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Nothing Wasted: Cooking with Thanks

July 10, 2017

Meat with Gratitude

A chef who runs an izakaya near my neighborhood in Tokyo takes some of his first live fish of the summer to a pond every year, and releases them as he recites a prayer. Setting them free is his way of saying thanks for the many fish that have died before them – and the many that will follow: Thanks for making tasty meals for humans.

What this gesture demonstrates is that the chef doesn’t take his ingredients lightly. This attitude of respect for materials occurs throughout traditional Japanese culture. In architecture and design, the builder uses only what is necessary. You can see this in the austere composition of the tatami reed-mat room; or a single flower in an earthenware vase.

A popular concept in food is mottainai, meaning, “waste not, want not”. In the Japanese kitchen, ingredients that might be rejected in other cultures have real value. The average chef in Australia, for example, has no use for the aji horse mackerel, also known as yellowtail. He probably knows it as small, oily and full of bones, best used as live bait – to catch a “better” fish. But in Japan, the firm, rich aji is a staple table fish for anything from sashimi to sushi, grilling, and deep frying. Skillfully handled, it can be served with no bones at all. A similar thing can be said for many other offcuts of seafood, meat and vegetables. An ingredient’s usefulness can be determined by its preparation. Japanese cooks make tasty dishes from materials other chefs are likely to throw away.

Above: motsu on the charcoal grill

In Tokyo there has been a boom in izakaya pub restaurants serving offal and intestines, which are called motsu. This suggests just how popular meat scraps have become. Many cheap and cheerful establishments allow patrons to cook their own morsels, seated around a smoky shichirin, charcoal grill.

Eating offal is not only about its flavor, or just avoiding waste; it’s also about using an entire ingredient – in this case, the cow. Other animals get the same respect. Owner-chef Keiji Mori of restaurant Ginza Maru says, “In the days when whaling was a big industry, people would consciously make use of every bit of the whale and throw away nothing, whether for food or oil or cosmetics. Making sure every part of the animal was consumed was a way of expressing gratitude.”

Every Bit of the Fish

Fish scales can even be eaten on their own. “You cook them as a sort of drinking snack,” says sushi chef Aki Hashimoto of Maguro Bito in Asakusa. “You wash and dry them before deep frying.” Hashimoto's standing-sushi bar also serves ara, offcuts of fish including snapper, alfonsino and yellowtail – usually the parts around the gills or fins that can't be used as sushi. The scraps are collected daily and marinated in a sweet miso paste known as saikyo miso before grilling. Being mostly bones, cartilage and skin, they can be fiddly to eat, but customers are adept at picking out the morsels. Rich in fish oil and fat, the pieces may also go into a soup called ara-jiru.

“Not wasting any part of the fish is like saying to the fish, ‘I gratefully receive your life,’” says Hashimoto.

He lists other offcuts for which there are tasty recipes. These include:
* Head and eye (simmered with soy sauce and sake)
* “Collar” (kama, salt-grilled)
* Intestines (simmered)
* Tuna flesh clinging to bones (naka-ochi, sashimi)
* Muscles of scallops and other shellfish (grilled, simmered or raw)
* Backbone (deep fried, especially of unagi, eel)
* Skin. “You wash and dry the skin of tuna or snapper and slice it thinly, then serve as a drinking snack with ponzu (a citrus-soy sauce mix) or salt,” says Hashimoto. “You will also find it at fugu puffer fish restaurants.”

Above: ara-jiru, tuna kama, unagi backbone

Vegetable Magic

Above: okara, sake kasu, nuka

Easier to prepare than meat or fish, vegetables can readily be consumed in their entirety. Konbu kelp seaweed is the cornerstone of Japanese cuisine, since dried konbu is the chief ingredient in dashi soup stock. You add a small strip to water and bring it to the boil, then remove. Use the stock in miso soups or other recipes as a seasoning. Already-boiled konbu can be reused; kept in a plastic container in the fridge until needed, or sliced thinly and simmered with sweetened soy sauce for a condiment called tsukudani, to eat with rice.

In her book aptly titled Kansha (gratitude), veteran food writer Elizabeth Andoh uses the expression Ichi motsu zen shoku, meaning “one food, used entirely.” She describes it as the “ecologically and nutritionally sound practice [which] encourages the use of all edible parts of plant foods: peels, roots, shoots, stems, seeds and flowers.”

Andoh calls one of her recipes “Heaven-and-Earth Tempura Pancakes”, because it uses both the uppermost (heavens) scraps of vegetables such as celery and leeks, and the lowest (Earth) roots, such as mushroom stems and the bottoms of burdock roots. Daikon peels, carrot peels and the ends of lotus roots are also suitable. The ingredients are thinly sliced into roughly equivalent strips then combined in a tangle and loosely battered before deep frying in clumps.

Some food scraps that are popular yet awkward to produce at home can be bought commercially. These include the crumbly debris from tofu-making, known as okara, which makes excellent cookies, and the lees from producing sake, the brewed rice beverage. Sake kasu is sold in plastic packages or chunks, and the sweet yet slightly sour fermented paste rubbed over cuts of fish makes an excellent marinade for oily salmon and mackerel – and also helps extend their fridge life.

Rice bran is a cast-off that’s essential for making the pickle nukazuke. Vegetables kept at room temperature covered in nuka – the husks from polishing rice – are rich in lactobacilli and good for the intestinal flora. Many households have a nuka container and make their own pickles, as the process is very simple, requiring little more than burying the ingredients and turning them occasionally. Nuka can be bought at stores that sell or polish rice.

In an age when food is heavily processed for supermarket shelves, and enormous quantities are thrown away, the use of offcuts and scraps is one way consumers can act locally to reduce waste. It’s a different way of thinking about food, and benefits the body and the environment, as well as providing adventures in eating.

Text: Mark Robinson