A couple of weeks ago, we took a trip all the way to our backyards to celebrate Canada Day. As part of the Tabletop Traveling series, we’re traveling by table instead of plane for culinary adventures around the world—all in the comfort of your home.
Japan is a paradise for foodies. Homemade soba noodles, slurpable bowls of ramen, pan-fried okonomiyaki (cabbage pancakes), mochi rice cakes, matcha tea and, of course, sushi rolls are just a taste of what Japan has to offer.
Just like Jews, the Japanese celebrate through food. Many of Japan’s most important holidays are marked with traditional foods. For instance, soba noodles are eaten at the end of the year since they break the easiest, thus breaking off all bad luck before the new year comes.
While we can’t wander through the shops of Tsukiji Fish Market for fresh seafood or pop into the nearest konbini (convenience store) to grab a snack, there are several simple Japanese recipes you can make at home to transport you and your family or quarantine pod across the Pacific ocean without the 12-hour jet lag.
Menu: Unlike American meals, Japanese dinners usually consist of smaller portions of several dishes, rather than one large “main dish.” For a dinner party, this is exciting because you can present your guests a table full of food for them to sample. This also means if someone has allergies, chances are they’ll find something they can enjoy.
Start the meal off with some favorite snacks, like onigiri. These triangle-shaped rice balls can be kept plain or filled with ingredients like scallions, tuna or sweet red bean paste. Be sure to label your onigiri so you don’t accidentally bite into tuna when you wanted something sweet!
When cooking the rice for the onigiri, make extra so you can create maki sushi rolls. Lay out a tray of fillings—smoked salmon, avocado, cucumber, carrots, tofu—and let your guests build their own rolls. This guide is helpful in explaining how to roll and cut the sushi.
Now that we’ve got rice checked off our list, it’s time to talk about the other menu items. If you’re able to find udon noodles in your grocery store, cool off with Udon Noodles and Avocado in Tahini Sauce (linguini also works). The nutty tahini sauce gets creamy as it coats the pasta, and the garnishes of avocado, sesame seeds and green onions offer a variety of textures. This can also be made in advance and served at room temperature—just be sure to add the toppings right before serving.
Another dish that can be made days before is Japanese Simmered Kabocha Squash. Take any winter squash and simmer it in dashi stock (or use dried mushrooms to make it vegan) to let the sweet squash pick up the subtle umami flavors of the stock—a great way to introduce people to Japanese flavors like dashi and mirin. If you’d like to have a protein dish on your menu, consider frying up some Fish Fillets with Shitake and Bamboo Shoots. With everything else ready in advance, this dish can be made right before your guests arrive so it’s still warm.
For dessert, the Japanese keep things simple with fresh fruit and tea. To add some extra sweetness, turn your tea into a treat and make Matcha Mochi Cake (say that five times fast!). This truly unique cake is crispy and chewy on the outside with a gooey, bouncy texture on the inside. Made from glutinous sweet rice flour, it’s naturally gluten-free, too (don’t be confused by the word “glutinous”)!
Décor: Setting the scene starts with setting your table. Presentation is just as important as taste for a proper Japanese dinner, so pull out your favorite dishes, gather your chopsticks (plus little dishes for soy sauce) and have everything laid out before your guests arrive. Use decorative fabrics or scarves as table runners. Place an ikebana, or flower arrangement, at the center of the table for a final touch. While it may be difficult to find one for purchase, something with orchids or bamboo will be just as beautiful.
If you have a table that is low to the floor like a coffee table, have your guests sit on the floor for a zashiki-style meal. This traditional Japanese seating arrangement is often found in restaurants, where guests sit on tatami mats instead of chairs. To make it more comfortable if you don’t have carpeting, offer thin pillows to sit on.
In Japanese culture, it’s customary to remove shoes when entering homes to keep the floors clean. Greet your guests with a brand-new pair of slippers for them to wear (and some hand sanitizer), leaving their shoes and germs at the front door.
“Thank you” in Japanese is tricky, but oishii (oy-she, or delicious) is a word everyone can use during this dinner. With sushi, matcha and more, it will be a meal just as memorable as any vacation.