Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What's "Dengaku"?

Today I'm here to talk about Japanese food. I grew up with a teeny eeny bit of Japanese food because my dad was Japanese descent. Namely, I had lots of white rice as a kid and onigiri from time to time (WEIRD Americans eat rice balls for breakfast!). Also, for years, I've loved a lot of the Japanese food I've run across. I'll discuss more on that another time.

In any case, I moved to Asia because of my husband, and while living in China we made a trip to Tokyo. I found a book while I was there, all about a lot of the more traditional and restaurant-popular Japanese dishes ... that was written in Japanese and English! I took it straight home, since I love a lot of Japanese food.

Ironically, after that, we moved to Japan. The cookbook has been invaluable since, partially because it gives me translations of ingredients and their uses, so I understand them better. Even more ironically, I have loaned the book to some of my husband's English school students... sometimes for the English... almost as often because they themselves don't know how to make a lot of common dishes here! People are more likely to pick up tempura or tonkatsu from a supermarket, for instance, than make it themselves.

And on that note, then there's dengaku. Basically, dengaku is a traditional Japanese equivalent of gravy. It's miso-based. Miso is Japanese fermented soybean paste. Yum yum! Actually, it is pretty tasty, and there's a lot of variety.

If you take ten minutes and search the 'net, in Japanese or English, you'll find a bunch of dengaku recipes, all somewhat different. As I said, it's like gravy. My cookbook even says OUTRIGHT to experiment with different types of miso and ratios, because that's what you do. It's like everyone has different gravy and stuffing recipes for Thanksgiving. (My husband was surprised because my stuffing is utterly different from what he grew up with, which is okay, because he likes my stuffing.)

The short short version is that dengaku is made roughly like this:


some miso
mirin (sweet Japanese cooking wine, REALLY sweet, cooking sherry with extra sugar is a good substitute!*)
sake (Japanese rice wine)
broth, generally dashi (fish/seaweed broth... the bouillon is dirt common in Japan**)

Some recipes put in the miso last, some put it in first. I learned by putting it in first, mixing it with the sugar before turning on the heat in the pan, then adding the other ingredients and mixing. But I think it's one of those "whatever" situations.  Whatever! Mix it all together and boil it just enough to get what I call the "nasty alcohol" taste out. You'll end up with a sauce about the same consistently as your typical chicken gravy.

Here's a good recipe to start you out, with more exact numbers. (For more information on the types of miso, check out the wikipedia article, it's thorough: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miso)

3 1/2 tablespoons white miso
2 tablespoons red miso
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon mirin
1 tablespoon sake
3 tablespoon dashi (that is, broth, NOT the powder, make up the broth and add it!)

Mix miso and sugar together in a pan (preferably nonstick, I end up using aluminum a lot!). Carefully heat up, adding the other ingredients, mixing thoroughly. Boil for a short time but BE CAREFUL... the stuff burns to some pans really easily.

* I would dare say that mirin and sherry have similar niches in cooking. The cooking versions of both are utterly nasty to drink, and the drinking versions of both can be really expensive and are not my thing.

** I agree with all the fancy chefs out there. In traditional Japanese dishes, dashi is pretty much necessary. You alter the flavor dramatically without it. Keeping that in mind, for the vegetarians out there, dashi made with just kombu (kelp) works pretty well and is 100% vegetarian! I should put up a guide to dashi, I guess.

Uses for Dengaku

The two most ubiquitous uses I've seen are to spread it on something grilled, generally tofu or fish or veggies (eggplant dengaku is apparently the big one) or to use it as a dipping sauce for various types of hotpot. It's really tasty with oden (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oden). I don't like karashi (Japanese mustard), so I always prefer to have sweet dengaku with it. When you make dengaku for oden, add lots of extra sugar. It's a nice counter to the saltiness of the oden stuff.

If anyone is interested and replies to this, I'll put up more Japanese recipes along with substitutes for the various ingredients that you can get in the U.S. -- and more info about how Western ingredients are getting adapted into Japanese cooking. (For instance, a common oden item you can get in a convenience store these days is bacon-on-a-stick!)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

First off... "gourmet ingredients"

Gourmet Ingredients and You

Okay, let me start out by saying that the sad, sad truth is that "gourmet ingredients" or fancy ingredients, or the expensive stuff, are hit and miss.

Some really DO make a difference... sometimes. Sometimes they don't. I often think of them as "wastes of money." While quality of ingredients make a difference, it's often how you use/treat those ingredients.

Let me start out with one of my amusing favorites... Sea salt.

I used to buy sea salt a lot in the U.S. It does taste a tad different, and it can make a slight difference. However, the bigger difference seems to be the size of the salt crystals, not necessarily where it comes from.

Why do I say this?

I mentioned in previous posts, I'm from the Midwest, and that I'm currently in Japan. Virtually ALL of the salt that was around when I was a kid was mined. Virtually ALL of the salt that is at my local supermarket now is sea salt. Japan has traditionally used a lot of salt because... well... have you ever actually TASTED sea water? They're not kidding when they say "salt water". It tastes like liquid salt. There's plenty of salt around.

So what makes me chuckle is when the local store sells French sea salt. Why? It tastes the same. I used to buy French sea salt in the U.S. Sea salt is sea salt.

Anyway, as I was saying, the main thing here is... sea salt may taste a tad different -- because, in fact, it is less pure salt than most mined salt... and the impurities are different -- but the size of the crystals makes a bigger differences. Smaller crystals (typical "powdered" salt) diffuse more into whatever you're cooking. Bigger crystals don't and give "pockets" of flavor... they may also cause you to misjudge how much salt you're adding. I've overdone powdered salt and underdone big crystal salt.

The real trick to stuff like this is figuring out what qualities are different between different products. Salt depends on its impurities for extra flavor and crystal size for how well you taste that extra flavor.

Other ingredients are hit and miss.

Recently I read about how dark brown sugar and light brown sugar are very different. They are. Dark brown sugar has a stronger overall flavor, but can be a bigger pain to cook with because it's wetter. I'm SOL on this stuff in Japan -- they typically sell dark brown sugar as sugar candy blocks (no joke!) and light brown sugar is the preferred stuff for coffee. So I buy the latter for making my chocolate chip cookies. ACCORDINGLY, I up the amount of light brown sugar and lower the amount of white sugar when I make cookies... this makes the flavor better, and the light brown sugar isn't terribly wet, so it doesn't make your cookie dough too wet or sticky to switch out. (THAT is something you really have to watch for in baking!)

On the other hand, the big local crazy with "Okinawan brown sugar" is... um... yeah, it's tasty, it's brown sugar. I like the candy. It's Japanese brown sugar, so it's a big deal here. (It's not import, of course.) It's cane sugar, which by the way isn't common in Japan. (Most sugar is beet sugar.) For most purposes, as far as I can tell... it doesn't matter for white sugar, but brown sugar is better when it's cane sugar... but, well, oh well.

Japanese are also big into "local" products -- it'd thrill the foodies here. Most of the ingredients I buy are from the region I'm from, because it's a big growing region (and, added bonus, not irradiated). Flour, sugar, eggs, veggies, meats... well, okay, the latter is from the U.S. or Australia, because local beef and pork are VERY expensive and in high demand for export. (Ironic, eh?) I CAN tell you that Japanese beef is really good, but I grew up with good quality beef, and the biggest difference is Japanese beef is less tough and lower in the unhealthy fats. (It's less tough even though it's more marbled. Very interesting.)

Anyway, I'm rambling. I'll post more later.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Authentic versus "Mangled" Recipes

I can read English (duh), Chinese (simplified is easier than traditional, but either is okay), and Japanese. My husband can muddle through Korean but he doesn't know enough about cooking to be very helpful. When I don't know, I use a program called Perapera-kun. (http://perapera.wordpress.com). This popup helps me read pages.

What this means is that I am pretty good at sorting through "authentic" versus "mangled" recipes for northern Asian cuisine. When I mean "authentic", I mean where I know what the original ingredients were and how they're intended to be used -- what you actually get, for instance, at a Chinese restaurant in northern China when you order Gu Lao Rou (better known in America as Sweet and Sour Pork). "Mangled" recipes means they've been already altered for a different region and ingredient availability. I prefer to get "authentic" recipes and mangle them myself... especially if I know what the original flavor is. For example, I know what northern-Chinese style Sweet and Sour Pork is like, I used to live in northern China. (By the way, most Chinese restaurants in Kansas and Missouri serve authentic northern Chinese food.)

Chinese food in particular is easy for me to pick out. I read Chinese all the time. (If you can read Chinese, I highly recommend recipe searching on baidu.com. If you can't read Chinese, don't worry, there are authentic recipes out there in English. More and more all the time, actually!)

As far as Japanese food goes, currently I don't HAVE to mangle those, really, I am in Japan. When that changes, well, I have good ideas of where to start, so I'll post up those ideas for the rest of you.

Korean and Japanese food are similar enough and they like to trade enough food and ideas back and forth that it's very easy for me to find what I need to make Korean food here. However, I can tell you that Japanese "kimuchi" (as they like to say it) and Korean kimchee are not the same... although the Japanese themselves KNOW that, and they also import genuine kimchee. My husband doesn't like kimchee, so I only use it once in a while to make a few things... he actually like Japanese-style better. (He is less tolerant of heat in food than I am, spicy-heat or temp-heat.)

I'm also looking for information on things.

I'm looking for a good recipe for Pakistani-style haleem, by the way. I can only find really authentic recipes in Urdu, and I can't read Urdu. Plus, I need some good ideas of where to find the wheat grain in northern Japan. I can't seem to find unprocessed wheat.

In fact, I'm always on the lookout for more info on northern Indian and Pakistani food, because I love it, it's terribly expensive to buy, and I'd really like to nail how to cook it. (I have one chana masala recipe that I regard as passable when I make it, and that's it.)

Okay, that's all for now. Gotta go and do stuff.


The real trick to it is figuring out what is crucial in getting a flavor or cuisine "feel" right and what really isn't.

Some things are also simpler than you'd think. Like pie crust. No, really, it just takes some practice.

Like most Americans, I grew up buying pies of all sorts from the store. No one made apple pie, or pumpkin pie, or even chicken pot pie. I do now. There's a reason they say "American as apple pie" -- because finding a real apple pie in Asia is darn hard! I learned to make my own in China, where apples were plentiful and cheap but pies were nonexistent. Pies are a western thing. Although they're being adapted in, they're being adapted in willy-nilly and often you get weird admixtures of things accordingly.

Mind you, I don't MIND mixing cuisines or cultures, but frankly I want my apple pies with simple pie crust and not really buttery pastry crust (which is how the pies are made where I live in Japan)... oh, and they're insanely expensive. [Special note: cooking outside the "local cuisine" can be a pain, and expensive, but trying to buy the same food out can be nightmarishly expensive, especially if you live in boonies, Japan, which I do.]

Learning to make pie crust myself THE FIRST TIME was a real adventure, but the trick really is some practice. I do plan as one of my first posts to post up the apple pie recipe I scoured from the Internet several years ago, from someone whose page has since gone down, with my own comments about how I had to tweak the recipe to deal with the OMGsweet apples of Asia. (You think American-grown Fuji apples are sweet? They've got nothing on the actual Japanese original. Oh boy.)

[My husband likes me to make pies because I make "po'boy cookies" afterward with the extra pie crust.]

Next time I actually make the pie, I'll put up pictures. My pies still aren't "pretty" -- but they're pretty tasty, our friends really like them. And homemade pie is MUCH better than that store-bought stuff in the U.S. And scratch-made pumpkin pies can be awesome. And I "pie" a lot of things just like my (European) ancestors did... leftover beef stew? PIE! Kid loves it. Pie crust + darn near anything, my three-year-old will eat it.

Anyway, I've gone off track here. I'll be explaining how I do all the weird cooking things I do in this blog. For expat Americans, this may help you make some of your old favorites IN SPITE of where you are and what you've got. For people looking to cook food from all over the world -- well, I cook American, French, German, Italian, Mexican (a little), Pakistani/northern Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean food. Give or take. With some odd things here and there. Sometimes very odd.

My latest "conquest" was figuring out how to make good-tasting, properly "textured" cheese lasagne when ricotta is either 1) unavailable or 2) outrageously expensive. I'll put that up soon, especially if I get interest in the blog.


This is my newest blog (my old one is on another site)... It's all about the things I've discovered how to cook over the years.

My name's Kim. Kaerondaes is my online nickname. I'm American, but I live in Asia and have for several years now. Since moving from my original home in the Midwest, I've had all sorts of fun (sometimes this drips with sarcasm) trying to cook things I grew up with, while being short on the proper ingredients, or not having proper tools/equipment/ovens/you name it.

It's been an adventure! My husband teaches English to adults, and many of them have asked me all about various cuisine and all about what I cook. So I've passed on a lot of recipes with a lot of caveats and advice for how to make things when they're not your "native" cuisine and when you're confronted with food you know... but have NO IDEA how to make it from scratch.

Let me start out by saying that when I first got married (thirteen years ago! whew!), I was an awful cook. Awful. My husband may say sweet things about me, but I think aside from homemade spaghetti sauce and noodles he's lucky he didn't die of poisoning.

My mom tried to teach me. She really did. She taught me a lot of the basics and had me take a Home Economics (read: cooking and cleaning) class in high school. And those were solid grounding... but from there on out it was an adventure. [Honestly, I love my mom, but also it doesn't help that she often forgets critical steps and ingredients on recipes. Like the time she e-mailed me a sugar cookie recipe that didn't tell me how much sugar to put in. Hrm.]

So a lot of my cooking knowledge comes from a mixture of books, the Internet (thank you!), and the... um... school of hard knocks/near poisoning. It's an addled mess... but a USEFUL one.

My recipes are now a crazy mess of what I consider "traditional American", lots of European stuff, and lots of Asian stuff. I especially love Japanese food... and I have a really good basic Japanese cookbook.

Anyway, I'll put more in another post. To Be Continued...