About Japanese ingredients and substitutions

[Updated to add Substitution section.]

I haven't exactly counted it up, but of the thousands of comments left on Just Hungry, not to mention Just Bento, probably at least a quarter are questions about ingredients or ingredient substitutions. So I thought I might put down what my criteria are for what kind of ingredients I choose to feature in the recipes on either site, especially when it comes to Japanese recipes. [Update added on August 15th, 2008]: I've also added some suggested, and acceptable, substitutions.


tomato inside1

Is there anything that can step in for a ripe, juicy tomato?

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A very easy way to treat yourself to tiny new potatoes.

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There are two Japanese vegetables that I can't get fresh here that I miss very much. One is burdock root or gobo; the other is bamboo shoot or takenoko (竹の子 or 筍). Bamboo shoots are very much a spring-only vegetable, much like asparagus, so around this time of year I always get a craving for the crunch and subtle flavor.


A Swiss company that sells hundreds of squash and pumpkin seed varieties.

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At the moment, cherries are everywhere here in Switzerland. Roadside signs proclaim "Kirschen" or "Chriesli" (the Swiss-German dialect for cherries), luring you to farms and fruit groves and farm stores. They're on sale at the Migros supermarket too, for the busy person to pick up in a hurry.

When I get started on cherries, I can't seem to stop until I've had my fill, and I do mean fill, of that sweet, dark juice with a hint of sourness. Fresh cherries are so good that I just can't bring myself to do anything more than pop them in my mouth one after another, methodically spitting out the pits. I know there are numerous cherry recipes out there, but as delicious as things like cherry pie and cherry clafouti are, there's really nothing to beat the naked, unadorned cherry.

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Everyone knows in theory that the fresher the vegetables, the better they are. But I think that many of us fall into the habit of buying a bit too many vegetables, storing them in the fridge, and using them as long as they haven't rotted away or become science experiments in some form. You know, things like carrots and celery, apples and other rather indestructible produce.

But once you see how produce does deteriorate, you start to wonder. Case in point I had some rhubarb stalks left over, and stored in the fridge for about a week after I bought them. (Normally I cook rhubarb right away, but it was cheap at the market so we'd bought more than we needed.) So, yesterday I took them out - they looked crisp and perfectly fine - and turned them into rhubarb crumble pie.

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February is not really a great month for local fresh produce around here, but there is one category of vegetables that is quite abundant around this time - greens. There's endive, kale, spinach, Swiss chard, chicory, and some less common greens like puntarelle. One problem with many winter or early-spring greens is that they have a bitter flavor.

There are various ways of reducing or counteracting the bitterness; the method you use depends on the kind of greens you are using and how concerned you are about retaining nutrients and such.

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I love tomatoes, and I love salt. So this post about growing hydroponic tomatoes with a weak sodium chloride solution on one of my new must-read blogs, News for Curious Cooks authored by Harold McGee, definitely caught my eye.

According to the post,

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