Some of you reading will know this already, but for those that don't, I have been lucky enough to live abroad several times in my life (I'm not counting Wales, where I live now, although you do cross water when making the journey back to my home town of Manchester, in England, so maybe I'm technically still an ex-pat...). I say lucky and mean lucky, because although there are times when living in a foreign country can make you scream and shout to please be allowed to return to the normaility of wherever it is that you call home, on the whole I think it can be an extremely positive and even life changing experience. And what's more, you get to eat all kinds of food that usually isn't available elsewhere. For clarity, I have lived and studied once in France, and lived, studied and worked in Japan twice. We can talk about the things that made me scream and shout another time (and do let's!), but today I want to talk about food.
It's funny how food and taste memories can remind you of places you have been or people you've met. The first time I was in Japan, I did homestay with a family in Hachioji, Tokyo. My host mother is an amazing cook, and would literally cover the table with different dishes for me to try at dinner time. Every day there was something new to try, and I've said many times how grateful I am to her for making such an effort to show me her country's cuisine. Whenever I taste shiso leaves, or smell sakura-mochi, I remember the evenings we spent eating, drinking tea and talking late into the night. I learned a lot from my host family, but sadly not how to make any of their amazing food. It's not that my host mother wouldn't show me -I just never asked.
When I returned to Japan for work, this time to the Kansai area (much too far to pop round for dinner!), my host mother sent a huge package of food she'd made to my flat. I think she was worried I wouldn't be able to cook for myself. To this day it's one of the most thoughtful gifts anybody has ever given me. Along with a bag of rice, some umeboshi (which she knew I love), packages of home made stew and meat sauce, she'd also packed rice crackers, soy sauce, and confusingly (to me at least), a packet of azuki beans. When I asked her what they were for she said she must have put them in the box by mistake. I thought that was hilarious - mistaken beans - and could just picture her rummaging through her cupboards for things to put in the box. I put the packet on my shelf and forgot about it, because although the beans were beautiful, like shiny little rubies or garnets, I really hadn't a clue what to do with them.
Around this time, I met my friend Katy, and we really hit it off. I lived in an urban area between Osaka and Kobe, and she lived and worked two and a half hours away in Kurodasho, a small village set among sprawling rice paddies and fields. We each thought the other had it better - I lived close to the city and all the convenience that that brings, whereas she had a much larger house, surrounded by lush green. We quickly started a routine of visiting each other on alternate weekends. When she came to my place, we'd eat out at izakayas or noodle bars and sing karaoke all night (and well, I might add. At least on Katy's part!). When I made the journey to see her, she'd usually cook or we would go for okonomiyaki, then sit outside her house by the river drinking beer and talking. (For the record, Katy did have it better - in the Summer we'd see fireflies by the river's edge, and hear the frogs croaking in the rice fields. At my flat, if you went outside, all you got was a view of other people's washing the noise of air conditioners!)
It was Katy who first made this stew, which I think she discovered online, although I can't find the recipe anywhere now - I have it scrawled in my notebook. And for all the lovely food I ate when I was in Japan the second time, it's this relatively simple dish that most reminds me of the whole experience. I ate it all the time; once Katy had made it a few times, I started making it too, and not only used up that bag of azuki beans on the shelf, but had to replace it. From one hour in the kitchen, I would get enough stew for five meals and frequently made a batch on Sunday night to have in my bento at work during the week. I should make clear, it isn't a Japanese recipe at all - it is thick with tomato, warm with paprika, and has parsley dumplings swimming around in it. I don't know who created it (but I do think they were very clever, because I certainly wouldn't ever think to put these flavours together). In Japan, azuki beans are used in sweet foods pretty much exclusively, so my Japanese colleagues were at first surprised that I would make stew with them. But they loved it too, and some took the recipe as well.
I really hope you'll give it a try! It's a chunky, fresh-tasting stew of mushrooms, beans and chopped vegetables. But I do think there are a few important rules to follow if you are to get it right, and these are what they are:
- Try and use Japanese azuki beans (try your local oriental supermarket); the best ones come from Hokkaido. I've tried using beans from China and I think they taste different.
- Use shimeji mushrooms, which are also Japanese. I have seen these in Waitrose supermarkets, and I bought the ones in the photo from Cardiff Market (at the stall opposite the fishmonger at the front, if anybody is a local). They have a lovely texture, and buttery flavour (or so I think). Obviously, you can use button mushrooms too.
- Get everything ready before you start cooking! This doesn't take long, but you don't want to be trying to stir and chop at the same time. Unless you are female and can multi-task.
Azuki Bean Stew
You will need:
100g azuki beans, soaked overnight
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, sliced
3 thin leeks, washed and sliced
1 carrot, diced
200g mushrooms, preferably shimeji
1 tbsp paprika
2 tbsp flour
300ml vegetable stock
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp tomato purée
400g tin chopped tomatoes
salt and pepper
chopped fresh parsley
2 tbsp dried parsley
3 tbsp milk
- Simmer the soaked beans until soft. This should take around 40 minutes, but depends how old your beans are.
- In a large pan, cook the onion in the butter until soft, then add the garlic, leeks, carrot and mushrooms. Cook gently for 5 minutes.
- Season, and stir in the flour and paprika. Cook for another minute.
- Add the stock, soy sauce, tomato paste and tinned tomatoes. Bring to the boil, and simmer gently for ten minutes.
- Make the dumplings; rub the butter into the flour until it resembles bread crumbs, then add the parsley. Add milk to bind, and knead to form a soft dough. Form into 8-10 dumplings.
- Add the cooked beans to the stew. Return to the boil, then add the dumplings, cover and simmer for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to stop the stew from sticking to the pan (it will be thick by this point).
- Check for seasoning, and serve garnished with fresh parsley.