There are many kinds of fish cakes in Japan, and most of them are available readymade. One of my favorites is hanpen (はんぺん). Hanpen usually comes in single packs. Here’s one I bought at a Japanese grocery store.
The hanpen itself looks like this.
Hanpen is made of ground up white fish (surimi), grated yamaimo (a type of yam, the same one that’s used to give a light texture to okonomiyaki, egg white and sals. The best way I can describe it is that it’s sort like a fish marshmallow, but savory of course. Each hanpen is about 100-120 calories, depending on the size.
You can find hanpen in the refrigerated or frozen food section of a Japanese grocery store (you probably can’t find it at a general Asian/Chinese store; you might find it at a Korean store.) I keep mine in the freezer until ready to use. They defrost very fast, so I can just microwave them for a few seconds so they are soft enough to cut, or just transfer to the refrigerator the night before.
Hanpen can be used for many things. They are great in soups and stews (they are a standard item in oden, a classic stewed dish of various fish cakes, tofu cakes, and vegetables). You can cut them up small and use in miso soup. You could even use as a garnish in Western style soups.
For bento purposes, they are very nice sautéed or fried, especially with a stuffing.
These are sometimes called hanpen on kitsune age (Fox-fried hanpen). ‘Fox’ (kitsune) because they become a golden brown in color, and anything with that color with often called ‘kitsune’ something, and ‘age’ (pronounced ah-GEH) because they’re usually deep-fried. I’ve panfried them instead for a bit less fat and ease of cooking.
This makes enough for 2 or 3 bentos. Each triangle is about 40-50 calories.
Cut the hanpen into quarters, then cut each quarter into half diagonally, to end up with 8 little triangles. Cut a slit into the long edge of the triangle to form a pocket. Stuff the meat mixture into the pocket.
Heat up some oil, butter or a mixture in a frying pan. Start cooking the triangles with the meat side down, until the meat is browned. Lower the heat and cook for 2-3 minutes more, to cook the meat through. Turn the heat up again, and fry the hanpen on each side until golden brown and puffy.
Let cool before putting into a bento box. (The hanpen will shrink down a bit while cooling.)
Stuff the hanpen with cheese, coat with egg and flour and panko, and deep fry. This is good hot or cold, but not exactly low in calories.
Hanpen may not become an everyday bento favorite unless you live right near a Japanese grocery store, but I hope you do try these as a change of pace. It’s real homely Japanese cooking.
Theoretically it should be possible to make your own hanpen, with ground up white fish like cod, yamaimo or nagaimo and egg white. In practice, so far I’ve failed miserably. If I ever figure it out I’ll be sure to post it.
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