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Summer Samurai

Chilled tomato somen

Springtime in Japan is all about cherry blossoms. Summertime in Japan is all about food that’s cool, and in more ways than one. Parts of Japan get hot and sultry in the summer — not unlike most parts of India. The Japanese counter the heat with chilled dishes, or with meals that cool the system. I thought we could take a tip or two from the enterprising Japanese on how to eat and beat the heat.

This struck me one day when I was discussing Japanese food with Rakesh Prasad, the executive chef at The Suryaa New Delhi, who had earlier entertained me with some delightful sushi and sashimi. The chef was most enthusiastic about the subject. The Japanese, he said, had a great many ways of dealing with the heat. Sushi, for instance, is eaten with relish in the summer, for the ingredients are all chilled.

Unagi, or the eel, is a great summer favourite too, for just a small helping of the omega-3 fatty acid-rich eel replenishes all the salts and energy that we lose in the summer. And summertime means ebi kyori, a dish of prawns, mushroom and Japanese greens, served with cold ponzu, which is a citrus-based sauce.

The Japanese, who never do anything in half measures, have been honing their summer food for centuries. Of course, a great many Japanese dishes are light to begin with. A traditional meal consists of miso soup, rice, vegetables and fish — all food that’s cool. But in the summer, particularly, the emphasis is on cold food such as cold noodles, soups and broths or foods that cool, such as greens and tofu.

Tofu, of course, is eaten through the year. But while it may be steamed or boiled in the winter, it’s served chilled when the temperature rises. Chef Prasad is particularly fond of the hiyayakko — chilled silken tofu flavoured with shiso (a herb that belongs to the mint family), green onions and Japanese ginger. The dish, nutritionists believe, helps increase circulation.

Ebi kyori

The chilled tofu recipe is surprisingly simple. All that you have to do is to dice some tofu and add grated ginger, dried fish flakes and chopped green onions to it. Drizzle a bit of soy sauce over it, and then serve in individual bowls.

Then there all kinds of noodles which are served chilled during the season. Soba or buckwheat noodles are cooked and eaten chilled. They are not just cooling but nourishing as well. Cold somen — thin wheat noodles — are eaten with a sauce prepared with mirin (sweet wine) and soy during the summer. Then you have the hiyashi chukka, cold noodles served with various kinds of toppings that range from cucumber, chopped spring onions and steamed bean sprouts to pickled red ginger.

I am not much into haikus (old men in the snow, watching the moon fail to enthuse me), but I must say the Japanese know how to link their poetry with their food, and their food with history. I have been told that the word hiyayakko — the tofu dish I mentioned — has interesting roots. Hiya means cold. And yakko is a term that is used for cutting, and is derived from the word for the servants of the samurai, known for their cutting prowess. And in haikus, the world for the summer season is hiyayakko. How cool is that?