I don’t know…I want to be more healthy. I want to eat better…you know, eat healthier…not all that pasta. Like Japanese food.
Bob Harris (played by Bill Murray), Lost in Translation 
Over the last few years, a number of talented cooks have offered up books that focus on simple Japanese food. Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat wrote Japanese Hot Pots  and The Japanese Grill . Elizabeth Andoh followed up her award-winning Washoku – Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen  with Kansha – Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions . Lastly, Nancy Singleton Hachisu recently authored Japanese Farm Food . Although each of these authors writes with a distinctly different voice and each has a slightly different focus, their works achieve a shared goal: to introduce a simple and direct type of Japanese food.
Consider these recipes from Nancy Singleton Hachisu’s excellent Japanese Farm Food: Okura No Ohitashi (Thinly Sliced Okra with Dried Bonito Shavings) contains raw okra, dried bonito shaving (katsuobushi) and soy sauce. Sukesodara No Miso Yaki (Miso-broiled Cod) calls for miso, sake and cod. Tamago-kake Gohan (Raw Egg on Hot Rice) has…well, you get the picture. You can almost prepare each dish from their English titles alone.
A wonderful thing about this type of Japanese food is that a healthy, satisfying and flavorful dish quickly comes together if you have certain food staples available, such as konbu (dried seaweed, sometimes spelled kombu), dashi, soy sauce, mirin, sake and miso. Of these ingredients only dashi requires some thinking ahead (assuming that you’re not using some instant powder-ized stuff). More often than not I make a batch of this fragrant, umami-rich stock (here) for a weekend meal and freeze the leftover stock for use during the coming week. (If necessary, dashi keeps in the freezer for up to 3 months.)
With konbu and miso at hand—both of which store extremely well—you are ready to make this simple, easy and comforting dish from Japanese Farm Food: Chikin Mito Boru (Simmered Chicken-and-Miso Meatballs). The recipe’s length speaks more to Hachisu’s detailed instructions rather than the recipe’s complexity. The process in a nutshell: simmer chicken dumplings in a simple konbu and green onion stock enriched with miso. Hachisu’s recipe serves 4.
1 (3 by 6-inch/7.5 by 15-cm) piece of konbu
6 tablespoons brown rice miso
¼ head of napa cabbage, quartered lengthwise (about ⅔ pound/300g)
3 thin negi or 6 fat scallions
1 pound (500 g) course-ground or hand-chopped chicken thigh
2 tablespoons chopped scallions or negi (whites and green tops)
2 tablespoons brown rice miso
1 tablespoon finely grated ginger
1 tablespoon potato starch
Fill a medium-sized, heavy pot with 2 quarts (2 liters) of cold water. Drop the konbu and negi into the water and bring to a simmer. Measure the miso into a large soup ladle and dip the ladle slightly into the simmering water to wet the miso. Whisk enough hot water into the miso so that the miso will not leave lumps when fully submerged into the simmering konbu stock.
Prepare the meatballs while you are waiting for the water with konbu and negi to come to a simmer. Dump the chicken meat into a large mixing bowl and add the scallions, miso, grated ginger, and potato starch. Mix well with your hands to distribute all the aromatics.
Form ten 2-inch (5-cm) diameter meatballs by tossing the meat between your two palms. The shape does not need to be perfectly round but it is important for the outer surface to seal. The surface should be slick and glossy.
Lay the lengthwise-cut napa cabbage quarter wedge on a cutting board, remove the core with a V cut, and slice crosswise into thick strips (about ¾-inch/2-cm). Add to the simmering stock and bring to a simmer.
As soon as the stock begins to simmer again, drop as many meatballs as can comfortably cook in your pot (they should not be crowded when they rise to the surface) and cook at a lively simmer until the meatballs pop up, about 6 minutes or so. Check for doneness by catching up one with a wooden spoon and pressing gently on the meatball. It should not have a lot of give but should not be rock hard.
Spoon up 2 or 3 meatballs into a small bowl along with some of the napa cabbage and a little broth. Serve with a bowl of rice.
I’ll be the first to admit that this homely dish won’t win any beauty contests while cooking or after serving. But its warming and comforting taste more than compensates for its plain appearance. The stock quickly comes together and perfectly compliments the soft-textured, flavorful dumplings. Served with rice and a vegetable dish, you have a near perfect meal.
Some notes and thoughts on the recipe. Although Hachisu might be able to mix and form her meatballs in the time it takes for the stock to come to a simmer, I don’t possess such dexterity; I prepare the meatballs before starting the stock. Immediately following the recipe, Hachisu offers up variations on the dish. One of her suggestions is to cut the negi into ¾-inch (2-cm) lengths or the scallions into 2-inch (5-cm) lengths, and add them to the soup with the napa cabbage. I recommend this option as the whole onions make cooking and serving the dish a little awkward. Finally, I cook the meatballs an additional three to four minutes (whether they need it or not; I’m not keen on even the remote possibility of eating undercooked chicken).
Once you have the basics behind this recipe under your belt, you are ready to experiment with your own variations: perhaps use dashi made with bonito flakes as stock; try ground pork instead of chicken; and/or reach for an egg in place of potato starch. Sweet young white turnips nicely augment (or even stand in for) cabbage. I might try a savoy rather than a napa cabbage. Leeks would taste good, too. I’ve made the dish with yellow miso, although Hachisu’s recommended brown rice miso tastes very good.
As an aside, Japanese Hot Pots by Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat has a recipe for Chanko Nabe—they subtitle the dish Sumo Wrestler Hot Pot because a wrestler provided them with the recipe—that resembles Chikin Mito Boru. Both recipes contain nearly identical chicken dumplings, but Ono and Salat’s version poaches the dumplings in chicken stock flavored with sake. Their version goes on to include a host of other ingredients (including fresh pork belly and tofu) intended to sate the hungry sumo wrestlers (and others) that dine on this dish. If you want to use different ingredients, feel free to experiment. You can also make these nabe dishes as Spartan or bountiful as you want.