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Dashi (Seven Vegetable Relish)

Recently, we took a series of local (read "slow") trains north to Hokkaido. August is the height of travel season in Japan, and we found most trains, ferries, and planes sold out or out of our price range. Luckily, Japan Rail (JR) offers a rail pass that for a flat fee allows travelers to puzzle together a series of local trains to their desired destination. We broke our trip into three days, and spent our first night in Tendo with a Couchsurfing family. We enjoyed our evening with them immensely, and of course, the food was amazing.

Dinner consisted of cubes of deep-fried tofu (dredged first in rice flour and sesame seeds) with a series of pickled vegetables - eggplant, cucumbers, okra, and tomatoes - along with rice and dashi (seven vegetable relish). We drank glass after glass of mugicha, and finished off the meal with sweet, sweet watermelon long chilled in the refrigerator. It was a quinticessential summer meal similar in tenor to those shared with my mother in the hot summer evenings when I was a kid.

Dashi, it turns out, is a Yamagata Prefecture speciality. A mix of seven vegetables chopped up, mixed together, served cold and eaten with rice, it is wonderfully flavorful and colorful. It is a bit slimy in texture, but don't let that deter you from trying it. I'm not a big fan of slimy texture, but this ended up being my favorite dish from the trip! Masae, mother of the family pictured at left, shared the family recipe via Yohei, her camera-shy son and now the house dashi-maker.

Yamagata Dashi
10 shiso leaves
3 mid-size eggplants (keep in mind that eggplants usually tend to be smaller and thinner in Japan)
20 centimeters long onion/green onion - only the white part
5 cucumbers (keep in mind also that cucumbers commonly seen in Japan are also long and thin)
3 mioga (a member of the ginger family)
2 shakes of dashi powder (made from dried sardines and often used for making miso)
1 pack, natto kombu
Two second pour, dashi sauce (soy sauce could be substituted if necessary)
Ginger root, to taste
Chilli pepper, to taste

1. Pour hot water (about 300cc) over the dried natto kombu. If the water isn't hot it might not make the kombu viscous enough. Add the dashi sauce and chilli pepper to the mix. This mixture decides the taste of the dashi for the most part. The shiso, ginger, and mioga also affect the flavor, of course, but the dashi is the foundation. If it seems a bit too salty at this piont, Yohei and Masae urge patience. The final product will be less so when all of the other ingredients are added. Give the mix a stir periodically to give yourself small breaks during the next step.

2. Cut the vegetables. Yohei, who's taken over the making of dashi from his mother, chops them quite fine and warns that this is the time consuming part.

3. Mix chopped vegetables with natto kombu mixture. Yohei and Masae recommend letting it chill (literally and figuratively) in the refrigerator for awhile before eating. The flavors meld and the cold dashi is quite refreshing.

Masae also suggested adding chopped tofu or konnyacu to make it into the "old-timer" version of dashi. I may give this a go at some point to add a little protein, but then again why mess with what already tastes like perfection?

Interesting Resource for Further Perusal
This post about dashi powder from Just Hungry was quite helpful, as is the entire blog. As a recent subscriber I'm finding plenty of great information to help me sort out various recipes and ingredients while I'm here in Japan.

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