COLUMN: Experiencing unfamiliar Japanese foods

Winter may not officially arrive until the solstice, but it has been visiting Toyokoro.

Winter may not officially arrive until the solstice, but it has been visiting Toyokoro.

We have experienced three November snowfalls of the wet variety that I call “coastal snow” and I have shovelled away the slush in the afternoons to prevent frozen sludge as the temperatures plummet at night.

Most days are bright and sunny (I am told this is the norm) while the almost perpetual winds can be very brisk. Although the evidence of the early snowfalls is all but gone from Toyokoro, central and northern Hokkaido are under a blanket of the white stuff.

The small elementary school at Otsu had a Skype visit with the Asahiyama Zoo in Asahikawa last week.

It was my first time seeing a giraffe walking in snow; the polar bears and penguins appeared much more at home.

I am experiencing more unfamiliar Japanese foods lately.

We Canadians are quite comfortable with tempura, sushi, and even sashimi. Miso soup, udon noodles and the ubiquitous rice are not a surprise for us.

What I am noticing lately is the prevalence and acceptability of glutinous and “sticky” foods in Japan, as well as the vast variety of root vegetables (some of which are glutinous or sticky).

While I have decided that one taste of “nato” (fermented soy beans surrounded by a mucous-like goo) is enough, my experience with “nagaimo” was very positive and will be repeated.

This tuber looks like a cross between a light-coloured potato and a parsnip, and has a delicate slightly nutty flavour.

Nagaimo is touted as high protein, low calorie, low on the glycemic index, and loaded with healthy minerals. However, be aware of two things before handling nagaimo.

Firstly, it is one of those sticky foods, oozing a juice when uncooked that can only be described as slimy.

Secondly, the outside of the nagaimo might cause a mild allergic skin reaction so it is wise to wear gloves while peeling the root.

Still, if you handle the nagaimo as you would jalapeno peppers, and are prepared for the sticky ooze like you would find with okra. It is worth the trouble.

I hope to locate in the Asian food markets once I return to Canada.

I cooked two different dishes on the weekend, a mashed nagaimo au gratin, accented by spinach, bacon, onion and gouda, as well as my first experiment with home-made okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is similar to a pancake or omelette.

The main ingredient is julienned cabbage, and in this instance shredded nagaimo.

You can stir in your choice of additional ingredients (cooked meat, shrimp, cheese, herbs, sliced peppers, slivers of fresh tomato) with a little flour and one egg per person.

The sloppy mixture is then dropped like pancake batter onto a hot grill, and flipped part way through the cooking process.

Okonomiyaki is served with a trickle of mayonnaise and a specific sauce, similar to BBQ sauce, that I am tracking down.

Sriracha was my short term substitution. Okonomiyaki restaurants provide guests with the bowls of ingredients with an egg on top, and we sit around a large griddle and cook the food ourselves for a fun, social experience.

However, I think okonomiyaki is also the perfect meal for a single person at home, using whatever is on hand in your fridge.

I will limit my discussion of the glutinous, chewy, jelly-like, eye-ball shaped, sweet dessert additions that are so common here to admitting that they do taste better than they feel.

Janet Jory is in Summerland’s sister city of Toyokoro, Japan as the assistant English teacher.