May Nakano is a national treasure – or, at the very least, she is a Chicagoland and MBT treasure. And a living repository of Japanese-American (and Japanese-Canadian) stories, knowledge, culture and recipes. In addition, she is a great chef, a wonderful teacher and so much fun – which makes spending a morning in one of her cooking classes such a lovely experience. Ten lucky people did just that on Nov. 7, when we gathered in MBT’s kitchen to learn how to make umani, a traditional Japanese stew made with root vegetables and chicken.
First of all, here are some facts about some traditional Japanese stews:
- Nishime contains various root vegetables (only) simmered in a soy-flavored dashi broth.
- Oden contains various root vegetables and many different kinds of processed fish cakes. It also is simmered in a soy-flavored dashi broth.
- Umani contains an array of Japanese root vegetables simmered with pieces of chicken in a soy-flavored dashi broth. It is “dressed” with a few bright green vegetables, such as blanched green beans or snow peas, to give it a splash of color.
To save class time, May spent most of Friday preparing many of the vegetables. She soaked and cooked the shiitake mushrooms, as well as cut and parboiled the gobo root, carrots and renkon and blanched snow peas for the garnish. She also boiled the sato imo (taro) with the skin on in order to preserve the sato imo’s starch, which helps to thicken the umani.
Class participants helped to peel the skin off the sato imo before it was added to the umani.
Other vegetables prepared and added to the stew included bamboo shoots, konnyaku (also called konjac; and did you know a block of konnyaku has almost no calories?!!!), hama age (fried tofu cutlet) and some fishcakes.
All of these ingredients were added to an electric wok and seasoned with the water used to soak the shiitake mushrooms, dashi no moto (fish broth grannules), Mirin (sweetened rice wine) and shoyu (soy sauce).
While waiting for the umani to simmer, May told us how her mother would make kamaboko (fish cakes) by hand. She would put a variety of white fish into a big bowl and stir and stir it, season it, shape it into blocks, and steam it.
When the umani was done, we all enjoyed a delicious lunch together. It was the perfect meal for a beautiful fall day.
Thank you, May!