Articles by Sonoko Sakai
Consuming whole grains is making us healthier eaters. Take rice, which since ancient times has been one of the most popular grains eaten around the world, particularly in Asia.
Many Japanese people, including myself, are making the switch from white rice to brown rice, opting for unmilled or partially milled. Brown has become the new white — for its purity, if you will.
The brown part, the bran and the germ of the grain, contains all the good stuff — protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Besides its nutritional value, brown rice is better than white rice because it keeps you full for a long time and it takes longer to digest compared with white rice. This is because white rice is mainly starch, which turns into sugar when it goes into your digestive system. In fact, Japanese people are dieting on brown rice to lose weight and detox.
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It helps to know how to cook brown rice to ensure optimum flavor and texture — nutty, sticky, aromatic and sweet. What I look for in my brown rice is good moisture and stickiness, but not mushiness. I also want my rice to be flavorful in its natural state and tasty even at room temperature.
What is the best way to achieve this perfect balance for rice? Japanese people will give you a variety of answers, but many cooks are still searching for the best method. After all, we have been spoiled eating white rice.
You need to know that it takes a little longer to cook brown rice because it has another layer of skin. The idea is to soften it. Basically, all it takes to cook brown rice is water and a little salt. I don’t use any oil or butter when cooking rice as Western cooks do, but that’s optional. The main question is the vessel in which the brown rice is cooked. You are looking at about an hour to cook rice from prepping to done, no matter what you use. Here are several options to consider.
I love cooking brown rice with a pressure cooker. Many brown rice aficionados swear by it. The rice comes out nutty, sticky, sweet and shiny — all the qualities I am looking for.
Cooking it in a pressure cooker does not require soaking, and it doesn’t take too much water to cook the rice. You’ll want a ratio of about 1-to-1.5 rice-to-water. While cooking, you’ll have to keep an eye on the pressure cooker while the pressure is building and you must handle the pressure cooker with care, so you don’t burn yourself. These tasks may be challenging for some cooks. Also, each pressure cooker works slightly differently, so you need to follow your manufacturer’s instructions carefully.
Using a pressure cooker is faster than other methods as well, about five minutes to prep the rice and 35 minutes to cook it, including the steaming.
Donabe clay pot
The donabe — a Japanese clay pot — has been used in Japan to cook rice and other dishes since ancient times. Sitting around the wood-burning stove waiting for the rice to cook in the donabe was one of my favorite childhood pastimes with my grandmother.
The grains love the even heat of the clay pot — the individual grains literally stand up when rice is cooked in a donabe. The donabe method is easier than you may think, but I know of two American friends who broke their donabes before they even cooked a grain of rice in them. A donabe needs to be seasoned properly, similar to using a tagine.
The donabe method for cooking rice is straightforward: The rice is soaked overnight in the pot with the measured water. The water-to-rice ratio is about 1-to-2. The rice is cooked to a boil over medium high heat for 30 to 35 minutes. The lid must be closed, and no peeking is allowed during cooking. Then, the heat is turned off and the rice rests for another 30 to 40 minutes. Still, no peeking until the timer goes off.
This method will give you a nutty, aromatic rice with good texture. Cooking brown rice in a donabe pot is a slow process, but the method is pleasing to the eye and palate. A good source for donabe pots is Toiro Kitchen.
Electric rice cooker — the no-brainer method
Rice cookers were invented in the 1950s in Japan. They had a life-changing effect on Japanese cooks like my mother and grandmother because they allowed them to walk away from the pot.
The rice cooks rather perfectly each time, so long as you allow it to soak beforehand and hit the water-to-rice ratio right. In a rice cooker, it can range between 1-to-1 and 1-to-1.2. The rule of thumb is to allow at least 20 minutes for soaking.
In recent years, rice cooker companies have come up with more advanced devices that look and think like robots. Some rice cookers come with a cast iron or clay inner cooker — ultra-modern technology enveloping old-fashioned equipment. They come with timers and various cooking settings for everything from porridge to sushi rice to brown rice. Some can even be used to bake bread. Costs can range from $150 to $800.
My Tiger rice cooker comes with a load of fancy features, but I use only the buttons for basic rice and brown rice. It’s a reliable machine. I should explore the other buttons. You can also buy rice cookers made in China that cost less than $30 but still cook a decent bowl of rice. You can find them at Target and Costco, among other retailers.
Stove or oven method
The simplest way to cook brown rice is on the stove top or in the oven. You don’t need any fancy equipment, just a pot with a tight-fitting lid. Le Creuset and Lodge make Dutch oven pots with a lid that you can place in the oven.
Baked brown rice comes out slightly moister and stickier than the stove top method. Here are the recipes for both, if you want to see which you prefer. Just like all the other rice recipes, no peeking is allowed while steaming the rice.
Stove Top Brown Rice
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 55 minutes
Total Time: 60 minutes
Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings
1½ cups short- or medium-grain brown rice
2¾ cups of water
¼ to ½ teaspoon salt (optional)
1. Combine rice, water and salt in a heavy pot and bring to a boil.
2. Cover with a tight-fitting lid, reduce heat to a very low simmer and cook for 45 minutes.
3. Remove from heat with the lid on and let stand for 10 minutes to allow for further steaming.
4. Fluff with a rice paddle or fork. Serve the rice in bowls or make onigiri rice balls (this portion makes 4 onigiris) and sprinkle roasted sesame seeds, if you like.
Baked Brown Rice
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 55 minutes
Total Time: 60 minutes
Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings
2½ cups water
1½ cups short- or medium-grain brown rice
¼ to ½ teaspoon salt (optional)
1. Bring water to a boil and preheat the oven to 375 F. Put the brown rice in an 8-inch square dish or a 7½-inch-by-2¾-inch Le Creuset pan baking dish.
2. Pour boiling water over the rice, cover tightly with aluminum foil and put it in the oven to bake for 45 minutes. Do not peek.
3. Remove from oven, toss the rice with a fork or rice paddle, put the cover back on and let the rice stand for 10 minutes.
4. Serve the rice in bowls or make onigiri rice balls and sprinkle roasted sesame seeds, if you like.
Main photo: Onigiri made with brown rice. Credit: Sonoko Sakai
Not everyone uses the word “barbecue” in Japan, but when it comes to cooking over the flame, Japanese have a long tradition — and grilled onigiri is the star!
Onigiri is essentially rice shaped into balls. When onigiri is brushed with some soy sauce and grilled until it is brown and crispy, it becomes Yakionigiri (yaki means to grill). In our family, my father would make it using a Hibachi, the classic Japanese grilling device that holds burning charcoal. He would take his time brushing the soy sauce on the onigiris. You don’t need anything else to make grilled onigiri taste good.
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The preparation is easy, and you can even use day-old rice. Old rice has a way of perking up with heat.
There is no pre-seasoning required. It takes about five to eight minutes on each side to brown the onigiri, depending on how far the grill is from the heat source. The shape of an onigiri is a matter of preference. In my family, it has always been triangular in shape — sort of like a pyramid. It can take some practice to get the pyramid to stand up, but you eventually figure out how to apply just the right amount of pressure to the rice to form the three corners.
You can also make them round or oval in shape. My father’s onigiri was made with brown rice. My grandmother’s onigiri was white rice. I like them both, but you have to remember to use short- or medium-grain rice. Long-grain rice will not make onigiri; you need rice that sticks. My family’s onigiris were filled with either a pickled plum or katsuobushi, dried bonito flakes seasoned with a little soy sauce. The contrasting flavors of the bland rice next to the savory bonito was heavenly.
You can grill onigiri while you grill the meat or fish or vegetables. All you need to do is keep an eye on it so the onigiris don’t burn.
Besides the straight soy sauce, you can add miso to the soy sauce to make your onigiris taste more savory. Add mirin if you want to add a little sweetness. The thing you want to remember is to serve onigiris right off the grill, while they are still hot. That way, they are crispy and really delicious.
Prep Time: 30 minutes (Note: Brown rice must be soaked overnight)
Cook Time: 10 to 16 minutes to grill onigiris
Total Time: 40 to 46 minutes
Yield: Makes 8
2 cups white short-grain or brown short-grain rice, such as Koda Farms Kokuho Rose
2½ cups of water (or follow rice cooker manufacturer’s instructions)
Salt water (see note above)
2 tablespoons salt in a small bowl
1. Cook the rice first, with the measured 2½ cups water, or cook according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
2. When the rice is cooked, divide it into eight equal portions. Make the onigiri while the rice is hot. Take one portion of rice and put it in a teacup or small bowl.
3. Shape the onigiri: Moisten your hands lightly with the salt water to keep the rice from sticking (if you like your onigiri saltier, moisten your hands in the water, then dip your index finger into the bowl of salt and rub the salt on your palms). Mold the rice using your hands: For a triangular shape, cup one hand to hold the rice ball. Press gently with your other hand to create the top corner of the triangle, using your index and middle fingers and thumb as a guide. Turn the rice ball and repeat two more times to give the onigiri three corners. The onigiri can also be round or oval in shape.
4. Repeat with the rest of the rice to form eight onigiri.
Soy miso sauce
¼ cup miso (red miso paste)
1 to 2 teaspoons mirin to taste
1 to 2 tablespoons soy sauce
¼ cup finely chopped chives
1. In a medium bowl, blend the miso, mirin and soy sauce.
2. The chives can be whisked into the sauce, or sprinkled over as a garnish just before serving.
Grilled onigiri assembly
Prepared soy miso sauce
1. Baste the onigiri with a little oil to prevent it from sticking to the grill.
2. Heat a grill over medium-high heat until hot, or heat the broiler. Line the grill pan or a baking sheet (if using the broiler) with foil. Grill the onigiri on both sides until crisp and slightly toasted; this can take from 8-10 minutes on each side depending on the heat and cooking method. While grilling, baste the onigiri with the sauce on each side a few times until it is absorbed and becomes crisp; the onigiri should not be moist from basting when done. Watch carefully, as the onigiri can burn.
3. Serve immediately while the onigiri are piping hot. Sprinkle with chives.
Main photo: A grilled onigiri can be the perfect Fourth of July finger food. Credit: Sonoko Sakai
On a crispy May morning, we gathered in the wheat fields of Fat Uncle Farms, right off Highway 246 in Lompoc, Calif. It was a spontaneous assemblage of Los Angeles-based chefs and bakers, a cooking school teacher, a miller, a photographer and myself, a noodle maker. We were eager to learn about landrace grains — carpooling 400 miles in one day to visit five grain farms in Southern California.
On that May day, Nathan Siemens of Fat Uncle Farms greeted us, his toddler son in his arms. Nathan is a third-generation almond farmer who began experimenting last year with landrace grains, ancient grains whose cultural and physical identities have been retained and improved by farmers for centuries and are nutrient rich, flavorful and at the core of biodiversity.
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Siemens wants to revive his grandfather’s sustainable practice of growing wheat as a crop rotation between the rows of almond trees after the nuts are harvested in order to maintain soil structure. He also wants to cultivate landrace grains to explore the growing interest in locally grown and milled flour.
A restored vintage All-Crop Harvester tractor circa 1960 stood next to his field. “In the short experience of using this machine, I can tell you that the main action of the combine happens right here,” Siemens explained, opening the metal door. “This rubberized component strikes the grains to dislodge them from the stalk and divides them up.”
Everyone looked inside with great curiosity. “Is that like winnowing?” asked Clemence Gossett, chef and owner of Gourmandise Cooking School in Santa Monica, Calif. “Yeah, that’s right,” Siemens said.
Roxana Jullapat, chef at Cooks County restaurant in Los Angeles, and Nicole Rucker, pastry chef at Gjelina in Los Angeles, both picked samples of Red Fife wheat to analyze the structure of the bristly awns. Jullapat broke off the green spike to taste the berry. “Sweet,” she exclaimed. The grains were still in their doughy stage. In a few months, they would turn hard and dry and be ready for harvest.
Seed grant to support local farmers
Among the visitors that day was Glenn Roberts of South Carolina’s Anson Mills, a renowned organic farmer and miller with a mission to support and improve lands through sustainable farming practices — growing grains, legumes and brasiccas in rotation, and animal husbandry.
The Anson Mills seed grant, which started more than a decade ago, has assisted regional grain hubs around the country, including Community Grains in Oakland, Calif., and Hayden Mills in Arizona. For the Los Angeles hub, the qualifying farmers had to be active farmers in Southern California and practitioners of sustainable agriculture. Each farmer grew on a small scale — between 5 acres and 20 acres of grains this year. Throughout the day, Roberts shared his tenet — about farming for flavor, not yield and farming for the soil, not the crop.
The spirit of grains
The cool wind was setting across the lush barley fields in a wave-like motion at Curt Davenport’s farm, The California Malting Co. in Santa Barbara County — the second farm we visited. Davenport was growing barley and Sonora wheat to produce malted grains for local microbreweries. He explained that the fields he is leasing have been used to grow barley and oats for years, but as an organic vegetable farmer, he wants to rotate wheat, barley, squash and other vegetables to maintain the health of the soils.
Dealing with the California drought
After picking up some tacos and burritos for lunch, we headed east for Tehachapi, Calif., to visit more farmers. As we traveled through the golden land, we couldn’t help notice the spell of drought. All the farmers we visited decided to use irrigation or partial irrigation to grow the grains except Jon Hammond of Linda Vista Ranch in Tehachapi, who opted for non-irrigation. When I talked to Hammond in February, he was concerned about the lack of precipitation. “We haven’t seen drought like this in 130 years,” he said. But since then, Tehachapi has had a few inches of rain and snow, which gave his wheat fields a boost.
We arrived in Tehachapi rather late, but managed to see another beautiful view of the undulating wheat fields. Hammond explained to us that such wind is called Wolf Wind — a concept that came from France, Germany and some of the Slavic countries, where they believe the grain fields are embraced with a spirit. A lot of us felt it strongly that day.
Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms, famous for his fingerling potatoes, showed us his barley, rye and wheat fields. He collaborates with Hammond on grain-growing and animal husbandry projects — trying non-irrigation on Hammond’s wheat field and raising Gloustershire old spots pigs and chickens for pasture eggs and keeping an irrigated wheat field at Weiser’s Farms to grow seed for next season. “We are here to learn what kind of grains grow in our region,” Weiser said. “We will start small. We can learn together.”
Growing landrace grains is a novel attempt and one that may take awhile to make economic sense. But those who joined our tour that day said they felt these grains could be a worthy investment for everyone, for both environmental and culinary reasons. Before leaving, Weiser and Hammond gave Roberts an old key that Hammond found in the barn, perhaps one that belonged to his grandfather, also a farmer. We all figured it was the key to repatriate the way our ancestors grew grains — for flavor, hardiness and to maintain the health of the land. We all promised to be back for the harvest.
If there is an egg or two around the house, I would rather eat at home than go out. I love the taste of a good egg, especially my preferred pastured eggs.
I like to make dashimaki tamago, a simple Japanese omelet made with kombu seaweed dashi, or an even simpler dish: cracking a raw egg over a bowl of freshly steamed rice, drizzling it with a little soy sauce and eating it with chopsticks. The hot rice cooks the raw egg to become a creamy, non-fried rice. Either egg dish brings me to my comfort zone, but there is no shortcut for getting good eggs.
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My sources for pastured eggs are my local farmers in Tehachapi, Calif. — Jon Hammond and Kim Durham of Linda Vista Ranch — named by one of Hammond’s great aunts in 1921 because of the great views. (Linda Vista means “beautiful view” in Spanish.)
The great views come from the fact that the ranch is on a gentle ridge that is one of highest points in the Tehachapi Valley. Hammond and Durham have a cooperative venture with neighboring farmer Alex Weiser, who provides the cull produce and leftover plants after harvest from his farm for animal feed. The three farmers raise English pigs called Gloucestershire old spots and chickens for pastured eggs — Americanas, Orpingtons and Black Stars.
For a person like me who grew up in cities for the most part, picking up a carton of fresh eggs directly from a farmer can turn into an adventure. On a recent visit, flocks of gregarious chickens were roaming freely on their pasture, scraping the ground for seed, insects and other critters. I didn’t know chickens eat small animals until Durham told me about a family of mice she found inside the chicken shed. Before she had a chance to trap the mice, the chickens got to them and pecked them alive.
The floor of the chicken hut is covered in fresh hay. It is always clean and pleasant inside, with gentle light coming through the gaps between the aged planks. The eggs laid that morning are waiting to be collected by Durham. A few hens are in the brooding boxes, and a rooster with black plumage and a large red comb on his head crows out loudly, perhaps reminding me who is boss around the farm.
Durham said she doesn’t care much for the roosters because they pick on the hens. “We are actually going to have this one tonight for dinner,” she says. Before long, her friend Jose arrives to prep the rooster, which will be cooked in a pit.
Apparently, the meat comes out especially tender when cooked this way. I realized that the eggs I got from Durham that day would be the last related to this rooster. Sorry, pal.
Authentic flavors for a Japanese omelet
Dashimaki tamago is a light and slightly sweet omelet with a rectangular shape. The rectangle is achieved by using a rectangular or square pan called a tamagoyaki-ki, which can be found in Japanese hardware stores or online. I like the copper pans with tin linings. You can also use a regular round omelet pan or a well-seasoned skillet.
Unlike a Western omelet, butter and cream don’t come into the equation for dashimaki tamago. I use a little stock, usually a kombu or bonito dashi, soy sauce and a little sugar or mirin.
Another distinct characteristic of the Japanese omelet is its beautiful layers. The egg is not scrambled; instead, while it is frying, a fork or pair of chopsticks is used to roll it into a tube. When it is cut into slices, a swirl pattern emerges. The omelet is allowed to cool and then cut into bite-sized pieces. For more color and flavor, you can chop some herbs or vegetables and incorporate them into the swirl.
My grandmother made her dashimaki tamago in a round pan instead of a rectangular one. She got the eggs from a local farmer in Kamakura, Japan. The eggs were wrapped in old newspaper and carried in a hand-woven basket on the farmer’s back. I always wondered how the farmer kept the eggs from cracking. Maybe they were pastured eggs that had strong, resilient shells.
My grandmother would serve dashimaki tamago on a small, wooden cutting board and slice it right at the table. It was one of the signature dishes she made for me while we visited with each other. Grandmother always tried to make the best out of every occasion. The eggs served her well.
Serves 2 to 4
6 pastured eggs
6 tablespoons dashi (see recipe below)
2 teaspoons Usukuchi soy sauce, plus more for serving
2 teaspoons cane sugar or mirin
1 tablespoons chive sprouts (optional)
2 tablespoons grapeseed, walnut or light sesame seed oil
2 tablespoons grated daikon radish
1 square pan or medium-sized round, well-seasoned skillet
1. In a bowl, combine the eggs, dashi, 2 teaspoons soy sauce, mirin or sugar. Do not beat too much; combine just enough to mix the egg yolk with the egg whites. Mix in chives if using.
2. Heat the pan with the oil over medium high heat. Test the pan by dropping a little egg batter on it. The batter will sizzle if the pan is hot enough.
3. Pour ¼ of the batter into pan and cook the eggs, spreading the batter quickly and evenly over the pan.
4. When the batter is cooked halfway (about 30 seconds), lift a far corner of the egg and fold it in. Then push the rolled egg into the corner on the opposite side and add another ¼ of the batter, making sure to lift the egg roll so the batter gets underneath it.
5. Cook the batter and roll it again. Essentially, you are rolling the egg omelet to make layers. Repeat this step two more times, until all the batter is used, incorporating the first roll into the second, the second roll into the third roll and so on. When finished, transfer the tamago onto a cutting board.
6. Using a sushi mat, roll the omelet into a rectangle shape and let rest for a few minutes.
7. Slice the omelet crosswise into 1½- to 2-inch pieces. Serve with grated radish and additional soy sauce.
Makes 1 cup
This is a versatile seaweed stock that can be used as a base for making miso soups and sauces. Store in the refrigerator.
2-inch piece of kombu seaweed
1 cup of water
1. Hydrate the kombu seaweed in water overnight.
2. Use the infused stock, called kombu dashi, to season the dashimaki tamago or other recipes.
Main photo: Dashimaki tamago. Credit: Sonoko Sakai
Some foods belong in a restaurant and some belong at home. To a Japanese person, sushi, for the most part, would be considered a restaurant food: You go to a sushi bar and the sushi chef makes it for you. The quintessential sushi is nigiri sushi – hand-formed rice made into a small, bite-size clump with sliced raw fish resting on top. With nigiri sushi, both the fish and the rice are fresh. When made by a skilled sushi chef, the flavor is divine. I don’t make that kind of sushi.
Still, when people find out that I teach Japanese cooking classes, one of the first questions they ask is if I teach sushi making. When I have to tell them that I don’t teach nigiri sushi, they seem rather disappointed. What I make is home-style sushi, which includes chirashi sushi, Inari sushi and maki sushi, but I leave nigiri sushi to the professional chefs. Most cooks in Japan will tell you the same thing. It takes years of laborious practice to learn how to properly select, clean and cut fish to make good sushi — just watch the documentary “Jiro’s Dreams of Sushi.”
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Recently, I was browsing on Amazon and found dozens of sushi cookbooks, many of them featuring nigiri sushi. Can there be that many people attempting to make nigiri sushi at home? Or are they just salivating over the beautiful pictures of nigiri sushi?
On the contrary, if you go to bookstores in Japan, you will have a hard time finding a cookbook devoted to sushi for home cooks. You would mostly likely have to look in the professional section. And because sushi is a trade you learn through years of training under a sushi master, you won’t really find a manual for it at your corner bookstore.
The only memory I have of making nigiri sushi is with my grandmother while growing up near the sea in Kamakura, Japan, where there were plenty of fishermen and fish to be had. Grandmother and I would get up at dawn to buy fresh fish fresh off the boat. We got to look at and pick the fish, and the price depended on the fishermen’s mood. The fish was still wiggling in the bag while we walked home.
My grandmother would clean the fish, fillet it and marinate it in a vinegar sauce for a few minutes. We then cooked some rice, which she seasoned with salt, sugar and vinegar to make sushi rice, and she would julienne some fresh ginger. When the fish was marinated and cooked like ceviche, she sliced it up, made little rice balls and put the fish on top. That was her version of nigiri sushi. The rice clumps were not even and artful like a sushi master’s, but it was tasty because the ingredients were good and they were made by my grandmother.
Coming back to the present, there is hardly any sushi-grade fish like that available here in Southern California where I live, so there is no point in pursuing that kind of sushi. Sushi chefs can go to wholesale sellers and buy sushi-grade fish, but home cooks rarely have that kind of access to high-quality fish.
Let’s not be completely pessimistic. I do have a few things to make sushi that are harvested in Southern California — sea urchin, Santa Barbara shrimp and squid. But I don’t make nigiri sushi with them. I just slice them up sashimi style and eat them with wasabi and soy. Easy.
Sushi for home cooks
So what is the sushi I make at home or most home cooks in Japan make at home? There are basically four varieties: chirashi sushi, maki sushi, Inari sushi and oshizushi.
Chirashi is a kind of a pilaf, made with sushi rice and a variety of toppings. You are already familiar with maki sushi if you have eaten a California roll or other sushi rice — it is a sushi roll that includes toasted nori seaweed rolled around vinegar-flavored rice and various fillings, including raw seafood and vegetables. California roll was invented by a sushi chef based in Los Angeles who, in the early days of sushi, didn’t have good access to sushi-grade fish like the fatty tuna. He discovered that avocado had a similar meaty and fatty flavor and texture, so he used that to make the rolls, and history was made.
Inari sushi, or footballs, as Japanese-Americans nicknamed them, is a deep-fried tofu pouch stuffed with seasoned sushi rice and vegetables. There is also oshizushi, which is a type of sushi that uses a small wooden box to press the sushi into little rectangles.
These types of sushi are easy to make for a home cook, and the ingredients can be varietal. These types of sushi also don’t require hand-molding each piece. I wouldn’t hesitate to make sushi with non-Japanese ingredients.
In spring, Japan celebrates Girl’s Day on March 3 with chirashi zushi, but this pilaf-like sushi can be eaten throughout the year. I make it quite often, using a vegetarian recipe. But you can also add shrimp, sea urchin or slices of fish toppings. If you happen on something very fresh — sushi-grade quality — slice it up and put it on, too.
Vegetable chirashi sushi
For the sushi:
16 ounces (450 grams) short-grain rice
1 piece kombu, about 2 inches long
3 tablespoons ginger, peeled and minced
10 shiso leaves, minced
3 tablespoons roasted sesame seeds
Amazu ginger for garnish (optional)
For the vinegar dressing:
5 tablespoons rice vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
For the kanpyo (dried gourd) and dried shitake mushroom filling:
8 dried shiitake mushrooms, hydrated with 2 cups water
½ ounce (15 grams) of dried kanpyo, hydrated
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 to 2 tablespoons sugar
For the carrot filling:
1 carrot, julienned
½ teaspoon salt
For the tamago, or egg topping:
3 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon cornstarch, dissolved with 1 tablespoon water
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
For the garnish:
2 or 3 mitsuba leaves or watercress leaf
1. Cook the rice with the kombu seaweed as you would standard rice, according to package directions.
2. Meanwhile, mix the ingredients for the vinegar dressing in a bowl and combine.
3. To make the seasoned gourd and shitake mushrooms, combine the hydrated shitake mushrooms and kanpyo in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn heat to a simmer and season the vegetables with the salt, sugar and soy sauce until most of the liquid is absorbed. Remove the mushrooms and kanpyo, then mince them and set aside.
4. Bring water to a boil in a small pan, add salt and blanch the carrots. Drain. Set aside.
5. To make the tamago, beat the eggs, cornstarch solution, salt and sugar in a bowl.
6. In a non-stick frying pan, heat oil over medium high heat and add ⅓ of the beaten egg mixture to make a thin crepe. When one side is cooked, flip the crepe over and cook the other side. Repeat two more times.
7. Slice the crepes into 1½–inch (4-centimeter) matchsticks. Set aside in a bowl.
8. When the rice is cooked, discard the kombu and transfer the rice into a large bowl. Add the vinegar dressing and toss lightly.
9. Add the minced ginger, shiso and roasted sesame seeds to the rice.
10. Add the minced shitake mushrooms, kanpyo and carrots to the rice and toss lightly.
11. Top with slices of egg and garnish with watercress or mitsuba leaves.
Top photo: Vegetable chirashi sushi. Credit: Sonoko Sakai
Every week, I make a pot or two of fresh stock, but it doesn’t involve cooking bones, meat or chicken in water over low heat for hours. Mine takes less than 20 minutes to put together, yet it is the foundation of all my cooking. It’s dashi, the quintessentially Japanese stock, made of dried bonito and konbu seaweed.
It forms the base of my breakfast miso soup, or part of a sauce to make stews and curries, and even a seasoning for my salad dressings. Dashi is a natural umami enhancer that never overwhelms, and not a drop of oil is used in its making, which makes for a clean taste. When Michelin three-star French chefs Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon opened their restaurants in Japan and learned the Japanese didn’t care for cream, butter and oily sauces, they incorporated dashi. Now, Kanbutsu-ya — dashi specialty shops in Japan — are seeing a surge in overseas sales of katsuobushi, dried bonito and konbu seaweed.
Theories about making dashi
People have different schools of thought about how to make a good dashi. The most popular combination is bonito flakes and konbu seaweed. Every Japanese chef or cook will agree the konbu seaweed goes into the pot of water first and is then plucked out of the water before it reaches its boiling point. Then the bonito flakes are added.
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Some chefs will argue that when making primary dashi, the mixture should cook over low heat for just a few minutes. Others will tell you to completely turn off the heat once the flakes are added and let them steep in the liquid like tea. Ignoring these steps and instead overcooking the dashi ingredients or pressing down the konbu and bonito flakes with a spatula could turn your dashi cloudy and fishy.
Secondary dashi, a weaker broth but just as useful as primary dashi, can be made with used konbu and bonito flakes from the primary dashi. I throw these used strips of konbu into my salads and pickles, or munch on them straight. It’s a great source of fiber. My kitty loves bonito flakes dried or cooked, so there is never any waste.
The changing form of katsuobushi – dried bonito
In the old days, every Japanese household used dried bonito whole and shaved its own bonito flakes with a katsuobushi kezuriki — a plane tool. When my father was drafted as a soldier during World War II, one of the things my grandmother gave him to take on his arduous journey was a block of dried bonito, or katsuobushi. She figured if he got hungry, he could lick the block or break it with a hammer and cook the pieces in water to make a nourishing soup. Not exactly like beef jerky, but it was a great survival food.
The process of making katsuobushi is laborious. Fish is cleaned, sliced into fillets, cooked and smoked, and some go through another step where the smoked fillets are shaved, inoculated with a beneficial mold and sun-dried to produce a katsuobushi of extraordinarily rich umami flavors.
Dashi made with such dried bonito — called karebushi or hongarebushi – is tantalizingly fragrant, but it can take as long as six months to produce a single karebushi, and such artisans are sadly disappearing from Makurazaki, Kagoshima, on the island of Kyushu, Japan, where most of the production takes place.
These days, Japanese chefs and cooks rely on pre-shaven bonito flakes sold in packages. While the pre-shaven flakes don’t compare in flavor to the freshly shaven flakes, they are pretty good, and that is what you can find in the U.S.
I store bonito flakes in the refrigerator and try to use them up quickly. What you want to avoid is using powdered dashi that contains flavor enhancers and preservatives. You can also purchase dashi packs, which resemble tea bags. Some are made of all-natural ingredients. I recommend buying pre-shaven katsuobushi and konbu seaweed and making dashi from scratch, as it really doesn’t take long to assemble it.
The synergy between konbu and bonito flakes
You can make dashi with a single ingredient, but a combination of ingredients such as konbu and bonito flakes does wonders for the flavor. The naturally occurring glutamic acid in konbu and the inosinic acid in bonito flakes have a synergistic effect on the umami scale. In this case, one plus one doesn’t not equal two but three, five or seven. Add to that equation dried shiitake mushrooms, another ingredient rich in glutamic acid, and the stock will have an almost meaty flavor.
What to look for when you buy konbu and bonito flakes
Konbu seaweed has a white powdery surface. It’s the essence of konbu, so don’t wash it off. If the seaweed looks dusty, take a well-wrung cloth and give it a gentle wipe. Keep konbu in a plastic bag away from moisture.
With bonito flakes, you want to get a large bag (80 grams to 100 grams) that contains long, shiny shavings. You don’t want bonito flakes that look yellowish and flat — that means they are old and oxidized. Some bonito flakes contain more red meat than white meat, and those will taste slightly smokier and meatier. Some bonito flakes also include other fish, like saba (dried mackerel) shavings, which also make for good dashi.
Once opened, store the bonito flakes in the refrigerator and try to use them up as quickly as possible. And you will if you practice the dashi ritual like I do.
Makes 3½ cups, or four servings of stock to make miso soup. Dashi will keep fresh for three to five days in the refrigerator, so you can make it in advance and just add miso paste and vegetables for a quick breakfast of miso soup.
3-inch piece of konbu seaweed
4 cups water
4 cups of loosely packed bonito flakes
1. Using scissors, make several crosswise cuts in the konbu. This helps to extract the flavor during cooking.
2. Place the konbu and water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil.
3. Cook over medium heat until the water almost boils. Remove konbu just before the water boils to avoid a fishy odor.
4. When the water boils, turn off the heat then add bonito flakes. Do not sitr. Let stand for three to five minutes to let the flakes steep, then strain the dashi through a very-fine mesh sieve or a sieve lined with cheesecloth or a paper towel. Don’t press the bonito flakes because it will cloud the dashi. Your primary dashi is now ready for use.
Note: To make a secondary dashi, use the bonito flakes and konbu seaweed from the primary dashi. Cook them in 4 cups of water over medium-low heat for five to eight minutes. Follow the straining technique used for the primary dashi. You can use secondary dashi for making more miso soup or use it to make curries, stews and salad dressings.
Pumpkin and Tofu Miso Soup
3½ cups dashi (recipe above)
¼ kabocha pumpkin, peeled and sliced thinly into ¼-inch thick bite-size pieces
3 to 4 tablespoons koji or mugi, white or red miso
½ a block of tofu, soft or firm
1 scallion sliced thinly
1. Bring the dashi and kabocha to a boil in a medium saucepan, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer until the kabocha is tender.
2. In a small bowl, dissolve the koji or miso in a few tablespoons of the warm dashi. Add the mixture to the saucepan. Taste and add more miso paste, dashi or water, depending on how strong the soup tastes.
3. Add the tofu and simmer for a minute. Turn off heat.
4. Pour the soup into individual bowls and garnish each bowl with scallions. Serve immediately.
Top photo: Bowls of dashi. Credit: Sonoko Sakai
New Year’s Eve is a special food day in Japan because it is the one time of the year that everyone collectively eats soba, or buckwheat noodles, not just for the good flavor but also to celebrate the metaphor of leanness and longevity.
Even those who prefer ramen noodles, udon noodles or pasta, or those who usually don’t eat noodles, will slurp a mouthful of soba because it is a cultural tradition. Soba even gets a special name on this day — Toshi-koshi soba, or passing-of-the-year soba. If you miss the ritual, it’s like you missed the year-end detox program.
Buckwheat, the main ingredient in soba noodles, is a plant cultivated for its grain-like seeds. In the U.S., it is for the most part used as a cover crop. Despite its name, buckwheat is unrelated to wheat; instead, the plant belongs to the family of rhubarb, sorrel and knotweed. It takes only 75 days to grow and doesn’t require fertile land, so it is highly sustainable.
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Bees love buckwheat, and so did our ancestors, including George Washington, who planted it as a presidential crop, and songwriter Stephen Foster, who included buckwheat in his lyrics to “Oh! Susanna”:
“The buckwheat cake was in her mouth
The tear was in her eye
Says I, ‘I’m coming from the south,
Susanna, don’t you cry.’ ”
But as a food source in the U.S., buckwheat kind of got lost along with our heritage grains when industrial mono-cropping of wheat took over and wiped out the varieties and flavors in our diet. A growing group of scientists, farmers, millers, chefs and cooks in this country are slowly bringing our heritage grains back, including the pseudo-grain buckwheat.
Buckwheat is a delicious fruit seed that makes good flour for noodles and baking bread and cakes. In Japan, buckwheat is considered a medicinal food. It is high in protein, higher than wheat or rice. It is also known to help lower blood pressure and cholesterol and clean your blood, not to mention it is easy to digest and contains no gluten. Soba noodles made with new-crop buckwheat are especially sought after, like a seasonal fruit. At its peak season, the color of the buckwheat flour is a creamy light olive. It’s nutty fragrance and sweet flavor is incredibly satisfying.
Soba and gongs mark New Year’s Eve in Japan
Eating soba is a good year-end detox food, and the practice can be doubly so if you pair it with temple gongs. When I was growing up in Kamakura, the ancient capital of Japan, we would eat our soba noodles on New Year’s Eve and for further detoxing of the soul go to a nearby Buddhist temple to listen to the 108 gongs (Joya-no-kane). According to Buddhist scriptures, for every gong you hear, one of your wrongdoings will be forgiven. I remember trying to stay up to listen to all 108 gongs and figuring out how many mean things I had done to my brothers and sisters during that year. I suppose the practice can be compared to a long Catholic confession session, without the guidance of the priest and Hail Marys to recite.
I usually didn’t stay awake to the last gong, but then, I didn’t feel that bad because I had slurped the soba noodles. On New Year’s Day, I would wear a kimono and tried to act feminine for once and do calligraphy — writing Chinese characters like “peace,” “happiness,” “health,” “endeavor” and “filial piety” on rice paper — and prepare to face the new challenges that awaited me.
The simplest way to eat soba noodles is plain, with a dipping sauce and a few condiments like sliced scallions and grated daikon radish. You never want to demote soba noodles to be served as a side dish. Serve the noodles with grated wasabi if you can get some, but it is not necessary and fake ones don’t do justice. Use grated ginger instead if you want the spice.
You can make a batch of soba noodles by hand, which is what I do. It takes less than 20 minutes to make them from scratch. Cook the noodles in a big pot of boiling water for a couple of minutes, do a good rinse and strain off the water. Slurp the noodles with the dipping sauce. You will be happy eaters who will live nearly forever.
Nihachi-style Soba Noodles
These soba noodles use 80% buckwheat flour and 20% all-purpose wheat flour. Makes 2 to 3 servings.
10 ounces stone-milled soba-grade buckwheat flour
2.5 ounces all-purpose flour
6 ounces hot water
Cornstarch or tapioca flour for dusting
1. Place the buckwheat and all-purpose flours in a large bowl. Pour most of the hot water over the entire flour mixture, using a wooden spoon as a guide. (Reserve a small amount of the hot water in case you need to add more in the next step.) Mix the dough quickly until it forms a single mass. Once the dough is cooled off, use your hands to massage the dough until the flour and water are distributed evenly and there is no flour left on the bowl.
2. Place the dough on a cutting board. Work quickly with the heels of your hands to form a smooth dough. If the dough feels dry, lightly wet the tips of your fingers with more water, brushing them against the surface of the dough while kneading until smooth. The final dough will be soft and smooth and not sticky. This will take about 8 to 10 minutes.
3. Form the dough into a smooth ball and place it on the cutting board and lightly sprinkle cornstarch over the top. Using the palm and heel of your hand, flatten the ball into a disk about half an inch thick.
4. Use a rolling pin to roll the disk into a rectangle about the thickness of a credit card. Generously sprinkle cornstarch over half the dough and fold the other half over like a book. (The cornstarch will keep the dough from sticking together as it is cut). Generously dust another crosswise half of the dough with cornstarch and fold again.
5. Starting along the short, folded side of the dough, slice the dough into very thin (about 1/16th inch) noodles. Keep the noodles loosely covered with plastic wrap while you boil the water for cooking.
6. To cook the noodles, bring a large pot of water (at least 2 gallons) to a boil over high heat. Gently drop the soba into the boiling water. Keep the water boiling vigorously to prevent the noodles from sticking together. Cook the noodles to al dente, about 90 seconds (timing will vary depending on the thickness of the noodles).
7. Immediately remove the noodles to a strainer set in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Wash the noodles, using both hands to remove any surface starch. Prepare a second bowl of ice water to shock the noodles. Drain the noodles well. Serve with soba-tsuyu dipping sauce (see accompanying recipe) on the side, along with desired condiments.
Note: You can source fresh mill-to-order organic sobako-grade flour from Anson Mills, or you can also try Japanese markets. Cold Mountain and Nijiya makes sobako-grade flours.
Easy dipping sauce
4 cups water
4 cups bonito flakes, divided
4 ounces mirin
4 ounces soy sauce (Usukuchi or Koikuchi-type Japanese soy sauce)
1. Make a dashi broth by bringing four cups of water to boil, then turning off the heat for one minute before adding in three loosely packed cups of bonito flakes. The flakes will wilt and shrivel upon contact with the steam. Let the liquid steep for five minutes before draining the liquid into a bowl through a paper towel or cheese cloth lined strainer. (Don’t press on the flakes or the liquid will turn cloudy and fishy.)
2. Measure out three cups (24 ounces) of the dashi broth and bring it to a boil with 4 ounces of mirin and 4 ounces of soy sauce.
3. As soon as it boils, turn off the heat and add in one more cup of bonito flakes. Let them steep for one minute before draining the liquid into another bowl. Let cool. This will make enough dipping sauce for three to four servings of soba. Refrigerated, it will keep for a week.
Top photo: Soba noodles. Credit: Patrick Gookin
Hearty stews are one of the universally appealing slow-cooked foods that you can find in many parts of the world. When it comes to stews, Japanese cuisine has a large repertoire, one of which is nishime, a stew made with chicken and vegetables cooked in a dashi stock and seasoned with soy sauce, mirin and sake.
Unlike many Western stews, it doesn’t use any flour or butter for seasoning or thickening. You can eat it cold or hot, and like all stews, it improves in flavor as the days pass.
Nishime is eaten throughout the year, but it is a particularly popular Japanese holiday food. At year’s end, the cooks in my family gather around the kitchen table to prepare a large pot of nishime to last several days, so there is something to eat for family and friends who may decide to drop by at the spur of the moment. The dish has regional differences, but for the most part, it features chicken; root vegetables; konnyaku, a non-caloric, jelly-like food made from potato that is enjoyed mainly for its texture; and snow peas or green beans.
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I make nishime for the holidays, but I also make it for my husband when I go out of town so he has something of sustenance to eat. I do give him some credit because he actually tries to do some cooking on his own during my absences; he stocks up on cabbage, green beans, carrots, frozen cooked shrimp and cans of mackerel. How he cooks them is a mystery about which I don’t care to know too much. But I can tell you that most of the produce ends up shriveled in the fridge. Things can get uglier, as they did recently when I found a whole case of instant Cup Noodles ramen stashed away in his studio cabinet. It couldn’t be returned because he had already opened the plastic wrapper and begun to work his way through. Call me a snob to deny my husband Cup Noodles ramen, the world’s favorite convenience food, but I gave him an ultimatum. His solution was nishime.
More than one style of Nishime
You can cook nishime in a variety of ways. The meat and vegetables are cut in uniform, bite-size pieces. I bevel the edges of potatoes and carrots so the shapes remain clean and intact while simmering in the dashi stock, which can be made with bonito flakes, konbu seaweed and dried shiitake mushrooms, or any kind of stock you have on hand.
Japanese home cooks make nishime by cooking all the vegetables and meat in one pot from the start. The more refined way of making it is to cook each vegetable separately in stock and then combine them for only a short time so the individual morsels of food maintain their own flavors. For example, if you combine burdock and taro potatoes together, the earthy burdock will season the potato. Some vegetables, like lotus root and the potato-derived konnyaku, have a bland flavor so they need to be cooked a long time in a seasoned stock or with other vegetables to become flavorful. Some green vegetables, such as snow peas, cook fast and turn unappealing in color if you leave them in the nishime stock for too long. To combat that, precooked greens are added at the last minute to brighten the earthy holiday stew. However, you can try making the all-in-one-pot version to see how you like it.
Nishime (Chicken and Root Vegetable Stew)
Serves 4 to 6
1 piece of konnyaku (optional)
6 taro potatoes, peeled and beveled
1 burdock, peeled
1 medium lotus root
12 snow peas, veins removed
200 grams (about 7 ounces) cooked bamboo shoots
6 fresh or dried shiitake mushrooms, hydrated and with stems removed
½ teaspoon salt to cook the snow peas
1 pound boneless chicken thigh
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 cups water
3 ounces light-colored soy sauce (Usukuchi soy sauce)
3 ounces Koikuchi soy sauce
6 ounces mirin
2 ounces sake
1 tablespoon sugar (optional)
6-inch piece of konbu seaweed
1. Blanch the konnyaku in boiling water for a minute. Drain and discard the water.
2. Peel and slice the potatoes, carrots, burdock, lotus root and konnyaku into bite-size pieces, about 1½ to 2 inches wide.
3. Blanch the snow peas in salted boiling water for a minute. Drain and set aside.
4. Bring a medium-sized saucepan full of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Blanch the potatoes, carrots, burdock, lotus root, bamboo shoots and mushrooms in the boiling water for a couple of minutes. Drain and set aside the vegetables in a bowl. Repeat the process with the chicken pieces.
5. In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add the chicken, konnyaku and the blanched vegetables (except the snow peas) and sauté for 5 minutes.
6. Add water, the soy sauces, mirin, sake, sugar and seaweed and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes. Remove the chicken, potatoes and carrots and set aside. Continue cooking the vegetables remaining in the saucepan for another 15 minutes. You can make the stew up to this point and leave it overnight in the fridge. Reheat before serving.
7. Garnish with snow peas before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Top photo: Nishime, a Japanese stew. Credit: Sonoko Sakai