I think it’s pretty evident to everyone and their dog that I watch an inordinate amount of food programming, as in I watch almost nothing except food programming. That’s not entirely true: I do also watch select cartoons, CSI (the good one set in Vegas), the odd movie, and Jdoramas, or Japanese drama series.
Don’t seem like a Jdorama kind of guy, do I? 😀
Anyway, I’ve watched Japanese television on and off over the years starting with Giant Robo (aka Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot) though in recent times it’s been mostly Iron Chef, Dotch Cooking and giant robot cartoons. Jdoramas were a discovery during a trip to Taiwan back in late 2005, when I caught episodes of the renzoku Densha Otoko (電車男). It’s fundamentally a story about nerd transformation but it caught my attention because the protagonist Tsuyoshi Yamada uses the Imperial March as a ringtone and his love interest is played by Itō Misaki.
I’ve continued to watch renzoku (multi-episode series) because they’re entertaining and they help with my comprehension of Japanese, but I notice that I tend to watch more of them when I have some downtime. Two renzoku I missed during their original runs but for which I’m now caught up on are Shinya Shokudō (深夜食堂; The Late-Night Diner) and Kodoku no Gurume (孤独のグルメ; The Solitary Gourmet). One might immediately notice that they’re both related to eating, but they have no less than three other things in common: both renzoku are based on manga, both were renewed for a second campaign, with Kodoku no Gurume actually completing its third campaign earlier this year, and both renzoku feature actor Matsushige Yutaka.
So far that’s four entire paragraphs on my television viewing habits, and yet no sign as to why this post is called red weenies.
It’s all about Matsushige.
I’ll eventually get to what he does in Kodoku no Gurume in a future post, but in Shinya Shokudō, Matsushige plays Kenzaki Ryu, a Yakuza oyabun (親分) who always comes to the diner to eat red weenies. But not just any plate of wiener sausage, タコになる タコさんウインナー, or tako ni naru tako-san uin’nā.
No, I am not kidding.
Red weenies are Big in Japan. Big! Japanese wiener sausages are more akin to shorter thinner hot dogs than canned cocktail wieners that North Americans associate with “wiener sausage”. And being shorter thinner hot dogs pretty much mean that they taste like hot dogs. Wiener sausage feature prominently in several washoku dishes though they are most popular as components of either the kids’ menu or the nibble menu at a nomiya (飲み屋; a type of drinking establishment). But wiener sausages aren’t just popular with kids and drunks: the Japanese as a whole consume an inordinate amount of them per capita.
Anyway, back to Kenzaki Ryu and the red weenies. In Shinya Shokudō, he has the Master cut his order into octopus weenies. Very strange thing for a yakuza, but pretty standard stuff if you’re still part of the short-pant set. Octopus wieners are everywhere in Japan and Taiwan (probably Korea and other parts of Asia as well where Japan had an influence) as they’re integral to childhood lunches. It’s a little bit of whimsy to have with lunch and it’s a way to show the other kids that your mother loves you.
Trust me: you don’t want to be the mother who sends her child to school with a bentō full of skanky deformed octopus wieners. The other kids at the playground all know how to count by the age of 11 months, and will easily spot whether your octopi have eight tentacles, meaning that your child will be known as the one whose mother doesn’t even possess the basic skills to put together a nice lunch for your child, or who doesn’t love her child enough to make even a minor effort for her child, or worse still – both of those. And kids talk. Imagine how it feels when the teachers, other parents, the other schoolchildren, the crossing guard and pretty much anyone who even occasionally walks by the school all look at you, point and shake their heads while saying “so sad… that’s the mother who makes the bad octopus wieners…”
My mom would have made me octopus wieners with the correct number of tentacles for my lunch, but by the time I started going to a school that did not provide lunches, we were already in North America and the plain boring sandwich was what every kid had in his or her brown paper bag (I at least never got peanut butter and jelly or bologna – my sandwiches were good).
Basic octopus wieners
There are two items needed to make a successful plate of octopus wieners, and this is the key backbone ingredient: the cabbage.
You laugh, but this vegetable is a common component of many home-cooked and restaurant meals in Japan, and the better establishments will offer you seconds. You do want to select a nice cabbage (preferably a Savoy cabbage), and you do want to wash the cabbage. You can still see the water droplets on mine.
The nice thing about requiring cabbage is that it offers a chance to hone one’s knife skills, because in this particular dish, the cabbage needs to be shredded. This is about as roughly chopped as one would want; a finer shred is actually fairly common.
The second item is of course hot dog wieners. This is actually where it gets somewhat more complicated because the ones that are the correct size are not widely available in North America. Cocktail wieners are the correct size, but the wrong taste and texture, and while one could use a standard hot dog, that makes for an unwieldy octopus unless it’s trimmed down. And then of course, what do you do with the trimmings?
For the purposes of this demonstration, I settled on half-length hot dogs which are available in limited production during the summer months. This would be them; there is enough of the packaging to show which brand, which then identifies which locations might carry them.
Irrespective of the sausage brand selected, ensure that they are not the skinless variety as those will not work.
After the wieners are removed from the packaging, the first incision is made. This cut is all the way through, but half-way up the length of the sausage only.
The sausage is then rotated along its length by 90 degrees. The second cut is then made in the same fashion as the first cut: all the way through, but half-way up the length of the sausage only.
The sausage is rotated along its length by 45 degrees. The third cut is the most complicated as the incision is made all the way through two “legs”, but half-way up the length of the sausage only. At this point, there are six legs: two which are one quarter the diameter of the sausage, and four which are one eighth the diameter of the sausage.
The sausage is rotated 90 degrees and the final cut is made through the two legs which each make up one quarter of the sausage’s diameter. At this point, there are now eight legs, each approximately one eighth the diameter of the sausage.
The following diagram runs through the cutting sequence and required rotations per cut to show exactly how the cuts are made.
The prepared sausages are then cooked in the manner of your choosing. The most common method is to pan-fry in a little bit of oil to help color the outside of the sausages. As each wiener cooks, the heat will cause each of the legs to curl outwards to expose the octopus tentacles.
The final step is to plate the octopus wieners with the shredded cabbage, ketchup/catsup and mustard (karashi). The following plating is what one might find if ordering at a nomiya.
Another alternative is to make baby wiener octopi. This entails an additional initial cut before the four cuts to make the tentacles. Processing afterwards is identical.
Here the baby wiener octopi are plated as a side dish as one might find accompanying steamed rice, soup and pickles (tsukemono; 漬物) as part of a set meal. The main difference between this and the nomiya nibble plate? Potato salada (ポテトサラダ; yes, that’s salad with an extra “a”).
A close-up of the potato salada. Another alternative to potato is macaroni salada, though personally I’m not a fan. The macaroni salada is often made with penne or cavatappi rather than actual elbow macaroni.
What have we learned today?
So what does tako ni naru tako-san uin’nā taste like?
To put it bluntly, like a hot dog. This of course makes perfect sense since it is a hot dog cut in such a way that it shapes into an octopus-like form upon cooking. No real surprises there, unless your wiener octopi don’t taste like hot dogs. Then you’ve somehow managed to deviate from the preparation which comes down to taking the hot dogs out of the package, cutting them and heating them.
They weren’t bad and I liked it better when I served them with potato salada because the additional component gave a better break from the cabbage. I guess I could have made it even more special by cutting up an apple to look like a bunny but maybe for next time.
So now that you know how to make them, there is no longer any excuse for bentō full of deformed irregular octopi. By the way, if you hone your knife skills and wish to have an even greater challenge, you can also make wiener crabs.