03 Jan Cooking Japanese food with my mom: Okara and Tempura
My mom doesn’t cook as much as she used to. She used to cook everything — mostly Japanese food of course. She even used to make her own tofu. After my dad passed away in the early ’90s she cooked for herself for years, making large portions of dishes to freeze and re-heat as meals for days. But lately she finds cooking “mendokusai,” which translates to “bothersome but I like “pain in the butt.”
She was always a great cook and of the three boys in the family, I was the one who absorbed a lot of her cooking by watching and noticing how everything tasted. I miss a lot of the dishes she used to make when I was a kid — many of them, like steamed egg custard (Chawan Mushi), which is a rarity even in many Japanese restaurants. So Erin and I have been concerned since she stopped cooking a lot of her signature dishes, and figured we better get some lessons now while we can.
Food is the one immutable bridge back to root cultures for any descendants of immigrants in this country — which means most of us. And even though it might be easier to go to a Japanese restaurant to chow down on traditional foods, I’m glad we’re holding onto our culinary heritage by learning to cook Japanese dishes too.
The two dishes we wanted to cook with my mom last week were Okara and Tempura, done the way she’s always made them.
Okara is the pulp byproduct of making tofu and soy milk from raw soy beans. My mom used to make her own tofu because she didn’t like any store-bought brands. She would use the soy milk to make tofu, and use the okara, the chunky fibrous leftovers, to make Unohana flavoring the okara with soy sauce, sugar and various diced veggies, tiny shrimp and shredded scallops. Erin loves the stuff and she used to revel in getting contaiers of okara from my mom whenever she made tofu.
My mom hasn’t made her own tofu in a couple of years now, but we found out that companies such as Denver Tofu, which throw out lots of okara every day, will let us take home any amount we want for free if we just bring containers by 11 am. I did just that (I’ll have to shoot video the next time I go, to show how the company manufactures the packages of tofu that show up on supermarket shelves).
Denver Tofu probably passes along okara to other companies for livestock feed and other uses (one of its staffers uses okara on her compost). I hope so, anyway. I’ve heard of a Japanese chef in New York who makes his own tofu and uses the okara in many dishes, including milling it into soy flour for desserts and breads. So there’s a lot of uses for the stuff, and it’s really good for you – it’s tofu basically with fiber still intact. If some enterprising soul in Denver could come up with a tasty way to use okara companies like Denver Tofu could make some money with it!
Anyway, Erin and I spent part of a day watching my mom slice and dice carrots, snow peas, shiitake mushrooms, abura age (fried tofu) and re-hydrated dried hotate (scallops) into tiny pieces, then sautee them in a wok-style pan with a little Canola oil before adding half a bag of tiny dried shrimp, then dumping a bag of okara from Denver Tofu.
She flavored the mixture with sugar, soy sauce, sake and kombu dashi, powdered seaweed from her hometown of Nemuro into a mashed potato-like consistency. Even though she doesn’t cook much anymore and claimed she couldn’t remember how she used to make these dishes, her hands and body have developed muscle memory over the decades and they instinctively knew what to do. Her chopping skills were as exact and machine-like as I remember from my youth.
Although she worked mostly from a gut feel and didn’t measure out ingredients except for the sugar, soy sauce and sake, and the amount she made this time was a lot more than the usual amount she’d cooked in the past, the Unohana Okara turned out great, tasting exactly like it always has.
When most Americans think of tempura, they probably think of bready lumpy masses of mushy batter hiding pieces of shrimp and various vegetables like zucchini or onions (that look comfortingly like all-American onion rings). Depending on the cook or the Japanese restaurant, the batter might be lighter and less greasy (which is good), or the ingredients might include some traditional pieces that are less familiar to the American palate, like kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) or nasubi (Japanese eggplant).
My mom would make that kind of tempura for special meals, but her idea of Japanese comfort food was to make a more pedestrian form of tempura, Kakiage, which combined shredded vegetables with pieces of shrimp (in her case, though I bet you can include any veggies and any meat or seafood). She made large batches of the stuff and froze them in small packets so she could heat up a coupe at a time in her toaster oven to have as an entree or to top off a bowl of soba noodles with her homemade dashi, or soup base, or eat them on top of a chawan, or bowl, of white rice.
The hardest part of making Kakiage Tempura is preparing the ingredients. Be sure you have sharp knives, because you have to cut everything into slivers and small pieces. Once you have the ingredients ready, you mix them with the batter, which like the Okara my mom makes by feel, not by measurements. Then you can spoon out the mixture into a waiting pan of Canola oil.
It’s not a hard dish to cook, but it takes time to prep everything, and requires attention to details. We had the batch of Kakiage we made with my mom for dinner with soba noodles at home, but the next day when I made a second batch on our own, the batter just wasn’t the same, and the bottoms of the pieces were much breadier than my mom’s. It actually tasted fine, but the consistency wasn’t right.
The main difference I notice from my mom’s tempura with many served in restaurants or made by non-Japanese is that her tempura isn’t very bready, and eaten fresh, they’re wonderfully crispy but still light and complement the vegetables and shrimp instead of highlighting the doughiness of the coating.
I hope to chronicle more of my mom’s cooking in the future. These videos keep me connected to my culture in a way that going out to even the best restaurants can’t duplicate. And, they help me appreciate my mom more, too.