Tokyo Day 1: Roppongi Robataya

Today marks the start of a 12 day adventure in Japan. We left Sydney early this morning and landed at Tokyo Narita at 5pm. After an hour on the train, a quick stop at our hotel and another couple of layers (it is COLD), we stepped out into the city.

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Dinner was in Roppongi, a neighbourhood that’s undergone a transformation in recent years, casting off its reputation as a hedonistic watering hole in favor of a more sophisticated, classier image. Today, Roppongi is known for some of the city’s best food, bars, shopping and culture.

As we stepped in from the cold to Roppongi Robataya, we were greeted with a chorus of irrashaimase’s and a beautiful spread of fresh fruit, vegetables and live seafood. The space is wood-paneled and cozy, in the way that you might imagine a Japanese ski chalet to look, and the staff is warm and engaging.

“Robatayaki” or, more commonly “Robata” translates to “fireside cooking”, and is a style of Japanese cuisine in which morsels of seafood and vegetables are skewered and slow-grilled over hot charcoal.

The origins of Robata can be traced back hundreds of years to the fishing communities of Hokkaido where, at the end of the day, fisherman would encase hot coals in a stone box on their boats and gather round the makeshift hearth to partake in the day’s spoils.Here in Roppongi, our chefs for the night sat at the center of the room behind a sunken grill, with less than 15 customers seated at the semi-circular bar around them.

After a hot towel, some tea and a pouring of saké, our server gestured to the spread and asked what we’d like to eat. For someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy looking at menus, it doesn’t get much better than this: I felt like a kid in a candy shop and immediately pointed at various delicious looking vegetables.We chose asparagus, some enoki mushrooms, an eggplant and a hearty plate of fava beans. We also picked out a cut of fish and a giant prawn from the gorgeous tabletop tank. Lastly, we ordered some sashimi and on the recommendation of our server, some Hokkaido oysters.
Needless to say, everything was delicious. The produce and seafood is all so fresh that robata seasoning rarely involves more than a basting of oil and sometimes miso. Most dishes are served with salt and a lemon wedge. Indeed, the British couple seated beside us were politely turned down when they inquired after “soy or some kind of dipping sauce”.
Other than the delicious food, it was the experience of Robataya that made it memorable. Each chef wields a long, smooth, wooden paddle. Once they’ve grilled and plated the food, they masterfully balance the plates and even bottles of beer and sake on these paddles, which they then extend to hungry guests. After plucking your dish from the wooden paddle, you load it up with empty plates, which the chef then deftly draws in and sets aside for cleaning.

The staff and servers at Robataya are equally engaging and will sneak up next to you and join the conversation. There was a lot of fanfare around a “changing of the chefs” where our two chefs stepped off the grills and were replaced by two members of the waitstaff.

Overall, it was pricey but an incredible meal in a very fun yet intimate environment — I only wish there were one of these in Sydney!

Purple Cauliflower Soup

cauliflower
Photo courtesy Newsweek

The cauliflower, like the Brussels sprout, is a much maligned vegetable — the texture is weirdly rigid yet crumbly, the color is boring, the taste is bland and the smell, oh don’t even get me started!

Actually, I’m pro cauliflower, but I can relate to people who aren’t. After all, many of us grew up with steamed or, worse still, boiled cauliflower plopped onto our plates next to mushy peas and carrots at the school cafeteria. It’s hard to shake these early experiences and it’s entirely possible that your distaste for the humble cauliflower is rooted in trauma. Time to let it go. Because…cauliflower is awesome.

Cauliflower may not exude the rustic charm of the heirloom carrot, the accessibility of broccoli or the trendiness of kale, but when it comes to nutritional content, it’s a winner. In fact, this veg is a veritable powerhouse of vitamins and minerals and it’s finally starting to see some of the recognition it deserves, with reports of it being the next superfood and of 2014 being “the year of the cauliflower”. It’s also popping up on gourmet restaurant menus across the US.

Consider the cauliflower

What’s so good about it? For starters, it’s part of the cruciferous family of vegetables, which includes broccoli, kale, bok choy, cabbage, kohlrabi, daikon and yes, Brussels sprouts. Cruciferous vegetables contain glucosinolates, which are responsible for their distinct pungent aroma, but also break down to form active compounds like nitriles and indoles, which are purported to have anti-cancer properties.

Like other cruciferous vegetables, cauliflower is also rich in sulforaphane, a sulfur compound that is credited with benefits ranging from improved blood pressure and kidney function, to detoxification and aiding with digestive health. Sulforaphane has also been linked to a reduction in cancer stem cells and tumor growth.

Cauliflower is also loaded with minerals and vitamins — including vitamin C, vitamin K, beta-carotene and other anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients, which can help reduce the likelihood of diseases like arthritis and diabetes. Finally, cauliflower is low in calories and packed with fiber, an added benefit if you’re trying to lose weight. If you’re interested in learning more, two great roundups here and here.

Armed with that knowledge, let’s dive into our cauliflower recipe for the day!

Purple Cauliflower Soup

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I love bright colors in food. Eating the rainbow is a great way to guarantee yourself a good dose of nutrients. (I’m not talking about skittles obviously.)

When it comes to veggies, nothing beats the color purple. Typically, the purple hue in fruit and veg is accounted for by anthocyanins which, you guessed it, are loaded with antioxidants and flavonoids like resveratrol. Naturally, when I came across this beautiful purple cauliflower at the Bondi Road Fruitologist last night, I had to have it!

This soup is creamy, vegan and absolutely delicious. You can eat it hot or cold, in summer or winter and it’ll wow your dinner party guests and charm your kids alike. Let’s go!

Ingredients (serves 4-6)

  • 1 medium purple cauliflower
  • 4 small new potatoes (to thicken)
  • 1 white onion
  • 1-2 cloves garlic or 1 tsp minced garlic paste
  • 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3-4 cups water or vegetable stock
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • cayenne to taste

Method

Prep your veggies: peel and chop the onion, wash and quarter the potatoes, rinse and break the cauliflower down into smaller florets.

Heat some olive oil in a pot and sweat the onions and garlic until they’re translucent. Don’t let them brown. Once they’re ready, add the cauliflower florets and diced potato. Cook down for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. (My cauliflower florets turned a cool neon blue at this point!) Now add the water or veggie stock until the cauliflower is 2/3 of the way submerged. I like to use regular water and throw in half a bouillon cube. Bring the broth to a boil and then reduce heat, cover partially and simmer for 20 minutes.

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Check on the soup at 20 minutes and add salt, pepper and cayenne to taste. Cook another 10 minutes as needed with the cover removed. Let your soup cool before getting your immersion blender out and working through it. If you don’t have an immersion blender you can use a regular mixer or magic bullet and handle the soup in batches. Transfer to a large bowl and garnish with with whatever you like.

Serve….and enjoy!

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Summer Veggie Quinoa Salad

We were hit by a monster storm earlier this week, but after all the rain, thunder and lightning, it feels like summer has finally arrived. The weather’s been beautifully warm all weekend, the light’s been golden and Bondi has been packed.

Photo by :: uge
Photo by :: uge

Early summer (and early fall) are my favorite times of year. It’s weird to think of mid-October as “early summer”, but that’s how life goes for us here in the Southern Hemisphere. I love this time of year not just for the weather, but for the food. Plump blueberries, bright strawberries, sweet papaya and juicy mangoes have flooded the market aisles. Fresh ears of corn, bunches of kale and piles of multi-coloured tomatoes are overflowing from their crates. Summer is a time of both abundance and lightness. It’s the perfect time for salad.

Here’s the all-star I whipped up today.

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Summer Veggie Quinoa Salad

Isn’t it pretty? I made a big batch and stuck it in the fridge. The worst thing, if you’re trying to eat healthy, is to come home from work or the gym, tired and hungry, and find yourself resorting to Thai delivery. I’ve been guilty of this many a time, so I now use my Sundays to prep for the week ahead and make sure I have something nutritious and filling on hand.

This salad is completely vegetarian and uses quinoa as the base, which means it’ll stay good in the fridge for several days. Quinoa, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is loaded with protein, fiber and minerals. It’s also gluten-free and low GI, which means it’ll keep you feeling full longer. Quinoa is so nutritious that it’s been designated a “super-crop” (not just a super food!) by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Demand for the seed has exploded over the last few years and led to price swings and short supply. If you’re cooking with quinoa for the first time, the most important thing to keep in mind is to wash it extremely thoroughly. Unwashed quinoa is coated in saponin, a bitter-tasting substance that protects it from birds and insects. Warning: cooking your quinoa without first giving it a good rinse may result in an unhappy stomach!

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I use a mix of red, white & black quinoa for a lovely nutty flavor and crunchy texture

Alright, disclaimers done, let’s dive in:

Ingredients

  • 2-3 cups of quinoa
  • 4 cups of water (or vegetable broth)
  • 3-4 cups of your favorite summer vegetables (I used a handful of baby roma and yellow grape tomatoes, some green beans, a bunch of purple baby kale, one small cauliflower, four zucchinis and one cup of red cabbage)
  • Persian feta (you could also use goat cheese)
  • Crushed walnuts
  • Garlic and ginger paste
  • Olive oil

Method

Rinse the quinoa thoroughly and place in a big pot with roughly twice the amount of water. I like to throw in a cube of vegetable bouillon once the water heats up. It brings a wonderful flavor to the quinoa and makes it delicious by itself. You could also use homemade veggie stock if you prefer. To cook the quinoa, bring the water to a boil and simmer on low heat until all of it has been absorbed (about 15 minutes).  Fluff and set aside in a big bowl.

In the meantime, prep your veggies. I like to roast my zucchini and cauliflower with a little bit of olive oil, salt and curry powder.  I recently discovered this deceptively simple roasted cauliflower recipe by Summer Tomato and it’s become my go-to. It involves first steaming the cauliflower by covering the roasting tray with some foil and then roasting uncovered to get the florets all brown and crispy. Yum!

This whole process should take you about 20 minutes. I must warn you though that, at this point, you’ll be tempted to devour your delicious roast veggies and leave nothing for your salad. Don’t panic! Just remember to make a bigger batch so that you have enough for now and for later 🙂

Now for the other veggies. When it comes to green beans, I like to blanch them: throw them into a pot of boiling water with some salt, drain with a slotted spoon after 2 minutes and plunge into an ice bath to halt the cooking. Set aside.

Next, throw some olive oil, garlic and ginger paste into a frying or sauté pan and drop in the green beans, the thinly sliced red cabbage and a handful of kale. I used baby purple kale because it doesn’t need slicing or de-stemming and cooks faster than regular kale. Add some salt and give your veggies a good stir. Cook until the cabbage and kale are wilted and tender (5-10 minutes).

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I love these colors

Time to assemble your masterpiece! The quinoa should be nice and cool by now. Crumble a handful of walnuts (or almonds) and stir them through. Next, add your sauteed kale, cabbage and green beans and mix in your roasted cauliflower, zucchini and fresh halved tomatoes. The juices from the veggies will add some depth to the flavor, but we’re not done yet: crack open that jar of Persian Feta and scoop out a big hunk.

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Persian Feta is spelled with two ‘t’s, so as not to upset the Greeks 😉

I’m obsessed with Persian Feta. It’s very popular in Australia and is basically a marinated, less salty and more versatile version of its Greek cousin  — I eat it slathered on Turkish bread, on kebabs / in wraps and as a dip. It works perfectly in this salad because it’s creamy and flavorful but retains its form as you distribute it through the quinoa and veggies. Harris Farms does a beautiful Persian Feta with garlic and dill (not pictured), but if you aren’t able to get it locally, you could sub it with goat cheese or you might consider making your own. A fellow blogger in Paris has an easy guide to marinated feta right here.

Give the whole thing a nice big stir and voilà! Your salad is ready to devour (or to cover and store in the fridge for later). Enjoy 🙂