright winter day. The air was crisp, our breath hung in the air and the water was so clear, we could clearly see koi in the river like bright, orange jewels.

I purchased a pack of three hoba miso sets - three magnolia leaves artfully folded around packets of the rich, reddish-brown miso.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I packed them so cautiously in my suitcase. When I returned to Singapore, I pondered them for a number of days. When to cook with them? How to cook with them?

Which brought back a wonderful sensation, one that I have not truly felt for four years, since I moved abroad: The feeling of planning a meal. No. Not a meal. A culinary experience.

My life in Singapore is structured around a very hectic schedule and grocery stores that are unpredictable. I do most of my shopping online, and often find myself facing unique situations, like the time the grocer I depended on inexplicably stopped carrying milk. For a month. Now I always keep a quart in the freezer.

But this was different. I had the most crucial ingredient. Now for the rest.

This was a very long warm-up, but I assure you, it's worth the wait. And if you can't get hoba miso (which, I regret to say, can only be purchased from the Takayama region of Japan), I believe you would enjoy cooking a meal over any style of miso. I know for a fact, after desperate research, that you can find a wide variety of miso at Wegmans. Go figure. 

Here's what you'll need:

~ Meat of choice. I chose chicken fillets (cut into bite-sized piece) for economical ease
~ Leeks sliced as thin as you can
~ Japanese pumpkin or any squash, cubed
~ Sliced mushroom of choice
~ Edamame beans
~ Rice
~ Miso (of course)
~ Magnolia leaf (if possible)

I soaked the magnolia leaf while preparing my other ingredients. I sliced the leeks, mushrooms and the pumpkin, and steamed the latter in the microwave for one minute. I cut up the chicken tenders. I placed the leaf on a pan with a little oil, which I rubbed over the leaf, as well. Onto the leaf went the miso.

I licked the spoon clean. I cannot overstate how good this miso is.

Onto that went my ingredients, in an attempt at  replicating the careful, artful arrangements I had seen countless times while dining in Japan. Food is an artform there, and it is presented as such. Color is balanced with size, texture, shape and flavor. I made a large batch of food, because I was planning on leftovers for later in the week.

I should also mention at this point that I cheated and bought pre-cooked rice.

Here you can see the progression of the meal. I kept the heat at low-medium the entire time. The miso occasionally hits the pan and pops, and I also didn't want to scorch the leaf. I stirred it around a bit, until everything looked beautiful, golden and done. It smelled soooooo good!

I layered some rice in the bowl and the chicken and veggies and yummy, yummy miso on top of it all.

It. was. AMAZING. I am so happy that I have two more packages of this, and even though I know I can't get the same thing back in the States, I think that cooking with miso will become a regular occurrence for the Accidental Chef...

I served tonight's meal with a mellow French Cabernet Sauvignon. It was oaky in a way that
complemented the aged flavor of the miso, but fruity in a way that offset the saltiness, too. All in all, a delicious, international affair.

And this is where I leave you, fair readers, until another post. Be sure to watch my Singapore blog for a post about the rest of my fabulous adventure in Japan, as well as updates about my incredible time here on this side of the planet.

Until then...

Yours in the love of good food and wine, and incredible life experiences,

The blogger is not an experienced chef. She takes no responsibility for the quality of the meals prepared while following her advice. Use your own judgment regarding cooking times and proper food handling.