We like Asakusa 浅草 in Tokyo. For some years, when we visited Japan, we stayed in Asakusa. About 20 some years ago, we visited a small Izakaya located on the 3rd or 4th floor of a small, unassuming building in Asakusa. There were many drinking places in this building but each floor was small–just large enough to house one establishment. We saw the sign for this place while we were walking along the street and knew nothing about it but we decided to go in. The Izakaya had a small U-shaped counter for about 10 customers and two tables in a tatami floor area (“koagari” 小上がり) which seated another 10. This was run by a husband and wife team; the husband cooked behind the counter and the wife was in charge of serving the tables and counter. Two of the dishes we had there stuck in our memory; deep fried grated mountain yam wrapped in nori sheet 山芋の磯辺揚げ and fresh boiled fava beans or “sora-mame” そら豆.
The chef husband made the deep fried dish by using two chopsticks to make a small cylinder of the grated mountain yam. He then wrapped the cylinder with nori and deftly deep fried it. It puffed up and had a nice crunchy shell and soft inside. It was wonderful and had the flavor and crunch of crispy nori.
Unfortunately, real mountain yam “yama-imo” is difficult to get here in the U.S. Instead, we get cultivated ones called “naga-imo” (left image, from Hokkaiodo Shinbun Web site 10/28/2009). Although both have similar taste and texture (slimy!), they are quite different when grated. Yama-imo is much more viscous or firm than naga-imo and holds its shape. Nago-imo, in contrast is much more watery and doesn’t hold its shape. For these reasons it is not possible to deep fry grated nago-imo the way the chef husband did at the Izakaya–it won’t hold the shape of a cylinder and just runs out of the nori casing. So I just spread the runny grated naga-imo on a small rectangle of nori sheet, and slip it, nori side down, into a frying pan filled with just a bit more oil than I would use for sauteing. When the edge becomes brown, it is cooked enough to hold its shape and I turn it over once. I fry it until it is nicely golden brown. I serve the pieces hot with soy sauce or salt. This version is not as good as the original but it is close and a perfect sake accompaniment.