Saturday, March 29, 2014

Jajamen (Morioka Noodles Part One)

Is your hometown famous for anything?

If I were hard-pressed to pick a few things that locals consider famous about my hometown I might come up with hot cider donuts, rubbery mini-dogs, a whole lot of very pretentious posh/artsy attractions, and of course fueling the cold war back when General Electric (later General Dynamics) was heavily involved in building bombs.  Not every hometown story can be a proud one, I guess.

When I first started taking Japanese lessons I remember being stumped by the question of what my hometown was famous for.  It wasn't something many of us in the class had ever given much thought to.   Certainly I didn't have a ready answer for it.  "What's my hometown famous for?  I don't know... people trying to leave it, I guess?"

But in Japan that's a question that nearly everyone has an answer for.  I can tell you, without really stopping to think, what many of the towns near my old home are famous for.  My village, for example, is known for wine and a type of traditional dance called kagura.  Tono, the next village over, is famous for being the Japanese equivalent "a kingdom far, far away," wasabi beer that locals love to give to unsuspecting visitors as a joke, and its particularly delicious horses (yes, you read that correctly and yes, they were rather delicious).  Less unsettlingly, the prefectural capital is known for things like the Sansa Odori festival, cast-iron teapots, and the Three Great Noodles of Morioka.

It's also famous for crackers.  

Of the Three Great Noodles, two are fusion dishes.  Jajamen, this week's recipe, is a Japanese version of zha jiang mian / jajangmyeon (Chinese and Korean noodle dishes, respectively).  Morioka reimen, which I'll post in a few months once the weather heats up, is a version of a Korean cold noodle dish called naengmyeon.  The third type, wanko soba, isn't a specialty recipe so much as it is a unique kind of eating/politeness contest where the object is to slurp down your tiny bowl of noodles and put the lid on your bowl before the waitress who's hanging over your shoulder can refill it.  It really doesn't get more Truly Japanese than wanko soba and if you're ever in that part of the world I highly recommend it as a bit of hysterical fun (and a way to appreciate just how much people can eat when pride is on the line).

What I like about this recipe is that it's quick and fairly straightforward to put together, and that customizing it to your own tastes is very much a part of The Way It's Done. 

Jajamen (Spicy Black Bean & Garlic Noodles from Morioka)

Total time to make:  About 15-40 minutes, depending on your multi-tasking skills.
Weirdest ingredient:  Black bean sauce, used as a replacement for 甜麵醬 ("tianmianjiang"), a Chinese flavoring made from red miso paste.  Happily, black bean sauce is fairly easy to find in the pan-Asian/international section of many grocery stores, even here in a low-diversity area like rural PA.  Alternatively, if you have red miso paste on hand you could make your own tianmianjiang for a more authentic flavor.

Credits:  The recipe below leans rather heavily on this Cookpad recipe (in Japanese), with input from this one (also in Japanese), and English-language Japanese and Korean versions of the dish.
Makes:  2-3 servings.  

As a heads-up, Jajamen is a recipe in two parts.  Unlike other multi-step recipes, you have to eat the first part before you can make the second.  That's part of the fun.  Stay tuned and you'll see what I mean below.  Also, if you see pork in the recipe and are tempted to give up (I myself eat pork maybe 1-2 times a year at most -- to be honest it kind of grosses me out), know that this recipe would also be really excellent with eggplant (particularly Chinese eggplant), extra-firm tofu, or even black beans as a substitute.  

Before you get started with the stir-fry bit, put on a pot of water to boil in a pan big enough to cook your noodles.  In a separate pan, put on 2 cups of chicken or vegetable stock to boil as well (note: it's a-ok to use bullion here if you prefer).  You'll also want to pull one egg per person out of the fridge and put it on the counter to warm up a little.  

Okay, so the first step in making the sauce is to saute up a generous handful of mushrooms.  Use whatever kind you have on hand, I say.  I had shitake, but you're not going to feel left out if you use something else.  For this recipe I'd say about 1 tsp vegetable oil and 1/4 tsp of sesame oil is a nice combo to use in a skillet on medium-high heat:

While the mushrooms cook (about 3-5 minutes, just enough to soften up), you can dice up two pork chops into very small pieces.  Alternatively, use ground pork or veggies such as the ones suggested above.  I used pork chops because they were on sale:

Once the mushrooms are softened, the pork goes into the skillet as well.  Depending on how small your pieces are the meat will take anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes to cook all the way through.

Put together the sauce while the pork is cooking.  Gather the following up in a bowl:  2 tablespoons of miso paste (either red or white), 1 teaspoon each of ginger paste and garlic paste, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1 tablespoon of rice wine (cooking sake), 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of mirin (or else add an extra tablespoon of rice wine and two teaspoons of sugar), and 1 tablespoon of the black bean sauce:

Whisk all that together into a smooth sauce:

And when your pork is completely cooked through add the sauce to the skillet:

Turn the heat down to low at this point, cover it, and let it simmer for at least another 5 minutes to let the sauce soak in.

While the sauce is simmering, slice up some cabbage (optional) and thin cucumber slices.  

When the veggies are cut, drop 2-3 servings of noodles into the boiling water you prepared before you got started with the stir-frying.  Does it matter what kind of noodles you use?  Yes and no.  I've seen udon, soba, Chinese noodles, and even ramen (minus the spice packet) used for this dish.  I say go with whatever you like best.  I used udon.  Follow whatever directions come on your noodle package in terms of boiling time, then drain the noodles and rinse them briefly with cold water to prevent them from over-cooking.

Now we get to the arranging part.  Noodles go in the bowl first:

Followed by the cabbage and cukes:

And then the sauce.  

Now, if you're going for complete jajamen authenticity then you may want to puree the sauce so that it more closely resembles a thick paste than a stir-fry.  That is totally up to you.  I have this weird pet peeve where I hate washing my blender so I didn't puree the sauce, though it did change the texture and feel of the dish somewhat to skip that step.  If you do puree the sauce then just be sure to let it cool a bit before sticking it in your blender to avoid damaging anything.  A tiny bit of broth or sesame oil can help if it's too sticky to blend properly.

When eating jajamen in restaurants it's very common to get a wide array of condiments to mix with it, such as extra garlic, La-Yu (chili oil), chili paste, scallions, and even vinegar.  I myself love a deep spicy kick to my noodles, so I opted for a dash of sriracha:

Tadaa!  Dig in!

"But wait," you say with concern and dismay.  "What about the egg and the chicken broth from back at the very beginning?"  

I'm so glad you asked.  Eating the noodles is the first course of the meal.  You can choose to completely empty your bowl, leaving only the leftover sauce  or -- my preference -- leave about 1/4 of the noodles in the bowl:

At which point you crack the egg into the bowl (really!):

And immediately top it with the boiling chicken or vegetable stock you've had sitting on the stove.  Use your spoon or chopsticks to whisk everything around for a minute or two, thereby tempering the egg and making an impromptu egg-drop soup.  

Note: if the idea of cooking the egg in this way weirds you out too much, or if you want to leave no doubt that your egg is totally cooked through, crack the egg(s) into the boiling stock on the stove, whisk, and let them cook for 2-3 minutes that way.  The only real difference is that you'll end up with chunkier egg pieces rather than a rich, eggy broth.  That said, whether you add the egg to the soup or the soup to the egg it'll still cook through and will be delicious.  I promise.  But I do totally understand the queasiness some folks might feel about putting a raw egg into their bowl, so no judgment here if you choose to do it the other way.

So now you get to have soup as a second course!  Yum!  

This is a really great dish to warm you up on chilly day, especially around this time of year when winter hasn't quite given up its hold yet.

Jajamen (Morioka Miso-Garlic Udon)

  • water for boiling noodles
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock (from scratch, can, or bullion)
  • 2-3 servings of udon, soba, or Chinese noodles
  • one egg per person
  • 1 tsp vegetable oil + 1/4 tsp sesame oil
  • generous handful of mushrooms
    • note: for a more Chinese/Korean feel to the dish, other vegetables (e.g. zucchini) can be used in addition to or in place of the mushrooms
  • 2 pork chops, finely minced
    • can sub ground pork, diced eggplant, cubed extra-firm tofu, black beans
  • 2 tablespoons of miso paste (either red or white)
  • 1 teaspoon each of ginger paste and garlic paste
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon of rice wine (cooking sake)
  • 1 tablespoon of soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon of mirin 
    • can sub an extra tablespoon of rice wine and an extra two teaspoons of sugar
  • 1 tablespoon of black bean sauce or sweet bean paste
    • see long-version of the recipe, above, for notes
  • small handful each of shredded cabbage (optional) and thinly-sliced cucumber
  • condiments according to preference, common options include:
    • scallions
    • La-Yu sesame chili oil
    • rice vinegar
    • garlic
  1. In separate pans, put the water for the noodles and the stock on high heat.  Let these come to a boil while completing steps 2 - 8.
  2. Add the oils to a skillet on medium-high heat.  When the oil is hot, add the mushrooms and cook for 3-5 minutes or until softened.
  3. While the mushrooms cook, dice the pork.
  4. Add the pork to the skillet, stirring occasionally, and cook through (5-15 minutes, depending on size of the pork pieces).
  5. While the pork cooks, whisk together the miso, ginger, garlic, sugar, sake, soy sauce, mirin, and black bean sauce and set aside.
  6. When the pork is cooked through, add the sauce and reduce the heat to low.  Cover and allow to cook for a minimum of 5 additional minutes.
  7. (OPTIONAL:  Allow the stir-fry to cool until lukewarm and puree in a blender or food processor to make a thick paste.  If desired, return the paste to the stove and re-heat.  This step is not shown above although it makes a more authentic-looking end product.)
  8. While the sauce is simmering, slice the cabbage and cucumbers into small pieces.
  9. While the sauce is simmering, add the noodles to the boiling water prepared in step 1 above and cook for the amount of time indicated on the package.
  10. When noodles are done, drain & rinse briefly with cold water.
  11. To serve the noodle course:  layer the noodles, cabbage & cucumbers, and sauce in an individual-sized bowl.  Top with any condiments as desired.
  12. To serve the soup course:  Leave approximately 1/4 of the noodle course in the bowl.  To this add one egg and top with the boiling stock that you prepared in step 1.  Whisk using chopsticks or spoon for 1-2 minutes or until egg is cooked in the broth.  
  13. (Alternatively, drop the egg(s) into the broth while it is boiling on the stove and allow 2-3 minutes to cook through before adding to the bowl.)

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