Koji – A Magic Ingredient

 

The term “Koji” can refer to the “Koji-kin” fungus which is sprinkled onto rice and propagated or the resulting “Koji-mai” the “Koji rice” which is the resulting saccharified rice from this propagation as the fungus breaks down the starches in the rice into the smaller sugars.  Its technical name is “Aspergillus Oryzae”.

Nowadays, in the West, the term “Koji” tends to refer to the Koji rice and it is fast becoming the latest new and exciting ingredient in top restaurants.

So, what is Koji rice and why is it such an interesting ingredient?

Traditionally, Koji rice is the first stage in the fermentation process to make four of the main, traditional Japanese condiments used in cooking; miso, soya sauce, sake and vinegar.  It is added to other ingredients for a second stage of fermentation; soya beans and salt to make miso; roasted wheat, soya beans, salt and water to make soya sauce; steamed rice, water and yeast to make sake.

Koji is a micro-organism that creates enzymes which transform the flavour and texture of food creating fermentation.  It creates the enzymes responsible for umami, the fifth taste which has been described as savouriness and deliciousness.

In Japan, Koji rice is used to make home-made miso, Amazake (a sweet rice drink), Shio-koji pickles and more recently to make roasted Koji tea which has lovely caramel aromatics.  In non-Japanese cuisine, Koji rice has been used to cure meat increasing the umami content, in ice cream, bread, a parmesan style ricotta and to make butternut squash miso.  Furthermore, meat and fish are marinated with Shio-koji (a salted Koji rice paste) and Amazake.

In Japan, Koji is revered due to its ability to create umami and the traditional condiments without which Japanese cuisine would not take the form it currently has.  12 October has been named as National Koji Day and there is even a very popular Koji manga character called “Moyashimon”.

During my research into koji I came across this podcast on Koji from the US which may be of interest.

 

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Aonori – a fantastically fragrant seaweed

Aonori is a fragrant seaweed which usually comes in a small shaker or packet.  It is one ingredient which has yet to be used to its full potential in the UK.  Main uses in Japanese cuisine are as a final seasoning to sprinkle over a dish in the same way as you can use herbs.  It adds a sweet, almost herbal, aroma and flavour to the dish.

It is one of the seasonings used on top of okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes) on top of the mayonnaise and okonomiyaki sauce instead of, or in addition to, bonito flakes.  It can also be sprinkled over takoyaki and yakisoba and I enjoy it sprinkled over nimono too.

While it has a lovely aroma straight from the packet or shaker, I will always remember the lovely aroma eminating from my suitcase when I bought a fresh bundle of it in Japan.

Spring ingredients – baby daikon

Upon visiting a local Asian supermarket recently, I came across some baby daikon.  Daikon, described as a white Japanese radish, is also known as a Mooli which is more readily available now at Asian grocers.  I have only recently discovered that there are different varieties of daikon; some are sweet, and some have more of a hot, peppery flavour.  Mooli, while not the hottest daikon, are not as sweet as some of the Japanese ones available.  I was therefore really pleased to discover the  baby daikon in the hope that they would be sweeter.  While they had a little pepperiness to them, they did not disappoint and were quite tender and sweeter and made a nice addition to the nimono I made.  Nimono are simmered dishes which are cooked in a dashi stock and seasoned with soya sauce, mirin and sometimes sake.

Recommendations for choosing daikon are selecting ones preferably with healthy leaves attached (you can also cook and eat the leaves), or, failing that, healthy stalks where the leaves were.  This way you ensure that you get a fresher daikon which is still succulent.

Tsukemono – Japanese pickles

Japanese pickles are completely different to British pickles as they are not very often pickled in vinegar.  Pickling is a form of preserving food and Japanese pickles can be made with a much wider range of ingredients; salt, soya sauce, miso, nuka (rice bran), sake kasu (the solid remains from the sake making process, also known as “sake cake”) and vinegar.  Tsukemono literally means that the ingredients are placed in the pickling ingredient (a form of marinating).

There is often the misunderstanding that some Japanese food are pickles when they are produced in a completely different manner.  For instance, konbu tsukudani is a dish where konbu is cooked in soya sauce and mirin and boiled down for a long time.

When only Japanese ingredients will do

Since the tragic events in Japan in March, there have been some difficulties with the export of Japanese foodstuffs to the EU.  This is mainly due to some very strict legislation which has been put in place to ensure that all food which leaves Japan is safe and unaffected by the radiation that leaked at the Fukushima nuclear reactor.

While current stocks in the UK seem to have lasted well so far, and a number of products have been sourced elsewhere, there are some specialized products which are in short supply and are likely to go out of stock very soon.  This has highlighted the fact that sometimes there is just no substitution for Japanese products.  Here are some of the things which are difficult to replace:

Aojiso dressing – a Japanese vinaigrette which captures the essence of the green shiso leaf; both the aroma and the flavour. 

Kizami wasabi – a Japanese relish made from grated wasabi (the real wasabi; no horseradish supplemented here) and fresh wasabi leaves which have been pickled in soya sauce.  This makes a lovely, subtler alternative to wasabi as an accompaniment to sashimi and sushi but also complements beef and I enjoy it on tofu too.

YuzuYuzu juice – with a flavour somewhere between lime, lemon and orange, this is a citrus fruit in its own right which cannot be satisfactorily replaced.  While lime juice can be used as a substitute for it in recipes, the dish is just not quite as exciting as when yuzu juice is used.

 Yuzu kosho – literally translated this means “yuzu pepper” but this does not do this product justice as it is a green chilli paste with the addition of yuzu so you have a combination of spicy green chilli and the lovely citrus notes of yuzu.

Harpers Wine & Spirits article on sake

Anne Krebiehl wrote an article about the potential for future sake sales in the UK this week in Harpers Wine & Spirits.  She explained how there are a number of people working hard in the industry to guide customers in the selection of sake.  Alongside Ayako Watanabe of Saki Bar and Food Emporium, I was interviewed as a case study for the article.

Harpers 16 July 2010 – Sake

Harpers 16 July 2010 – Sake 2

Harpers 16 July 2010 – Sake 3

A modern evolution of sushi in Golders Green

The epitome of feasting with your eyesI had the very good fortune of being invited along to a tasting before the opening of Sushi Cafelicious in Golders Green this evening.  I couldn’t think of a better way to finish the week!  There was a wide range of the most exquisite looking sushi I have ever seen.

The philosophy of this cafe and takeaway is healthy sushi with a modern twist.  There is a great selection of vegetarian sushi along with a range of the usual sushi toppings including salmon, prawn and squid.  However, they are all temari sushi which is a perfect, mouthful of sushi formed into a ball.  The sushi rice was cooked to perfection and melts in the mouth. 

There are several other delicous varieties of sushi, an inside out futomaki roll, a cup of brown rice with a selection of toppings including Japanese vegetables, tofu, unagi and pork.  You then get a choice of mouthwateringly Sushi Cafelicious homemade dressings; sesame, basil or teriyaki sauce.

And finally, there was a sushi cake with a tamagoyaki omelette outside and rice mixed with five grains.  If all goes according to plan, you will be able to purchase a slice of healthy and nutritious cake for lunch from 30 July.

Open from 11am – 5pm, Tuesday to Sunday, Sushi Cafelicious is found at 2 North End Road, Golders Green, NW11 7PH right on the junction opposite Golders Green station – it will certainly be worth a visit but be careful, you may just get hooked!