The lovely and clever Claire Nelson keeps a file on her phone detailing all of her friends’ foodie phobias. Fortunately, my entry is very short. I loathe bananas, I’m allergic go aubergines (I know, it’s weird, but it’s a thing and it’s not pretty), and I think Japanese food is only so-so.
It’s bonkers not to be bananas (gross) over bento boxes, right? What? I’m not silly over salmon sushi? Sacrilegious!
Fact is, I’m spoilt. When I was living in Japan, there was very little else to eat other than local food – and the Japanese are very hospitable. As an impoverished and curious student, I brazenly accepted dinner invitations from teachers, classmates and people that I met on the street.
Everyone knows that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and I often had to eat a lot of funky things to entertain my patrons. Fish eyes, live baby octopus, natto (fermented bean curd that smells worse than death) and gritty crab roe paste that liked to settle on my gag reflex. And this is just the tip of the fugu. There was loads more, but I’ve blocked it out. Let’s just say, I learnt to swallow things whole and smile.
But it wasn’t all evil. Late one night, after many free beers in a beach shack on Kikai-jima (a tiny island in the Ryukyu archipelago where I spent six months as a coral reef research assistant), a man entered dressed in a full-body wetsuit. Saltwater slicked off him onto the sandy floor. His feet were bare, his vintage diving mask perched atop his head. From his hand swung a rusty cage jiving with lobsters. Not more than ten minutes later, we were honoured to be served with the largest of the lot – the raw flesh delicately sliced and presented over a bed of shredded daikon. Soy sauce and wasabi were not required.
Although this sounds ultra special, these kinds of experiences were common. I can’t tell you how many slices of salmon sashimi I was served fresh from the ocean. Udon in hot broth addled with ribbons of egg was a favourite. Shabu-shabu and Wagyu beef. Tsuki-yaki and tempura. How can a multi-pack of soggy seaweed sushi from Pret ever compete?
I know I sound like a brat, but this is what I’m talking about when I say Japanese food is only so-so – there’s nothing like the original. Now I’m horrified by how close-minded I sound. Perhaps I need to give more places the benefit of the doubt. What’s your favourite Japanese restaurant in London? Let me know and I’ll check it out.
In the meantime, I thought I’d cook some you gyoza to make up for my misbehaviour. I was taught how to make these delicious dumplings while over there – home-cooked Japanese food is in another dimension all together . This is the first time I’d made the wrappers too. They’re really easy, so I hope you give them a go. Or if you don’t have the time, you can always buy a pack ready-made from your local Asian supermarket.
And now for the recipe…
300g strong white flour
Pinch of salt
200ml boiling water
230g of cabbage, finely chopped
150g chives, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
A thumb-sized piece of ginger, finely chopped
300g minced pork (you can also use chicken if you prefer)
1 tablespoon of soy sauce
2 tablespoons of sesame oil
Pinch of freshly ground pepper
Pinch of freshly ground salt
2 tablespoons of cornflour
Preparation time: 2 hours
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Sift the flour and add the salt.
Stir in the boiling water (the Japanese use a pair of cooking chopsticks for this, but I used a bread scraper. A spatula would also work – just as long as you don’t burn your hands).
Once the dough has come together, shape it into a ball, cover with cling film and pop it in the fridge for 30 minutes.
While the dough is chilling, you can make your filling (excuse the rhyming).
When the dough is ready, take it out of the fridge and knead it a few minutes on a floured surface.
Cut the dough into four equal parts. Take one and begin to roll it out, turning as you go.
Once you’ve got the dough as thin as you can make it, grab a 3.5-inch cookie cutter and use it with abandon.
Make sure both sides of the rounds are floured and stack them onto each other.
Continue doing this until all the dough is used. You should have between 30 and 40 wrappers.
The secret to a good gyoza filling – alongside lots of herbs and spices – is for all the ingredients to be chopped up very finely. Unfortunately, I don’t recommend you use a food processor, because this turns everything too mushy. So get out your sharpest knife and put your back into it.
In a large bowl, mix together all the ingredients listed above. I use my hands at this stage, squishing the mixture between my fingers. It’s very cathartic.
Making the dumplings
Lightly flour a tray.
Holding one of the wrappers in the palm of your hand, place a spoonful of mixture in the centre.
Using a brush – or a finger tip – paint some water around the edge.
Fold the wrapper in half, making sure all of the mixture stays within the edges.
You can pinch the gyoza together, or you can try to make them look as authentic as possible by pleating the top edge (there are a few YouTube videos that can show you how to do this).
Continue until you’re out of wrappers or filling.
Cooking the gyoza
Grab a large frying pan with a lid, coat with sesame oil and bring to a high heat.
While the pan is heating, measure out three tablespoons of water into a jug or glass.
Add the gyoza to the pan (I usually do them in batches of 8), leaving space between each, and fry until the bottoms become golden (this should only take a few minutes).
Pour the water over the gyoza and cover with the lid.
Cook until all the water has evaporated (again, this should only take a few minutes).
They’re ready to eat!
I like to serve mine with a dipping sauce made up of soy sauce, rice vinegar and rayu (a kind of Japanese chili oil).
If you’d like to see my photos of Japan, please also visit here: japan, you’re such a babe
© Kate McAuley 2014