Not too long ago, I chance upon this book, Japan Country Living: Spirit, Tradition, Style at our local library. It is a very interesting book with a glimpse into the daily lives of the Japanese people in the countryside, far away from the fast-paced, high-tech modern cities we so often associate Japan with. The pictures are beautiful and they show the traditional homes, indigo fabrics, washi (paper making), pottery, food, and country culture of the Japanese people.
The country homes are open and airy with high ceilings and wide verandahs (engawa). This architecture is more suited for the humid summers but make little provision for the cold winters. The picture below is that of a traditional thatched roof home which is now part of a museum in Komagane, Japan.
However, at the heart of the home is the sunken hearth (irori), where charcoal is constantly kept burning. A large hook is suspended from a beam where a pot or kettle hung. The family would gather around the hearth to keep warm and to cook food.
The book has a simple recipe that intrigued me. It is a soupy one-pot meal using milk, an ingredient that is rarely seen in typical Japanese soups. It was shown cooking in a large cast iron pot hung over the irori. Asuka nabe is a specialty of ancient Asuka (8th century AD) region near Nara. Having visited Nara a few years back, I had to try this dish. I have made this warm and hearty soup several times. I like to do the first part of the cooking on the stove and finish the second part at the table. It keeps the soup nice and warm.
I really enjoyed my visit to Nara. Pace of life is definitely slower. We rented bicycles and cycled around the city.
The boys feeding deer with shika senbei (deer biscuit). They were younger then.
Shirataki noodles are long thin noodles made from the konjac plant. They are composed largely of water and glucomannan, a water-soluble fiber. Konnyaku is made of the same substance but comes in blocks. Since I ran out of shirataki, I cut the konnyaku into long strips to use in this recipe.
- 2 cups (480ml) chicken stock
- 1 lb (450g) skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into bite sized pieces
- 8 shiitake mushrooms, soaked, rinsed, and stems removed
- 8 napa cabbage leaves
- 1 bunch (300g) spinach, rinsed and drained
- 2 cups (480ml) low fat milk
- 1 medium-sized carrot, sliced into rings
- 1 packet (7oz/200g) shirataki
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tsp sugar
Place spinach in a large bowl with 2 tbsp water. Microwave on high for 3 minutes. When cool enough to handle, squeeze out as much of the moisture as possible. In another bowl, microwave cabbage leaves with 2 tablespoons of water on high for 5 minutes. Drain.
Divide spinach into 8 portions. Place each portion on a cabbage leave and roll tightly. Cut each roll into half cross-wise.
Pour stock into a large flame-proof earthenware casserole or cast iron pot. Add chicken, shiitake mushrooms, and cabbage-spinach rolls. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes over medium heat, skimming off scum appearing on the surface. Add milk, carrots, shirataki, soy sauce, sugar, and salt and continue to cook for another 5 to 6 minutes. Serve immediately.
Nabe is best cooked at the table with a portable cooking unit. If you are using a small fondue unit, you may want to cook the first part using chicken stock on the stove. Then transfer to the table and finish cooking by adding milk and the rest of the ingredients.
Enjoy…..and have a wonderful day! 8)