In addition to the traditional stacks of celebratory cookings which we typically eat over the 3 days of the new year, in our household we normally find a hearty cooking on our table on the new year’s meal – Chikuzen-ni. It is a classic chicken and vegetable simmer cook. This year, I stood under mum’s instruction to learn how to make it. Basics are the same as what I know. It is the art of cutting the ingredients to the same size so they cook to the same level, and also exposing the surface to let the soup really go into each piece, that make the difference.
里芋 or taro, is one of the favourite winter staples in Japan. It is sticky under the rough skin. Mum tells me it is important to not wash it before skinning, as it would get too slippery. Mum thinks my sensitive skin may not take well to it so she took on the skinning job. While she’s at it, I chopped the 蒟蒻, kon-nyaku, or konjak, a sort of hard-ish jelly product of a root vegetable. Mum reminds me to let the knife run on the surface, jut to add slightly more chance for salt to suck out the water before cooking, and the soup to sink in.
Gobo is another root vegetable that is essential in many of the simple home cooking in Japan. Root vegetables call for a slow cooking, and slow cooking is often done with stock and/or chilli, and it warms you up in winter time. According to some Chinese Medicine master I met years ago, I am of a body that needs more warmth, and I particularly enjoy root vegetables. Today, I’m cleaning the skin and chopping. Mum shows me how to cut ‘ran-giri’, or cut in angle and rotate 90 degrees (1/4 rotation) before cutting again – this opens up a large cut surface, again to allow the flavour to cook in. Same goes for carrot.
Konjak is rinsed of the salt (used to let the water out) and is now cooked in boiling water. This process will get rid of the raw-ness in its taste.
Shiitake mushroom, with grounding removed, slits cut shallow into the top. Bamboo shoots cut into dice.
Konjak is now done. Off to the mesh bowl for draining.
Out comes the large pot, in which the grape-seed oil is heated. Apparently this has less flavour than olive oil. I see. Once the oil is hot, chicken pieces are thrown in for sealing.
In comes the mirin, sweet cooking sake.
Konjak, carrot and gobo are thrown in.
Pour in bonito stock. You got to have stock – that is often the biggest difference between a real Japanese cooking and those ‘wanna be’ foreign restaurants that are not so genuine. Imagine cooking a risotto without chicken stock but water!
All root vege’s in, the fluid is brought to boil. Pick up the whitish bubbles and floating oil, which spoil the smoothness in taste.
Lid down and simmer cook at mid- to low- heat.
Flavoured with a bit of salt and soy sauce to liking, the basic taste coming from the salt and stock used at the beginning. Lightly flavour to Osakan-style, rather than the sauce killing the taste of the good ingredients. Taro is added at this point and let the taste blend in. But not before, as taro’s shape would fall apart.
Peas are cooked separately in a boiling water with salt and oil. Very quick one-minute cooking, before it is taken out. The peas are thrown across the dish before serving, to keep its fresh colours which will otherwise be lost while cooking in the pot.