Some Like It Hot

Reading about other people's comfort foods got me thinking about my comfort foods... Definitely sweet. Despite claiming that I am a consummate salty snacker in my previous post, my surefire go-tos are sweets that harken back to my childhood: custard filled cream puffs (aka choux à la crème); rice or tapioca pudding; and crème caramel.

Yes, I definitely have a thing for that custardy texture.

Even my idea of salty comfort foods usually tend towards a creamy texture: anything with béchamel (like a vegetarian Bolognaise-style lasagna, or homemade macaroni and cheese) is top of the list. Lately however, I've been seeking out foods from my cultural heritage. More precisely, my mother's cooking. Like kimpira vegetables...

Named after a strong-willed character in traditional Japanese puppet theater, kimpira is a dish of (typically) root vegetables (all no-nonsense-good-for-you vegetables) sautéed in sesame oil with slivers of dried chilli peppers. The most common kimpira is made from matchstick-sized gobo, or Japanese burdock root, carrots, and/or lotus roots. Tasty stuff indeed, and always a treat when I happen to drop in at my parents' when my Mum's whipped up a batch. But, unless you are an ardent forager, you might have a hard time finding burdock root, even in an Asian grocery store. You can substitute salsify for burdock, if it is available at your farmers' market.

Do not go digging up the ponds at your local botanical gardens for lotus roots!!!
(Have you ever witnessed the glorious sight of a pondful of lotus in full bloom? It is truly a sight to behold. The Chinese Pavilion at the Montreal Botanical Garden is quite nice, but my fondest memory is the pond neighbouring the school where I worked when I lived in Japan. 
It was quite stupendous. Gorgeous in an exuberant way, almost bordering on the brazen. 
What a shock I had one September afternoon, when I walked to the pond only to find that it had been dredged up, and the lotus ripped out. I knew that the pond's owners were farmers, but I hadn't realised that the lotus were a crop, not a garden.)

Just in case you've resolved to eat only local products over the coming year, you needn't deprive yourself from tasting this easy dish. Tonight's kimpira was made from parsnips, celeriac, carrots and shredded cabbage. All survivors from my Hallowe'en harvest.

It was delicious. It filled the void in my stomach and my heart. It made me realise that I am a rice eater.

I never used to like rice. My parents had a hard time making me finish off the rice on my plate as a child. But my two year stay in Japan opened my eyes: rice raised on small paddies by caring farmers tastes wonderful. Each 'terroir' in Japan has its fetish variety of rice, with its own flavours and aromas. Being able to taste the difference was awesome.

Recent research claim that there is little evidence of difference between organic and conventional foods. That may be true, especially if the products tested all come from large-scale farms, but I am convinced that vegetables and animals lovingly raised, foods made with passion and care taste different. It sometimes brings tears to my eyes.

Kimpira Vegetables
(Feeds one famished vegetarian, or 3-4 regular eaters)

1 medium carrot
1 medium parsnip
1 small celeriac
5 leaves of green cabbage, ribs removed

2 Tbs/ 30mL Japanese toasted sesame oil
1 dried chilli pepper, sliced in thin slivers -or ¼ tsp chilli paste (Sriracha)- or to taste
1 Tbs mirin, or white wine with a generous pinch of sugar
Japanese soya sauce

Peel all vegetables.
Finely julienne each vegetable. You will need a sharp knife to do this easily, or you can use a mandoline*.
Heat oil in a frying pan on high heat (try to avoid Teflon pans, if that is not possible, sauté the veg in small batches at medium heat). 
When the oil starts to 'shimmer' (just before oil starts smoking, its surface seems to ripple), throw in your julienned vegetables and chilli pepper. 
Stir-fry until the vegetables just begin to turn limp -you want them to be al dente, or just crisp.
Add soya sauce to taste (± 2Tbs/ 30mL) and mirin.
Serve as a sidedish, with rice or stir-fried noodles.

You can substitute any and all vegetables for whatever you want -though I would stick to crunchy veg. Potatoes are tasty served this way. My Mum's served kimpira red peppers and carrots (full of vitamin A!) to great acclaims. And I am sure that rutabaga would be a success.

(The Japanese soya sauce and sesame oil are not a bid for nationalist pride: their flavours are more subtle than Chinese soy sauce and sesame oil, and will not overpower the vegetables' personalities. Most supermarkets have the more popular Japanese products in stock. Mirin is a sweet rice wine used only for cooing. Real mirin is difficult to find outside of Japan, but a dry white wine doctored with a pinch of sugar will do, or if you can spare it, a sweet white wine would make an extravagant substitute.)

I don't know if this dish will bring tears to your eyes, or if it will tickle your taste buds and warm your belly, but it is a little bit of what I call comfort.

Bon app'!

*From the Department of Gadgets You Never Knew You Needed:
A mandoline can really simplify your life if you are not confident about your knife skills. Japanese mandolines, like the one on the left, are great for slicing and shredding in three different width. These are usually found in Asian grocery stores. However, spare blades can only be ordered from Japanese stores, and it can take a long time. They are relatively inexpensive (± 30$), so if your blades are really dull and bent out of shape, it might be worth your time just to buy a new one (although I am not an advocate for disposable purchases: unless you use your mandoline daily, the blades should be good for years).
French mandolines are more complex affairs made of stainless steel, and are priced in concequence: a good French mandoline will fetch at least 75$ -anything cheaper will be just that: cheap. French mandolines are a good investment if you like slicing, dicing and frying: a good French mandoline can cut fries, from matchstick size to fat, steak fries; they usually come with a waffling blade for waffle chips and game chips (waffle chips sliced in a criss-crossed fashion to obtain a basket weave in the chip) and other fancy blades. Replacement blades are extremely hard to find though.


  1. This looks great. My boyfriend makes kimpira too, but only occasionally. We've never tried it using anything other than gobo and carrot, but using other, more readily-available vegetables is a great idea!
    Happy 2010!


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