Lemon Pancake Cake

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This cake doesn’t look too special from the outside but when you cut a slice the layers will amaze.

Ingredients:

For the pancakes (makes approx 28 in a 32 cm pan):

  • 400 g plain flour
  • 2 ½ tbsp icing sugar
  • ¼ tbsp salt
  • 8 eggs
  • 1200 ml milk
  • butter for frying

For the lemon curd:

  • 8 egg yolks
  • 320 g caster sugar
  • juice of 4 medium lemons
  • rind of 3 lemons
  • 140 g butter

For decoration

  • lemon curd
  • 1200 ml double cream
  • rind of 2 lemons and 2 oranges
  • 60 g sugar
  • 30 ml water

Method:

For the pancakes, use a very large bowl and add the flour, salt and sugar. Beat in the eggs (it’s a lot of eggs I know but we need a lot of pancakes!). Slowly add the milk and whisk together. If you think you have lumps of flour, use an electric whisk to beat the mixture or pass the batter through a sieve.

Warm a 32 inch frying pan on the stove on a medium heat. Add a little butter. Use a ladle to pour some of the batter into the pan and quickly swirl around. Try to make your pancake as thin as you can. Cook the pancake for a minute or two on each side. Repeat until you have around 28 pancakes. Use a little butter in between if necessary.

For the lemon curd, mix the egg yolks, sugar, lemon juice and zest in a pot. Cook on a low heat, continually stirring. Cook for around 10 minutes until the mixture has thickened. Take off the heat and stir in the butter. Pass the mixture through a sieve to ensure it is smooth.

For the lemon and orange rind decoration (optional), use a rind peeler to create long strands from the 2 oranges and 2 lemons. Add to a small pan with the sugar and water. Boil on the stove for 10- 15 minutes until a syrup is formed. Remove and drain the syrup. Dry out the rind strands on paper towel.

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To assemble, beat the double cream until it forms soft peaks. Spread a little bit of the cream on the base of a cake turntable. Place a pancake and spread a small amount of cream. Add another layer and spread some of the lemon curd. Continue alternating the layers until you have used up all the pancakes. Place in the fridge to firm up for 10 minutes. To neaten the edges, use a knife or scissors to trim the edges. Cover with the remaining cream and garnish with the sugared orange and lemon rind. Chill before serving (you can see in my picture below that I was a bit impatient! It looked much better after a spell in the fridge).

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Fluffy Pancakes

This is another favourite recipe from my mum. I always called these ‘scotch pancakes’ as a child and they were a real treat.

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 1 hour

Makes approx 12 pancakes

Ingredients:

  • 3 eggs
  • 85 g butter
  • 85 g caster sugar
  • 200 g self-raising flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 120 ml milk
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • extra butter for cooking

Separate the egg whites into a medium sized bowl, retaining the yolks for later. Whisk the egg whites for a couple of minutes until fluffy.

In a separate bowl, cream the butter and sugar until pale. Whisk in the egg yolks. Sieve in the flour, salt and baking powder. Add the milk and mix together but don’t be too vigorous (you may need a little more than 120 ml of milk – the mixture should resemble cake batter). Fold in the egg whites a little at a time. Again use a light touch so as not to get rid of the air bubbles.

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Heat a frying pan on a low heat. Add a knob of butter and drop in a spoonful of the mixture. Flip when bubbles appear. I like to serve these warm with yoghurt, fresh fruit and maple syrup.

These pancakes keep well for a few days. Try including chocolate chips, raisins, chopped strawberries or blueberries to the pancake mixture for a variation.

 

The best viennoiserie ever!

If I was pushed to say where the best breakfast in the world can be found then I think I’d go for Paris. I made a trip over there last weekend, trying to eat as many croissants and pain au chocolat as possible. To be honest I was so busy eating that I didn’t take the best pictures.

A couple of places that I went to that are definitely worth a trip are:

Boulangerie Utopie, 20 Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, 75011 Paris

I found this through a quick google search of bakeries near the hotel we were staying. The pain au chocolat was amazing. So crisp, flaky and buttery.

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Du Pain et des Idées, 34 Rue Yves Toudic, 75010 Paris

There was bit of a queue outside of this bakery with mostly tourists but don’t let this put you off! They have some unusual flavours for well-known favourites, such as banana pain au chocolat. They also have a number of different escargot (snail) shaped bakes that were delicious. The rum and raisin was so good! A must try.

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Escargot rhum raisin…mmmm

Aux Merveilleux de Fred, 12 Place d’Aligre, 75012 Paris, France

This patisserie has quite a few locations around the world. They are actually also in London. I didn’t technically have viennoiserie here but I wanted to include it as I had a good photo! The speciality of this shop is the merveilleux, a cake that originates from Belgium. It is very light, made from cream and meringue with different dustings on the outside depending on the flavour. It was nice but a little too sweet for me.

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Last one left…praline flavour

La Pâtisserie Cyril Lignac, 24 Rue Paul Bert, 75011 Paris, France

Our friend made us a beautiful breakfast including viennoiserie from this bakery.  I had never had a cake from Brittany called Kouign-amann (pronounced queen-ah-mahn), but it is delicious and very rich. The apple turnover is apparently award winning.

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What a great weekend! It was made even better because I got engaged! What a special few days. I didn’t want to come back to reality. Right I do need to find a job…….

Leaving the rat race

I have decided to be very self-indulgent and use this blog to document my career change into the world of food. Since leaving university, life has been pretty varied- I lived abroad on and off for a few years in China, Australia and Japan, teaching English. I have also worked in sales for a legal publisher and most recently in marketing for a couple of large law firms. It was soon clear in my sales job that it wasn’t a right fit and the only move it seemed I could make with my experience was to work in house in a law firm. In both roles I didn’t enjoy the work itself and disliked working in an office. A couple of months ago I was thinking long and hard about why I had so much dissatisfaction for my corporate job and for me it was predominantly a lack of creativity. The reason I love to cook is because it allows me to be creative and come up with new ideas to experiment with. When something I produce is successful and someone shows their appreciation, it’s the best feeling and it’s this creativity that I’ve come to realise I need in a job.

Whilst I personally find working in an office pretty depressing and stressful, I know that there are definitely upsides. When you work a 9-5 you know that when you finish work you’re done for the day, you can relax. You also don’t have to worry about money as there is a steady monthly salary. I think it’s this security that is so appealing. It keeps you trapped in a cycle of progressing in a career that you have no passion for and, because of this lack of passion, a job that you’ll only ever be ok at. Maybe it’s not important for everyone to do a job they love, it could be enough to have money that allows you to enjoy your free time and lets you go on holiday and treat yourself. For me, I got to a point where the job was making me unhappy even when I wasn’t there. I’d start to dread Monday on a Sunday morning or increasingly on a Saturday or Friday. I know that I’m very lucky to have the freedom to change my career and follow my passion, and I realise I’m part of a generation that perhaps increasingly feel that we need/ deserve fulfilment in all aspects of our life. However, I’m a strong believer that we all have it in our power to change things if we’re unhappy. I don’t want to continue to complain about things and not do anything about it.

I have probably been a bit reckless in the actions I’ve taken to change career. Today is the first day of unemployment, having quit my relatively well-paid marketing job with nothing at all to go to. Do I have a plan? Not exactly. I have some vague ideas about the path I am going to take which involves doing a patisserie course and learning about the industry through temp jobs, in order to eventually start my own food-related business. I have so many questions and uncertainties as to what lies ahead. Will I make a success of it? Will I run out of money and need to go back to an office job? I’ve decided that all these risks are worth it. I’m excited for the challenge. It’s a cliché I know, but I really do believe that life is so short and I try to have this at the forefront of my mind to fully guide the way I live my life.

I hope to continue posting at least once a week from now on and will still post recipes too. Thank you for reading my ramblings.

Hazelnut and Chocolate Cake

A showstopper cake great for a special occasion. The chocolate sponge is deliciously moist.

Preparation time: 1 hour

Cooking time: 1 hour 20 minutes plus 1 hour cooling time

Ingredients

For the cake:

  • 240 g butter
  • 240 g golden caster sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 300 g self-raising flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 6 tbsp cocoa powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 200 ml milk
  • 50 g milk/ plain or dark chocolate (optional)

For the frosting:

  • 400 g cream cheese
  • 300 g hazelnut chocolate spread
  • 200 ml double cream
  • 150 g icing sugar

For decoration:

  • 150 g chopped roasted hazelnuts
  • 100 g hazelnut chocolate spread
  • 1 small box of ferrero rocher chocolates

Preheat the oven to 160c/ gas 3. Line a 20 cm round baking tin with baking paper.

For the cake, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs and vanilla extract. Sieve in the flour, baking powder, cocoa powder and pinch of salt. Pour in the milk and mix everything well. If using, chop your chocolate of choice and fold into the cake batter. Pour the mixture into your prepared tin. Bake in the oven for 1 hour 20 minutes. Check the cake after 1 hour. If the top is browning too quickly then cover with foil. Allow the cake to cool in the tin for 15 minutes, then remove on to a wire rack and cool completely.

For the frosting, cream the cream cheese and hazelnut chocolate spread, double cream and icing sugar until smooth and spreadable. Once the cake is completely cool, cut evenly into three equal layers. Don’t worry too much if you go wrong, the frosting can cover any mistakes. Spread some of the hazelnut chocolate spread onto the bottom layer and onto that, spread some of the frosting. Lay the next layer of sponge on top and spread with more frosting. For the top layer of the cake, you can turn it over to give a flatter surface. Cover the whole cake with the leftover frosting, using a palette knife to ensure an even finish. For the hazelnuts, you can buy them already chopped or roast and roughly chop your own. Stick the chopped hazelnuts to the side of the cake. No easy way to do this except chuck them on and remove the excess for a tidy finish. Complete the decoration with some ferrero rocher chocolates place on top. Yum.

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My Mum’s Fried Chicken

This crispy fried chicken was always a real treat for dinner. It tastes great the next day too.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 1 whole chicken
  • 5 garlic cloves
  • ½ small-medium onion
  • ½ tbsp dried thyme
  • 4 tbsp paprika
  • 2 tbsp light soy sauce
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 3 eggs
  • breadcrumbs (8 slices of bread)
  • 250g flour
  • enough vegetable oil for deep-frying

Method:

The chicken needs to marinate (ideally the night before). It’s best to use a whole chicken, as cooking on the bone will make for a juicier bite. It’s also more cost-effective. Cut the chicken into 12 pieces- 2 thighs, 2 wings, 2 drumsticks and 6 pieces of breast. Cut the thighs and drumsticks off first, followed by the wings. Then use a pair of scissors to cut down the sides to remove the bottom part of the chicken (discard or use to make stock). Cut the breast into half and then each half into 3, to give you 6 pieces (this needs a cleaver or elbow grease to chop through the bone). I remove the skin on the breast and thighs, although this is optional. Stick the chicken pieces in a freezer or ziplock bag ready for seasoning.

For the marinade- finely chop the garlic and onion. Add to the chicken, along with the thyme, paprika, soy sauce and some salt and pepper. Massage into the chicken. Leave in the fridge for a couple of hours or overnight.

Blitz some stale bread to make breadcrumbs. It’s good to make more then you need and keep some in the freezer for use another time. Remove the chicken from the fridge a bit ahead of time (it’s good for it not to be stone-cold for frying). Put a heavy based saucepan on the heat with enough vegetable oil to cover the chicken. Whilst the oil is heating up, get the chicken ready. Crack the eggs into a bowl and whisk. Tip the flour (any kind) onto a plate and season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Get another plate ready for the breadcrumbs.

Place the chicken pieces into the flour, then egg and finally the breadcrumbs. Ensure that the whole chicken is covered evenly. Shake any excess off at each stage. Check on the oil- you can test if it is ready by dropping a few bits of breadcrumb into it- if they bubble to the top it’s ready for frying. Place the chicken pieces into the oil, placing slowly and carefully away from you to avoid the oil splashing. Depending on the size of your pan, cook the chicken in batches- two batches should do it. Have the heat on medium but turn down if the chicken looks like it’s browning too quickly. Keep a close eye on the chicken and turn every so often to ensure an even cook. It should take around 15-20 minutes but this will vary with the size of your chicken. The wings and breast will not take as long. When you think the chicken is done, remove a piece and cut through to test if fully cooked. Remove and place on kitchen towel. They should be a slightly dark golden colour.

My mum always served the fried chicken with homemade coleslaw, chips and salad. I serve with baked chips, as they can be ready in time with the chicken. If you have leftovers, they taste great the next day in a wrap.

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Biscotti

Great with coffee any time of day

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 1 hour 20 minutes

Makes approx 30 biscotti

Ingredients:

  • 250 g plain flour
  • 250 g caster sugar
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • zest of 2 oranges
  • 2 eggs
  • 200 g nuts (I use a mix of almonds and pistachios but any nuts work well)
  • 150 g dried cranberries

Preheat the oven to 160 °C (140 °C fan). You will need two baking trays for this recipe. Prep the trays by covering with baking paper. 

In a bowl, mix the plain flour, sugar, baking powder and zest of two oranges. Crack in two eggs and mix everything together with a wooden spoon. The mixture may look a little dry but keep going, the mixture will come together. To help, dispose with the wooden spoon and use your hands to work the mixture into a dough. (Two eggs will be enough but make sure to use medium or large eggs). Include the nuts and cranberries and incorporate into the dough using your hands. You don’t need to chop the nuts, they can go in whole.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Roughly divide into half. Roll into two cylinders that are around 25 cm long. Place on the prepared baking trays and bake for 40-45 minutes. You may need more or less time depending on your oven. Keep an eye on the biscotti when baking for the first time- what you are looking for, is a light brown biscotti that will not yield easily when pressed.

When ready, remove from the oven and cool. Use a sharp knife to cut the biscotti. I find a bread knife works well but try not to use a ‘sawing’ action. (If the biscotti is sticky and difficult to cut, place back in the oven for a bit longer). Cut into biscuits that are 1- 1.5 cm. Place back on the baking trays and return to the oven for 25- 30 minutes (turning after 10 minutes).

Biscotti will store well in an airtight container for a couple of weeks.

Ho Fun Noodles

Tasty noodles that will leave you wanting more

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 25 minutes

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 4 eggs
  • salt and pepper
  • 5 tbsp oil
  • 2 chicken breasts
  • 5 tbsp dark soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp oyster sauce
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1 chilli (optional)
  • 2 bags ho fun noodles
  • 1 bag beansprouts

If you live in London, then the best place to find ho fun or shahe fen noodles is Lo’s Noodle Factory (down a back alley in Chinatown). They are the freshest and cheapest noodles you can get. If you can’t get these flat rice noodles, any noodles will work. Simply prepare according to the packet’s instructions before use.

We are going to make an omelette first. To start, put a wok or large frying pan on a high heat. Beat the eggs together and add a pinch of salt and some black pepper. Add 2 tbsp of the oil (any vegetable oil) to the now screaming-hot wok/ frying pan. Add the eggs and stir for a few seconds. After a minute flip the omelette over. Add a touch more oil if it starts to stick. Break up the omelette into small pieces and remove. Set aside. If any omelette remains in the wok/ frying pan, use a paper towel to wipe clean.

Finely chop the garlic and chilli (if using). Set aside. Cut the chicken breasts into thin slices. Season with 1 tbsp dark soy sauce, 1/2 tbsp oyster sauce, 1 tsp sugar. Mix well. Put the wok/frying pan back on the heat. Pour in 3 tbsp oil. When it starts to smoke, add the chicken and fry quickly. When the chicken is cooked (approx. 2/ 3 minutes) add the garlic and chilli. Now separate the ho fun noodles into the pan. Mix well. Add the seasoning; 4 tbsp of dark soy sauce, 1 1/2 tbsp oyster sauce, 1 tbsp of light soy sauce, 1 tsp of sugar and plenty of black pepper.

Add a packet of beansprouts and stir. Taste and add a little more salt if needed. Return the pieces of omelette and serve.

Tips: Make sure your ingredients are all room temperature before cooking. Most stoves at home are not that hot so this will help when stir frying.

You can add more vegetables to bulk this dish out. Include after the garlic and chilli. Blanch first if using vegetables that require longer cooking.

 

A Big Bite of Japan

An introduction to the wonders of Japanese food

I have recently come back from living in Japan. I had always been intrigued by Japanese culture and because I didn’t have a mortgage, a dog or children, I thought ‘to heck with it’, why not go and spend some time in the metropolis that is Tokyo. I quit my job and headed over there with two phrases; ‘arigato‘ (thank you) and ‘konnichiwa‘ (hello) in tow. I feared that Japan would not live up to the hype but luckily it fulfilled expectations and I certainly learnt why Japanese food ranks amongst the world’s most loved cuisines. Here is my guide to Japanese food, with everything that I think is important for any visitor.

So where to start. Well as I begin everyday needing breakfast within 5 minutes of waking, let us start there. Breakfast I found was not a big thing in Japan. Many restaurants and cafes are not open until a bit later in the day. In Tokyo, many busy workers grab some sort of bread or onigiri (rice ball) from a convenience store, and they are good to go. There are many excellent bakeries in the cities, that have quite an array on offer. Some of the loaves of bread are a touch sweeter than what we are used to in the West. One of my bakery favourites was melon pan, a classic sweet bun that gets its name, not because it contains melon but because its crunchy topping is scored with crosses to resemble melon skin. If breakfast for you means cereal or granola, then I must warn you that it is ridiculously expensive, which is understandable as it’s more of a Western favourite.

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Japanese Breakfast

Many people I spoke to would say that a ‘traditional’ Japanese breakfast is no longer the norm for most, especially in Tokyo. Simply because it takes too long to prepare. A ‘traditional’ breakfast usually comprises of grilled fish, rice, miso soup and sometimes natto beans. Natto are fermented soya beans and are hugely popular throughout Japan. They have a somewhat sticky, slimy texture. For me it is the texture more than the taste that is challenging. Visitors to Japan will always be able to sample a traditional breakfast at a ryokan (a Japanese inn), where the meal is always beautifully crafted.

Lunch offers a lot of choice. Bento boxes with a variety of single portion delights are very tempting, and easily purchased from shops and food courts found in the basement of most department stores. They are reasonably priced and very filling. If you go on the Shinkansen (bullet train) be sure to buy a bento before you board, otherwise you will soon be envious when you see fellow passengers tuck into theirs. When I worked at a school, I was surprised by the children’s lunches that had been prepared by their parents. The effort that many Japanese parents put into these lunches is astounding. They included tasty things such as tempura and meat croquettes, and often had rice shaped into cartoon characters with meat or seaweed used to create a picture or design. One parent was particularly artistic, creating Winnie the Pooh with some orange coloured rice, seaweed and tomatoes. Needless to say I was envious of all the lunches, my convenience store rice ball failing miserably in comparison.

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A bento box

Queuing for restaurants and food is commonplace in Tokyo. Being British and a food lover, I would sometimes join a line even if I did not know what I was going to eat at the end of it. Sometimes the result was favourable and sometimes I felt I had been had by a marketing trick. Of course a long queue in any country doesn’t always mean the best food! One current food craze, popular with young people is gyukatsu. You may have heard of tonkatsu, a breaded fried pork cutlet, well gyukatsu is a steak version. I waited over an hour to try it myself and found it bit rich and the breadcrumb coating gratuitous. In Harajuku, a popular hangout for young people in Tokyo, I saw a line stretching around the block and found out it was down to an American chain selling gourmet popcorn. Luckily I had become wise to blindly joining a queue by that point and saved myself the disappointment of waiting hours for flavoured popped corn.

Whether you eat out for breakfast, lunch or dinner, you will find the service in Japan is second to none. It is efficient, yet friendly. Usually when you enter most restaurants, you will be met by the shouts of ‘irasshaimase‘ (welcome). However, unlike service in say America or the UK, waiting staff will not come to your table until you shout out ‘sumimasen‘ (excuse me) and will not check on you after setting down your meal, as this is viewed as an intrusion on your dining experience. You will never have to ask for water, as it is always supplied on your table and you do not have to waste time asking for the bill, as you usually pay at the counter at the end of a meal. Remember to have money on you, as credit and debit cards are not widely used. I always felt extremely welcome in every restaurant throughout my time in Japan, with only one memorable instance of a grumpy waiter. Good service is simply expected and is not at all dependent on gratuity. In fact, you should not tip for anything in Japan, as it can be considered rude.

Many restaurants in Japan are designed with the single diner in mind. From single seated tables to set meals for one, you will not feel out of place eating a meal on your own. For the shy diner there are many restaurants where you can purchase a ticket from a vending machine and pass it without word to the kitchen staff in exchange for your meal. In the ramen chain Ichiran, which has recently opened a branch in New York, you can eat a bowl of ramen at your own private booth. You never see the face of the person serving you but once you are handed your order, a screen comes down so you can pay full attention to the steaming bowl of ramen in front of you.

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Ichiran Ramen

No article on Japanese food would be complete without some mention of ramen. In London, ramen restaurants have popped up with notable frequency, with Japanese chains such as Ippudo getting in on the act. Of course nothing can beat the ramen you can enjoy in Japan. Every element of a great bowl of ramen is created with time and care. Watch the 1985 Japanese comedy Tampopo to get a sense of how much reverence is paid to each component. (The eagle-eyed amongst you will spot a young Ken Watanabe). A bowl of ramen includes the broth, tare (flavour), noodles and toppings. Most ramen broths are meat or seafood based. The adornments to a bowl of ramen vary but often include chashu pork, spring onions, bamboo shoots and seaweed. A beautifully cooked soft boiled egg is usually optional. Ramen is often categorised by the broth or tare into 4 main categories; miso (fermented soybeans), shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce) and perhaps the most well known outside Japan, tonkotsu (pork bone).

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Some of the numerous bowls of ramen I ate

Tsukemen (roughly pronounced skay-men) is not well known outside of Japan but was one of my favourite things to eat. Thick noodles are served separately to a thick dipping sauce. Slurping your noodles is considered polite, although I found this difficult to master and ended up swallowing a lot of air, causing a bout of indigestion. Despite Tokyo having over 200 Michelin starred restaurants, the only one I went to was Tsuta, a ramen restaurant with one Michelin star. Set in a quiet neighbourhood in the north of Tokyo, it holds space for only 9 diners. Customers enjoy their artfully prepared, truffle oil topped ramen in more-or-less silence. The price is still cheap but it does require a lot of free time to get a ticket early in the morning, giving you a time slot to come back later. If you are in a hurry you can always enjoy your ramen at numerous standing restaurants.

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Delicious Tsukemen

Another well known Japanese food you can eat in a hurry, is of course sushi. Even at cheaper standing restaurants or conveyor belt sushi, you can still see that the quality of seafood in Japan is impressive. My absolute favourite thing to eat was raw tuna, which for me rivals any steak. Fatty tuna belly is the most expensive cut and really does melt in the mouth. I enjoyed the tuna most at Uoriki Kaisen restaurant in Shibuya, Tokyo, where they serve it over sushi rice, with tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette), pickled ginger and a perilla leaf for garnish. To see a whole bluefin tuna at Tsukiji Fish Market is a sight to behold and it is understandable why each fish can fetch thousands of yen. I do realise with much guilt that I am part of the demand that is seeing tuna stocks depleted at a rapid rate.

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My favourite tuna rice bowl

I understand why sushi is so fashionable in the West, as it is a treat for the eyes and for the taste buds. It is also fascinating to see a sushi chef at work. Their use of a knife is an art form honed with much practice. Sushi chefs must train for up to ten years and it is a few years into their training before they even get to handling fish. The documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi shows the dedication one must give to this pursuit. Chefs preparing the delicacy fugu (blowfish), that can be deadly if not handled correctly, must undergo stringent training and also require a difficult to obtain licence. At the other end of the spectrum, you can find what I would class as fast-food sushi, in restaurants where you select your sushi on a screen in front of you and then wait for your order to arrive on a train. The concept is very entertaining but as you can expect from a place that sells carbonara pasta and hamburger sushi, the quality is not the best but still not terrible. One kind of sashimi (raw strips of meat/ fish) I came across and was not keen to try was raw chicken. Apparently the chickens used are salmonella-free but for me the issue is the unpleasant texture.

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Conveyor sushi

One thing that I was very eager to try was wagyu, premium, highly marbled Japanese beef. I made the pilgrimage over to Kobe especially to try it. In the West, beef from this region is the most well known, with a lot said on how the cattle are massaged, fed on beer and played music to. In Japan itself, there is debate over where the best beef comes from. Some say Hida beef from Gifu prefecture, whilst others swear it is Matsusaka beef from Mie prefecture. Being an hour’s train away, I made the trip to Kobe. I had the beef cooked teppanyaki style, on an iron griddle in front of me. It was mesmerising to watch the chef expertly cook the beef, cutting it into smaller portions as the fattier parts would need longer cooking. The marbleisation made for a very juicy bite that melts quickly in the mouth. I would say that if you enjoy the richness of bone marrow then you will be sure to love wagyu.

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Wagyu in Kobe

Wagashi refers to Japanese sweets. At any tea ceremony, wagashi is usually served alongside and that is how they are best enjoyed, with green tea. Traditional Japanese confection is a lot less sweet than what we are used to in the West. They often have anko (azuki bean paste) as a key ingredient. Mochi (pounded sticky rice), often with an anko filling, is very popular and has a comforting chewy texture. If you visit Nara, see the fastest mochi pounders around at Nakatanido shop in the city centre. I was very addicted to Dorayaki, little pancakes with anko filling. I love these kind of bean-filled sweets but even I have been duped many times into buying what I thought was a jam doughnut, only to bite in and discover a bean filling.

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Mochi from Nara

In Japanese cities, there is always a conbini (convenience store) or two on every road. Unlike a corner shop in the UK, these have a lot of food on offer, from meals that staff will warm in the microwave for you, to hot karaage (fried chicken) and desserts. Not only can you buy food, but you can pay bills, photocopy, send luggage and buy gig tickets; making them truly live up to the title of convenience store. If going to a supermarket to buy food you will be bamboozled by the amount of ingredients you will not know. You might also be shocked by the cost of vegetables and fruit. The high prices are in part down to government protection for Japanese farmers. Japan produces some of the most expensive fruit in the world, which reach near perfection due to selective farming. These are often bought to be given away as gifts. Like in a lot of Asian countries, giving gifts of food is commonplace.

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Square and heart-shaped watermelon

It is relatively difficult to be a vegetarian in Japan, not only because of the high cost of vegetables, but because there is often a meat or fish component in most dishes. For vegetarians, or anyone who loves tofu, be sure to visit a supermarket where the tofu aisle is abundant. You will also see a wide range of pickled vegetables on offer. Pickles are very important in Japanese cuisine and bring an acidic note to any meal or serve as a palate cleanser. If cooking in a Japanese residence, be reminded that like most of Asia, it is not common to have an oven in the kitchen.

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Vegetarian tofu meal

Seasonality is pivotal to Japanese cuisine. In spring comes the cherry blossom season, with the flavour of sakura (cherry blossom) prevalent in much of the food and drink. Japanese celebrate with hanami (flower viewing), where they hold outdoor parties with great quantities of food. In autumn, pumpkin and sweet potato are plentiful and included in many food items. You can even find pumpkin flavoured Kit Kats. Whilst on the subject of Kit Kats, you may know that Japan has numerous flavours, such as wasabi and sake but did you know that Kit Kats are given as gifts, usually to students taking their exams. This is because Kit Kat resembles the phrase kitto katsu (you will surely win). Amazing coincidence for Kit Kat!

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Different Kit Kat flavours

Drinking culture is big in Japan. In fact it is legal to drink anywhere. Izakayas (a kind of gastropub) are big business. After work salarymen and women often head to an izakaya to wind down. You can have excellent food, with famous snacks such as gyoza (dumplings), yakitori (skewered chicken) and yakisoba (fried noodles) on offer. Asahi is the most famous Japanese beer in the West but beers like Sapporo, Kirin and Suntory are also big in Japan. Whiskey, the drink that Bill Murray promotes in Lost in Translation, is a very popular spirit and often enjoyed in highball cocktails. The Japanese rice wine, sake, is consumed warm or cold and its price and grade is dependent on the percentage of the rice grain that is polished and milled away. If you speak to a Japanese person about sake there may be some confusion as ‘sake’ refers to general alcohol in Japanese. The term they would use is nihonshu.

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Gyoza and Japanese beer

A couple of points on manners. Most Japanese will say ‘itadakimasu’ before a meal, this doesn’t have an exact translation but appropriates to being thankful for the food. After a meal they might say ‘gochisosama deshita’ (it was quite a feast). This is quite traditional and difficult to say! If you liked the food, you can say it was ‘oishii’ (delicious). Traditionally, it is rude to not finish your food in Japan, so do not order too much. Also, do not stand your chopsticks upright in a bowl. This is true when in China too. It reminiscent of the funeral rite of standing chopsticks in a bowl of rice.

My discussion on Japanese food is not at all exhaustive, it only scratches the surface of what there is to know. There is of course much regional variation that I have not covered but I hope this has given you a helpful introduction. To sum up Japanese food, I would say that it takes a few ingredients and really shows them off to their full potential. The cooking and preparation of food is done with real passion and zest, using ingredients that are always of the highest quality.

Warming Winter Veg Soup

A warming soup that will get you through any cold winter evening.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 1 hour

Ingredients:

  • 5 bacon rashers
  • oil
  • 1 onion
  • 1 small butternut squash
  • 3 carrots
  • 4 medium potatoes
  • 1 parsnip
  • 1 swede
  • thyme
  • chicken stock
  • pepper

You can use whatever root vegetables you want for this soup.

Prep everything for the soup first. Finely chop the bacon and the onion. Cut the rest of the vegetables into cubes.

Fry the bacon off in a large heavy-based pot with a little oil. Remove some of the bacon to sprinkle on top of the soup later. Add the onion and fry for five minutes and then add the rest of the vegetables. Cover with stock until all the vegetables are submerged (I use 2 chicken stockpots). Add in some dried thyme (or other dried herbs you have) and freshly ground pepper.

Simmer for 40 minutes. You can use a slow cooker and cook slowly for a couple of hours. When the vegetables are cooked, remove half the soup into another pot and blitz with a hand blender (you can use a masher). Return to the rest of the soup.

Serve with bread and top with the bacon bits