19 July, 2008

Japanese Greens II: Spinach with Sesame Dressing

Lately, since I've had a chance to unpack my cookbooks from Japan, I've been browsing through them and looking at the pictures and that has awakened a wave of nostalgia and a craving for some of my favourite Japanese dishes.

Besides the cool salad greens that I spoke about in my last post, Japan has a wide variety of more fibrous greens meant for cooking and saucing. Japanese sauces tend to be rather simple, relying on the standards of soy sauce, sugar, mirin, sake, dashi, Japanese vinegar, which is milder than most vinegars available in the west, and of course, herbs like shiso and seasonings like sesame seeds. Known as goma in Japan, toasted sesame seeds make frequent appearances in sauces for cooked greens and are available fresh daily in the ready-to-eat section of almost all supermarkets.

One of the most simple sauces, this sesame dressing has only three ingredients: toasted sesame seeds (usually the white variety), sugar, and soy sauce. Despite its simplicity it is a taste star, shining and glowing when it's used to dress simple boiled greens. If you live in Japan you know how good this is, because you have already eaten it ready-prepared. What you might not know is that if you make it at home it has about three hundred per cent more flavour and it is so good that if you serve it to anyone who hasn't had it homemade, they are going to be really impressed.

It might be your secret how easy it was to make, or you might want to pass the recipe around to your friends so everyone can enjoy it. This recipe also has the virtue of being easy to make outside Japan, with a totally authentic flavour. You can't say that about that many Japanese foods because of the poor quality of ingredients usually available in supermarkets in North America. If you have access to a Japanese or Asian store you may be able to get good quality ingredients, and in that case consider yourself very lucky.

But here in the country, in Canada, I lucked onto a bonanza of good quality Japanese ingredients at the near-by town's Superstore. If you live near a Superstore look in the imported and health food sections for such things as Koyo brand nori from Japan, Koyo tamari (wheat free and organic no less and the tastiest sauce I've had outside Japan), umeshu (Japanese plum wine or vinegar), two kinds of miso, wasabi powder, and in the health food section, large bags of raw sesame seeds that can be toasted for this sauce. If they don't have these ingredients and you want them, I'm sure you could make a request because they have them on the stock lists.

Enjoy these greens with rice and any other side dishes you like. They would be lovely with fried tofu, grilled vegetables, tofu-burgers, anything really. They are very savoury so add a punch to any meal. Go on, treat yourself or someone you care about.

Spinach with Sesame Dressing/ Horenso no goma ae

About 1 - 1 & 1/2 cups, serves 2-4 as a small side dish

1 large bunch/ bag of fresh spinach
3 Tb toasted sesame seeds
1 Tb soy sauce/tamari sauce
2 Tb sugar (I used light brown)

Wash the spinach in plenty of water in a pot and then add water to cover and bring to a slow boil or simmer and cook for two minutes. Drain the water from the pot or put in a colander just to remove the water. You can save the water for soup if you like. Please refrigerate or freeze it in this heat.

Cover the spinach with cold water and swish it around for a minute until it is cool, then squeeze most of the water out with your hands and put it on a plate.

While the spinach is cooking you can also be toasting the sesame seeds. If you are in Japan, you may want to use the ready-toasted ones, but I can't promise the same fresh flavour.


Put the 3 Tb of seeds in a hot cast iron or other pan, ungreased, and stir them over low to medium-low heat until they are a bit golden and are smelling good. This will take a couple of minutes usually. I always taste a few seeds to see if they are toasted enough, but if you do this be careful as they will be hot. Keep swirling them around with the back of the spoon so they will toast evenly and when they are done put them in a bowl or on a plate to cool, as they might burn if left in the hot pan.

Put the seeds in a food processor or a suribachi (mortar and pestle) and grind them to a powder. It may help to add the sugar to the seeds for this. Last, add the 1 Tb of soy sauce or tamari and finish by whirling briefly to get a paste that looks like the following picture.

You may want to add a few tablespoons of the water you cooked the spinach in if the paste or greens seem too dry to combine. Don't add too much, though, because the dish is meant to have a dry paste sauce.

Mix the sauce with the cooked spinach well. It may take a minute or so to distribute the sauce through the spinach. Don't leave big lumps of sauce. Serve immediately for best flavour, or keep the spinach and sauce separate until just before serving.

It's a rather small recipe so unless you are alone you can probably finish it in one meal. Put the leftovers, if any, in the next day's lunch box.


russ said...

Looks pretty simple - i will definitely try this one! I love how sesame can transform a fairly normal plate of veg into a really tasty snack - steamed broccoli and sesame oil is delicious!

Ruahines said...

Kia ora VJ,
This looks just lovely, and I cannot wait to give it a go. Tara and I have been eating loads of fresh spinach and this will spruce it up nicely.
Hope you enjoyed a lovely weekend, I had my friend Adam, the fiddle player up for the weekend so it was filled with music and laughter. In the morning off to the mountains for 6 days! Kia ora VJ.

vegetablej said...

Hi Robb:

Let me now how you like it. :)

Lucky you with a weekend of music, fiddle music no less. The best!

Have a great trip to the mountains!

vegetablej said...


You're so right about the sesame oil. It's great with broccoli or in any kind of stir fry. One of my favourite ways to eat it is poured over brown rice in a small bowl and topped with toasted sesame seeds, salt and pepper. It makes a great quick breakfast.

Autumn Moon said...

This is an awesome dish, so simple but so good! I like the dressing on blanched green beans as well.

vegetablej said...

autumn moon:

Yummy. I'll try that as soon as I get some beans. Thanks!


Umsy said...

Thanks for the recipe...I tried it...It is good and healthy. What I like about it is the fact that it's healthy and easy to make. Not to mention the ingredients are easily available too!! However I dunno what it should be eaten with...rice/bread???I like eating it by itself!!

vegetablej said...


Thanks so much for your feedback! I love it when someone tries and comments on a recipe. I'ts helpful to know what kind of things people like so I know which recipes to put up.

By itself is fine, but it can be a side dish with any meal: a protein, starch and it as the vegetable. You could try eating it with rice and tofu, maybe fried, for example. Typically, in Japan, it would be eaten as part a meal with two or three other side dishes including a fish or meat and/or tofu dish and rice.

Nana is Dreaming In The Theatre said...

Oishitomitai♥ It looks so yummy, and I'm (shamefully) not a big veggies fan. I will add this to my diet though.

Matin said...

Looks great, i wonder if i can use sesame oil in the dressing as i love the flavour.

vegetablej said...


I think, if you don't like veggies, this is a good one. There is so much sesame flavour that you won't even notice the spinach. ;)

Go on, veg out!

Plus, I looked at your blog and you are, indeed, beautiful too.

vegetablej said...


Go ahead, try it. Experimenting is one of the greatest joys of cooking.


russ said...

thanks for the suggestions!! I've never tried making onigiri before, but they do sound like the perfect way to use up leftovers. I'd quite like to have a go with filled rice balls as well - either would make good sandwich replacements for work i'm sure!

vegetablej said...


Both kinds of onigiri, with the center filled, or with the ingredients mixed through, are great take-to-work lunches and are among the most popular lunches in Japan.

Climbing groups often take them to the top ot a mountain to eat and told me that they always taste more delicious in the fresh air.

The ones with the filling in the centre have to be made with a stickier type of rice, either Japanese or other short-grain rice in order to stay together. The ones with stuff mixed through are easier to keep together, usually. One of my favourites of that type is made with "cha-han", the name for "fried rice". In Japan, fried rice is a bit lighter on the soy sauce and uses broth or water to finish moistening the rice rather than loading in too much oil, so it's a bit healthier.

If you develop some tasty ones, why not put them up on your site? I'm sure many people would like to try them.


taste memory said...

this sounds/looks perfect! similar to Korean recipe for spinach namul. love this blog-insight/beauty and contemplative feel to it!

vegetablej said...

Thanks, taste memory! I didn't realize it was also a Korean dish but it makes sense; the two countries are so close they share many foods. One of the favourite foods in Japan is kimchi.