Ingredients in Japan: Butter and Fats

This post is part of a series about the differences in ingredients between Japan and the U.S. When I first arrived in Japan, I had a lot of trouble at times because I wasn’t used to these differences, so hopefully this information is helpful! For the full list of posts in this series, see this page.

When I first came to Japan, I was horrified at the price of butter. Butter is sold in blocks of 200g (almost 1/2 lb), 100g (about 1/4 lb), and also in small packs of individually wrapped “pats” of butter. The best value is always the larger blocks, but in the past 2.5 years I’ve seen the price for 200g range from about 375 to 500 yen. In U.S. dollars this works out to $8.50 to $11 a pound. Therefore, I have not done a lot of cooking with butter in Japan! I usually use margarine (more on this below), or mix butter and margarine.

A bit more on butter: it is sold in salted or unsalted types. Unsalted is always more expensive for some reason, and is not always available. Some “fancy” butters are also available. For example, I have recently been seeing something that I think is “cultured butter”, which has a more tangy yogurt-like taste. In Japan, Hokkaidou (the northernmost island) is famous for high-quality dairy, so most butter sold in my area seems to be produced there. Another important note on butter is that Japan regularly experiences “butter shortages”, and supermarkets often limit the amount of butter that each customer can buy, or run out of butter and have no supply for a day or two.

A good option for spreading on toast, etc., is “butter spread“, which is a soft product made from soy, corn, etc., with “butter flavor”. This is cheaper than dairy butter. There are many, many varieties of butter spread sold everywhere. There are even a few flavored ones, with garlic or something like that.

Cake margarine (unsalted)

Cake margarine (unsalted)

Margarine is also available in stick form. I discovered something called ケーキ用マーガリン (keeki-you maagarin) or “margarine for cakes”. This can be used in baking, and is what I have used the majority of the time. I’m used to it now, and it’s not bad at all. Of course, butter will taste better, but if you plan to do a lot of baking, it is a good choice (unless you have a large budget for groceries). One important difference is that the margarine stays softer than butter even when cold. This means that it’s easier to mix into doughs, but also that if you chill a cookie dough, it will NOT get as hard as a cookie dough made with butter. This means that roll-out cookies are going to be softer and more difficult to work with. You can add a little extra flour to help make up for it, or chill the dough in the freezer instead of fridge to get it colder.

IMG_7800Vegetable shortening is not as common in Japan as in the U.S., and more expensive as well. However, if you look around you can definitely find it (usually with the baking supplies or cake-decorating stuff). The most common brands are about the same price as butter (around $10/lb), but I found one brand that is sold at about half that price in grocery stores, and you can also buy a larger tub (about 500g, a little over a pound) at import stores at a similar price.

Oils I usually keep around: olive, sesame, canola.

Oils I usually keep around: olive, sesame, canola.

Several oils are commonly sold in stores: canola oil, vegetable oil (called サラダオイル, sarada oiru or salad oil in Japan), olive oil (both light and extra virgin), and sesame oil, or ごま油 (gomaabura). Vegetable/canola oils are sold in large jugs for pretty cheap prices, usually about 300 yen per liter (around $3 a quart). Olive oil is more expensive, of course, but not excessive – prices are similar to what I saw in the U.S., if memory serves. I’m Italian, so I always have extra virgin olive oil in the house, but when my bottle starts getting low I start looking around for a sale or a good price, and can usually find a decent deal. Sesame oil is more expensive than canola oil, but probably cheaper than in the U.S. It is often located in the Chinese food aisle.

Other oils can be found, but not in the regular grocery store. If you check out fancy grocery stores or import stores, you can find many different oils, ranging from avocado oil to walnut oil. As expected, they are small bottles for high prices, and availability varies depending on the store. My advice on these would be to plan ahead and either buy online or hunt around at different import stores to make sure you can find them – don’t plan on making a recipe using one of these oils assuming you can get it easily.

Advertisements

Gyoza (Dumplings)

cooking dumplings3
Gyoza (餃子) is the Japanese word for dumplings. They consist of a thin wrapper and a filling of meat and/or vegetables, and may be cooked by steam-frying, boiling, or deep-frying. Gyoza can come in almost infinite varieties, so feel free to adjust as you like. This is my basic recipe, but it often varies depending what’s on sale, in season, or around my kitchen.

Ingredients (serves 3-4)
125g (1/4 lb) ground pork
1 cup finely sliced cabbage or hakusai (Napa cabbage)
1/2 cup finely sliced veggies (nira/garlic chives, green onions, other greens, carrots, etc)
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tsp chopped fresh ginger
1 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp rice vinegar
1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp sesame oil
salt and pepper to taste
24 gyoza wrappers (or round dumpling wrappers)

Optional (for dipping sauce): Additional soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, and/or chili oil

Instructions

In a medium bowl, mix all ingredients (except wrapper) well. (It can help to use your hands.) Tip: it’s a good idea to check the flavor, so you can microwave about 1 tsp of the filling until cooked and taste it. That’s what your finished dumplings will taste like, so adjust the seasoning to your taste.

Fill each dumpling with 1/2 tbsp of the filling. Dip a finger in water and draw a line halfway around the edge of the wrapper, and fold. You can find videos showing you how to fold gyoza online if you haven’t done it before, or look at the pictures below for an idea. If it’s your first try, it’s best to check out a video, or have someone show you.

gyoza2Once all the dumplings are folded, you can cook them. Gyoza can be pan-fried, boiled, or deep-fried. The first way is the most common, and what I usually do at home, so I’ll give the instructions here. Boiling and deep-frying are pretty self-explanatory. You will need a frying pan that has a lid.

Place teaspoon or two of oil in a frying pan on medium heat and set the dumplings down in it. Leave a little space between them so they don’t stick together. You want the pleated edges sticking straight up. Let them cook for a minute or two, and then pour about 1/2 cup of water into the frying pan and put the lid on. (Remember, you’re pouring water onto hot oil, so it may splatter.)

Steam the dumplings for about 8 minutes. If all the water evaporates before then, add a little more. After 8 minutes, remove the lid and let the extra water boil off. You can check for doneness by poking one open with a chopstick and making sure there’s no pink in the meat. Finally, let the dumplings cook in the hot oil until the bottom gets crispy and brown (see the picture at the top of the post).

Serve immediately.

Optional dipping sauce: mix equal amounts of soy sauce and rice vinegar. Some people like to add oil as well; you can use sesame oil or chili oil (ラー油, raayu).

Scallion Pancakes


The instructions may seem long, but these scallion pancakes are simple to make after you’ve done it once, and if you cook Asian food regularly, you probably have all or most of the ingredients on hand already. One of my Korean friends once told me that for her family this is a “rainy day” recipe, since they didn’t have to go out to the grocery store to make this. Original recipe is from here.

Ingredients
Pancakes
1 cup (130g) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (120mL) hot water
2 tbsp sesame oil
1 bunch thinly sliced scallions (Japan: use konegi)
salt
vegetable oil for frying

Dipping sauce:
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp rice vinegar
1/2 tsp grated ginger
2 tsp sugar

Instructions

Put flour in a bowl and add about 3/4 of the hot water while mixing. If dough is dry, add more water a little at a time until it will come together.

Knead dough on a floured counter until smooth. Cover with a towel or plastic wrap and let rest 30 minutes.

In the meantime, mix together all the sauce ingredients and let them sit at room temperature until ready to use.

When the dough has rested, divide it in half. Take one of the halves and roll into a circle about 8″ (21cm) in diameter. Pour a little sesame oil on and brush with a pastry brush (or spread with the back of a spoon) to cover the surface. Roll the dough up like a jelly roll, then form into a spiral, tucking the end underneath. Flatten the spiral with your hand, and the roll it out again into an 8″ (21cm) circle.

Repeat the sesame oil, and sprinkle on some salt and half of the scallions. Roll up tightly again like a jelly roll, make a spiral, flatten, and roll out again.

Repeat with the other half of the dough.

Heat oil in a frying pan until hot and carefully put in a pancake. Cook until golden brown, then flip and cook on the other side. Transfer to a paper towel and cook the other three pancakes.

To serve, cut like a pizza into 6 or 8 slices and serve with the dipping sauce.

Sesame Coleslaw

sesame coleslaw2I made up this quick Asian-flavored coleslaw to be a cool and crunchy condiment. We often eat it with my pulled pork recipe.

Ingredients
150g thinly shredded cabbage (or coleslaw mix; in Japan I use sengiri cabbage)
2 green onions (konegi), sliced
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/2 tsp sesame oil
1/2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp rice vinegar
1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

Mix mayonnaise, sesame oil, sugar, vinegar, and sesame seeds.

Add the cabbage and green onions, and mix well. It may seem like there isn’t enough dressing, but keep mixing and it may be enough. If it really is too dry, add a little more mayonnaise at a time.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

Mapo Dofu

Mapo Dofu is originally a Chinese (Szechuan?) dish, which is also commonly found in Japan. My version is based on the Japanese ones, which is much less spicy and less oily than the original. This dish is very easy and inexpensive, because it uses a little meat for flavor, and tofu to make up the majority of the dish.

Some of these ingredients might be unfamiliar: doubanjiang is a kind of spicy bean paste, and tianmianjiang is a sweet bean sauce. Nira is a vegetable (maybe garlic chives in English) that looks similar to green onions, but the leaves are flat.

Ingredients
1 tbsp sesame oil
100g (3.5 oz) ground pork
1/2 tbsp grated ginger
1/2 tbsp minced or grated garlic
1/2 tbsp doubanjiang (豆板醤 / トウバンジャン)
1 tbsp tianmianjiang (甜麺醤 / テンメンジャン)
2 tbsp sake, divided
1 tbsp soy sauce
150 mL / ~3/4 cup chicken broth
6 stalks nira
2 tsp cornstarch + a little water
1 block firm tofu (木綿)

Rice for serving

Instructions

Wrap the block of tofu in paper towels, place something flat (like a plate) on top, and let it sit for about 20 minutes to remove excess water.

Meanwhile, heat a frying pan over medium heat and add the sesame oil, ground pork, ginger, and garlic. Cook until the pork is no longer pink. Move the pork over to one side, and add the doubanjiang and tianmianjiang sauces on the other side of the pan. Mix them together and fry for a few seconds before mixing them with the pork. Stir until everything is combined.

Add 1 tbsp of sake and mix with the pork. Cook for a minute or two to let the alcohol evaporate. Add the chicken broth, soy sauce, and remaining 1 tbsp of sake.

Cut the tofu into bite-size squares, and cut the nira into about 3cm (1 inch) pieces. Add both to the frying pan and mix gently (be careful not to break the tofu pieces). Let cook for a few minutes, then add the cornstarch mixed with a little water. Let the sauce thicken, and then turn off the heat.

I like to serve this on top of freshly cooked rice, or you can serve it alongside.

Bulgogi (Korean Barbequed Beef)

bulgogiI learned to make this dish during college, and still love to make it now. Bulgogi is a famous Korean dish that has a sweet sesame and soy flavor.

Ingredients
1 lb (450g) beef, sliced as thinly as possible
1 kiwi
1 medium onion
1/4 cup sugar, divided
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbsp sesame oil
2 tbsp sake (or rice wine)
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 tbsp rice vinegar
5 – 6 green onions, cut into 2″ pieces

Instructions

Spread beef slices in thin layers and sprinkle with 2 tbsp sugar. Allow to sit for 15 – 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, peel the kiwi and onion and blend them in a food processor until smooth. In a small bowl, mix garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil, sake, remaining 2 tbsp sugar, and rice vinegar.

Add the two mixtures and the green onions to the meat and mix well. Marinate for at least 4 hours, or overnight.

When ready to cook, remove meat and green onions from the marinade and cook on a hot grill or in a frying pan. It should cook very quickly, in just a moment or two.

Serve with rice, or in a lettuce wrap!

Sesame Chicken Pasta Salad

This pasta salad has a really nice Asian flavor, and is really delicious hot, warm, or cold! Original recipe is from allrecipes.com, but I’ve adjusted it to be more healthy (less chicken, more veggies, and less oil).

Japan Note: Bow-tie shaped pasta is not very easily found in my area (though I have found it at an import store). I have substituted rotini or ziti shapes with success. Though spaghetti is definitely the most common Western-style pasta here, I’m not sure how well it would work in this recipe.

Ingredients
1/4 cup sesame seeds
16oz (454g) bow-tie pasta
1/4 cup (60mL) vegetable oil
1/3 cup (80mL) soy sauce
1/3 cup (80mL) rice vinegar
1 tsp sesame oil
3 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
2 cups shredded, cooked chicken
1/3 cup chopped green onion
1-2 cups steamed veggies, cut into bite-size pieces (I like snow peas, broccoli, and carrots)

Instructions

Spread sesame seeds in a dry pan and toast on low heat until fragrant. Be careful not to let them burn.

Cook pasta as directed on package and drain.

Whisk together oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, sugar, ginger, and pepper together and pour over pasta. Mix in chicken, green onion, and veggies. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.

This pasta salad is good hot or at room temperature. If you can give it a little time to marinate, it’s even better, as the pasta soaks up more of the dressing.