Even more Izakaya food

If you’re wondering about what snacks to serve with a martini, you will find endless inspiration in the world of Izakaya.


Izakaya can be roughly described as relaxed and usually low-cost Japanese gastro-pubs. I have written about them quite a bit before, mainly because of their warm atmosphere and inspiring array of tasty menu items that go very well with a martini.


Quite a lot of these dishes, such as this hot edamame with salt and soy sauce, were snapped in Yumi, Soho, one of a handful of Izakaya in London.


These olives and edamame I did at home though. They’re easy.


Here is some kimchi and cold broccoli with sesame sauce. Simple but effective. Also in Yumi.


Kimchi is a Korean dish consisting mostly of pickled cabbage with chillies.


Pungent and served cold, it can be an acquired taste to some in the West, but I love it. It has even been inscribed by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, which is reason enough to give it a try at least.


This is some homemade lightly pickled mackerel (shime saba) with tsukemono pickles, spring onions, sesame seeds, cooked beetroot, soy sauce, grated ginger and lemon slices.


I think the strong taste of shime-saba pairs well with a bold martini.


It goes very well with a fiery ginger martini.


Here is some Yumi chicken yakitori with raw egg dipping sauce. Absolutely amazing.


Yakitori skewers are a common feature in Izakaya menus.


They’re a delicious and fairly substantial snack.


Inspired by the Yumi selection I made some grilled courgette skewers at home. They were dead easy. 


Rolling cut some courgettes into bite-sized chunks, grill them with some oil and soy sauce for about 20-30 mins, let them cool then thread them onto some skewers.

I put 9 pieces on each and fed them to some willing members of my family.


This is a Thai snack skewer, made of dried and seasoned fish. It has a sweet/umami/spicy taste and a texture like beef jerky.


More pre-packaged and possibly unhealthy snack food, but still tasty. Japanese peanuts coated in a squid-flavoured crunchy coating. It went well with a martini.


Here are some mussels in a garlic-cream sauce with chunky hunks of bread.


They can be slightly difficult to eat with a martini in one hand. It might be easier if you thread the mussels onto skewers first but that’s a bit of a faff.


It’s probably best to have a martini, eat the mussels, then have another martini.


You can see the recipe for these chilled scallops with paprika, seaweed-butter and lime canapés here.


You can probably guess that I love oysters.


I usually like them served as simple as they come.


Their rich oceanic flavour reminds me of being on the beach in the Hebrides when I was little. 


Living in central London it has to be a very evocative flavour to transport me over 500 miles and three decades in just one mouthful…


Anyway, back to Izakaya, sushi is also often served at these establishments. Here are some rough-hewn sushi rolls I put together.


This is a rather large uramaki (inside-out sushi roll) and not exactly the neatest you ever saw…


Loosely based on a California roll recipe, mine contained crab sticks, cucumber, avocado and wasabi.


(These aren’t mine)


I also spread some of my seemingly ubiquitous seaweed butter on the nori instead of using the more conventional mayonnaise.


I also made some smaller cucumber maki, also with seaweed butter.

Cucumber maki have a simple taste and a satisfying texture combining crisp nori, soft rice and the crunch of fresh cucumber.


They also go well with Hendricks gin, which is flavoured with cucumber and rose.


If you make your own rolls the ingredient variations are endless so try some out for yourself. 

Homemade sashimi is fairly easy to assemble.


Buy top grade fresh fish, gently but thoroughly rinse it in cold water. Pat dry then place in the freezer for about 45 minutes then slice into bite-size pieces and serve immediately with soy sauce, wasabi and pickled ginger.


Homemade sashimi might not resemble the expertly sliced morsels you’ll find in a proper sushi restaurant.


However, if the fish is good quality  it should stil be very tasty.


I served some tuna sashimi on sushi rice with omelette and pickles. Simplicity is the key. 

One of the nice aspects of Japanese Izakaya is the more relaxed, informal nature of the service and food.


Home-made style cooking is very popular at Izakaya, putting the emphasis on cosy comfort, relaxation and intimate care.


It’s more like being in someone’s warm, welcoming house rather than an intense fine dining experience, making it a very comfortable environment for a martini.


So if you’re lucky enough to be in Japan or a city with Izakaya venues be sure to check them out.


Otherwise, if you’re having a martini at home and fancy trying some more unusual snacks and appetisers have a go at some of these.


Itadakimasu!

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Chilled scallop canapés with smoked paprika, seaweed-butter and lime

These sound fancy but they were quite easy to put together and can be made in advance, so they’re easy to serve if you’re having a party.


Get about one scallop per guest (or two if you want to make it a more substantial dish than just a canapé).


I love scallops. My dad was a scallop diver so they’ve never been far away from my consciousness.


Shell and lightly clean them.

Separate the coral. You can cook them at the same time as the white flesh and eat them when you like but don’t include them in the canapé itself.

Put the white flesh into the freezer for about 40 minutes. This will allow it to firm up.


Remove then slice horizontally, so that each scallop produces two or more thin discs of tender flesh.

Dry each piece with a paper towel.


Season both sides with a little salt and some paprika (smoked paprika if you can get it).

Heat some olive oil in a pan on relatively high heat.

Add the scallops and coral (in batches if you have a large amount).


Cook for about 40-50 seconds on one side (or at least until that side starts to brown – as in the above image) then turn over. Cook for about 30-40 seconds on the other side, or again until it starts to brown.

Remove the scallops from the pan and allow to cool to room temperature. Put them in the fridge.


Add a dash of soy sauce, a dash of mirin and half a teaspoon of honey to the pan. Stir and bring to the boil, then take off the heat and pour the sauce into a small dipping bowl.


When the time comes spread some seaweed butter onto a ritz cracker, or better still some miniature blini. Top with a slice of scallop and if you’re serving immediately pour a little of the dipping sauce over the scallop and garnish with a tiny sliver of lime peel. TINY. 


If you’re not serving the canapés immediately save the dipping sauce until right before you serve, cover the canapés and keep them in the fridge.

You can just eat the cooked coral on its own (I did; and I felt no guilt) or you can serve them separately with toothpicks and the dipping sauce.

The fresher the scallops, the better.


And naturally this goes very well with a martini. It’s an exquisite snack for even the most esteemed of guests.

More martini snacks and canapes

I’m just going to leave this here…

  

What could be easier than olives and cheese-stuffed peppers that you picked up at the shops on the way home? I particularly like the colour contrast of these two. Oh and the taste.

You can’t go wrong with the lemony-buttery taste of Nocellara olive flesh, while the soft creamy cheese paired very indulgently with the sweet piccante crunch of the pepper.

  
This one was also a little bit last minute. I threw together some Bombay mix, prosciutto and olives when a friend popped round unexpectedly. The Bombay mix didn’t really go with the other two, but it’s definitely very nice on its own.

  

Here are some nuts, arranged mindlessly while I stared into space sipping my first drink of the night. Salted pistachio nuts are my favourite, although some nice big fat macadamia nuts would go well with a martini too.

  
Simple, easy, light, savoury, Twiglets are an underrated canapé snack. They are the flavour and texture opposite of the martini. Where a martini is cold, smooth, heady, citrusy and ever so slightly sweet, these are light, crunchy, salty and savoury. They don’t look particularly elegant but the flavour contrast really works. They’re a guaranteed winner for marmite fans.

  
This one is a bit more fancy. Asparagus skewers, blini with taramasalata, maki rolls, sigeumchi-namul, crisps, a martini and candles…

  
A simple but slightly more edgy snack, here are some wasabi peas with a simple classic.

  
Extremely simple, but very tasty, here is some lightly pickled baby beetroot. I’m sure we could create some kind of pink-coloured beetroot Gibson Martini, perhaps similar to the Beet Up Vesper Martini at the Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town bar in central London. 


Sea Aster is a seasonal coastal plant that flowers in the summer but is edible in the spring. Wash and eat raw or lightly boil for a minute or two. I got mine at a fish monger’s in Borough Market.


Mum bought these langoustines from Tobermory Main Street while I picked up the samphire on Oban pier on a trip back from London.


There’s a whole world of tapas-style ingredients and food types you could use. Above you can see chorizo, cold roast pork slices, feta cheese, olives, bread, houmous, oil  and duqqah.


You can turn the nibbles into your whole meal and really take your time with the martini. Above you can see crab open sandwiches, nuts, wood ear mushrooms, Korean-style spinach, roasted vegetables, seaweed, manchego cheese, Bombay mix, olives, bread, oil and houmous all to be slowly munched while you sip your cold gin.


Houmous is a relaxed martini accompaniment to have at home with informal company over a drink.


Here it is served with sliced pitta bread and a variety of mostly Mediterranean snacks.


My kind neighbour made me some lovely Middle Eastern sweets which I included in the meal.

The Arabic element of the food was especially good at soaking up some of the alcohol!


Dim sum was a surprisingly good – if slightly unconventional accompaniment.


Oysters are my favourite.


I also love creamy manchego cheese.


Finally though, the most classical martini snack will always remain the pitted green olive. If it’s all you have, you’ll be fine. And you won’t spoil your appetite for dinner.

Shime Saba (pickled mackerel sushi)

I love mackerel.  

You’ve got to eat it fresh, it looks beautiful, it tastes really strong and it reminds me of fun times trying to catch them in the summer from a very young age.

   
I also love sashimi, or meat and seafood that is lightly cured, smoked or marinaded rather than cooked outright.

So here is a simple recipe for preparing mackerel to eat, without the use of a cooker.

  
You will need:

  • 2 mackerel fillets
  • 4tbsps salt and an extra pinch or so
  • 240ml clear vinegar (preferably rice vinegar)
  • 20ml vermouth (optional)
  • 1tbsp mirin

  

  • Put the mackerel fillets in a container and cover them with the 4tbsp salt, making sure that no parts are left uncovered on either side.

  

  • Transfer the fillets to a sieve and place it over some sort of container to catch any of the liquid that the salt will draw out.
  • If you’re left with any salt in the container sprinkle it over the top of the fillets.
  • Leave the fillets on the sieve for an hour then carefully take each one and rinse it under a cold water tap.
  • Make sure the tap is not set on high pressure or you could damage the fillet.
  • Carefully dry off the fillets with kitchen towel.
  • Find a sealable container. It should be able to hold the two fillets and when filled with the liquid mixture you are about to make it should cover both the fillets.
  • Mix together the vinegar, mirin, optional vermouth and extra pinch or two of salt.
  • Stir so that the salt dissolves.
  • Pour a little of the mixture into the sealable container.
  • Lay the fillets in the container flat, side by side then pour over the rest of the vinegar mixture.
  • Seal the container and put it in the fridge for 3 hours.

  

  • Take the fillets out of the container and carefully dry them with kitchen towel once again.
  • You will notice that the flesh has become more firm, almost as if the fish has been cooked.
  • It feels like a drier version of ceviche.
  • The next step can be quite satisfying once you get over the fiddly bit at the beginning.

  

  • Start at the top end of the fish and find yourself a bit of the skin to hold on to. It’s sort of like trying to peel back a new piece of sellotape.
  • Once you’ve peeled back a bit, gently pull the skin off all the way along the fillet.
  • Some of the iridescence will inevitably come off but don’t worry. This is normal.

  

  • Next, turn the fillets flesh-side up.
  • Look carefully and feel along the middle groove of the fillet for any bones.
  • Gently but firmly use a pair of tweezers to pull the buggers out.
  • This task is less satisfying than peeling off the skin but it’s worth it, if you want to avoid having to give (or receive!) the Heimlich manoeuvre later on.
  • The fillet is now ready for the final serving stage.
  • There are several options here. It could be served as a simple sashimi piece, it could be pressed onto sushi rice to make battera or sliced into sticks and made into maki rolls.
  • For this post I opted for a low-carb option and served it as a simple sashimi.

  

  • I sliced the fillet into 4-5mm pieces, with a thin groove cut deep into the middle of each one.
  • This groove allows the fish to soak up a little more sauce when you dip it.

  

  • You can serve it like so with chopsticks and some dipping sauce.
  • Soy sauce on its own is fine but for Shime Saba’s strong, oily taste I like to mix half soy sauce with half fresh lemon juice.
  • I also served the mackerel here with cucumber tsukemono, grated fresh ginger (to help cut through the oily fish) and some simple shredded spring onion, with a dab of wasabi.
  • Note that this is a very nutritious dish. It’s a much better drinks accompaniment than crisps or peanuts!

 

  •  You can also serve it as a lunch or other meal.
  • It keeps for at least a day in a sealed refrigerated container.
  • I love how the blue skin colour contrasts with the salad.

  

  • You can also serve the shime saba with small slices of lemon between each piece.
  • Not only do the colours contrast nicely but again, the sharp citrusy lemon cuts against the oily fish. And what else goes well with lemon and seafood?
  • Obviously a martini. I would recommend a classic martini with lemon peel, not olives.
  • Alternatively you could try my nice winter warmer the Japanese Pickled Ginger martini.

The Sri Lankan Arrack Martini – the Serendipitini

  
I have been working on this concept for a long time. It’s not a true martini, but it aims to serve a similar purpose, especially for those in Sri Lanka, perhaps without access to gin or vermouth.

I resisted pressure to name it the Tamil Tiger Martini (it’s fiery, complex and deadly) as this would feel wholly inappropriate after Sri Lanka’s bitter internal tragedy. Instead I have opted for the Serendipitini.

Serendib was the old Arabic word for Sri Lanka. It means ‘lucky surprise’ and is where the word Serendipity comes from. Sri Lanka is full of lucky surprises, not least its alcoholic delights.

 
Having previously lived in Sri Lanka I developed a strong taste for their national spirit: Arrack.

  
The drink is very distinctive, but then so is its production method.

Very early in the morning, toddy-tappers climb up coconut trees in certain parts of Sri Lanka. They are there to harvest a very special type of sap.

If you cut the flowers in a certain way they produce a light, sweet liquid which the British colloquially referred to as ‘toddy’. With its high sugar content this liquid starts to ferment almost immediately and has become alcoholic by breakfast time.

It can be drunk straight from the bottle, although you might have to scrape ants off the top layer – I’m afraid I’m not kidding.

  
It is totally organic, fresh and tastes heavenly. However, given its cheapness, some Sri Lankans might not approve of foreigners consuming it, depending on who you talk to. It is sometimes seen as a poor-mans drink (because it literally grows on trees) so you might be expected to try something more refined (i.e. produced in a brewery or distillery). However, you must persist and obtain some! It’s a delight to drink at the beach after breakfast. Spend the morning happily sipping it in the sun. However, note that the liquid will start to ferment to unhealthy levels by about 11am. If you drink it after this time, or consume any of the sediment that builds up in your bottle, you could end up with an upset stomach. You should also avoid sealing any containers which carry toddy. As it ferments, the pressure can build up and the container can burst. Don’t shake the liquid either!
So that’s toddy, the wonder drink that has been gifted to mankind.

But what if you don’t want to drink in the morning?

Large quantities of the liquid are extracted each morning and allowed to ferment naturally. This liquid is then distilled to create Arrack.

The beverage has been compared to whisky or rum in flavouring. It can be fiery, but with strong notes of caramel to mellow out the flavour.
During my time in Sri Lanka we would mix it with coca cola, ginger beer (very refreshing), fresh lime juice (with limes gathered from the garden) or we would drink it neat (sometimes referred to as ‘raw’ on the island). Trendy cocktail bars in Colombo (and even London) often pair it with a range of flavours such as mango juice or cinnamon.

However, I always felt that these flavours masked the arrack. I like to channel Marcel Proust; the aroma sniffed from a bottle alone is enough to transport me back to the lush green Hill Country or the transcendent beaches of Trimcomalee.

As such, I wanted to create a drink that enhanced the rich, syrupy arrack character rather than smothering it in a pot pouri other flavours. I also wanted to create a drink that contained elements of the classic martini, such as temperature and powerful subtlety. 

A cold drink is extremely welcome after a hot day in Sri Lanka so I keep the arrack in the freezer for a day before serving. If it’s good quality it shouldn’t freeze solid.

I also wanted to embrace the martini concept of simplicity so I decided to pair the arrack with only one other flavour.

A classic gin martini is very much enhanced by the citrus flavouring of lemon oil, squeezed from a strip of peel. Arrack is also enhanced by citrus so I decided to play around with the concept of lime-cello. This is essentially limoncello but made with limes instead.

  
Limes, known in Sinhala as ‘dehi’ are widely available and consumed in Sri Lanka. A Sri Lankan garden can often resemble an overgrown forest from a distance, but upon closer inspection you will find that most contain a veritable cacophony of consumable fruits. If you can harvest your own for this recipe I’m sure it will taste much better.
  

  • Wash and zest 6 limes
  • Put the peel in a jar and add 400ml vodka

  

  • Seal the jar and leave it to infuse for 3 weeks
  • Give it a shake every couple of days

  

  • Strain the vodka and discard the zest (squeeze it out as much as you can first)
  • Dissolve 4 tablespoons of sugar in 100ml freshly boiled water
  • Not all of it will dissolve but don’t worry. Once the mixture has cooled down give it a shake  and add it to the infused vodka.
  • That’s it. It’s very easy, you just have to wait a few weeks for it to infuse.
  • Like the arrack, I like to keep it in the freezer for at least 24 hours before serving.
  • When it’s time to pour, take a strip of lime peel and squeeze it into a chilled martini glass, then rub it around the glass to transfer as much of the citrus oil as possible.
  • Add the lime-cello to taste (around 40ml) then top up with arrack (around 110ml)
  • Stir well using the lime peel (which you can then use as a garnish).
  • Serve

Be warned, it’s slightly bitter and very strong. Nonetheless, it’s definitely a nice way to end a day of working in Colombo, going on Safari in the country’s many beautiful nature reserves, hiking around the country’s rich architectural heritage or just spending the day at the beach.

In terms of selecting arrack I usually drank Very Special mark in Sri Lanka but i would generally get just what I could get my hands on.

A very good friend from Colombo brought me back some Ceylon Arrack. In a beautiful bottle and probably the most commonly seen in a cocktail bar I would describe the arrack as light, smooth and pure – a really refined taste and certainly the best one I’ve encountered for an Arrack-Virgin. Otherwise you may find some of the others to be a bit more viscous and/or fiery.
  
Note that in Sri Lankan drinking culture it’s almost sacrilegious to drink without eating something at the same time. There is an array of bites you could serve with this. Devilled prawns or cuttlefish spring to mind, or a simple bite mix    (usually referred to internationally as Bombay Mix).

  

It may not be Kandy, but this is as close as I will get to the island of Serendipity. Otherwise try Sekara in Victoria for authentic Sinhalese cooking, and a range of restaurants in Tooting and Croydon for good Tamil food.

Korean spinach – Sigeumchi-namul

Annyeonghaseyo.

  

This is a really tasty, easy and even healthy vegetarian dish that you can serve as a vegetable side, a starter or, most importantly of all, as an appetiser to accompany a martini (obviously).

I first ate this delicious dish in Koreatown, Manhattan. Of all the wondrous and unusual dishes I gluttonously consumed that night (my favourite being a gigantic simmered squid, still sizzling in savoury sauce with brown sugar lightly caramelising on top) this spinach starter is the easiest to put together, but with all things simple, it’s often easy to get it wrong.

I have made the following recipe to my own personal taste preferences so you might want to alter it to add more or less garlic, chilli, soy sauce or oil depending on what you like, but you don’t want to drown it, you don’t want it too oily and you don’t want the garlic overpowering the earthy taste of the spinach either. 

Also if a Korean ajumma tells you to make the recipe a different way, just do what she says.

Otherwise, you will need the following ingredients per person:

  • 200g fresh spinach leaves (around 7oz)
  • 1 tsp soy sauce
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 tsp sesame seeds
  • A clove of garlic

(Simply multiply the above for the number of people you are preparing for).

  
Prepare the garlic first by peeling the number of cloves you want to use.

Here’s a tip: take the cloves you need and put them in the microwave on full heat for 2 seconds. No more! 

 

You’re not cooking the garlic in the microwave, you’re simply loosening the hard peel from the flesh. If you slice off the end now, you will find it much easier to peel.
Thinly slice then chop the garlic into fine pieces.


Here’s another tip: to wash off the garlic smell simply hang your hand loosely under a running tap of cold water so that the water runs down your fingertips and off the ends. Hold it there for about 20 seconds or so. This seems to wash off the garlic. It’s particularly effective if you have a stainless steel sink that you can rub your fingers on as well. 

Bring water to the boil in a large pan. Add the spinach and blanch for about 20-30 seconds.

It should turn a bright green. The volume of the spinach will also reduce significantly. If you are making this for a lot of people you might need to cook the spinach in batches.

When cooked, transfer immediately to a sieve and run under cold water to cool it thoroughly.

Leave it to drain.  

While the spinach is draining, mix the sauce by combining the garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil. 
Gently squeeze the spinach to remove excess water then transfer it to a chopping board and cut it up.
Transfer it to a large bowl (or you could reuse the pot that you cooked the spinach in if you’ve wiped it dry).

  
Add the sauce and mix it into the spinach (you can do this by hand but I used a teaspoon).

You can either serve it immediately or put it in the fridge to serve chilled later.

When serving, sprinkle sesame seeds on top. It is also common to add sliced spring onion as a garnish on top as well.

If you want to bulk it up with some nutritious umami I sometimes put a handful of dried wakame seaweed into a glass of water to soak for 5-10 minutes while making this dish. When you are about to chop up the spinach drain the seaweed and squeeze out the excess moisture and add it to the spinach to be chopped up with it.

If you want to be über nutritious lightly grind the sesame seeds in a mortar and pestle before sprinkling them over. If they are slightly broken it makes them more digestible and allows your body to absorb more of their nutrients.


Obviously don’t forget to pour yourself a martini (or some soju) when you serve this. Make sure you pour a large measure for any long suffering ajummas in your company as well. They deserve it!

 환호!

A martini with sage

This is a very simple recipe for a snack that may or may not taste like fragrant Pringles made for the Gods…

 

While coriander is my favourite herb (controversial, I know), I also love sage.

I previously made a sage-infused gin which goes nicely in a gin and tonic. 

  

However, this sage recipe is very easy and infinitely faster than making an infusion.

  

Instructions

  • Pick around 8 sage leaves per person (or more if they’re small or if you want to eat a lot).
  • Fry them (potentially in batches) in salted butter on a high heat for about 2-3 minutes.
  • The butter should be foaming but be careful not to burn it (remove it from the heat if this starts to happen).
  • The leaves are ready when they’re crispy with tinges of brown colouring.
  • Serve immediately and eat with your fingers (although you can use a fork or chopsticks if you prefer).
  • Save the leftover butter to pour over food (like potatoes), perhaps if you have a meal after your martini and snack.

  
And there you go. It’s like eating fragrant, salty, crunchy air that slides over your tongue. It’s particularly satisfying if you’ve grown the herbs yourself.

  
And obviously these delicious, simple but slightly unusual snacks go very well with a martini…