We just got back from three weeks travelling around Japan, and we’re still doing that lovely thing – remembering what we were doing in increments from now. You know, ‘This time last week’, or ‘Two weeks ago today’: ‘We were walking around that amazing moss-covered cemetery in Koya San / at the giant Buddha in Kamakura with Shiro and Timoko / eating yakitori skewers for breakfast in Kochi / in our Airbnb in Kanazawa listening to the typhoon howling out our window!’
Almost as good as the holiday for me is the period afterwards where I start looking at my scribbles of all the delicious food we ate and begin cooking. I remember this phase so well when we got back from Vietnam a few years back – extra special because our home in Melbourne is in a Vietnamese neighbourhood with Vietnamese markets, restaurants and shop-signs to read wherever you walk, and I was suddenly seeing it all with fresh eyes. Cooking new dishes from our travels, and feeling them become new family classics, is worth its weight in gold to me. Memories of the trip come straight back every time you cook a dish. Even better than collected pieces of clothing/knick-knacks/wall hangings if you ask me.
We ate a version of this greens and walnut salad while having an incredible Buddhist vegetarian lunch in a temple. Japanese temple food, which is vegan and without onion or garlic, is simple but quite flawless, with lots of little dishes combining to make an amazing spread – tempura, soba noodles, cold dressed tofu, pickles, small salads, seasonal rice …
Since coming home I’ve found a recipe for the salad in just about every Japanese book I’ve looked at (usually made with sesame seeds), as it’s also a favourite home-style dish. One book describes it as the way to get kids to like spinach! This makes me grin, because even though my kids already like leafy greens, our youngest one liked this so much at the temple that he told me I ‘should make it every day when we get home’!
Note: In the photo my salad is made with beetroot leaves, because that’s what I had in the garden. I wouldn’t make it with silverbeet/chard, but I thought beetroot leaves – about halfway in between spinach and silverbeet – would be okay. (They were great.)
We ate the salad with (ahem, sorry!) a very non-Buddhist steak with a Japanese sauce, and my own spin on seasonal (Spring) rice – just Japanese short rice that I tossed with asparagus (blanched and finely sliced) and calendula petals from the garden.
Japanese greens and walnut salad
2 bunches of spinach (or the equivalent young beetroot leaves, or an Asian leafy green with thin stems such as choy sum)
½ cup walnuts
1 tablespoon soy sauce, or more to taste
½ tablespoon mirin
Cut off the roots off the spinach and wash the leaves/stems well. Fill a large saucepan with around 10 cm of water plus a big pinch of salt and bring to the boil. Once boiling, add the spinach and cook until just wilted. Tip into a colander and run cold water over the spinach to stop the cooking process and retain the bright colour of the leaves. Stir the spinach around in the colander with your hands so it cools down evenly, until it is just warm.
Take a large handful of spinach and squeeze out most of the excess water (no need to remove every last drip, as this will make the salad dry). Place on a chopping board while you squeeze out the rest. Roughly chop up the spinach and put in a mixing bowl.
Toast the walnuts briefly, either on a tray in the oven or in a dry frying pan. Crush to a powder with a mortar and pestle.
Mix the walnuts, soy sauce and mirin through the spinach, combining thoroughly. Taste and add more soy and mirin if desired – this also depends on what you’re serving the salad with; if with something plain like rice, you might want to increase the soy/mirin a little. The salad can happily sit at room temperature for a while before serving.