Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Hina-Matsuri Birthday Party: Persian-Japanese popcorn

Savoury and sweet Persian-Japanese popcorn

Wow! Has it really been TWO years since I updated this blog?! Pretty slack, I know, but in my defence, the charger for my digital camera was AWOL in Australia for a year. Oh, and there was the little matter of keeping the books for an international translation conference that ended up being a 600-plus attendee sellout...

Anyway, it is well and truly time dip my toe back into the blogging waters again, and there's nothing like a birthday bash to get the blogging juices flowing...

I threw a Hina-Matsuri themed bd party this year, to coincide with the March 3 Japanese festival that celebrates little girls (and bigger ones now, too).
Hina dolls displayed in a shopping mall

In the lead up to the festival, which is also known as Girls' Day and the Doll Festival, families with daughters arrange exquisite sets of dolls dressed in Heian imperial court finery and miniature accoutrements of court life on a multi-tiered platform, with the imperial couple taking pride of place on the top tier. 

Peach and rape blossoms, the floral harbingers of spring, often adorn the displays, while brightly coloured chirashi-zushi ("scattered sushi") and diamond-shaped pink, white and green sweets grace the festive table. It is a lovely way to give thanks for the blessings a daughter brings and to pray for her good fortune in life and in finding a husband.

I had my 17th birthday as an exchange student in Japan just a month after arriving, and Hina-Matsuri was one of the first traditional celebrations I came in contact with. I remember helping set up the hina display, carefully unwrapping the dozens of delicate items that made up the set that had been cared for by my host family for generations, and placing each in its designated spot on the display platform. How different it was from setting up a Christmas tree, the only similar activity I had to compare the job to! 

Another Hina-Matsuri tradition is sweet rice crackers in shades of pink and green, and these hina-arare were the inspiration for my Persian-Japanese popcorn. I knew I wanted my popcorn to be pink and green, and Persian and Japanese, and savoury and sweet. With that laundry list of requirements, I set out to find ideas on how to do it.

Obviously matcha, or powdered green tea, had to represent Japan, but what could stand up for Iran? How about sumac, that lip-smacking pinky-purpley tart powder? Consulting St. Google, I came across just the thing on the lovely Azita's blog Fig and Quince

Diamond-shaped chirashi-zushi "cake"
with green white and pink layers
I was now on my way but, as it turns out, tracking down recipes was the easy bit. I needed to run all over town the night before the party hunting for corn kernels! Who knew they would be so hard to come by. (Hint: Seijo Ishii stocks them : ))

So how did it go down? A real treat at the party, and the bag I squirrelled away for my colleagues to try was the talk of the office for days. One girl said it was better than Disneyland popcorn--a good thing, I understand ; )

I include directions for popping the corn, as there might be others, like me, who've never done it before!

Persian popcorn

1 tbsp vegetable oil
3 tbsp popping corn
30 g  butter
1/4 tsp bicarb soda (baking soda)
pinch of saffron threads ground together with a pinch of salt
1 tbsp boiling water
coarse sea salt, to taste
sumac powder, to taste

1 Place the oil and corn kernels in a large pot on a medium flame. Cover with a lid and shake frequently until the popping starts, and constantly after, until it stops. Remove from the heat straight away to prevent burning.

2 Dissolve the ground saffron and salt in the boiling water. Melt the butter in a wok or large frying pan and add the saffron liquid and bicarb soda. It should bubble up nicely. 

3 Toss the popcorn in the saffron butter until coated evenly. Dust with salt and sumac to taste. 

Recipe source: Adapted from the Persianized popcorn recipe at Fig and Quince 

Matcha caramel popcorn

1 tbsp vegetable oil
3 tbsp popping corn
1/2 tbsp matcha (green tea) powder
1 tbsp boiling water
30 g  butter
40 g marshmallows

1 Place the oil and corn kernels in a large pot on a medium flame. Cover with a lid and shake frequently until the popping starts, and constantly after, until it stops. Remove from the heat straight away to prevent burning.

2 Dissolve the matcha powder in the boiling water. Melt the butter and marshmallows in a wok or large frying pan and add the matcha liquid.

3 Toss the popcorn in the matcha butter until coated evenly. 

Recipe source: Adapted from the 3-colour caramel popcorn recipe at Rakuten (in Japanese)

Monday, 25 March 2013

Georgian feast 3: Eggplant rolls with walnuts and spices

Badrijani  nigvzit: Georgian eggplant rolls with walnuts and spices
For my birthday last month, my girlfriends took me to Cafe Russia, a fabulous Georgian/Russian restaurant in Kichijoji, Tokyo. All three of us were under the weather with one thing or another that cold, blustery day, but the Georgian food we cherry-picked from the a la carte menu certainly cheered us up!

The standouts for me were the crispy-skinned chicken (Tabaka) and the eggplant rolls (Badrijani). I knew I had to have those rolls for my big birthday cook up!

Stuffed with ground walnuts, garlic, vinegar and a hard-to-put-your-finger-on-it blend of spices that includes marigold, these are delicate yet robust, even meaty, all at the same time.

Cafe Russia's appetizers
I based my version on this recipe, but preferred Cafe Russia's rolled up presentation.

Marigold is the "saffron" of Georgia, and although only a little is used, it does make a difference to the colour and flavour. Now, you might think it might be hard to get the spice marigold in Japan, but you would be wrong! I know of at least 3 sources (1) super-premium organic marigold, (2) reasonably priced marigold tea, and (3) super-cheap marigold petals from my favourite spice shop, Ohtsuya (I am sure I saw the powdered spice in their shop, as well).

Chima Jeogori and Georgian Cuisine
courtesy of M. Reza Rahbar & Hasegawa Tomoko
I found the original recipe just a bit on the bitter side for me, so sharpened and sweetened it a little with lemon juice and pomegranate molasses. I've not seen pom mol in any of the Georgian recipes I've looked at, but pomegranate seeds are in loads of dishes, so we are in the ballpark, I think.
My Persian cooking teacher and his wife joined my birthday do this year, and we talked about the similarities between Persian and Georgian cuisine: the use of walnuts and pomegranates together, to name just one! They captured the spirit of the moment, with me in traditional Korean garb (the best I could do "princess"-wise for the Japanese Girls' Day holiday) serving up Georgian (Persian, Indian, Israeli and Australian) dishes, as you do, here (in Japanese). Having done this blog anonymously, with absolutely no pictures of myself, posting this picture feels like a coming out of sorts for me (g).

In case you're wondering, my teacher brought the amazing Persian eggplant appetizer with dairy topping I wrote about here. If you can read Japanese, the recipe is in he and his wife's glorious Katei de tanoshimu Persia ryori.

Badrijani nigvzit: Georgian eggplant rolls with walnuts and spices

10 Japanese eggplants
olive oil
250 g walnuts
3 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tsp fenugreek powder (blue fenugreek, for preference)
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp marigold powder
3 tbs white wine vinegar
1 tbsp lemon juice (optional)
2 tsp pomegranate molasses (optional)
pomegranate seeds, to garnish 

1 Cut each eggplant lengthwise into 3-5 slices, depending on size. Brush each slice on both sides with olive oil and grill or fry in a dry frying pan on both sides until tender. Set aside to cool.

2 Meanwhile make the walnut paste. Grind walnuts and garlic to a fine rubble in a food processor. Add the spices and vinegar and blitz again. Add salt to taste, and the lemon juice and pomegranate molasses, if using. If the paste is thick, thin with 2-3 tbsp of water.

3 Place the eggplant slices with the pointy end toward you. Place a dollop of paste on the pointy end of each slice and roll away from yourself. Arrange rolls on a serving dish. Place 2-3 pomegranate seeds on the end of each roll and scatter more around the plate.


Thursday, 28 February 2013

Georgian feast 1: Piquant beef stew (Khalia)

Scrumptious khalia
The real Georgian feast is the stuff of legend. Long tables groaning with food, wine by the litre and witty toastmasters that lead the drinking with great gusto, pomp and ceremony. Or so I've heard.

I've not yet made it to Georgia, but reading about the cuisine set the pleasure-seeking part of my brain into overdrive. The clear connections with that other great love of mine, Persian cuisine, only added to the mystique and made me want to know more.

It's been a while since Georgian has been on the actual rather than the virtual menu, for no very good reason that I can think of, really. But when I saw beets in my local veggie shop, I knew the time had come to explore this corner of the culinary world again.

My "feast" may be a paltry three dishes, but that's about as good as it gets come dinner time on a weeknight. I hope I will be forgiven.

Khalia is a zesty stew with garlic and lots of fresh herbs, given extra body with walnut pieces. In Georgia, tkmali, a spicy sauce made from sour plums, is a key ingredient. The sauce is hard to come by, and is replaced by tamarind paste in many of the recipes you will find for khalia out there, as it is in this recipe I've adapted for the pressure cooker from Anya von Bremzen's recipe in Please to the T­able: The Russ­ian Cookbook. (If not cooking under pressure, the meat will need to simmer for around 1.5 hours.)

Khalia piquant Georgian beef stew

Serves 4

3 tbsp olive oil
800 g stewing beef, cut into small cubes
3 medium onions, chopped finely
2 tbsp tamarind paste
2 tbsp tomato paste
180 ml hot beef stock
1 tsp hot Hungarian paprika
3/4 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp ground fenugreek
1 tsp dried tarragon
3 large cloves garlic, crushed
1/4 cup walnut pieces, coarsely ground or finely chopped
3 tbsp chopped fresh coriander leaves
pinch of sugar, or to taste

1 Heat the oil in a large pressure cooker over a medium-high heat. Add the beef and onions and cook, stirring, for 15 minutes. The meat will release quite a lot of liquid.

2 Add the tamarind paste, tomato paste and hot stock, together with the paprika, coriander, fenugreek and tarragon. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Seal and bring the pressure cooker up to pressure, lower the heat to low and cook until the meat is very tender, about 45 min, shaking the pressure cooker from time to time to ensure the stew does not catch on the bottom.

3 Stir in the garlic, walnuts and coriander and adjust the seasoning, adding sugar and more spices to taste, if desired. Simmer, covered, without pressure, for 15 minutes longer.


Monday, 29 October 2012

Rhubarb-hazelnut meringue cake

Rhubarb-hazelnut meringue cake
I wanted a drop-dead rhubarb dessert to use up the rhubarb left over from making that lovely Persian stew. I was imagining something nutty; something autumnal, and found just the thing at this lovely baking blog. 

The Berry Lovely recipe is for a 26-cm cake, which would be serious overkill for two people, even if I had a cake tin big enough! Luckily, the Young Man owed me one and agreed to scale it down to fit our equipment. With his graphic calculator. Knew it would come in handy someday : )

The cake was everything I hoped it would be: tart, but sweet and fabulously nutty--it even stood up to being prized out of a regular cake tin after I failed to heed the instructions about using a springform tin! The only teensy little problem is that it really doesn't keep well. Next time, I'll have enough friends over to make sure there are no leftovers.

Rhubarb-hazelnut meringue cake

Makes one 19 cm cake

For the cake layer
96 g butter
60 g castor sugar
2.5 egg yolks
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
120 g flour
1.5 tsp baking powder
90 ml milk

For the meringue layer
2.5 egg whites
160 g castor sugar
50 g ground hazelnut
300 g rhubarb
2 tbsp hazelnut slices

1 Preheat the oven to 180° C. Line a 19-cm  springform cake tin with grease-proof paper.

2 In a bowl beat the butter and sugar until creamy. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, and mix until incorporated. Add the vanilla extract. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour and baking powder, and add to the mixture, alternating with the milk.

3 Pour the mixture into the prepared springform tin and bake for about 20-25 min. Take out of the oven and let cool slightly. Lower the oven temperature to 160°C.

4 Clean the rhubarb and cut into small pieces. Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form, then gradually add the castor sugar and beat until stiff. Fold in the ground hazelnuts and the rhubarb pieces. Spread the meringue on the cake base and sprinkle with the sliced hazelnuts.

5 Put the cake back in the oven and bake for another 35-40 min. Cool the cake on a wire rack before removing it from the tin.


Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Khoresht-e rivas: Persian stew with rhubarb, mint and lemon

Persian stew with rhubarb, mint and lemon
When I was a little girl in Scotland, we lived in a big sandstone house with a huuuge back garden (or so it seemed then). Growing in the garden were such things as grow readily in that mostly-dismal climate: gooseberries, potatoes and... rhubarb! As a sneaky treat, we kids would pull off a stalk and "dook it in a poke of sugar". Knowing me, though, I probably ditched the bag of sugar and ate my share au naturel. My passion for sour things goes way back!

Rhubarb is not readily available in Japan and it was years since I'd had it. It has been in the back of my mind, though, as it seems to have been enjoying a surge of popularity in the UK the last few years and my favourite foodie haunts are full of rhubarb recipes. When a translator friend posted pictures on Facebook of rhubarb dishes his wife had made and, better yet, let it be known that she actually has it for sale, I knew my time had come!

And what better reintroduction to rhubarb than this Persian stew, adapted from one in Pomegranates and Roses: My Persian Family Recipes by Ariana Bundy. I bought the book as soon as it came out and it is fast becoming one of my favourite Persian cookbooks. The spicier "Gulf" dishes are especially welcome, as many similar books on Persian cooking tend to focus on the dominant cuisine and skip the regional delights. Better yet, quite a few of the recipes, including this one, are doable on a weeknight!

The khoresh is tart but not too tart, and wonderfully fresh-tasting with all that lovely mint. I prefer to kepps some for garnishing with before serving, but in Iran, they would all be cooked with stew. Watch the rhubarb carefully for doneness. You want the pieces to stay whole and not disintegrate. Mine were ready in less than five minutes after hitting the pot!
Khoresht-e rivas: Persian stew with rhubarb, mint and lemon

Serves 6

1 large onion, chopped into small dice
1 stalk celery, chopped into small dice
1 kg chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp butter
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp brown sugar, or to taste
juice and zest of 1/2 lemon, or to taste
1-1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp white pepper
25 g fresh mint, finely chopped
150 g flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
650 ml unsalted chicken stock
1 tsp dried mint
750 g rhubarb, cut into 5 cm pieces on the diagonal
1/2 tsp saffron threads ground in a small mortar and dissolved in 2-3 tbsp hot water

1. In a heavy pot over a medium-high heat, heat the olive oil and brown the onion, celery and chicken until the vegetables are golden and the meat is seared--about 10 minutes. Stirring frequently, add the garlic cloves, butter, turmeric, lemon zest and salt and pepper. Stir in 2/3 of the fresh herbs. Cook for about 5 minutes. Add the stock and dried mint. Reduce heat and simmer gently for 20 minutes, stirring from time to time.

2. Add the rhubarb, lemon juice and saffron liquid and bring to the boil, without stirring too much to avoid breaking up the rhubarb. The stew is cooked when the rhubarb is cooked, but not falling apart.

3. Check the seasoning: if it is too tart, add more sugar and if not tart enough, balance it with a little more lemon juice. Scatter over the remaining fresh herbs and serve immediately.


Friday, 20 July 2012

The little recipe that could: Sultana, walnut and yogurt salad

Sultana, walnut & yogurt salad
This is shaping up to be my recipe rave of the year. It's a real find!

Imagine savory fried onions stirred into strained yogurt. A generous portion of broken walnuts for crunch, some lime to jazz things up, a big splash of hot garlic-mint oil and a crowning of  more walnuts and luscious, sweet sultanas (golden raisins) or dates, as in the original.

It's a mosaic of flavours and textures in the mouth. A truly extraordinary delight.

I pinched the idea from Irish food diva Diana Henry's Cook Simple: Effortless Cooking Every Day. Diana pinched it from the late Armenian polymath Arto Der Haroutunian's Middle Eastern Cookery, and Arto pinched it from any one of a multitude of ways that dates, walnuts and yogurt (or whey) are combined traditionally in dishes called kaleh joosh in Iran. Good food travels; across continents and down through time!

Amazingly, Diana's recipe is merely an accompaniment to a lamb dish. It is one of many great recipes in Cook Simple, a fabulous cookbook for the greedy cook with a bent for Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavours and very little weeknight cooking time on her hands. And one that can easily take centre stage on a meze table.

For those interested, the kaleh joosh recipe in Middle Eastern Cookery sprinkles flour over the fried onions, adds the yogurt and brings it almost to the boil. Dried mint (rather than the fresh in Diana's take) is used in the oil and the whole thing is topped with saffron water, dates and walnuts. Other versions you can find on the Net include soup-like concoctions, some even with meatballs in them!

Since Greek yogurt is not readily available in Japan, I strain a tub of plain yogurt and use that instead. You can do this by putting the yogurt in a sieve lined with kitchen paper over a bowl, or, to speed things up,  twisting the top of the kitchen paper closed and putting the package in the sieve with a light weight (say, a tin of tomatoes on a side plate) on top. The liquor that strains off makes a lovely thirst-quenching drink.

Sultana, walnut and yogurt salad

Serves 4-6 as part of a meze table

1 large onion, finely chopped
5 tbsp olive oil
125 g Greek yogurt (or 450 g plain yogurt, strained)
40 g walnut pieces
juice of 1 lime
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
small handful mint leaves, chopped
75 g sultanas

1 If using plain yogurt, strain some of the liquid out of it in a kitchen paper-lined sieve over a bowl.

2 Fry the onion gently in 2 tbsp of the olive oil until soft and golden, Stir in the yogurt, two-thirds of the walnuts, and the lime juice. Spread this in a shallow bowl.

3 Heat the remaining olive oil and quickly fry the garlic until just golden. Add the mint and cook for another 20 sec. Drizzle over the yogurt and onion mixture.

4 Scatter on the sultanas and the remaining walnuts.


Monday, 9 July 2012

Havij polo: Reza's Persian rice with carrots

Reza's havij polo Persian rice with carrots
One of the underground passageways at Tokyo Station hosts an "open-air" market on the fourth Friday of the month. I often stop by a miso maker's stall for the interesting breads they sell. Unusual combinations like komatsuna and miso really tickle my fancy. This last month, they were also selling fresh-picked carrots with their bushy tops still on! Finally, my chance to try my dear Persian cooking teacher's rice with carrots.

It's been a while since the last Persian Table cooking class, but Reza posts delightful illustrated recipes on his blog from time to time, and this charming one really caught my eye.

The carrot tops are used as a herb in this rice, which would make a lovely accompaniment to any Persian stew (I had it with the braised broad beans below). With just a sprinkling of cinnamon and cayenne and saffron, the spicing is subtle, but exotic at the same time. Many recipes for havij polo also call for a topping of fine strips of orange peel. I used an extra splash of lemon juice instead.

If you have one, a mandolin will speed up the carrot preparation. Even if you don't, compared to other Persian rice dishes, this one is relatively quick to make.

Havij polo: Reza's Persian rice with carrots

Serves 4

320 g (2 rice cooker cups) long grain rice (Japanese rice is also fine)
pinch of saffron threads
2 tbsp boiling water
1 tbsp each butter and olive oil
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1/2 medium-sized carrot, sliced into matchsticks
1.5 cups carrot leaves, stripped from the hard stem and chopped finely
1 tsp cinnamon
salt and freshly ground black pepper
cayenne pepper, to taste (optional)
1 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/4 cup water
1 tbsp butter (optional)
1 Wash rice several times until the water runs clear, drain and set aside. Grind the saffron with a little sugar or salt and dissolve in the boiling water.

2 Heat butter and olive oil in a frying pan on medium heat and fry the onions until soft. Turn the heat up to high and add the carrot leaves, then the carrots. Fry, stirring, until the carrots become pliant. Add the cinnamon and cayenne pepper, if using. Salt lightly, remove from the heat and add the lemon juice.

3 Meanwhile, bring a large pot of well salted water to the boil. Add the rice and stir a couple of times to ensure it does not stick to the bottom of the pot. Boil on medium heat for 6 minutes or until the rice is semi-cooked but still firm in the middle.  Drain into a large colander and rinse briefly with cold water.

4 Turn rice into a large bowl, stir in the saffron water and then the onion-carrot mixture. Check seasoning and add more salt if necessary.

5 Pour the remaining oil into a large pot that has a tight-fitting lid. Pile the rice mixture into the pot in a pyramid shape. Using a chopstick or skewer, push holes into the rice, all the way to the bottom of the pot. Pour water around but not over the rice. Place a clean tea towel or kitchen paper over the pot and cover with the lid. Steam for 25-30 minutes on the lowest heat possible, moving the pot around from time to time to prevent burning. Place on a damp towel for around 5 minutes to loosen the bottom and stir in the remaining butter, if desired. Serve with a Persian stew.