April 29, 2013
My first trip to Japan lasted less than 24 hours. That’s not much time to see a whole country, let alone a city or two. I saw only one street. In the late spring of 1980, I was on my way to China. My itinerary had me arriving late in the evening at the New Tokyo International Airport—now officially renamed Narita International Airport—and leaving mid‑afternoon the following day.
After checking into my hotel, which was located in Narita City, I had a simple meal at the hotel and retired to my room for a sleepless night. The next morning, after a bowl of miso soup for breakfast, I decided to walk around the streets near the hotel. I only had a few hours before I had to catch a bus back to the airport.
As I walked around, trying not to stare too much, I was definitely feeling like the classic “stranger in a strange land.” No one seemed to take notice of me—that would come later when I was walking around cities in China. At this point in my life, I was totally ignorant of Japan and things Japanese. Everything I saw was new. Everything I saw was different. There were new sounds, and there were new smells.
I happened upon a man with a bucket of live eels. He was just outside a door that appeared to lead to a restaurant kitchen. Besides his eel bucket, he had another for bones and a tray for the meat. A hose with slowly running water was within reach. He would grab an eel—each was about as long as his forearm and as big across as his index finger—from the bucket, make a cut just below the head, skin the writhing body, and strip off two filets of meat. He rinsed the filets with the hose and arranged the results on the tray. I must have watched him for an hour. I was mesmerized by his fluidity as one‑by‑one the eels quickly met their demise. I have since learned that, most likely, I was watching a man prepare unagi (うなぎ), Japanese freshwater eels.
Later trips to Japan lasted much longer than my first. I traveled around the islands of Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku. I explored Tokyo, Kyoto, Fukuoka, Matsuyama, Hiroshima, Kagoshima, Kochi, and Osaka. I visited many, many small towns in between the large ones. I spent hours walking through streets full of food vendors, looking into shops, and exploring all things food. I spent hours watching a woman make tamago (卵焼き), a multi‑layered, rolled omelet. I spent hours watching a machine make cookies. I spent hours watching sushi‑chefs mass produce their products.
I learned that most large department stores have a food department on their ground floor. Part supermarket, part fast‑food, take‑out shop, and part bakery, these stores sell everything you may need for tonight’s dinner, whether you plan to cook it yourself or simply open a package. These food stores also sell food intended as gifts.
A common Japanese gift, given as part of the ritual of omiyage, is something that can be consumed. A very good quality piece of fresh fruit, confections, and expensive liquor are common omiyage. Baked confections will be individually wrapped and then packaged in equally elaborate boxes. When you purchase the box, it will be personally gift‑wrapped, often in a manner that requires no tape to hold the wrapping in place.
A common baked confection, one that is purchased both as a gift and also for personal consumption is dorayaki (どら焼き). Each consists of a pair of pancakes, about 9 cm (31⁄2 in) in diameter, assembled sandwich‑like with a filling of red bean paste call koshian (漉し餡), if sieved, or tsubushian (潰し餡), if not. The size of the pancakes can vary with the shop producing them. They are generally made from a sponge cake‑like batter similar to that used to produce castella (カステラ), a distinctive Japanese sponge cake considered a specialty of Nagasaki.
I stumbled across a video
by a woman who bills herself as Maggie Foodie, and it turns out, reigns from my part of the world. She apparently got the recipe
from a Toronto website called Closet Cooking.
As I looked at the dorayaki
being made in the video, I thought both about my trips to Japan and how these confections could be turned into mignardise.
So I adapted their common recipe to make my dorayaki.
My pancakes would be about 2 cm (0.8 in) in diameter so they would fit nicely on my mignardise
plate. You’ll have to experiment a bit, but I found that an old half‑teaspoon measuring spoon worked great as a way of producing similar‑sized pancakes of the diminutive dimension I desired. I tried a number of fillings, including the traditional red bean paste, and eventually landed on a quince preserve
made by a friend. The recipe below will produce enough pancakes for about 16 completed sandwiches.
extra‑large egg, beaten
50 g (1⁄4 c)
quince preserve, or other jam
1. Whisk the egg, water, and baking soda together. Combine the flour and sugar, and add to the egg mixture. Whisk until the batter is smooth.
2. Cover and set the batter aside at room temperature for 30 to 60 minutes.
3. Heat a dry, nonstick crepe or frying pan over medium heat. Dose out the batter onto the hot pan. When the bubbles have begun to pop, flip the pancakes to cook the opposite side. If the first side is too brown, reduce your heat.
4. When the second side is cooked, transfer the pancakes to a cooling rack.
5. When the pancakes are fully cooled, dab some quince preserve on the bottom of a pancake and place a second pancake, bottom‑side down, on the preserve. Squeeze the two pancakes to gently spread the filling. Remove any excess filling with a small spoon or your finger.
6. Set the assembled sandwiches aside so the filling can harden a little bit before serving.