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I always thought Japanese salad dressing was that highlighter-orange dressing made with fresh ginger, carrots, apples, a little miso and some soy sauce. You've undoubtedly seen it.
It's the stuff my Japanese mom would pack me for elementary-school lunches, and it's what dressed the salads I grew up eating, whether at home or at the many fine Japanese restaurants in sleepy Santa Clarita, about 30 miles north of Los Angeles. That salad was always the same: shards of iceberg lettuce, some sliced cucumbers, slivered carrots and that ugly, gloppy dressing. It was delicious. And in hot, dry Southern California, it was the perfect Mom-mandated pre-dinner salad.
Well, I recently had my mind blown.
Not too long ago in New York City, I came across Momo, a line of Japanese salad dressings made by an energetic husband and wife team, Masaki and Yukimi Momose. They peel and chop each vegetable by hand and pulse it to orange deliciousness at their Sunset Park kitchen incubator.
Theirs is the freshest tasting version of the carrot-ginger dressing I've ever tried in the U.S., I told them. They laughed.
"That's a totally Japanese-American dressing," Yukimi said, standing at her farmers market stall in Brooklyn.
"We had it the first time when we came to the United States," Masaki chimed in. "I liked it, but it was kind of strange because everyone thinks this is a traditional Japanese dressing."
Wait, what? I thought as my brain exploded. So, I did a little research, and it turns out the orange dressing was the creation of Japanese-American steakhouses and was intended to be a healthy off-set to a giant steak dinner.
So, what exactly is a traditional Japanese salad? Yukimi explained to me that's it cubes of tofu, ribbons of seaweed, peppery mizuna and dried bonito flakes—all drizzled with apple-tinged shiso dressing.
Now I remember. When I was a kid, my mom kept her stash of shiso dressing, famously manufactured without oil and back then too bitter for my palate, hidden in the back of our fridge. I suppressed it from my memory, apparently. And some of Momo's customers have a similar aversion.
"Our signature is our shiso dressing, but unfortunately it's not a big hit yet," Masaki shared.
"But people who like our shiso dressing only buy this," Yukimi added. "They just keep coming back to buy this because they cannot find it anywhere else."
I bought a couple of bottles to see what I'd been missing. One night I put a mess of leftover buckwheat soba noodles, cubed tofu, halved Sungolds, arugula (instead of mizuna) and a few bonito flakes on a plate. Then, flowed the real Japanese salad dressing—a thick, green, nearly creamy slurry of shiso, apple, rice vinegar, soy sauce and agave.
It was a revelation: Cooling and super fresh-tasting, it's herby, slightly sweet and has a little pungent kick since there's no water or oil to dilute the flavor.
Now I'm hooked—it's my new go-to sauce for cold noodles. And I should admit, I've been eating my soba creation for dinner the past two days. Looks like the ol' carrot-ginger may have to be shelved for a while.