I visited Japan for the first time this fall. I viewed ancient temples, sipped matcha on bamboo mats and strolled through moss-covered gardens that looked as they had been drizzled with luscious green paint. I have to admit, however, that one of the highlights of my trip took place at a super-touristy cultural center where clueless Americans like me can play dress-up in kimonos and fold origami. (What is the American equivalent? Borrowing blue suede shoes and visiting Graceland?) While I passed on the dress-up, I did take a cooking lesson from a woman who taught me to make a typical Japanese meal. Before this experience, I had always loved Japanese food but had imagined that this cuisine was so inaccessible, so difficult to grasp, that it was best delivered to the front door in paper sacks. As one of my new favorite cook books will attest, Japanese cuisine is certainly difficult to execute flawlessly. But, as I learned in Kyoto, if you are just looking for a simple, fresh meal and you don’t get too hung up on the traditional emphasis on aesthetics (i.e. if you believe like me that if it tastes good it’s okay if it looks a little like vomit), you can easily fill your weekday menu with Japanese dishes. So far my favorite is this recipe for miso soup, which I have made now five or six times since returning from Kyoto. It is only slightly more time-consuming than dumping boiling water into the cardboardy contents of those miso soup packets. It is many times more delicious.
Adapted from WAK Japan
3 cups water
1.5 by 1.5 inch piece of dried kelp (available at Asian specialty stores)
About 1 cup of dried bonito flakes (available at Whole Foods and Asian specialty stores) (FYI, These are dried FISH flakes. Silly me, I thought miso soup was always vegetarian. For those of you who are vegetarian, my teacher suggested using mushroom broth.)
4 tbsp of dark (red or brown) miso paste (Available at Whole Fooods and Asian specialty stores)
1/2 leek or 1 scallion, slivered
About half a pound of tofu, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 tbsp of seaweed pieces (I use Nori.)
Soak kelp in water for 30 minutes then heat water. Remove kelp just before water boils or it will make the soup bitter. Add dried bonito flakes and turn down heat. As soon as water boils, turn off heat and wait until flakes sink to the bottom of the pan. Strain the broth through a sieve covered in cheesecloth if you are particular or simply through a sieve if you are..like me. Discard bonito flakes, preferably outside because they will smell like a dead fish’s dirty gym socks. Add seaweed and bring broth to a boil. Add miso paste, stirring until it dissolves. My Japanese cooking teacher placed the paste in a slotted spoon and pressed down on it to help it dissolve. Once paste has dissolved, add tofu and leak or scallion. Turn off heat and serve.