The Japanese Table
Dried Mushrooms, Vegetables, and Beansby Kazuyoshi Shitomi and Isao Kumakura
Food ingredients preserved by drying – kanbutsu. The second installment in this series focuses on dried land products.
Food ingredients preserved by drying – kanbutsu – have been part of Japanese food culture for thousands of years. Eminently "natural" foods, they have long been prized for the particular flavors they acquire in the process of drying. Today, they are drawing renewed attention as healthy foods that keep almost indefinitely.
Since ancient times, the type of mushroom thought most delicious when dried has been the shiitake mushroom. Shiitake, grown by implanting spores in broadleaf tree logs kept in shady places, are harvested every spring and autumn from about the third to seventh years after implantation. Dried shiitake are produced mainly in western Japan, but also in the Kanto and Tohoku regions. Annual production of dried shiitake is about 5,000 tons, 80 percent of which is produced in March-April and the rest in October-November. Today, dried shiitake are imported in large volume from China and elsewhere.
There are two main types of dried shiitake: donko and koshin. The flesh of the donko type is thick, and the cap tends to curl under; it has a firm, meaty texture. The flesh of the koshin type is softer and thinner, with a medium flaring of the cap. This type is easy to rehydrate and cook, so it is most often used in home cooking.
A koshin dried shiitake can be returned to its soft original texture after soaking it in water for under an hour. Its stem removed, rehydrated shiitake are often simmered with other vegetables in stock flavored with sake, sugar and soy sauce. Shiitake no fukumeni and chikuzenni are popular dishes of this type. Shiitake are also often used as an ingredient of aemono combination dishes. The water in which shiitake are rehydrated becomes itself a flavorful stock which can be used in simmered dishes (nimono) or soups. Not only in terms of taste, but because of its nutritive qualities, dried shiitake have recently been drawing increased attention. Rich in vitamin D, they are now believed to help prevent various diseases common among adults as they age.
The daikon, or giant white radish, is said to have originated in Europe. It spread to Asia, and has been most widely cultivated in Japan. The most popular of dried radish products is kiriboshi-daikon, or sun-dried strip daikon. On fine, cold days in December and January, peeled radishes sliced into narrow strips using a special cutting tool are spread on wooden racks and exposed to the sun and wind for one or two days and nights. Of the total annual domestic consumption of 3,000-4,000 tons, about half is produced in Japan, chiefly in Miyazaki Prefecture of Kyushu Islands; the other half is imported from China.
Kiriboshi-daikon, first quickly rinsed and then soaked in water for 10-15 minutes, becomes soft and puffy. Simmered with soy sauce, mirin, and other seasonings along with other ingredients kiriboshi-daikon no nimono is a frequent feature of home cooking. Kiriboshi-daikon is rich in protein, glucose, vegetable fiber, calcium, phosphorus, iron, and other nutrients.
Among other popular dried vegetables are kanpyo (dried strips of gourd) and imogara (dried taro leafstalk). Dried edible wild plants include hoshi-zenmai (dried flowering fern )and hoshi-warabi (dried bracken). Since ancient times, dried vegetables have been customary offerings at Shinto and Buddhist altars and on special occasions.
Dried beans that are a common part of the Japanese diet include soybeans, black soybeans (kuro-mame), adzuki, kintoki beans, kidney beans, and broad beans (sora-mame).
Kinako, a flour made from parched dried soybeans, also falls in the category of dried food products. Rich in protein and lipids, it has been eaten as a healthy and convenient food since long ago. In most households, it is eaten with mochi (glutinous rice cakes), or used to dust ohagi glutinous rice balls. It is also an important ingredient of traditional sweets (wagashi). Kyoto's distinctive local confection, suhama, made by kneading kinako with thick starch syrup (mizuame), is favored for its light sweetness. Recently, the nutritious qualities of kinako have received renewed recognition, and a daily glass of milk mixed with kinako is recommended as a way to maintain good health.
Kazuyoshi Shitomi was born in Tokyo in 1925. He graduated from Waseda Jitsugyo Academy in 1943 and began working at Mantou, his family-run, Asakusa-based wholesale store specializing in kanbutsu dried foods. In 1965 he succeeded as head of the family. For about six years he contributed a series of articles to a cooking magazine based on visits to places throughout the country where kanbutsu products are made and has written and edited numerous other articles on dried foods. He is the author of Kanbutsu Nyumon [Introduction to Dried Foods].
Isao Kumakura was born in Tokyo in 1943. He taught at Tsukuba University from 1978 to 1992. Since then he has held the position of Professor of Japanese Culture at the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka. Among his major publications are Tea in Japan and The History of Japanese Food.