As a young child, I spent most summers visiting my mom’s side of the family on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. At the time, my grandparents and great grandmother lived in a small, rural fishing/farming village about 2 hours from the nearest small airport, which for an island about the size of South Carolina, is a long way.
For those of you that have never been to Asia in summer, it’s dreadfully hot and humid. It’s the kind of humidity that smacks you in the face like a lukewarm mop. For someone who’s not used to it, it takes a lot of will power just to step outdoors. For those that do muster up the resolve head outside, opening the front door is all it takes to make you want to go back inside and shower, before planting yourself in front of an electric fan for the rest of the day (yes, we didn’t even have air conditioning)
During these summers, dawn was my favorite time of the day. The early morning hours provided a welcomed respite from the oppressive heat, but it was also the time of day ojiichan (grandpa) would take me fishing off a stone outcropping in the local bay, and daybreak was also the time that hi-obaachan (great-grandmother) would take me out into her vegetable field to pick the bounties of summer.
As the sun rose, and with it, the mercury, we’d head back to the shelter of home for breakfast. While ojiichan and hi-obaachan have passed, and Kadogawa is no longer quite as rural as it used to be, this dish is a favorite that always reminds me of those magical summers in Japan. Hiyashijiru (冷や汁), which literally means chilled soup, is a regional specialty of the Miyazaki region. With chilled crunchy cucumbers in a cold sesame miso broth, it’s the kind of breakfast that can get your appetite going on even the most sweltering of days.
To give the cucumbers their audible crunch, I quick pickle them with salt before squeezing out over half their weight in water. By drawing out the moisture, the cucumbers go from crispy to crunchy giving this dish it’s unique texture. The “soup” is nutty and redolent of sesame with earthy notes and bold umami coming from the miso and dashi stock.
Served over hot rice, you get a contrast of hot and cold elements, juxtaposing textures, and a soup that expertly straddles the line between rich and refreshing.
- Cut the ends off the cucumbers and use a mandoline or sharp knife to slice them into 1/16" thick slices.
- Toss the cucumbers with the salt and let this sit for at least 30 minutes. The salt draws the water out of the cucumbers changing their texture from crispy to crunchy.
- Once the cucumbers have started to wilt, you can speed the process up by massaging them like you would knead bread, starting with mild pressure and increasing pressure as the cucumber yields more easily
- When the cucumbers have become translucent, grab a ball of sliced cucumber in your hand and squeeze until no more water comes out. Then rotate the ball of cucumbers a little in your hand and squeeze again until no more water comes out. Keep repeating this until you can no longer squeeze any water out of the cucumbers. If you started with 400 grams of cucumbers, you should now have about 160 grams.
- Put the sesame seeds in a food processor or blender and grind until the sesame looks like wet sand.
- Add the dashi, miso, and sugar and blend until smooth.
- Pour the sesame miso sauce over the squeezed cucumbers and add the shiso. Stir to combine and chill in the refrigerator until you are ready to eat it.
- To serve, fill a bowl with hot rice and pour the cucumbers and chilled soup over the rice. If you like a little heat, sprinkle on some shichimi togarashi (Japanese 7 spicy chili powder) to garnish.
While traditionally this is made with a fish based dashi, this can easily be made vegetarian or vegan by using a kombu-based dashi. If you can’t find fresh Japanese or Lebanese cucumbers where you live, you can substitute a small hothouse cucumber with seeds removed, or other thin-skinned variety of cucumber.