Editor’s note: The theme of Gohan Lab is to help people make simple, tasty “gohan” (meals).

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What would cooking be without spices? Spices add aroma, flavor and color to dishes and give them depth by incorporating elements lacking in the ingredients and seasonings.

In this week's recipe for “nikujaga” (meat and potatoes stewed in soy sauce-based dashi stock), a staple in Japanese cooking, we're going to use nutmeg, fennel and bay leaf.

The aroma of nutmeg evokes the tropics and its delicate bitterness draws out the flavor of meat. Fennel, which also goes well with fish, adds a refreshing flavor similar to the celery.

Bay leaves soften the smell of meat and seafood and add a renewing aroma as well. You could use what is available, but the synergy effect of the three spices deepens the flavor.

The recipe has hints from an Italian dish where sausage and cauliflower are simmered with spices. Cauliflower will be more readily available to consumers as the weather gets colder.

Just like a hat and a pair of boots go surprisingly well with kimono and “hakama” (traditional long pleated and divided skirt), the familiar nikujaga with an exotic twist offers an intriguing sense of unity, and you won’t be able to put down your chopsticks.


In addition to their preservative, sterilizing and other effects on food ingredients, some spices have been considered to work on the body in digestion acceleration, detoxification, improvement of coldness and recovery from fatigue. Many spices have been used as medication since ancient times around the world.

The National Institute of Health and Nutrition compiles information on a wide range of foods, including spices, and releases it on its website under the index, “Information on the safety and effectiveness of ‘health food.’”

The section offers scientific grounds for effectiveness and safety that are listed on the basis of published academic papers.

While there are foods whose favorable effects have been confirmed, the institute advises people who are pregnant or have pre-existing conditions to be cautious about consuming some others.


(Supervised by Kuniaki Arima in the cooking aspect and Midori Kasai in the cookery science aspect)

* Ingredients (Serves two)

200 grams bits of pork slices ("buta-komagireniku"), 2 potatoes, 1/4 cauliflower, 1/2 onion, 5 cherry tomatoes, 1/2 clove garlic, 1 tsp olive oil, 100 ml sake, 2 Tbsp each of sweet mirin sake and soy sauce, 2 bay leaves, 1 tsp fennel seeds, 1/4 tsp nutmeg

About 525 kcal and 2.7 grams salt per portion

1. Crush garlic and chop coarsely. Cut onion into 1-cm-thick wedges. Quarter potatoes and cut cherry tomatoes in half. Cut and separate cauliflower into small pieces (PHOTO A).

2.  Add olive oil and garlic to pot and place over low heat. When aroma rises and garlic starts to color slightly, add onion and sautee. When oil has gone around the pot, add potato and cook.

3. Add cauliflower, then sake, sweet mirin sake, soy sauce and 200 ml water. Add meat while spreading pieces, then cherry tomatoes, bay leaves, fennel seeds and nutmeg (PHOTO B) and cover with lid. Remove lid after about 5 minutes. Cook until done. (PHOTO C).

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Kuniaki Arima is the owner-chef of Passo a Passo, an Italian restaurant in Tokyo’s Fukagawa district.

Midori Kasai is a professor at Ochanomizu University and chairwoman of the Japan Society of Cookery Science.


Pickled vegetables

Amount to fit in a 1.5-liter bottle. Cut 1 carrot, 5 cm of daikon radish, 1 celery stalk, 1 each of red and yellow bell pepper (“papurika” type) into bite-size pieces.

Either skin 6 cherry tomatoes after steeping in boiling water or prick a few places on the skin with a toothpick.

Cut 1 clove garlic in half and crush. Pour in 250 ml wine vinegar or regular vinegar, 100 ml water, 1 and 1/2 Tbsp sugar, 1 Tbsp salt, 1 tsp each of coriander seeds and black peppercorns, 2 bay leaves, 1 chili pepper pod and garlic and bring to a boil.

Add carrot, daikon radish, celery and bell pepper in this order and bring to a boil each time you add them. Add cherry tomatoes, turn off heat and move to storage container with liquid. It will keep in the fridge for a week.


The volatile oil in spices is called essential oil. Many kinds of essential oils are aromatic.

Since the essential oil component dissolves easily in other oils, the volatile fragrant components are drawn out more when the spices are immersed in oil or their temperature is raised through cooking and other means.

Parts rich in essential oil depend on the plant, be they the leaf, fruit, flower or the tree bark.

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From The Asahi Shimbun’s Gohan Lab column