Blog, Summer Food

Obon & How you can celebrate even if you are not in Japan.

The 13th-15th of August marks a period in japan known as Obon お盆. A Buddhist custom to honour the spirits of ones ancestors. The Buddhist festival has been celebrated for more than 500 years. It is a time of celebration as people feel they are reunited once more with loved ones who have passed away. It is a time for sato-gaeri, or “returning home” not only for departed friends and family but for living people in rural areas that may have moved to cities for work or education that return home to visit family.

Obon starts with welcoming fires (mukaebi 迎え火) lanterns known as chochin may also be lit outside people’s houses to guide the spirits home.

Food offerings (osonae/ozen お供え/御膳)  are made maybe on a family alter or tokonoma. It could be the person favourite food or seasonal produce. As well as food offering mukaé bi (welcoming) rituals  are practiced and you may see cucumbers and eggplants made into animals by giving them legs made of tooth picks. These are called Shouryouma 精霊馬 and are said to depict horses and ox that spirits travel on two and from our world. The horse is said to ward off evil and serve as fast travel to earth where as the cow is slower to travel back when the spirits depart. On the last day of Obon the cow and horse will be left by the river bank. Why eggplants and cucumbers? I think it is because these vegetables reach their peak season  during the summer around the time of obon. This is known as shun ( peak seasonal produce).

As well as making cucumbers and eggplants in to spirit vehicles I thought it might be nice to share with you an easy recipe you maybe might like to make over obon to utilise these abundant veggies which can be used in a multitude of ways.
山形だし Yamagata Dashi
This is very different to the dashi you might be aware of that’s made as a soup stock from things like shiitake and kombu. This dish is an iconic specialty from Yamagata prefecture mainly eaten in the Murayama region, which is surrounded by mountains and has extremely hot and humid summers, and was initially a popular dish for farmers to make as they picked their crops fresh from the fields.
Nowadays you will find this enjoyed in restaurants even outside Yamagata prefecture. This healthy and refreshing vegetable dish is a bit like a Japanese equivalent of a salsa. With raw finely chopped eggplant, cucumber, Myoga ginger and Shiso leaves and sometimes other vegetables like green onion, okra, corn, chives, edamame and shishito peppers.
Yamagata Dashi is commonly seasoned with soy sauce but is also very light and refreshing with a citrus ponzu to pour over noodles and tofu.
1/2 a small eggplant
1 small cucumber or 2 mini cucumbers
1 bulb myoga ginger
1-3 fresh Shiso leaves
Plus any other vegetables and herbs listed above .
Salt and soy sauce
Method :
First slice and chop up finely your eggplant add this to a jar or bowl with water and 1 teaspoon of salt . Keep the eggplant submerged to soften by putting a plate on top leave for an hour then tip out the water, squeeze the eggplant and add to a  bowl.
Slice your cucumber in half and scrape out the seeds. Dice the cucumber and place in a bowl with a teaspoon of salt gently rub in the salt and leave for half an hour then rinse the cucumber and add to the bowl with the eggplant.
Wash the leaves of the Shiso and trim off the stem, pat them try with kitchen towel, slice in half stack them on top of each other, then roll them up tightly and cut into thin slices. Add them to the bowl with the cucumber and eggplant and toss them gently.
Cut the Myoga ginger in half then slice into thin shreds and add to the bowl. 
Add any other ingredients you like. You could maybe substitute shiso leaves for fresh basil. I have found shiso and myoga in places like natural natural in London and ichiba so try your own local asian supermarket.
Add a few tablespoons of soy sauce and maybe a some fresh yuzu juice or a squeeze of sudachi or lime. And you’re done.
As temperatures and humidity rise on hot summer days it can be enjoyed on top of chilled somen noodles
or cold silken tofu
or enjoyed simply on fluffy rice.
It’s even delicious stuffed into vegetables why not hollow out a tomato or pepper and add your dashi inside.

There are a number of theories as to the origin of the word “Dashi” (soup stock), for example, because “Dashi” brings out the best in other ingredients; “Dashi” comes from the word “Kiridasu” (cut from) used when vegetables are chopped into small pieces and “Dashi” comes from the word “Dasu” (serve) used when vegetables are quickly served at the table after being chopped and seasoned.
As well as using this recipe to utilise eggplant or cucumber you could also try “Eggplant Agebitashi” a fried and soak summer dish or “Nasu no nimono” (simmered eggplant) or “Kyuri Itame” a cooked cucumber dish. All of which can be found on this website.
During this period people pay respects at family graves this is known as  (ohakamaeri お墓前り)
It is not a somber time but a time to reflect and celebrate some one’s life. The obon celebrations often involves a  special matsuri where people may dress up in their finest Yukata and dance a celebration dance known as ( bon odori 盆踊り). This matsuri is a time for families to get together and enjoy lots of street food like Okonomiyaki, yakisoba and takoyaki.
You could also think about cooking up one of your favourite Japanese street foods if you cannot visit a bon odori festival yourself at home and put on your favourite music and have a dance!
Lastly at the end of Obon are farewell fires & lantern processions known as okuri-bon (送り火、灯籠流し) to guide the spirits back for another year. In recent years floating lanterns (toro nagashi) have gained popularity. The lanterns are lit and placed in a river that runs to the sea to symbolically send their ancestors spirits home.
In the UK we do not have such a tradition but I thought it might be nice to make Shouryouma and light some incense to remember my father, cat and good friend who have passed away and place photos of them on my tokonoma, in my tearoom at home. A tokonoma is a recessed space it could be an alcove or a special corner in your home. It is normally a place that would have a hanging scroll and a ikebana display of seasonal flowers. 
I also have a lantern which I will be leaving on to guide their way.
You could do a similar thing yourself maybe by just having a photo of someone who has passed away whose life you wanted to honour. Why not light a candle or incense and add some flowers by the side. Maybe they had a favourite chocolate bar you could add that too. If you’re wanting to welcome home pets that have passed, do you still have something that belonged to them? A collar or a favourite toy. However you want to celebrate it is a wonderful way to remember loved ones that have passed don’t you agree?
Autumn Food, Blog, Spring Food, Summer Food, Winter Food

The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House. Matcha Pancakes & Nasu no Nimono

The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House

舞妓さんちのまかないさん A series on Netflix about Food & Friendship set in a Maiko house in Kyoto.

Photo Credit: The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House, 2023. Netflix

From acclaimed filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda

Adapted from the manga series “Kiyo in Kyoto”by Aiko Koyama,

season 1 episode 4 “Wish” 

Part 1:

Apprentice Maiko get two days off every month, it’s Kiyo and Sumire’s day off together. They first decide to visit a monument in a sports shrine. This Shinto shrine is called Shiramine Jingu, and the monument is known as the monument of Kemari, which is said to bring luck in sports by spinning the ball which is inside the monument. The shrine is home to to the god Seidai Myojin who is known to be the god of sports. Kemari is an athletic game which was popular in Japan during the Heian and Kamakura period and resembles a cross between a game of food ball and hacky sack. Nowadays Kemari is played as a seasonal event and the players play in a traditional costume called Kariginu which was worn as everyday clothing by nobles during the Heian period. Kiyo and Sumire frantically spin the wheel and wish for their friend Kento to win in his sports tournament.
What is your perfect afternoon out? For Kiyo and Sumire it was visiting a local cafe for a stack of fluffy matcha soufflé pancakes and a latte which had cute latte art.

Every time I visit Tokyo the first thing I do is visit one of the Ain Soph  cafes for such a pancake. Their menu is 100% vegan and all their food is made from scratch. Each cafe has their own unique menu, Ain soph Ginza has a ground floor vegan patisserie, on the second to fourth floor is their restaurant. Access 1 min walk from Tokyo Metro Higashi-Ginza Station exit 3 by the Kabukiza theatre.

Ain Soph Journey in Shinjuku Tokyo Metro Shinjuku Sanchome station exit C5 is the birthplace of their so called “Heavenly Pancake” and indeed they are.
There is also another location in Ikebukuro 10 minutes from the station.
Ain Soph in Kyoto have been open a few years now serving up again their “Heavenly Pancakes” in the best Kyoto style using organic matcha.

Which ever one you visit along with their delicious menu I recommend you try their pancakes.
Also in Kyoto I visit for breakfast another cafe serving up fluffy pancakes, called “Choice” in Northern Higashiyama at Sanjo Keihan station.

Serving up vegan and with the exception of their pasta dishes gluten free food, Choice was opened by a doctor who is keenly aware of the impact of healthy food on health and happiness. Why not start your day with some delicious healthy pancakes if you’re visiting Kyoto.

I decided to give making these fluffy pancakes a try and after lots of trials this was my favourite.

I like to call them matcha muffin pancakes as the texture is quite like a soft muffin. Perfect for a breakfast treat.

Mix into a bowl 175gram of sifted self raising flour, 1 teaspoon of chia seeds, sift matcha to make one tablespoon and add this to the flour. Then add 200ml of plant based milk, 1 tablespoon of melted coconut butter/oil and one tablespoon of maple syrup. Mix until combined but do not over mix a lumpy mixture is perfect.

Leave for the chia seeds to swell and make the batter thicker for about 5 mins. While that’s happening heat a nonstick frying pan on high heat and wipe over with coconut oil using a paper towel. Wipe the inside of two pancake rings with coconut oil and leave them to warm on the frying pan. If you do not have pancake rings you can make the matcha muffin pancakes without. Now turn the heat down to very low and spoon your mixture into the pancake rings if using.

If you are not using pancake ring the batter should be thick enough to add layers on top of each other. Just add a spoonful of pancake mixture to the pan and keep adding on top to get that thick pancake look.
Cook the pancakes on a very low heat for ten minutes, then flip over.

Cook on the other side for a further ten minutes, then if using a pancake ring ease the edges with a knife and lift the pancake ring off.

Transfer to a plate adding vegan cream, fruit and extra maple syrup to pour over. Finish with a dusting of icing sugar.

Part 2:

In the same episode we see Kiyo returning to the market looking for seasonal vegetables. She is drawn to the plump eggplants known as nasu in Japan. When I visit Japan I also take great pleasure in visiting markets and farmers markets. Tokyo has a wonderful one held over Saturday and Sunday every week in front of the United Nations University in Aoyama. Selling a wide variety of local and organic products from 10am-4pm.

If you’re visiting Kyoto no visit would be complete without a visit to the so called “Kyoto’s Kitchen” which is Nishiki Market. A narrow five blocks long shopping street lined by more than one hundred shops, which is 400 years old.

There is so much to see and taste, the lively market has all things food related from fresh pickles, to knives, cookware to yuba and is a treasure trove of culinary delights.

Kiyo decides to take the nasu back to the Maiko House, we see her scoring thin cut into the nasu before she sautés them and then simmers them in a dashi broth. This method is called “Kakushibocho” and is a technique used so that the eggplant will absorb the flavours of the broth better.

Placing a few in a bowl she hands them over to “Mother” to try. Both Mother and Sumire’s father who comes to visit and try’s them find them nostalgic. Often the case with home cooked meals.
This simple dish has a few variations from Agebitashi which is eggplant which is deep fried then soaked in dashi to the dish more like the one Kiyo makes in the episode “Nasu no Nimono” (Simmered eggplant).

You will need: serves 4

Make a dashi stock by soaking a piece of kombu in 2 cups of water over night.
Discard the kombu, add to this four tablespoons of tamari or soy sauce and four tablespoons of mirin.

x4 eggplants ( trim off the stems and slice in half lengthwise, make fine diagonal slices into the eggplant being careful not to cut all the way through.

Add the eggplant to a frying pan and sauté both sides in a little vegetable oil until the skins wilt.

While you’re doing that bring your broth to a simmer then add your eggplant. Simmer gently for around 15-20 minutes.

Remove from the heat and leave to cool in the broth in the fridge preferably over night. To serve cut your eggplant into bit sized pieces and add to a serving bowl with a little of the broth topping with some slices of peeled ginger or grated daikon radish to garnish.


Autumn Food, Blog

菊の節句 Chrysanthemum Day

Chrysanthemum Day 
菊の節句 Kiku no Sekku also known as Chōyō no sekku (重陽の節句is the last of the five ancient sacred festivals of Japan (Gosekku 五節句).

The 9th of the 9th is said to be very auspicious in Japanese culture . It coincides with the blooming of the chrysanthemum and is a time when festivals took place at the Japanese imperial court.

The chrysanthemum is the symbol of the emperor of Japan and is the official flower of Japan.. You will see it on the imperial seal, you will find it on the Japanese passport, the 50 yen coin, and you may see the emblem at shrines like the one on the gates at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo.

Chrysanthemum growing is a much practiced hobby with people entering contests for the best blooms. It takes lots of love and care to grow the perfect flower.

Chrysanthemum Day is observed by drinking chrysanthemum sake sprinkled with chrysanthemum petals. This is known as Kikuzake. These flowers were said to bring longevity, so drinking the sake was a symbol of a long and happy life. I have served the sake here with some chestnut wagashi ( recipe for this can be found on my autumn recipe pages.

Other things  for this day we’re bathing with chrysanthemum flowers much like the bathing with Yuzu for the winter solstice  A practice of covering the flowers over with a cloth over night outside and wiping your face with the dewy cloth in the morning for young looking skin was also observed.

On this day it is tradition for people to eat chestnut rice “Kurigohan”. In order to celebrate the harvest, people will cook the kuri (chestnut) and Japanese rice with dashi, and then enjoy such kurigohan as a traditional food, other foods eaten today could be eggplant and In some regions, soba and amazake are also enjoyed.

I thought it would be nice to make Gomoku Gohan a five ingredient rice which included chestnuts to celebrate the last of the five seasonal festivals. There are also recipes for this and takikomi Gohan (mixed rice ) on my recipe pages. For this I added chestnuts, aburaage,carrots, kiriboshi daikon and shimeji mushrooms. I soaked the rice in a kombu shiitake dashi including some of the water from reconstituting the dried daikon adding tamari and mirin to the soaking water. Just add the ingredients on top of the rice but do not mix. Cook the rice and when done gently fold in the ingredients then put the lid on to steam for a further ten minutes. Serve with a sprinkle of sesame seeds.
Another food to eat on the auspicious day is eggplant so to go with the rice I simply steamed a whole peeled eggplant and made a delicious sesame miso dressing for it. Served as a Teishoku set meal on a tray with chilled tofu and a simple broth with vegetables, pickles, chilled tofu and for dessert the September seasonal  star figs with a sweet miso glaze.

As they are such auspicious flowers, chrysanthemums often appear as a motif on pottery So why not use this pottery today to serve your food. 

I have spoken before in previous posts about the Japanese word Fu-bu-tsu-shi the little things that signal the changing seasons. The key part of focusing on the here and now and celebrating the passing of time. I think this micro season is one of my favourites, already there is a mist across the fields in the early morning the name of this micro season (Hakuro meaning white dew breaks).  The sky is dappled with altocumulus clouds ( also known as mackerel sky) they are a sign of changing weather.

With the arrival of the autumn equinox and the moon viewing festival Tsukimi, it will be time to make Ohagi and Dango once again. So much to enjoy this month. Celebrating the abundance of nature’s harvest with late summer early autumn vegetables and fruit. In Japan the rice fields will begin to turn gold and the spider lilies will bloom once more.