Pork Belly Onigiri

Boyed up by not having messed up dinner over the long weekend, I decided to try a recipe that has been on my to-do list ever since I saw it on Tasty Japan: Pork Belly Onigiri (English translation in the video comments). The simplest onigiri is just a palm-sized ball of sticky rice, shaped by hand or pressed in a mould, and served cold. Often, they have a filling (such as canned salmon or barbecue eel), and they are served with a sheet of nori (the same seaweed that wraps some kinds of sushi), which makes them easier to grasp. They’re one of the most ubiquitous snacks you can find in Japan. You can buy them at nice restaurants, but they’re also in the cooler of every corner store and even in vending machines.

These pork belly onigiri definitely take it up a notch when it comes to complexity. First of all, there’s a whole soft-boiled egg in the middle, which means that the rice balls are going to be a lot bigger than the standard kind. Also, they’re wrapped in pork belly (the same cut of meat as bacon, but not cured), fried, and then a sauce is added.

My pork belly onigiri were very tasty, even though I couldn’t find any shiso leaves at a store in my area, and hence had to omit that ingredient. However, all but one of my onigiri fell apart in the final stages of cooking. I think it was because the pork belly I had at home had been thick-sliced at the butcher shop. Really, what you want is something as thinly-sliced as cheap bacon, not the thick cuts that are better in tonkotsu ramen. It’s totally possible that I just might not have squeezed the balls firmly enough before frying them.

In addition, despite cooking the soft-boiled eggs for exactly the amount of time recommended, they ended up being hard-boiled instead of soft. Should I try this recipe again, I think I will deliberately undercook the eggs a bit so that when they cook a bit during the frying stage, they’ll end up perfect in the middle.

Each one of these onigiri was a meal in and of itself; my kids couldn’t finish theirs, and my husband and I were very full after eating ours. I think they might make a nice appetizer if they were made using quail eggs instead of chicken. Quail eggs being a pain in the butt to peel, let alone getting the timing right for soft-boiled, I don’t think I’ll be trying that myself any time soon. Overall, this was a fun meal to make and it was very tasty, even if my end result was far from perfect. I would definitely recommend giving it a go.

Chicken Katsudon

Thirteen years ago, I went to Japan for a month-long visit. For most of that time, I was with my friend Michelle, who is a childhood friend from Canada who was teaching there. Together we traveled by train from Saga in the southwest along the coast to Tokyo over the course of three weeks, stopping many times along the way. One of our stops was to visit a young woman named Ayako Koyama and her family. Ayako had stayed with me back in high school as part of an exchange program; she’d also come to visit me as an adult about a year before. On this trip, I had the opportunity to meet her family and to get to know the home and the region where she had grown up.


Ayako, Mrs. Koyama, Mr. Koyama, Ayako’s grandfather, Ayako’s grandmother, and Michelle. Ayako’s brother must have been at work that night.

One evening, Ayako’s mother brought Michelle and I into her kitchen to teach us how to make katsu for dinner. I honestly can’t remember if it was chicken (torikatsu) or pork (tonkatsu) that we breaded and deep-fried, but I do remember the process! I was rummaging through my old photos yesterday and realized that I actually had a photo of us all eating the dinner we’d made (above). It was a lot of fun, although it’s always awkward to cook in someone else’s kitchen — even when there isn’t a language barrier! It remains one of my fondest memories of visiting with Ayako and her family. My one regret is that I wasn’t really into cooking at the time, so I didn’t take the opportunity to learn more from a Japanese home cook firsthand. Such a valuable resource wasted! I guess I’ll just have to go back to Japan someday and learn more.

These memories resurfaced recently when I saw a show on the Food Network that had a segment on some restaurant that makes a chicken katsu burger. I really had developed a liking for it in Japan (you can see one of the commercial meals that I had that included it in my Noodle Soup entry). It’s a real comfort food. Suddenly, I was craving chicken katsudon again. Although I’d made the meat part before and could pretty much remember how to do it without help, I had to Google for how to make the eggs correctly, since they’re not simply scrambled eggs. I used the Chicken Katsudon recipe from Just One Cookbook, and in an attempt to make it a little bit healthier I made Baked Katsudon instead of fried. I was pretty happy with how it turned out, although I know where I made some mistakes. I was running out of time at the end (I had to get the kids fed and out the door to Guiding), so I skipped cooking the chicken in the egg mixture and instead just put it on top, which made it a little bit dry. I think I cooked the egg a bit too long; when I had it in Japan it was just a little bit runny, more like a sauce than a scrambled egg. I also didn’t have any parsley, which would really have made it pop a bit more visually. Also, although I did manage to make up some miso soup, I ran out of time to make a salad, and a meal like this really needs some kind of veggie, even if it’s just a quick pickle. But given that it’s been thirteen years since I’ve attempted this dish, I don’t think it turned out too badly. It did get positive reviews from the family just how it was, so I am encouraged enough to try it again.

Pork Belly Ramen

Earlier this week I accidentally bought two packages of pork riblets. I was distracted by the fact that each package was less than $2.00 and didn’t read the label very well; I thought that what was inside the package was solid meat instead of mostly bone. When I went to cook it I was highly disappointed! So I threw the bones into a crock pot and simmered them for two days in order to get a passable broth.

On that same shopping trip I bought some pork belly slices for about 75% off, with which I was much less disappointed. I haven’t had much luck cooking pork belly in the past (one time I over-salted, another I cooked them for much too long and they were tough). I went to the Internet and found that one way to cook them for soup is to simmer them. I used:

– 1 tsp ginger
– 3 Tbsp sugar
– 4 Tbsp soy sauce
– 4 Tbsp sake
– 2 green onions, roughly chopped
– 1 clove garlic, roughly chopped
– 1 1/2 cups water

When the meat was done, I set it aside and added the remaining simmering liquid (with the large particulate strained out), plus 1 tsp instant dashi granules and a drizzle of mirin, to a pot of the pork bone broth I’d made. The broth turned out nice and flavourful, but the pork belly still needs a bit of work; perhaps if I marinaded the pork belly in the liquid first, simmered it, then grilled it briefly to get some browning? I definitely need some more practice before I get it 100% right.

In my ongoing quest for a better noodle, I served the pork and broth over a base of Kumai Japanese Style Handmade Ramen noodles by Chewy International Foods Ltd.. They’re still nothing close to fresh handmade noodles, but they have been the best pre-packaged noodles I’ve tried so far. You only have to cook them for 30 seconds in boiling water, which I think really helped them stay nice and chewy.

I served the ramen with shredded Napa cabbage, soft-boiled eggs, and green onions, in addition to the pork belly and broth I’d made. It wasn’t perfect, but it was quite tasty, and I enjoyed it. Too bad Thing 1 is down with a cold again and couldn’t really enjoy it, since it’s generally the kind of dish she prefers. At least the warm soup felt good on her sore throat.

New Year’s Noodles

Over the weekend I tried my hand at Toshikoshi Soba, which according to the Internet means “year-crossing noodle“, or “end the old year and enter the new year soba noodles“. Basically, it’s a dish that is traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve while waiting to ring in the new year. I didn’t actually find out about this dish until after the holiday, which turned out all right in the end because I wasn’t well enough to cook anything that night. At any rate, it’s not something that can only be eaten that day of the year. The recipe that I made was Tempura Toshikoshi Soba from Tasty Japan (also available on YouTube). If you’re like me and don’t read enough Japanese to get through a recipe, you can find the English translation in the second comment on their Facebook video. Or you can run it through Google Translate, which yields very undependable results, like directing you to “make tempura clothes”.

I added a bit more shrimp and soft-boiled eggs to each bowl that the recipe calls for, just because my family is absolutely smitten with tempura. I also used narutomaki (fish cake with the swirl in the middle) instead of kamaboko (the fish cake with the pink edge used in the Tasty Japan video), not only because I like the look of it, but also because it was literally the only kind of fish cake that was left at T&T. The fridge that usually holds it was completely empty except for two stray packages of narutomaki, so I went with that.

I was really proud of myself when this dish turned out so well, mostly because it was the first time that I’d made tempura. Actually, it was the first time I’ve ever deep-fried anything! Apparently I still have to master the art of cutting tempura-coated soft-boiled eggs in half without destroying them, but they still tasted just fine. It really wasn’t as difficult to prepare toshikoshi soba as I’d feared, even though I think I dirtied every large pot in my kitchen by the end of cooking. My whole family devoured their soup. I loved the flavour of it all together. I am definitely making this again soon — and I won’t be waiting for next New Year’s Eve. Although I may serve it then too.

Fast Food Ramen

I fell in love with ramen (restaurant-style, not the cheap instant packages) when I first went to Japan in 1998, and I fell back in love when I returned in 2005. There is such a variety of ways that it can be prepared, and such a plethora of potential toppings, that I could eat it every day and not get bored. When Ginza Restaurant opened in Ottawa’s Chinatown and focused on selling the best ramen I’ve had outside of Japan, I could not have been more ecstatic. (Seriously, try their hakata tonkotsu ramen, it is to die for.) For the longest time it was the only place in town where I could get this wonderful noodle dish. Recently, though, I’ve noticed that the popularity of ramen is slowly growing, and it’s starting to be available all over town, much as Vietnamese pho came to be about ten years ago. If this means that we’ll end up with over fifty restaurants that serve ramen in Ottawa, I couldn’t be more pleased!

Here are a few of the ones that I have tried so far, all of which fall under fast food/takeout:

Umi Teriyaki & Sushi
Rideau Centre Food Court, 50 Rideau Street

This was the first non-Ginza ramen that I tried in town, and I was quite ready to be disappointed. The austere food court in the Rideau Centre mall isn’t exactly the place you go for haute cuisine — it’s where you go to grab a quick, mediocre bite. I mean, this is definitely fast food, but it’s cheap ($8.49 for the chicken teriyaki ramen that I had), flavourful, and satisfying. The noodles could use to be a bit chewier (a hallmark of good ramen is the chewy alkaline noodles, which don’t dissolve in the broth), but overall this was worth the money. Ask for it spicy (medium or hot) to clear your sinuses on a cold winter’s day.

Saigon Pho
232 Bank Street and 3722 Innes Road, Unit 2

At $13.49 for takeout and $12.49 for dine-in, this was the most expensive ramen so far. Heck, the most expensive ramen at Ginza is only $11.95! So for that price, I expected more. The broth is nice and the noodles are chewy, but they are really skimpy on the toppings. I did like that there were a variety of ways that you could customize your order. I had the tonkotsu black: tonkotsu broth with black garlic oil, pork belly, soft boiled egg, black fungus, and green onion. I just don’t think that you’re getting value for money on this one, though.

Nom Nom Kitchen
2160 Montreal Road, Unit 4

Nom Nom Kitchen is a little Asian fusion takeout place with a few dine-in tables located in a strip mall directly across from a McDonald’s. It’s not very glamorous, but the food is good, and it’s also very reasonably priced. Their lunch specials are usually around $7.00 and are generously portioned. Ramen isn’t one of their specials, sadly, and it isn’t on their online menu. It’s about $10.49 for a bowl of Japanese-style tonkotsu with pork, veggies, and soft-boiled eggs. They also offer a dish that is, I believe, a fusion of Japanese and Korean styles, and is a bit more spicy. Since this restaurant is aimed at a take-out clientele, the presentation is only mediocre, but the flavour is lovely, the broth is tasty, and the noodles are nice and chewy. I only wish that the eggs were more soft-boiled than hard. Even so, I have been back many times now and everyone I’ve taken with me has liked their food. If you value flavour over appearances, I would rank this ramen #1 of the four I’m reviewing today.

Bento Sushi
St. Laurent Mall Food Court, 1200 St. Laurent Boulevard

There are a lot of Bento Sushi locations, most of which you’ll find tucked into grocery stores peddling mediocre takeout sushi. But they do have a few standalone locations, one of which is in the food court of the St. Laurent Mall. Since this is a big chain that isn’t exactly known for its high-quality food, I went in not expecting much. However, as with Umi Teriyaki & Sushi, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not the best ramen I have ever had, but the broth was nice and the toppings were flavourful. The noodles weren’t as chewy as I like, but they weren’t horrible either. I had their chasu ramen with tonkotsu (from their menu: “thin noodles in a tonkotsu pork broth with carrots, shiitake mushrooms, green onions, and fish cake”), which was $9.99. Overall, their ramen was miles better than their sushi, which may be damning them with faint praise. But I’ll take their ramen over just about anything else in the food court — except maybe Jimmy the Greek‘s pork souvlaki and salad.

If anyone else has suggestions for ramen in Ottawa that I should try, drop me a comment with the name and location. I’d be more than happy to check them out! I have absolutely no qualms about eventually having eaten at every ramen-serving restaurant in this city.

Simmered Boiled Meat Sauce Pasta

I follow Tasty Japan on Facebook, and this video popped up yesterday:

I thought it looked like a good weeknight meal, so long as I started it as soon as the kids got home (it requires simmering on low heat for two hours). I ran it through Google Translate and used the recipe for, as it called it, “simmered boiled meat pasta”. I had to laugh at how bad bad Internet translations can be — among other things, this one instructed me to “add red wine to strengthen the fire, fry for 2-3 minutes and fly alcohol”. Granted, the whole reason I used the program is because my paltry Japanese skills aren’t up to translating a recipe, so who am I to judge? I managed to make a really delicious dinner anyway.

If you don’t have the patience Google Translate, check out the original recipe for Ragu Bolognese over on the English version of Tasty, which was posted back in May. Of course I found that version only after I’d made my dinner, but somehow I didn’t manage to mess it up. It has been pointed out online that this recipe is almost identical to Gennaro Contaldo’s Classic Italian Ragu Bolognese, and after watching both videos I have to agree. Although now that I’ve Googled “how to make a bolognese ragu”, all of the recipes are very similar, which stands to reason. I think it’s just because it’s a very classic, well-known dish.

As usual, I had to make a few changes/adjustments to make it work with what I had on hand. My carrot ended up being about 225g, so I used that much celery as well, since some of my homegrown celery stalks were a bit spindly. I also used equal weights of bacon instead of pancetta, since I had bacon on hand and they are very similar anyway. I also used fettuccine instead of tagliatelle, since the grocery store I was shopping at didn’t have tagliatelle. All that being said, I do think that I will be making this recipe again in the future!

Shoyu Ramen

As I have said before, I am a huge fan of ramen. Not the instant stuff (although in a pinch, that stuff’s not half bad), but the fresh kind with real toppings. I fell in love with it in Japan, and I get out to Ginza Ramen whenever I can. But ever since my husband’s birthday dinner, now that I’ve learned how to make the good stuff at home, I probably eat it way more than I should. Not that my family minds, they’re just as big into it as I am.

I started off by using up the Shoyu base (page 8 of Simply Ramen by Amy Kimoto-Kahn (2016)). The recipe is also available for free on the author’s website at easypeasyjapanesey.com. I have since made a couple of batches of this broth and I still love how easy it is to make and how packed with flavour the broth turns out. If you’re like me and you like making things that you can just throw in the slow cooker for eleven hours, then you’ll love this recipe. I also like that this recipe makes up enough broth for eight or so servings, so I can freeze the excess for an easy meal later on.

As with many of my noodle soups, the toppings were less a pre-planned dish and more whatever we had in the fridge/freezer at the time. I included soft-boiled eggs, garlic shrimp, masago (capelin roe), and mussels cooked in white wine and garlic butter. The mussels were the kind that come in a vacuum-pack with the sauce and are meant to be cooked in the microwave or by dumping the whole pack in a pot of boiling water. I’m fully aware that this isn’t terribly classy, but it was delicious.

My second shoyu ramen was topped with soft-boiled eggs and garlic shrimp; these two ingredients are pretty common in the food I prepare because there are almost always eggs in the fridge and shrimp in the freezer. This time I also included baby bok choy and squares of nori (dried seaweed sheets).

I topped my third ramen with soft-boiled eggs, carrots, bok choy, and teriyaki chicken breast. I had never thought to combine teriyaki and ramen until I went to Umi Sushi Express in the food court of Rideau Center a while back, and I was pleasantly surprised when I ordered this dish. I mean, Umi Sushi is still fast food, and it’s nothing compared to the fantastic variety of ramen available in Japan, but it’s probably the best thing in the food court. Now if I can only find out what kind of hot sauce they used.