Some foods appeal to us right away – chocolate, for example, or hamburgers (assuming you are not a vegetarian). These foods don’t require an “acquired taste” or any sort of particular palate; most of us just like them regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity. Other foods seem to take a while before they grow on us. Whether we discover them because we have altered our diets and “learned” to like different foods, or we’ve developed a more refined palate as we mature, these are the foods we might have snubbed as children but can’t seem to get enough of as adults.
Such is the story of my love affair with nishime (pronounced nee-shee-′may, a kind of Japanese stew made with root vegetables). I’d seen nishime at nearly every major family get-together of mine in Hawaii and most okazuyas (Japanese delicatessens). Generally, I avoided it. It’s not that nishime tasted bad or was offensive in any way, but to a child, it looked like a mix of twigs, gelatinous cubes, and knots of seaweed – something much too healthy to fill up on. I saved my appetite for the Korean fried chicken, sushi, and sashimi instead.
I can’t recall exactly when I decided to give nishime a fair try, possibly when I moved away from Hawaii and couldn’t have it so often, but I have come to actually crave this nourishing and savory one-pot meal. Added bonus: it is incredibly good for you, almost as good as a multivitamin. Nishime is a medley of colorful root vegetables in an array of shades from the bright orange of carrots to the dark olive of konbu (seaweed) and deep aubergine of konnyaku, a kind of mountain yam. As a home cook, I also appreciate that nishime is a labor of love. This is not a difficult dish to prepare, but the vegetables do involve a fair amount of prep work in advance.
Historically, Japanese families did not cook during the first week of the New Year. They prepared nishime in advance, and ate it throughout the week. Since traditional nishime was meatless, it did not spoil. Today, we enjoy nishime year-round and often include some meat-based protein in the meal. I like it with chicken thighs, but beef and pork are other popular choices. You may prepare nishime in infinite ways, varying the mix and ratio of vegetables, and many families have their own favorite recipes, passed down from generation to generation. I have also heard that nishime should be prepared with an odd number of vegetables, for good harmony. Staples of nishime include konbu (also, kombu), a dried seaweed that is native to Hokkaido, Japan, but which you will find in most Japanese markets (one of my favorite markets in the bay area is Tokyo Fish Market on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley). There are different types of konbu available, and you’ll want to look for nishime konbu, which is soft and easy to eat. The other kind of konbu, dashi konbu, is tougher and used as the base of some soup stocks. Soak the konbu for several minutes in water until it becomes soft, tie it into knots, and then cut it into smaller strips.Most nishime also includes konnyaku (mountain yam), which is rinced, and chopped into a large dice.I have never seen a konnyaku mountain yam in its natural state. They are more commonly sold in gelatin form, in which konnyaku flour is boiled with water and limewater, and then solidified. Without any additives, the konnyaku is a pale creamy white. But when hijiki (brown sea vegetable) is added to the konnyaku, it takes on a deep purple tint.Araimo, a mildly sweet yam, is boiled until tender, then cut into bite-size pieces.Other popular roots vegetables to include in your nishime include hasu (lotus root), the one with the decorative Swiss-cheese pattern in the picture below; gobo (Greater burdock), sliced on the diagonal, just to the right of the hasu; chopped carrots; and diced daikon (turnips).I also like shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and abura age (fried tofu skins), not pictured above, in mine. After the vegetables have simmered in the rich and savory broth, they develop an earthy and slightly sweet flavor. The mix of root vegetables provides contrasting textures – the carrots cook down to a tender state; the gobo remains hard and cruncy; the shiitake mushrooms, filled with the broth, plump up like juicy fruits; the araimo becomes soft and starchy; and the konnyaku takes on a chewy consistency (like bubble gum, my cousin used to say). This is a hearty meal, and could be served as a main course over rice, but it is often served as a vegetable side dish. The recipe below was adapted from one of my favorite cookbooks, Jean Hee’s Best of the Best Hawaii Recipes.
Nishime (adapted from Jean Hee’s Best of the Best Hawaii Recipes)
1 1/2 lbs. chicken thighs, boneless and skinless
oil for frying
2 cans chicken broth (14 1/2 ounces each)
1 small package shiitake mushrooms, soaked in water until tender, and sliced
1 package nishime konbu (1 ounce)
2 containers konyaku (white or purple, or a combination)
1 can bamboo shoots (8 1/2 ounces)
1/2 cup soy sauce
2/3 cup sugar (or less, according to taste)
4-5 carrots, cut into 1″ pieces
1 small daikon (about 1/2 lb.), cut into 1″ pieces
1 gobo, cut on the diagonal (about 1 cup)
5 araimo, steamed, pealed, and cut into 1 1/2″ pieces (about 2 cups)
1 large lotus root, sliced about 1/4″ thick
1 package abura age, cut into 1 1/2″ pieces
1/4 pound Chinese peas, blanched
Wash the konbu, and soak it until tender. Tie konbu into knots, 1 inch apart. Cut between the knots. Scrape the gobo clean, and cut into 1/4″ thick diagonal slices; soak in water until ready to use.
Cut chicken into bite-size pieces. In a large Dutch oven, fry the chicken in oil until light brown. Add chicken broth, mushrooms, konbu, konnyaku, and bamboo shoots. Cover and cook for 10 minutes. Add soy sauce and sugar, cover and cook for 5 minutes. Add carrots, daikon, and gobo; cover and cook for 15 minutes. Add araimo, lotus root, and abura age. Toss gently throughout. Garnish with Chinese peas.
AboutI like Zip mins, spam musubi, and the butterfish misoyaki at The Cal. I've never been a fan of the loco moco but, now that I'm 3000 miles from my hometown of Honolulu, Hawaii, nearly everything from the islands makes me salivate. I currently live (and cook) in the San Francisco bay area, and have inevitably fallen in with "buying local" and organically-grown foods. I enjoy recreating the foods I grew up with - recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation in my family. And, as a working home cook, I try to prepare a lot of fast and healthful meals. Part recipe book, part cultural memoire, and travel journal, here is where I document all of my gastronomical experiences. I think of my kitchen as a blend of past and present, and I believe that where we call home is what we serve on our plates.