Food and Recipes
Usugiri and Hantsukigiri Japanese Cutting Techniques Explained
It’s been a while since I’ve posted. Sorry about that! The main thing is that I’ve moved, and so I’m just learning where things are in my kitchen, which confuses matters.
For a few columns, I’ve been thinking that I should post recipes that focus on a single technique. This is common in Japanese knife textbooks, of which I’ve purchased a few. I’ve never seen a knife textbook as such in the US, apart from Chad Ward’s An Edge in the Kitchen, which isn’t the same thing at all, so let me explain this Japanese phenomenon.
When you apprentice in a serious restaurant in Japan, you’re expected to learn the trade not only in the kitchen by classic watch-and-learn (minarai 見習い), but also by going home and studying there. So these young cooks buy ingredients and stand at the counter cutting them in their mom’s home (probably). Problem is, what are you going to do with a mountain of hair-fine needles of eighteen different vegetables? So over the years, culinary instructors have come up with recipes. To learn X technique, go make a big batch of Y recipe, and you’ll end up doing that technique a zillion times. And very commonly, those same recipes are included in the knife textbooks, at the back.
Now I’ve said more than once that I think the most important usuba technique is usugiri, thin-cutting. This is where you cut crosswise to make super-thin sheets of vegetable, all stacked up under your left finger. The corresponding vertical cut is hantsuki-giri, half-moon cutting:
Usugiri, thin-cutting: Cut the vegetable crosswise and stand on its cut side. If necessary, cut off the tip (on top): place the edge of the knife near the heel, just far enough down from the top that you will get to the part you want to cut. Hold the top in place with your left fingers, curved gently over and resting lightly on the vegetable. Draw the knife back, pushing somewhat to the left, to remove the piece. From here, all cuts will go the other way: start near the tip of the knife, and push forward and left—more left than forward, depending on the vegetable. When you finish a cut, pull the knife back to the right and allow your left index finger to drag the slice, keeping it more or less in place; as you go, the slices will stack up in an overlapping fan under your left hand. The firmer the vegetable, the thinner the slice should be.
Hantsukigiri, half-moon slicing: Split the vegetable in half and lay on the cut side. Working from right to left, shave off super-thin half-moons. The blade goes mostly down, a little forward. The tip and heel must touch the board simultaneously.
Japanese-Style: Thousand-Sliced Turnip Pickles (Kabu Senmaizuke かぶ千枚漬け)
Now how do you practice doing these things without just blowing through a mound of vegetables and wasting them? One way, certainly, is to make homemade potato chips. That’ll do it. But it’s not very interesting, and I’m never thrilled about deep-frying, to be honest. In Japanese knife textbooks, a very common approach is thin-sliced pickled things, such as senmaizuke, basically large, round turnips sliced into huge, translucent circles and pickled in a light brine. I lived in Kyoto, the center of traditional Japanese pickling, for a total of two years. I’ve had a reasonable selection of senmaizuke made in famous old shops that have been doing it for literally centuries. Result? I don’t like them much. A few slices, maybe, but not a whole turnip. Still, if you want to make them, here’s a recipe:
- 1 large, sweet turnip (about 1 1/4 pounds)
- 2tsp salt (2% of the weight of the turnip)
- 2 Tb mirin (use sweetish sake + 1tsp sugar if you can’t find real mirin)
- 1 dried red chili pepper
- 8” dry kombu
Make sure the turnip is very firm and as fresh as possible, as this will improve its sweetness.
Peel the turnip (you can use a peeler or your usuba), then cross-slice (usugiri) into translucent sheets. Place the sheets in a bowl, sprinkling with an even layer of salt as you go. Place a weight on top and weight 2-3 hours until a lot of water rises; pour off and then gently squeeze out the liquid. In a deep plate, lay half the squeezed sheets. Split the chili in pieces, removing seeds if desired, and scatter evenly over the sheets. Pour on mirin, then spread with kombu cut in wide strips. Place the remaining slices over the top. Put another plate of the same size on top, then add a weight, such as a medium can of vegetables. Let stand 24 hours at room temperature, then refrigerate until ready to serve.
Serve as a side dish, accompanied by a little lemon, soy sauce, or shiso leaf if desired. If you like the flavor, try rolling the sheets around strips of mild raw fish.
French-Style: Potato Tian
Setting aside the fact that I don’t like senmaizuke very much, my idea in this column was to do something that’s very much not Japanese—but using the ultimate Japanese vegetable knife. Let’s face it: you may love these knives, but you may not actually adore Japanese food all that much. Or maybe you do, but you get tired of it, or the ingredients are expensive or hard to find at the moment, or whatever. Well, as we’re rolling into summer, with the gardens and farmers’ markets exploding with produce, I thought it’d make sense to do some recipes that will make best use of all that wonderful stuff—without going Japanese!
In southern France, particularly in the Provençal region, one finds something called a tian, pronounced /tjɑ̃/. It’s a shallow earthenware baking dish; the proper or traditional shape is debated, but you can find them round, rectangular, and oval. In the same way as a terrine or a casserole is both a piece of crockery and a food cooked in it, so a tian is also a kind of gratin made principally or entirely from vegetables.
The etymology of tian is probably from tajine, the North African vessel and the dish cooked in it, whose own origins probably go back to ancient Persia. The Provençal version does not usually involve rice, however; if starch is included, it’s usually potatoes. The most typical ingredients of a tian are tomato, summer-type squash, eggplant, onion, olive oil, garlic, thyme, and goat cheese, to which may be added eggs, lamb, fish, or potatoes. These days, it is usual to add no liquid, and rely on what naturally comes out of the vegetables.
In the following recipe, if you replace the potatoes with eggplant and roughly double the tomatoes, you’ll have the most famous tian: ratatouille, as seen in the movie of the same name.
- Olive oil
- 2 onions
- 4-5 cloves garlic
- 1 pound waxy potatoes (Yukon Gold, etc.)
- 1 pound zucchini, summer squash, or both
- 1 pound tomatoes, not too juicy (Roma, etc.)
- Fresh thyme
- Herbes de Provence
- 1 slice stale country bread
- 2-3 oz. Gruyère
- Salt and pepper
- Goat cheese (optional)
Slice the onions into fine half-moons (hantsukigiri). Slice the garlic fine. Use the usugiri technique to make super-thin crosswise slices of potato and squash; keep the sliced potatoes in water until needed so they don’t discolor.
Cut the tomatoes crosswise, squeeze out the juice and seeds, and cut these usugiri as best you can (tomatoes are quite resistant to this).
Slowly stew the onions and the tomato trimmings together with some olive oil and a little salt and pepper, until extremely soft. Spread evenly in the bottom of a casserole.
In the casserole, alternately layer vegetables in a regular pattern that will come out even, spreading them in an overlapping line, like a deck of cards. Since the tomatoes are probably thicker, you want something like potato, zucchini, tomato, potato, summer squash, potato, zucchini, tomato, etc. Make sure to cover the entire bottom of the dish.
Sprinkle fresh thyme over everything, and some salt and pepper. Lay a few branches of whole thyme where they will do some good, drizzle a little more olive oil over everything, and cover with foil. Bake at 375F for 30-40 minutes, until potatoes are quite tender.
Meanwhile, grind the bread into crumbs, add thyme, herbes de Provence, grated cheese, a little more salt and pepper, and a dollop of olive oil. Toss the mixture a bit: it should be just moist, but not gooey. Let sit until ready to use. Crumble or slice the goat cheese, if using.
When the potatoes are done, remove the foil and the big thyme branches. Spread the goat cheese over the top, if desired. Toss up the crumb mixture again to loosen, and sprinkle evenly over everything in the dish. Bake another 20-30 minutes, until golden brown.
May be served immediately, but it’s better allowed to cool off to warm room temperature. Before serving, sprinkle a little more olive oil and a crunchy finishing salt.