Have you ever given in to the temptation to turn up an unknown road just to see what was there? It’s a small bit of adventure anyone with a little time can have. Sometimes it leads to nothing interesting except the satisfaction of knowing what was up that particular road. Other times it leads to an experience that makes you glad you did go out of your way. That is what happened one summer’s day in Niigata. I decided to stop somewhere on the way home and picnic.
The countryside can be very pretty around there. Rice fields and small farms and always the mountains in the distance. The land begins to roll and go up after a while into the mountain’s foothills. It was near the top of one of those foothills that I finally stopped.
To the right there was a deserted red-earth scar where a hill had been dug away by heavy machinery. On the left there were trees, all kinds of wild growth and a winding narrow path. Needless to say, I left the car parked and took my lunch up the winding path.
The thing that was so different about that place was the great number of birds. All sorts of chirping, the cuckoo calling and best of all, the clear, sharp song of the uguisu Japanese nightingale. Several times I had to stop to listen and finally when the call was the very loudest, I left the path and walked through the overgrown grass to a group of trees from where the song seemed to be coming.
What a delightful place that turned out to be! The trees shaded the sun and the song of the uguisu continued on and on. There was also a sweeping view of the hills and fields.
Since that time I have gone back many times and call it “Uguisu Hill”, for even in the autumn the uguisu’s song is heard there. Another nice thing about that hill is there are many wild plants, and recently I came home with a few young “sansho” leaves which are plentiful there. The young sansho leaves are often put into clear Japanese soups.
Anyone who learns the rules behind making clear Japanese soup – suimono – will be able to experiment and come up with combinations that will suit both Western and Japanese meals. This soup is usually served in individual, covered bowls, often lacquer. When the lid is put on, a vacuum is created, which helps keep the soup hot. Before removing the lid, the bowl should be squeezed lightly to release the lid.
There are three points to Japanese clear soup: the base which is stock and some protein; second, tsuma which translates into something like ‘accessory’ and this is usually a vegetable or seaweed; the third point is called suikuchi and this is harder to translate but is a kind of spice. The translation is ‘sip-mouth’ and with a little imagination you can get the idea. This is usually something that gives the soup a flavor of the season.
When I first came to Japan and clear soup was served to me, I was delighted at the beautiful covered bowl. The delight was gone, however, when I removed the cover to see a large fish eye staring up at me. The cover was quickly replaced and the soup left untouched. From that day on I was afraid to take the top off a soup bowl. After a while I realized that having a fish eye in the soup was rather unusual and I was missing lots of good soup.
For the base in clear soup use basic dashi for the stock and a small piece of fish, shellfish, kamaboko fish cake or tofu as the protein. If you use chicken, or eggs for the protein it may taste better in chicken stock instead of the dashi which is made with katsuobushi dried bonito fillet shavings.
For the tsuma or accessory, any kind of vegetable is fine. Spinach, snow peas, long onion sliced thin, bamboo sprout, carrots, mushroom, “kiku” (chrysanthemum), seaweed, etc. For the suikuchi use a little bit of something to give it a subtle taste on your lips as you drink the soup and the taste should remind one of a particular season.
For spring one can use either fukinoto or salted cherry flowers. For late spring into summer kinome, the young sansho leaves. For late summer into fall there is thinly sliced shoga ginger or the tiny shiso seeds. A favorite bit of taste for winter is yuzu, something like a small sour orange, and just a little of the peel is put into the soup. There are lots of other things to use and a little imagination and thought will give you soup for all seasons.
Dashi stock, small shrimp, fukinoto sliced thin
Vegetable dashi, asparagus or warabi, kinome
Chicken stock, tofu, udo, mint leaves cut into thin slices Chicken stock, chicken meat, cucumber, kinome, snow peas Chicken stock, cut up hard boiled egg, lemon peel
Chicken stock, chicken meat, spinach, ginger
Dashi stock, white fish, Chinese cabbage cut very thin, yuzu
Clam stock, small shelled clam meat, spinach, lemon peel
JAPANESE EGG-DROP SOUP
2 pints (about 1l) dashi (you can use chicken stock too)
1 tsp. sake
2 tsp. soy sauce, make sure it’s Japanese, not the Chinese variety
1 piece thinly sliced ginger
Bring dashi or stock to a boil. Blend salt, sake and shoyu, add to dashi and simmer for a few minutes. Beat eggs into a froth and, using a perforated spoon, float them on to the surface of the soup which should be kept simmering on a very low heat. Do not pour in the egg mixture, as it would then sink below the surface. Pour soup into individual bowls, add a slice of ginger to each and float a small piece of parsley if you like.