How to create fake unagi
Kakuho Aoe, a chef and chief priest at Ryokusenji temple in Tokyo's Nishiasakusa area, has come up with a recipe for a "grilled eel" dish made of lotus root and tofu.
The imitation food re-creates not only the appearance but also the soft, springy texture, as well as the fatty and sweet flavor of grilled eel, called unagi no kabayaki.
Figuring out ways to make the food resemble grilled eel is itself part of the fun.
Aoe's other specialties include imitation pork made from kurumafu (wheel-shaped, breadlike dried wheat gluten), which he uses to replicate pork cutlets with miso sauce and kakuni cubed pork stew, as well as imitation ground meat made from freeze-dried tofu that he crushes into pieces.
"Imitation food originated in China as dishes served to welcome guests and entertain them with elaborately crafted appearances," Aoe said.
"The food has a playful quality and warms the atmosphere of the dining table when served."
Aoe made a number of trial runs before coming up with his recipe for imitation grilled eel.
He first grates lotus root, squeezes the grated fibers to extract juice and then heats the squeezed juice until it becomes sticky and can be used to bind other ingredients together.
He then mixes the sticky lotus root juice with the lotus root fibers, grated yamatoimo yam and crushed tofu so that the ingredients resemble eel meat.
"Lotus root fiber imitates the texture [of eel meat], while tofu and yam re-create the rich flavor," he said.
He then spreads the mixture on a sheet of nori to replicate the look of eel skin.
A fun step involves re-creating the pattern on the surface of grilled eel by making indentations on top of the mixture.
Aoe uses the back of a knife with adequate width for making firm, straight lines.
"Thin lines can easily disappear in cooking," he said.
He etches a thick line in the middle of the mixture's surface and relatively thin lines horizontally and vertically from the main line to give it the look of eel meat.
The imitation eel meat is then deep-fried to mimic the fattiness of the fish.
He recommends frying it over low heat to avoid obscuring the lines.
The fried mixture is then coated in sweet-and-salty kabayaki sauce and grilled to give it a roasted flavor and charred look.
Aoe's imitation grilled eel impresses because it looks just like the real fish in colour and shape.
The texture, sweetness and richness of the food are also similar to grilled eel.
The nori resembles real eel skin, but obviously tastes like nori.
However, such a subtle divide between look and taste provides another source of enjoyment.
"The sense of accomplishment you get when you successfully imitate a food is really nice," Aoe said.
Lotus root mochi
- The mixture of heated lotus root juice and lotus root fibers is also good for imitating mochi.
- Add starch to adjust the softness.
- Make flat dumplings in portions that are easy to eat.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a frying pan over medium heat and cook the dumplings on the pan.
- Flip occasionally until both sides turn brown.
- The sweet taste and soft texture calls to mind elegant Japanese sweets.
- It also makes a good accompaniment to drinks.
Recipe for mock grilled eel
Ingredients (for six pieces):
- 240 grams lotus root
- 120 grams yamatoimo yam
- 170 grams silken kinu tofu
- 2 sheets roasted nori (19 centimeters x 21 centimeters)
- Grate lotus and squeeze the gratings to separate juice and fibers. Pour the juice into a small pan to boil, and add a pinch of salt. Reduce the heat to low when it comes to a boil and heat for another 1 to 2 minutes. Turn off the heat when juice becomes sticky. Pour into bowl to cool and then mix it with the fiber.
- Grate yamatoimo yam. Drain and break up tofu. Add them to bowl with lotus root. Add 2 tablespoons starch and 3 tablespoons flour to the bowl and stir together while mashing tofu. Separate the batter into six portions.
- Cut nori sheets into three pieces each to make six smaller sheets. Lay each sheet atop a large cooking sheet and spread batter over it. Etch lines on batter with back of knife to make it look like eel meat.
- Slowly place the cooking sheets with the nori and batter into frying oil between 140 C and 150 C. Remove the cooking sheet when the batter becomes firm. Pour oil over surface of the batter with ladle and keep frying until it turns brown.
- To make sauce, boil down equal amounts of sake and mirin and then add the same amount of sugar and soy sauce and boil further until sugar melts completely.
- Lay aluminium foil on grill tray and place the fried batter pieces on top. Thoroughly coat the pieces with sauce. Grill for about 2 minutes on medium heat. Serve on plates. Add optional sansho Japanese pepper to taste.