Sarah B. Hodge returns once again as a guest blogger during her final days in Japan after a 5-year stint as an ESL/EFL specialist teaching English as a second language as her day job while also working as a freelance writer and enjoying all things Japan. Previous guest posts by Sarah include Enjoying A Cherry Blossom Picnic Bento (Ohanami) At Home, Shojin Ryori: The Spirit of the Japanese Zen Kitchen, and Recommended Shojin Ryori Restaurants in Japan
Over the last five years, I’ve been blessed to travel, cook, and craft my way around Japan, including taking some two dozen cooking classes in Tokyo and Kamakura focusing on traditional Japanese cuisine with Elizabeth Andoh, Shojin Ryori (Zen vegan temple cuisine), and international. I made it to the remote mountaintop monastery of Koyasan, walked part of ancient pilgrimage route Kumano Kodo, visited Kyoto some four or five additional times, including for the spring lantern festival, attended Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Festival, visited dozens of top Japanese gardens, and published some 40 newspaper and magazine articles, all while working full time.
2020 started off with sparkling lights and festive beverages and attire. For an appetizer, I’d made Sabrina Ghayour’s pom bombe, a ball of spiced goat cheese studded with dozens of pomegranate arils and superbly green pistachios from Iran. Pomegranate champagne cocktails and a homemade Polish cheesecake studded with candied and gilded orange peel promised a sweet start to the new year.
The long goodbye….
On New Year’s day 2020, knowing it was my last New Year’s Day in Japan, I made all the traditional dishes of Osechi Ryori from scratch: spiced sake, ozoni, kuromame, kohaku namasu, tataki gobo, kombu maki, nishime, datemaki and kuri kinton (check out “The Wonderful World of Osechi: Japanese New Year’s Recipes” book for more traditional recipes and ideas!). Although preparing Osechi is time-consuming and many families now opt to order them from restaurants or department stores, I find making my own to be rewarding and knew it would be my last chance to prepare authentic Osechi with easy access to ingredients. Afterwards, I visited my local shrine for Hatsumode (a visit to shrines and or temples on December 31st to ring one of the 108 bells, and drink sake).
During the early months of 2020, I’d been doing nonstop traveling, photography and writing for JNTO’s Tokyo and Beyond: 2020 Olympics tourism portal. January 4th saw me off to Ryogoku to write up an article on sake, February saw a magical trip to Sawara, and March included a trip to Tokyo to profile traditional Tokyo crafts as well as Kawagoe’s Edo-era charms.
Shortly after, Commander Fleet Activities Yokosuka placed all US Navy personnel stationed in Yokosuka under a three-month Shelter-in-Place order that meant we could leave the house only for medical appointments or grocery shopping, with no retail shopping, museums, malls, onsens or public transportation. Overnight, we were all suddenly teleworking and confined to quarters.
My 40th birthday plans vanished overnight, as did my trip home to celebrate my birthday with family in June and all of my travel plans around Japan (which had included trips to Shodoshima and Tokushima in July and a two-week grand tour of Kyushu culminating in a travel guide in August).
Suddenly I was awash in nothing BUT time as I waited to leave Japan, a precious commodity the previous couple of years as I had managed to fit in traveling, classes, and writing, but no time for cooking and baking. I used my newfound time at home to voraciously cook my way through cookbooks that had been relegated to shelves, starting with Michal Korkosz’s “Fresh from Poland,” where I drew inspiration for my 40th birthday-in-isolation menu as a Polish-American: Sauerkraut and Mushroom-stuffed Pierogi with Candied Orange Peel paired with a French flourless cake baked in my rice cooker as part of a Japan Times article I was working on. I also cooked my way through a number of Michal’s other Polish vegetarian dishes like chilled borscht, tomato apple soup, lazy dumplings, poppyseed roll and fava beans with mint. The flavors and aromas in my kitchen reminded me of cooking with my Polish grandmother in her small Michigan apartment.
I returned to fermenting my own yogurt with rose petal and fig jams rather than purchasing storebought. I went on to cook my way through Sami Tamimi’s Falastin and a number of bread recipes from Polish Housewife and Polish Your Kitchen, including Easter and cheese babkas. My proofing box got a weekly (sometimes daily) workout. I also proofread the first bilingual cookbook from British bakery Mornington Crescent in Tokyo. The once-familiar rhythms of kneading, shaping, proofing and baking were comforting, and I was able to share my baked goods with coworkers once we were allowed to return to work in late June.
As summer crept into fall, we finally got our students back in face-to-face classes. I was able to take one last grand voyage to Matsue, which I’d been wanting to visit for the past several years. It was my last chance to say farewell to the places and the country I loved; I was at Izumo Taisha on the first day of Kamiarizuki, when all the Shinto gods from across Japan congregate at the shrine. Instead of asking for favors, I went to say “thank you” for the many blessings I’d received over the last five years.
With only a few weeks left in Japan, I’m now beginning the process of cataloging my belongings and preparing for an international move, trying to anticipate what Japanese housewares and kitchen items I’ll need in my new life overseas. No matter where I may end up, Japan will always be home in my heart.
For my first Christmas with my family in six years, we’ll be having traditional Polish dishes like pierogi, sauerkraut with split peas and Polish cheesecake, so in a fitting way, 2020 has come full circle.
Pierogi with Sauerkraut, Mushrooms, and Candied Orange Zest
(Recipe adapted from Fresh from Poland: New Vegetarian Cooking from the Old Country by Michal Korkosz)
Makes about 40 pierogi
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour
- 1 pound (450 grams) sauerkraut, drained and finely chopped
- ¼ cup plus 3 tablespoons (105 g) unsalted butter
- 1 medium onion (180 g), peeled and chopped
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 pound oyster mushrooms, chopped (Note: You can also use 4 ounces / 115 g dried mushrooms, cooked for 40 minutes, instead of the oyster mushrooms)
- 1 small carrot (100 g), peeled and grated
- 5 tablespoons chopped candied orange zest
- 1 whole star anise pod
- 2 whole cloves
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Basic Pierogi Dough:
- 3 ½ cups (450 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ cup cold-pressed rapeseed oil or extra virgin olive oil
- 1 cup warm water
To make the filling, place the sauerkraut in a medium saucepan and cover with water. Cook over low heat for 40 minutes until tender. Drain well.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the butter in a large skillet. Add the onion and the bay leaves. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add another tablespoon of butter, let it melt, then add the mushrooms. Cook for 5 to 8 minutes, until golden brown. Add another tablespoon of butter, let it melt, then add in the mushrooms. Cook for 5 to 8 minutes, until golden brown. Add another tablespoon of butter, then the sauerkraut, carrot, and 2 tablespoons of the candied orange zest. Cook for 2 minutes more, until the flavors combine. Discard the bay leaves, then season with salt and pepper. Let cool completely.
Meanwhile, make the pierogi dough. Combine all-purpose flour and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, combine rapeseed oil or extra virgin olive oil and warm water. Slowly add the liquid ingredients to the flour and mix with a wooden spoon until the dough is well combined. Turn the dough out onto a clean, lightly floured surface and knead for 4 to 5 minutes, until it is smooth and supple. Invert a bowl over the dough and let it rest and room temperature for at least 15 minutes to allow the gluten to relax.
Divide the dough into three equal pieces. Place one piece on a lightly floured surface (Cover the remaining dough with a kitchen towel to keep it from drying out). Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough to a thickness of just less than 1/8 inch (3 mm), lifting up the dough to dust the surface with flour to prevent sticking if needed.
Using a pastry cutter or inverted glass tumbler, cut out 2 ½ inch (6.4 cm) diameter circles of dough. Roll out the circles even thinner, to 3 inches. Gather the dough scraps into a ball and set aside. Continue with the other two pieces of dough, and the combined scraps, until all dough is used, making 40 circles.
Put 1 to 2 tablespoons filling in the center of each round, leaving a 2 cm border. Grasp the dough from opposite ends and pull it up over the filling, pressing down to seal the edges together and creating a semicircle. Pinch the edges together to seal completely (if the edges don’t adhere, brush them lightly with water, then seal). Transfer the pierogi to a lightly floured kitchen towel and cover with another towel to prevent drying.
Boil a large pot of salted water. Working in batches, use a slotted spoon to gently lower 10 to 16 pierogi at a time into the pot. When the pierogi rise to the surface, continue to cook them for 1 to 2 minutes more, then transfer with the spoon to a colander to drain immediately.
(My Polish grandmother always finished off her pierogi by draining and then pan-frying in butter until crisp and golden brown, which is how I serve them as well.)
To make the topping, heat the remaining 4 tablespoons butter, 3 tablespoons candied orange zest, and the star anise and cloves in a small saucepan. Remove from heat to let the flavors develop.
To serve, divide the pierogi among plates and spoon a generous amount of the topping over them.
Note: Uncooked pierogi can be stored for up to 2 months. Boil them straight from the freezer, adding minutes to the overall cooking time.
Sarah B. Hodge has over a decade of experience in cookbook reviewing as well as cookbook proofreading and recipe testing. A freelance writer for publications including The Japan Times, Tokyo Weekender and Stars and Stripes Japan, she has taken over 100 cooking classes around the world and is a voracious cookbook collector. All photographs by Sarah B. Hodge.