Our favorite local restaurant is Gombei. When you buy a dinner, they serve a rotating set of tsukemono. These side dishes can be a variety of pickled cabbage, pickled cucumbers, or hijiki salad, pickled pumpkin, or okara—tofu lees. When you place your order, you have no idea which ones you will be getting today.
On a rare occasion, you may get a small dollop of Japanese potato salad. While I like potato salad a lot, their salad is beyond any other I have ever had. I decided that I must learn how to make this extraordinary salad.
The first secret is in the mayonnaise they use. A commonly available Japanese mayonnaise is Kewpie brand, but what makes this mayo so different from Western mayonnaise? There is a lot of Internet speculation about the subject, but according to Serious Eats there are several differences—they use vegetable oil vs. canola or olive oils; they use egg yolks only and a greater number of them vs. whole eggs; they also use rice vinegar vs. white vinegar. Three additional ingredients are dashi, malt vinegar*, and MSG. These difference make for a very creamy and tangy sauce.
Note: *Serious Eats suggests using malt vinegar to get the correct “tang” and color in replicating Japanese mayonnaise. I suspect that the original recipe uses either kurozu—a lighter Japanese version of black vinegar—or red rice vinegar.
Note 2: I am sensitive to MSG, but the amount in this mayonnaiseis low enough that it does not give me a headache.
The potato salad’s second difference is that instead of being cut into discrete chunks, the potatoes are half mashed. I have found that Russet potatoes give me the best—and closest copy—of the Gombei salad that I am trying to replicate. A trick is to use a large whisk to mash the potatoes—this leaves you with the right proportion of potato chunks to creamy mashed potato.
Note: I cannot remember if I learned this technique from Cook’s Illustrated or America’s Test Kitchen.
Another common addition to Japanese potato salad is the white parts of green onion. Beyond that you may add any ingredients you please—I added grated carrot, diced celery, and chopped boiled egg. Nami—Just One Cookbook—adds a lot of extra ingredients to her Japanese potato salad to make it a full meal. Gombei’s is much simpler, being a side dish, with just some grated carrot added.
Note: While I had made this for an earlier meal, there was enough left over to go with my barbecued chicken wings.
After Dinner Note: While this recipe produced a superior potato salad, I cannot say it matched Gombei’s. I think I will have to go back and try to deconstruct their recipe more closely.
Karl’s Japanese Style Potato Salad
2 Russet potatoes
2 green onions, white parts only, sliced finely
1 small carrot, grated
1 stalk celery, diced finely
2 hard boiled eggs, chopped
1 Tbs. rice vinegar, unseasoned
½ tsp. Kosher salt
¼ tsp. black pepper
¼-⅓ cup Japanese mayonnaise
1. Peel and cut the potatoes into large chunks.
2. Place the potatoes in to a pot with water to cover.
3. Bring the pot to a boil and simmer, covered, for 15-20 minutes.
Tip: The potatoes are done when a knife easily pierces the thickest potato chunk.
Note: An energy saving trick is to remove the pot from the heat after 10 minutes and to leave the pot, covered, for an additionally 20 minutes. The heat of the water will finish cooking the potatoes.
4. Drain the potatoes well.
5. Use a large whisk to partly mash the potatoes.
Tip: You want about a 50/50 ratio of mash to medium/small potato chunks.
6. Add the remaining ingredients and fold in the Japanese mayonnaise.
Tip: Add as much mayonnaise as you need to, in order reach your desired consistency.
Note: Do not overwork the potatoes, as they may turn “gluey.”
7.Transfer the salad to a serving bowl and let it meld, covered with plastic wrap, in the refrigerator for at least 20 minutes..
Tip: You may garnish the potato salad with black sesame seeds, or finely sliced green onion tops, or my daughter’s favorite, a serious sprinkle of shichimi tōgarashi.
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