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!)

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