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Regional Foods, Restaurants, Unusual Foods

The Secret Ingredient

In the spirit of honesty, today’s cooking story falls somewhat short of success.

The curtain opens on a sunny day in the mountains, when a merry band of hikers happen upon a certain tree.

I share a couple of hobbies with the women from the international circle in my town. One is food – they give me cooking advice, and sometimes ask me to join them on “lunch dates,” (the kind that start at 11:00 – the restaurants we go to always sell out early – continue on detours to a bakery, a sweet shop and a Chinese restaurant, and finally end at 5:00 with cake and tea.) Fortunately, we also share a love of the outdoors. On Saturday, we took a day hike at Iouzen (医王山), a peak among the range of hilly mountains to the east of Kanazawa. In town, the early morning sun was already uncomfortably hot. There in the mountains, though, great drops of dew still shone on the wild hydrangea leaves, and the canopy of foliage overhead cast dappled shadows on the trail. Sitting under a massive maple tree, sharing fresh blueberries and frozen lemon slices soaked in honey, was definitely the highlight of my week.

As we were climbing a steep hillside, one of my companions stopped to pick something up: a broad, green leaf, easily the size of both of her hands. “It’s houba,” she explained, pointing up at the tree to which the leaf obviously belonged. It was a hounoki (Japanese Bigleaf Magnolia – Magnolia obovata). It was a large tree, with smooth, gray bark – its lower half was difficult to distinguish from the other trees surrounding it. Its leaves, however, in large whorls of five, made a distinctive pattern against the sky. Those that had fallen to the ground were considerably larger than any other leaf around.

Hounoki can be identified with ease by the distinctive pattern of their foliage.

“You can use them to cook. Here, smell.” She held the leaf out to me. It had a mild, strangely flowery aroma. I helped her collect a few more, and kept a few for myself to experiment with. My first discovery was that the leaves make an excellent improvised fan – not only are they broad and stiff, but they also waft away the smell of your fellow hikers and replace it with the delicate scent of magnolia.

Houbayaki in Shirakawago - doesn't it just call to you?

Houba (朴葉) are not exactly edible per se, but they have been used traditionally in mountainous parts of Japan as a wrapper for portable foods (i.e. riceballs), or as a makeshift plate for grilling. Houbayaki (朴葉焼), a regional food from Gifu and Nagano Prefectures, is a popular dish in restaurants in those areas. To make it, vegetables, meat and/or tofu are nestled in a sauce made of miso on top of a soaked houba (today, this is usually set on top of a wire grill for ease of cooking), and cooked slowly over an open flame. A friend of mine ate it recently when we visited Shirakawago in Gifu. I’d ordered a tofu steak, and was eating it happily when her dish arrived.  There was something irrisistable about the glow of the flame, and the way the miso bubbled out from under the tofu. I was truely jealous, and deeply regretted having chosen the larger, yet myseriously less satisfying, tofu steak.

Now that I had the rarest ingredient in my possession, it seemed like a waste not to try making houbayaki myself. The problem was that I didn’t really have a good way to cook it over an open fire. I thought about setting a cooling rack over my gas burner, but that sounded sort of like a household fire waiting to happen (I don’t even own a fire extinguisher). So I consulted the internet. And I found one person – just one – who suggested that one could make equally delicious houbayaki in the oven.

Here’s what it ended up looking like (feel free to compare it to the restaurant version pictured above):

While it tasted fine, this dish was definitely lacking something.

I don’t exactly know what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it. The whole thing kind of congealed into this mass of brown meat and vegetables, which is what a reasonable person would have anticipated. And mind, it tasted fine. It even had a hint of that magical magnolia aroma, which I had foolishly assumed to be the secret ingredient. Yet the results were, all in all, disappointing.

What did I conclude from this experience? While of course it is possible to cook vegetables and meat on a magnolia leaf in the oven, the missing ingredient was presentation. Half of the fun with eating real houbayakji is watching it cook – preferably as you think back on the experiences you had that day. You recall the green of the forest and listen to the rain pounding on the roof as the tantalizing aromas fill your nostrils. You watch the miso boil, and when it’s finally time to eat, your hunger and anticipation are the final, secret ingredient. What my oven-baked version was lacking was romance.

Feeling somewhat disappointed, I washed my leaves and hung them up to dry thoroughly in my kitchen. Dried houba work just as well as fresh ones, just as long as you soak them first, so next time I get my hands on a barbeque, I’ll give this another try.

If you’d like to try it yourself and can’t get your hands on the leaves, a similar effect could be achieved with tin foil (or perhaps another durable leaf, such as bamboo or corn husks). On your leaf or tin foil, spread miso sauce (55 grams of miso paste, mixed with about a tablespoon of mirin). Follow this with a layer of vegetables (your choice – I used eggplant, shitake mushrooms, onion and green pepper) and cover with a layer of meat or tofu. Cook on a grill over hot coals, or a campstove set to low, until miso is bubbling and meat is cooked.

And this is important: For best results, be sure to consume on an empty stomach after a long day outside, and in the company of friends.

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