Last year we went to Japan (Osaka, Nara and briefly, Kyoto) where, among other things, we took a cooking class that taught us a few dishes that are commonly cooked at home.
It turns out that the labor-intensive foods we Americans assume are staples of Japanese cuisine–tempura, ramen, sushi–are rarely prepared at home. Instead, meals at home comprise light dishes like pickled root vegetables, miso soup, stir-fried or simply grilled meat, rice, and greens. The recipe we learned for greens was spinach goma ae, where “goma” means sesame seeds and “ae” means sauce. We liked it immensely during the class due to its simple preparation and pleasantly light flavor, and since then it has become a staple of our dinners.
These pictures are from an instance during which I made the goma ae sauce and used tatsoi, rather than spinach, as the green. Goma ae sauce is slightly nutty, salty and sweet, and goes well with almost any leafy green. We’ve tried it with spinach, bok choy and tatsoi, and I’ve seen it used for green beans, eggplant and other vegetables. I think it generally goes well with any fairly flavorless (i.e. not terribly bitter) green that has nice structure (I wouldn’t recommend something delicate like baby spinach). The basics of preparing greens with goma ae sauce are 1) blanch the greens lightly, 2) cool and cut into bite-size pieces, and then 3) mix with sauce. One thing I thought was pretty memorable from the cooking class was our teacher’s strict instructions to grind the sesame seeds until precisely 90% so that you can still see an occasional whole sesame seed in the sauce–she very carefully examined our sesame seeds and declared them to be only 85% ground and needed a little more time in the mortar and pestle, much to my amusement. As a result, below is a photo as a visual guide to what 90% ground looks like.Another thing to keep in mind is that after blanching and cooling, you really want to wring out as much water as you can from the greens–really, grab a bunch and wring them like you would a washrag, both directions. Otherwise, you’ll end up with very wet greens in a watered-down sauce. When wringing out the greens, I find it useful to line up all the stems so that it’s easier to cut them into bite-sized pieces.
Greens goma ae
Serves 2 as a side with rice and protein
1/2 lb greens
3 tbsp roasted white sesame seeds
11/2 tbsp light (Japanese, low-sodium) soy sauce
1 tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp mirin
- Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil. Wash the greens to remove any residual dirt.
- While the water is coming to a boil, grind the sesame seeds in a food processor or mortar and pestle until about 90% of the seeds are ground.
- Add the soy sauce, sugar and mirin to the sesame seeds and mix. Depending on how large the bowl of your mortar is, you can either leave your sauce in the mortar (if the bowl is large enough to contain the cooked-down greens) or transfer to a a small mixing bowl. Set sauce aside.
- Once the water is boiling, add the greens, stem-side down (they take a bit longer to cook than the leaves) to the boiling water. Cook for about a minute or until the leaves are wilted and dark green.
- Remove the spinach to a colander and run under cold water for about 10 seconds. Transfer greens to a bowlful of cold water, preferably with ice, to cool further.
- After greens are completely cooled, take small handfuls (about 7 or 8 stems at a time) and thoroughly wring water out from the leaves and stems.
- Cut the greens into 1-2″ lengths. Add the greens to the sauce and mix until the greens are thoroughly coated in sauce.
- Transfer to a clean dish and serve.