Monday, June 8, 2015

Kabocha no Nimono | Sake Braised Japanese Pumpkin

We may be no stranger to Japanese cuisine - as diverse as it can be - given its international presence and penetration into pop culture and our day-to-day diet. But when it comes to Japanese home cooking, it is an infinite universe yet to be fully explored and appreciated by food-lovers the world over.

Outside of the usual dining favorites, namely sushi, tonkatsu, ramen, yakitori, shabu-shabu (the list is really rather inexhaustible, to our bellies' delight), my exposure to authentic Japanese home cooking has been admittedly limited. It was that moment during my first ever kaiseki experience at a picturesque hillside hot spring ryokan near Mount Aso, Kyushu, that struck a chord in me.

Food as nourishment, food as an art: my life-changing, virgin experience in kaiseki at Yamaguchi Ryokan and Ryokan Sanga, Kyushu, Japan | Mar 2013

While kaiseki (懐石料理) - the highly ritual multi-course traditional Japanese meal characterized by small portions, subtle flavors, and impeccable, artful presentation - may rightfully be compared to Western haute cuisine, it most certainly is grounded on values that carry through conventional, ordinary home cooking with its emphasis on simplicity and fresh seasonal ingredients.

Frolicking in lush and serene greenscape by the creek, Kurokawa
I've recently been invited to a friend's place for Japanese style home cooked dinner. With many years of working with a Japanese chef, he swiftly prepared a light but satisfying meal featuring primarily vegetables - with the help of relatively few seasonings.

In stark contrast to most Asian cuisines driven by a variety of sauces and condiments, a large number of dishes in Japanese home cooking are created from just five basic seasonings: mirin, sake, sugar, soy sauce, and dashi (だし, a light stock made from dried bonito flakes and kombu seaweed). One of the many secrets behind Japanese home cooking is "simplicity" - complement the primary ingredients with a delicate touch of seasoning, rather than dominating them; let the natural flavors sing.

One of the dishes made that night was this irresistable braised kabocha (かぼちゃの煮物). Unlike conventional methods of simmering, the pumpkin is first seared at high temperature then finished in the classic seasonings to enhance flavor and texture. A great case in point, a simple handful of seasoning brings out the sweetness of the pumpkin. Topped with barely seasoned pan-fried chicken mince, this simple dish promises to astound with umami.

To prepare...
1 (~450g) kabocha (alternately use Australian kent pumpkin)
1 cup Japanese sake
1 cup bonito kombu dashi
2 tablespoon mirin
2 tablespoon white sugar (or brown sugar for a richer taste)
2 tablespoon Japanese shoyu
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

For the minced chicken... (optional)
100g ground chicken 
1 tablespoon mirin
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Vegetable oil for pan frying
1. Remove seeds and cut pumpkin into 2-inch pieces leaving the skin on. On medium heat, add vegetable oil to skillet and lightly sear the surface of pumpkin chunks, skin-side down first. Stir occasionally to evenly brown the pumpkin, about 4 minutes.

2. Cook pumpkin covered until fork tender on medium heat, 5-8 minutes (cooking time varies depending on type of pumpkin). Add sake, dashi, mirin, shoyu, and sugar and bring to a low boil. Cook until reduced. Plate and set aside.

3. On medium heat, pan fry minced chicken (if using) in a small pan with vegetable oil. Season with mirin and sea salt. Top pumpkin with minced chicken and serve. いただきます!

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