The more I learn about cooking and food culture, the more I’ve become fascinated with cultural concepts of portable foods. As I’ve written before, Japan’s main example is onigiri, rice balls, but in the Shinshû/Nagano region, it’s oyaki, the steamed buns often made with savory fillings and soba-flour dough. Combine oyaki with another one of my favorite foods, kabocha, and you have a delicious, healthy addition to your bento that is easy to make and transport.
I haven’t experimented with many other fillings yet, but kabocha is a good way to start as it’s easy to prepare and works well as a filling in similar items like vegetarian gyoza or ravioli. Mashed kabocha is the easiest to work with when it’s somewhat dry, so I recommend either roasting the kabocha or boiling it and letting it drain for several hours before mashing. You could use other squashes, especially if they are similar in dryness to kabocha. Orange sweet potatoes would also work well, I think.
Regarding cooking the oyaki, you’ll need to pan-cook the oyaki before steaming to give them the right texture and the distinctive scorch marks. I’ve outlined two ways to steam the oyaki: either in the frying pan or in a steamer. The frying plan method requires fewer dishes, but you’ll need to wipe out the pan in between batches to prevent sticking. The steamer allows for quicker cooking since you can cook the next batch while steaming the first, and you don’t have to worry about burning as much. (I usually do the frying pan method; my friend who sent me the recipe uses a steamer basket.)
Kabocha Soba Oyaki
This recipe was given to me by a friend; it’s translated and adapted from “Northern Shinshû Soba Oyaki” (北信濃のそばおやき) from Make and Enjoy Shinshû’s Flour-Based Foods (作って楽しむ信州の粉食).
Time: depending on the cooking method of the kabocha, 70-90 minutes
Active time: ~30 minutes
Resting time: ~40-60 (resting dough, roasting/boiling kabocha)
For the dough
320 g (2.5 US cups) all-purpose flour (chûrikiko, 中力粉)
80 g (2/3 cup) soba/buckwheat flour (sobako, そば粉)
1 Tablespoon baking powder (bêkingu paudâ, ベーキングパウダー)
280 mL boiling water
For the filling
~400 g (14 oz.–about 1/4) kabocha
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 tsp sesame oil (goma abura, ごま油)
If roasting: an additional 1/2-1 tsp sesame oil
A roasting pan OR a pot (for the kabocha)
Potato masher OR a sturdy fork
1 large mixing bowl
1 large frying pan with lid
Spatula or tongs
Optional: a pot with a steamer basket
Optional: rolling pin
1. Remove the seeds and stringy bits from the kabocha and peel. Cut into small pieces (about 1 in/2 cm cubed). Either boil until just tender and drain thoroughly or toss with sesame oil and roast at 200ºC (400º F) for 20-30 minutes or until fork-tender. Mash, and adding seasonings. If making ahead, refrigerate until ready to make the dough; otherwise, set aside.
2. While the kabocha is cooking, mix the flours and baking powder together in a large bowl.
3. Add the water and mix well. The dough will seem dry–do not add more water. When the mixture is cool enough to handle, knead the remaining flour into the dough. Cover and let rest for 40-60 minutes.
4. Using a large knife, divide the dough into 10 equal pieces. Cover the pieces not in use. On a lightly floured surface, flatten one of the dough balls into a circle. Place about 1/2-1 Tbsp of kabocha filling in the center and work the dough around it, pinching it together tightly at the bottom. Set aside and repeat.
5. When the raw oyaki are ready, heat the frying pan over low-medium heat. Place 5 oyaki smooth-side down into the pan and sear lightly (~1 min), then repeat on the other side.
6. If using the frying pan method, when the oyaki are seared on the bottom, add about 100 mL water, or enough to just cover the bottom of the pan. Cover and let cook under the water evaporates, about 2-4 minutes. If the dough is undercooked, add a little more water. Remove, carefully wipe the pan with a clean, wet cloth, and repeat.
7. If using the steamer method, boil water in the pot, then add oyaki to the steamer basket and steam for 2-5 minutes or until the dough is cooked through. The burn marks should prevent the oyaki from sticking, but if they do stick, place a little parchment paper underneath.
8. Serve hot or cold.
For 1 oyaki (using 3/4 tsp sesame oil)