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IZAKAYA: Pub Food, Japanese-Style by Pierre-Luc Moeys, owner of Oriole 9 in Woodstock

When I had a little downtime last December, I took advantage of it to indulge in a personal fantasy I’ve had for a long time, and took a quick culinary trip to Japan. I’ve always wanted to experience the rich culture of Japanese cuisine; to see, hear, smell, touch, and taste Japan at the source. So I went to Tokyo—a city that seems to be able to be both crazy and calm at the same time—and walked around, checking out the little shops and eateries that seem to be everywhere, and are almost always busy.

I had heard about the izakaya, which is a type of Japanese restaurant you don’t often see in the US (though they are gaining in popularity in New York and San Francisco). Roughly translated as “a place to sit and drink sake,” izakayas flourish in the cities, where businessmen stop after work for locally-made sake and shochu—Japanese vodka—and sometimes get a little snack before going home. What started out as Japanese “pub food” has since become its own innovative cuisine style, similar to Spain’s tapas bars, but with that special Japanese flair. Though the thick curtains (“noren”) hanging out front seem imposing, inside it’s a lot of fun.

The food comes beautifully presented and perfectly prepared to the table. Being a non-speaker of Japanese, I really had no idea what I ordered, so everything was a surprise and a revelation. Marinated and pickled vegetables, all kinds of prepared fishes, soups, and interesting meats; to be honest, I have to say that everything I ate—from chicken skin skewers to stewed whale—was absolutely delicious. Imagine enjoying all this together with very tasty sake, beer, or shochu, and you can see how those businessmen sometimes don’t make it home for dinner.

So here are some izakaya dishes I tried while in Japan, and have figured out how to prepare. I’ve made these for friends at dinner parties since my trip, and the simplicity and flavor never fails to dazzle. All recipes here are for four people, so make adjustments for more or less.

But first, you need to make a batch of dashi, which is an essential base for Japanese stews, stocks, and sauces.

DASHI (one quart)
What you need:
1 qt. water
3 2” X 3” strips of kombu (a popular Japanese edible kelp)
¼ cup bonito (dried smoked fish) flakes

Heat water to around 86°F, and add kombu strips. Simmer for 25 minutes, skim the surface, and bring to a quick boil for about 30 seconds. Pull off heat, add bonito flakes, and let sit for 8-10 minutes. Strain off the liquid and refrigerate. This stock will be good for one or two days.

SWEET MISO FISH (prepare day before)
What you need:
4 mackerel filets
¼ cup dashi stock
2 cups white miso
¾ cup mirin (sweet rice wine similar to sake, with less alcohol)
3 chili peppers, chopped (de-seeded if you want less spicy)
sea salt to taste, scallions for garnish

Mix all ingredients except fish and scallions. When smooth, apply mixture to fish filets, making sure to completely cover with marinade, and refrigerate overnight. When ready to prepare, put filets on a tray with a minimum of excess marinade, and broil fish until golden brown on edges. Plate with sprinkling of scallions.

What you need:
½ lb. fresh green beans
12 fava beans, shucked
1 (lrg) tblsp. toasted white sesame seeds
¼ cup dashi stock
1 tblsp. soy sauce
3 tblsp. sake
¼ cup tahini
1 tblsp. mirin

Boil green beans and fava beans until al dente, and drain. Mix other ingredients well and fold into the beans. Serve in individual little bowls!

What you need:
1 cup cake flour
1 egg yolk
1 cup water, ICE COLD
2 ears of corn
4 green chilis (it’s up to you how hot you want them)
enough oil for deep frying (1-2 cups)

Dipping Sauce (just mix all together):
1 cup dashi stock
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup mirin
grated ginger to taste

Mix together flour, egg yolk, and ice cold water. De-kernel corn ears and add corn to batter. Heat oil in wok or pan to about 340°F. Deep fry small scoops of corn batter mix until golden brown, and drain on paper. Deep fry chilis whole, drain on paper, and serve together with corn balls, dipping in the above dipping sauce.

What you need:
1 lb. mustard greens
¼ cup dashi stock
¼ cup soy sauce
1 tblsp. bonito flakes

Bring pot of water to a boil. Boil mustard greens VERY briefly, drain quickly, and squeeze out excess water. Arrange greens on plates, packed tightly. Mix soy sauce and dashi, and pour over greens. Sprinkle bonito flakes over the top.

MISO-CURED TOFU (prepare 2-3 days before serving)
What you need:
1 pack of firm tofu, drained and dried (paper towels work best)
½ cup yellow miso
½ tblsp. brown sugar
1 tblsp. sake

Mix all ingredients except tofu. Cut tofu into small cubes and blend with mixture. Wrap tightly and refrigerate for 2-3 days. Serve cold with scallion garnish.

Pierre-Luc Moeys is the chef/owner of Oriole 9

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