When you start to see hand warmers for sale at your local konbini (convenience store) and dogs on the street donning fancy knit sweaters, you know that winter is upon us in Japan. Although the temperatures in Tokyo do not dip too drastically, in regions to the north such as Hokkaido, the mercury falls to temperatures far below zero. A special time to visit, winter sports, snow festivals and onsen resorts (hot springs) are just a few of the attractions during this season.
When the chill settles in, people all over Japan turn to a range of comfort foods that warm the body and soul in the form of soups and hotpots, bright winter citrus, and hearty seasonal root vegetables. As a food fanatic and newbie spending my first winter living in Japan, I am curious and excited to try the traditional foods that are commonly eaten during this period. Here is a look at how to feast your way through winter in Japan like a local.
A Japanese wintertime staple, nabe translates as hotpot dish. Meat, vegetables, and fish are cooked in a pot of hot broth at the dining table. The meal is served family style. Portions are ladled out into individual bowls, and often eaten with various dipping sauces and condiments. Healthy and nourishing, nabe is also a versatile way of cooking, as any combination of ingredients can be used. (Here’s a good nabe spot to try!)
Sukiyaki: Thin slices of beef, onion, tofu and shirataki or yam noodles are cooked in a dashi broth sweetened with sugar and mirin (rice vinegar).A preferred way of eating sukiyaki to balance out the bold flavors is to dip the cooked ingredients in a bowl with a beaten raw egg.
Chanko nabe: A staple food of sumo wrestlers, chanko nabe is packed with everything and anything but the kitchen sink! Ingredients like seafood, chicken, potatoes, tofu, and mushrooms are just a few savory favorites that go into this gut-busting dish.
Yudofu: A tofu hotpot with plenty of tofu, mushrooms, and greens cooked in a dashi stock, and commonly eaten with a citrus-based ponzu sauce.
Oden includes tofu, konnyaku jelly (from konjac yam), daikon (radish), potatoes, fukuro (fried tofu packets stuffed with mochi (glutinous rice cakes), mushrooms, or shirataki noodles), nerimono (balls and patties made from fish paste), squid, and kombu (kelp) that simmer for hours in a dashi and soy soup stock. The ingredients are eaten with a karashi (mustard) dip. The longer oden cooks, the better the flavor. A favorite variation is miso oden.
Slightly different from a nabe, shabu shabu (“swish swish”) consists of dipping raw meats and vegetables into a tableside pot of boiling stock to cook and eat on the spot. Ponzu and sesame sauces are the usual accompaniments. Variations of shabu shabu abound. Kani-shabu features succulent crab, while a traditional version in Kagoshima Prefecture uses slices of local fatty pork. Shabu shabu is quite fun to make and eat. This Shibuya restaurant, Shabu-zen, is a good place to try for yourself!
The Japanese radish is available year-round, but the winter crop offers the best flavors. Whether grated for sashimi or added to stews, daikon imparts an earthy sweetness to any dish. A winter favorite is furofuki daikon, thick slices of daikon simmered in a seasoned stock and served with a sweet, white miso sauce.
Fugu, better known as the deadly blowfish, is commonly caught during winter when the fish are at their fattest. Due to the toxins in fugu, only licensed chefs are permitted to prepare it. Fugu dishes are a delicacy. The fish can be served raw, as fugusashi, usually with ponzu, grated daikon, and chives. A popular cooked fugu dish is a hotpot called fugushiri, with Chinese cabbage and mushrooms. The fin of the fish, also prized, is steeped in hot sake (rice wine) to make a drink called hire-zake. Feeling brave? Tora-Fugu Tei is a tasty spot to try fugu prepared in various ways.
Yuzu, a citrus fruit prized for its fragrant, almost floral aroma, comes into season during winter. Thin strips of yuzu peel are added to tea, broths, pickles, and salads. Grated, the peel is used to garnish grilled fish and chicken. On Toji, the winter solstice, many people enjoy yuzu buro — the practice relaxing in tubs of steaming bath water with whole fresh yuzu floating on the surface.
Mikan (Japanese tangerine) are also a staple for snacking and getting your vitamin C throughout the coldest months. Many winter nights are spent under a kotatsu (a low heated table with a blanket) watching TV, or reading while peeling and eating these seedless, sweet fruits. Several varieties grow in the southern regions of Japan. One of the most famous mikan-producing areas is Ehime on the island of Shikoku. Ehime even has a cute mikan mascot!
A traditional wintertime street food is yaki imo or roasted sweet potato. Sold by vendors from trucks equipped with wood-burning ovens, long roasting times give yaki imo a sweet, caramelized taste. You may also see young girls and guys snacking on another sweet treat popular during the winter — candied sweet potato fries with a sprinkling of sesame. Called daigaku imo (university potato), this cheap and filling street snack originated around college campuses in the Kanto region during the 19th century.Try your hand at making your own daigaku imo at home with this easy recipe.
These are just a few of the famous winter foods common in Japan. Each region has its own specialties to add to this list. For foodies visiting during this season, terrific taste experiences await you!
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