Articles by Sonoko Sakai
Soba is a delightfully tasteful and nourishing noodle. Originating in Japan, soba is made with buckwheat, and the nutrient-rich noodle is associated with longevity and eaten year-round.
While soba is traditionally eaten plain with dipping sauce and herbs or in a hot broth, the noodle is finding its way onto Western plates because of its versatility and good flavor.
In more Westernized preparations, soba works great in salads and can work just as well with pasta sauce or pesto sauce. Some Japanese and Italians will raise their eyebrows, but why not?
Soba salad — a perfect summer food
I was a traditionalist when it came to soba until I had my first encounter with a soba salad. This happened while my mother was visiting from Tokyo one summer back in the early ’80s, during a heat wave. We accepted a lunch invitation from her Japanese schoolmate, Mrs. Hoffman, who lived in Thousand Oaks, and it turned out Mrs. Hoffman was making us soba for lunch.
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As Japanese, we were, of course, expecting zaru soba — cold soba served with dipping sauce and herbs. But when the soba was served, it came in a form that neither my mother nor I had ever seen before — mixed with her garden tomatoes and greens and dressed with a vinaigrette in a big salad bowl.
We were both in shock, to put it lightly. We thought Mrs. Hoffman had become too Americanized and had bastardized our classic noodle. Mrs. Hoffman tossed the salad in front of us and plated the oil-coated soba and vegetables. This was her American husband’s favorite lunch, she told us.
At first, we were skeptical. But my mother raised me to try everything, so I did, and she did as well. The salad tasted surprisingly delicious. The earthiness of the soba gave the salad texture and umami flavor. The tomatoes added a nice sweetness.
We both loved the soba salad that day, and I’ve grown to appreciate a good soba salad. When I make it myself, I use greens, sliced radishes, fava beans, scallions and whatever fresh vegetables I find at the farmers market or in my garden. I serve the salad with a simple vinaigrette. (See recipe below.) I toss the soba with the vegetables at the last minute, so it doesn’t get mushy.
What’s in dried soba?
While dried pasta tastes pretty darn good, dried soba tastes, for the most part, rather flat and flavorless. Most dried soba fails because manufacturers make a wheat noodle containing only a token amount of buckwheat and still call it “soba.”
According to Japanese standards, dried soba noodles can be called soba only if they contain at least 30% buckwheat flour. Apparently, these standards were set during World War II, when soba production was low.
A few Japanese and American brands, such as Koma Soba and Eden Foods Soba, produce a 100% dried buckwheat noodle. They can be found in some health food stores as well as some Japanese markets, such as Nijiya , Mitsuwa and Marukai. You can’t beat fresh soba noodles, but these dried noodles will give you the traditional Japanese taste of the buckwheat noodle.
Packed with nutrients and flavor
Soba has played a medicinal role in Japan since ancient times. Buckwheat has an amino acid composition nutritionally superior to all cereals, surpassing oats, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In Japan during the 17th century, buckwheat helped cure a large outbreak of beriberi, a disease caused by a vitamin B deficiency that results from eating too many refined foods such as white rice.
In addition to its healthful qualities, soba is sought after in Japan for its nutty flavor and good chew, although not too much is known in the West about its delicate flavor profiles.
Like other crops, buckwheat is known to take on the terroir of the land. Kitawase buckwheat from Hokkaido, Japan, is lightly fragrant and chewy, whereas Ibaraki’s Hitachi Akisoba is robust.
Soba made with fresh buckwheat flour tastes vastly different in flavor and texture than its dried counterpart. In the fresh version, you taste the nutty and roasted tea-like flavors of the buckwheat.
It’s faster and simpler to make soba than pasta, because it requires no resting time and the only other ingredient besides flour is water. Fresh noodles cook in less than 2 minutes.
When I make soba, I like using a flour mixture with a ratio of 8 parts buckwheat and 2 parts wheat flour called ni-hachi style soba, which has been a practice in Japan for more than 400 years. The added wheat gives the gluten-free buckwheat structure and stability.
Not all buckwheat flour you find in the U.S. makes good soba, because the milling is sometimes done poorly or it sits on the shelf too long. If the flour runs through your fingers like sand, it will not make good noodles. You should be able to clutch it your hand and form a peak.
In the United States, you can buy fresh, stone-milled, aromatic and coarse buckwheat flours and ni-hachi style soba flour from Anson Mills. I like to blend these varieties to make my own flour mix. You can also find soba-grade flour in Japanese markets such as Cold Mountain from Miyako. Whatever kind you buy, store it in the refrigerator.
Once you have made soba a few times, you can use 100% buckwheat flour instead of the 80% buckwheat-20% wheat mix. For those who are gluten intolerant, substitute tapioca flour for wheat flour in your dough.
Ideas for soba salad
Many Western chefs and food writers incorporate soba into their cooking. Zester Daily contributor Deborah Madison has written an insightful book called “Vegetable Literacy” that will educate you about vegetables, especially the chapter about the knotweed family, which includes buckwheat as well as rhubarb and sorrel. She includes in the book a recipe for a visually stunning and delicious Kale Soba Salad With Silvered Brussels Sprouts and Sesame Dressing. The salad is what initially turned me on to kale, and I frequently serve it at my soba workshops, because it’s always a hit.
Yotam Ottolengi’s cookbook “Plenty” includes a recipe for a sweet and summery Eggplant and Mango Soba Salad, which has become Yotam’s mother’s ultimate cook-to impress fare. Mango and eggplant? Weird, I first thought. But I was wrong. His plentiful use of herbs like cilantro and parsley and use of sweet and lime garlic vinaigrette in soba breaks all cultural barriers. Everyone loves this soba salad, and so do I.
Easy Soba Noodles for Beginners
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: Less than 5 minutes
Total time: About 25 minutes
Yield: 2 to 3 servings
12 ounces (350 grams) ni-hachi soba flour (premixed buckwheat flour and wheat flour)
6 ounces (175 grams) boiling water (45% to 50% of the total weight the flour)
1 cup (125 grams) flour for dusting (use tapioca or cornstarch flour.)
2 gallons water to cook the noodles
For making the noodles:
1. Combine the flour and boiling water in a bowl, massaging the mixture, first with a wooden spoon then using both hands, until well combined. Continue to work the dough until it forms a single mass.
2. Transfer the dough from the bowl to a cutting board. Working quickly and using the heels of your hands, continue to knead firmly until a smooth dough forms. (If the dough feels dry, lightly wet the tips of your fingers with more water, brushing them against the surface of the dough and continue kneading until smooth). The process will take about 4 or 5 minutes, and the final dough will be a little soft and smooth but not sticky.
3. Form the dough into a smooth ball.
4. Dust cornstarch or tapioca flour on a large cutting board. Place the dough ball on the board and lightly sprinkle cornstarch or tapioca flour over the top. Using your palm and the heel of your hand, flatten the ball into a disk about a half-inch thick.
5. Use a rolling pin to roll the disk into a rectangle about 1/18-inch thick.
6. Generously dust cornstarch or tapioca flour over half the dough, then fold the undusted half over, like closing a book. (The cornstarch or tapioca flour keeps the dough from sticking together as it is cut.)
7. Generously dust another crosswise half of the dough with cornstarch or tapioca flour and fold in half again.
8. Starting along the short, folded side of the dough, slice it into very thin (about 1/16 of an inch) noodles.
9. Keep the noodles loosely covered with plastic wrap while you boil the water for cooking.
For cooking the noodles:
1. Bring a large pot of water (at least 2 gallons) to a boil over high heat.
2. Gently dust off the excess dusting flour from the noodles by gently tapping them against the cutting board. Drop the noodles into the boiling water.
3. 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. Thicker noodles will need to cook longer.)
4. Remove the noodles to a strainer set in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking.
5. Prepare a second bowl of ice water and transfer to the second bowl to remove any surface starch and shock the noodles, then drain or strain them.
6. Serve immediately with your favorite salad dressing, dipping sauce or pasta sauce.
Lemon Miso Vinaigrette
Prep time: About 5 minutes
2 teaspoons roasted sesame oil
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon fresh ginger juice
1 tablespoons white miso paste
1/2 teaspoon cane sugar
Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
1. Whisk together all the ingredients and blend well.
2. Store in the refrigerator and use as you would any vinaigrette.
Main photo: Soba salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai
Traditional pickled foods have become increasingly popular, with their palate-pleasing spicy, sour, sweet and salty flavors and varied textures that provide health benefits as well as serving as a digestive aid.
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The most popular traditional pickled foods in America are dill pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi — all of which share one thing in common: They are vegetables pickled in a brine, vinegar or other solutions and then left to ferment, a process called lacto-fermentation. Just the sound of the words make our stomachs feel better.
How does lacto-fermentation work? During fermentation, a beneficial bacteria called Lactobacillus, which is present on the surface of all vegetables and fruits, begins to metabolize its sugars into lactic acid; this is a natural preservative that inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria.
Eating pickled foods in moderation keeps your gut flora healthy and supports immune function by providing an increase in B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, digestive enzymes and other immune chemicals that fight off harmful bacteria.
Pickling: A universal practice
The universe of lacto-fermented foods includes so much more than dill pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi. Since ancient times, people around the world have used this method to preserve vegetables and fruits when refrigeration was not available, and the tradition of pickling has carried on.
The Japanese have a diverse variety of pickles that use solid rather than liquid pickling mediums as such miso, sake lees and rice bran — all of which undergo the process of lacto-fermentation. The result is a distinctly tangy, crunchy and delicious assortment of pickles.
I am particularly fond of the nutty aroma and mild flavor of nukazuke, a traditional Japanese pickling method using fermented rice bran. Like wheat bran, rice bran is the outer layer of the grain that is removed during the milling process. In the U.S., most of the bran gets sold off to produce cattle feed and dog food, but the Japanese use it to pickle any type of firm vegetable, including carrots, cucumbers, cabbage, radish, zucchini, kabocha and burdock. The vegetables are buried in nukadoko, the fermented medium, to pickle for just a couple hours or overnight and reused again. The flavor of nukazuke is not as sour or spicy as kimchi or sauerkraut, but the health benefits are just as high.
How to maintain the nukadoko medium
Maintaining a nukadoko medium involves one crucial task: keeping it alive. You must stir the medium with your hands once a day to aerate it, so the bacteria can breathe and do their thing. It takes no more than a minute of your time, so you can incorporate it into your daily ritual.
Nukadoko also loves the good bacteria that live on your hands, so don’t use a wooden spoon. You will notice the medium has a distinct sour smell, which indicates the bacteria are actively working. I find the smell rather pleasant.
I keep my nukadoko in the pantry, which makes the daily stirring an easy task, but some people prefer to keep it in the garage. When choosing a spot to keep it, be sure it’s a cool place. If you don’t have one, you can keep it in the refrigerator, but the fermentation process will be much slower.
Every family has its own version of nukadoko. In the old days, one of the heirloom gifts a Japanese mother passed onto her daughter as a wedding gift was nukadoko, and it was not uncommon to find a nukadoko that was more than 50 years old.
Sad to say, this custom is disappearing in Japan and convenient foods are taking over. However, a slow movement is underway to restore traditional foods like nukazuke, including here in America. I have third- and fourth-generation Japanese-Americans who come to my pickling workshops to learn how to make their grandmothers’ nukazuke.
Sourcing rice bran in the U.S. is an easier task than I thought, because rice is grown widely in California. You can buy stabilized bran (commonly pasteurized) at Japanese markets or online, or ask your local rice farmer if they have some to sell. I contacted my friend Robin Koda at Koda Farms in South Dos Palos, one of the oldest rice farms in California, and she was happy to supply me with her raw bran, knowing its intended purpose.
One of my students commented that making nuka pickles is a bit like making compost, and it’s true. You will need a clay jar, an enameled pot or glass bin with a lid. I have an enameled pickling jar that’s about 30 years old, and it still works perfectly. The nukadoko medium has a texture similar to a wet sand or soft miso paste. Preparation of nukadoko takes about a week. If you have any leftover rice bran, keep it in the refrigerator or freezer because it is highly perishable.
Making nukadoko may seem a little tedious and time-consuming, but once you have been trained in the medium, you can keep it for years and pass it on to friends and loved ones. That’s what I enjoy doing.
Nuka Pickle Medium (Nukadoko) and Nuka Pickles
2 1/2 pounds of rice bran (nuka)
6 ounces sea salt
7 1/2 cups of filtered water
1 (6-inch) piece of konbu, cut up into small pieces
4 to 5 Japanese red chili peppers, seeded
Discarded ends and peels of vegetables (such as cabbage, carrots, cucumbers and daikon radish, but not onions)
2 garlic cloves, peeled (optional)
For making the nukadoko:
1. Place the rice bran in a heavy cast-iron pan and toast it over low heat. Use a wooden spoon or spatula to stir the bran so it doesn’t burn. The toasting process takes about 10 minutes. Once done, remove from heat and let stand.
2. In a separate large pot, combine the salt and water and bring to a simmer. Mix to dissolve the salt to make a brine. Remove from heat.
3. Slowly add the brine to the rice bran and mix it with a paddle until it reaches a consistency comparable to slightly moist sand.
5. Add konbu, chili peppers and garlic (if using) to the mixture.
For training the nukadoko and pickling:
1. Start by putting various vegetables scraps (try cabbage leaves, eggplant, celery and carrots) in the rice bran bed for about three days to allow them to lightly ferment. Take them out and discard them.
2. Repeat this three or four times, then you are ready to start pickling.
3. The nukadoko will develop a unique aroma and look like wet sand. At this point, a fermenting culture has been established and the nukadoko is alive and contains active organisms such as yeast and lactobacilli. You can now start putting vegetables into the nukadoko for fermenting. To speed the pickling process, you can rub a little salt on whole or large chunks of vegetables such as cucumber and carrots before you put them into the nukadoko. If the nukadoko becomes too wet, just add a little bit of rice bran with salt or a piece of day-old bread. Again, place fresh vegetables into the base for 1 to 2 days. Cucumbers may take only 2 to 3 hours on a warm day and 4 to 6 hours on a cold day.
Tips for maintaining the nukadoko base:
You will need to mix the nukadoko base once a day, turning it with your hand. If it the base feels dry, pour in a little beer. (Flat beer will work fine.)
If your most recent batch of pickles tastes too sour, add fresh nuka and salt (5 parts nuka to 1 part sea salt).
If you are traveling, you should move the nukadoko base to the refrigerator. The bacteria will go dormant, but you can reactivate them by giving the base a stir and leaving it out at room temperature. If you see any mold build up, simply scrape it off and add some fresh nuka to the mix.
Main photo: Nukazuke, or pickled vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai
New Year’s is the most important holiday in Japan, and the centerpiece of the annual celebration is what the Japanese consider to be lucky foods.
For New Year’s, I want to cook up a storm of good-luck foods that bring forward movement, prosperity, health and longevity.
The actual preparation of these celebratory foods begins two or three days before the end of the year to allow time for everything to be ready for New Year’s Eve, because the holiday is, according to tradition, a time for rest in Japan. Along with cooking, people in Japan also tidy up their homes — a major “spring cleaning” is undertaken at the end of the year so you don’t carry forward the dust of the past year.
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The good-luck foods are meant to last throughout the week of New Year’s, so they include braised vegetables and vinegary dishes that keep well and can be reheated or served at room temperature to feed a lot of people.
These good-luck foods are traditionally served in a Jubako, the special three-tier lacquer boxes brought out from storage once a year for this special occasion.
Each box contains something different. The top box has the most eye-catching and colorful good-luck food, such as a salmon wrapped in kombu seaweed, grilled Tai snapper or a bright red lobster that connotes wholeness. The second tier usually has the best edibles — caramelized sardines and egg rolls for fertility; sweetened black beans for hard work and longevity; and pickled lotus with its multiple holes to help you to see things clearly. In the third tier are root vegetables, which connote balance and stability.
So many possibilities exist for the Jubako boxes. Another favorite is Ozoni, a soup served with sticky mochi (a rice cake), which is supposed to give you endurance. Growing up, I had to eat everything — even the whole baby sardines, from head to tail — all for the sake of superstition.
The New Year’s ceremony itself is simple but somewhat austere, at least in my family. We dress up, sit around the table and have a sip or two of Otoso — a syrupy sweet sake infused with Japanese pepper, cinnamon, ginger and rhubarb among other medicinal herbs. Then we bow our heads and thank our family members, share the food in the Jubako and have a sip of sake. We do the same ritual over and over for three days, with a break to visit our ancestor’s grave.
Homemade good-luck foods such as Namasu worth the effort
The sad truth is that the tradition of cooking these dishes is slowly dying. Instead, many Japanese people opt to buy ready-made good-luck foods packed in disposable fake lacquer boxes, even though they don’t come cheap — some have price tags as high as $300 to $500.
I find these store-bought New Year’s foods horribly unsatisfying. As a home cook, I encourage people to make these traditional foods at home the way their grandparents or parents used to, even if they make just one good-luck food each year.
One of my favorite good-luck foods — and one that’s simple to prepare at home — is Namasu, a salad made with carrot and daikon radish. I enjoy this dish so much I make it year-round. You can serve it alongside grilled fish or barbecue meats and roasts. It’s very refreshing.
Daikon Radish and Carrot Namasu
When making Namasu, make sure to use reddish and white root vegetables. Red is the symbol of good luck and corresponds with fire and connotes forward movement and joy. In Japan, we even use the word for red to refer to newborns.
Carrot is the perfect red for this dish. Julienned, it can look like the good-luck mizuhiki cords used in Japan to tie around plants to bring good luck. The color white is the symbol of purity. Daikon radish is white and delicious. Combined with the carrot, daikon makes for a great contrast in crunch and flavor.
I like to add some heat to the salad with red pepper and then add some lemon or yuzu rind for fragrance. Dried fruits such as persimmon, apricot and pear add sweetness as a garnish, and roasted sesame seeds give the salad an additional crunch and flavor. This salad will keep well in the fridge for 3 or 4 days.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
For the salad:
1 medium-sized daikon radish (about 1 pound)
1 medium-sized carrot
2 teaspoons salt
For the vinegar dressing:
1/2 cup rice vinegar
2 1/2 tablespoons cane sugar
1 dried red pepper, seeded and chopped
For the garnish:
1 teaspoon roasted sesame seeds
1 teaspoon lemon peel, julienned
1/2 cup dried persimmon, pear or apricot, julienned (optional)
1. Peel the daikon radish and carrot and slice into julienne pieces about 2 1/2 inches long and 1/8-inch thick.
2. In a large bowl, rub the salt into the carrot and daikon radish slices until they become tender. Do a gentle massage until the excess water comes out of the vegetables. Discard the water.
3. Combine the rice vinegar, cane sugar and dried red pepper and combine well to make the dressing.
4. Pour the dressing on the daikon and carrot and mix well. Let the vegetables marinate in the dressing for at least one hour.
5. Just before serving, garnish the salad with the sesame seeds and lemon peel and dried fruit, if desired.
Main image: Namasu. Credit: Sonoko Sakai
Nothing is more quintessentially fall than squash. Their varietal colors and shapes are much to be admired, and their brightly colored interiors make magnificent food. Though not as popular or well-known as pumpkin, butternut squash or spaghetti squash, my favorite squash is kabocha, the Japanese winter squash.
I planted kabocha seeds in my urban garden in Los Angeles this year. A single seed produced six dark green, striped kabochas, and the vines took over my yard. A kabocha can grow to 2 pounds to 8 pounds, and the weight and hardness are signs of a healthy kabocha. Mine, however, turned out minuscule, like tomatoes, because I could not bear to cut any off — they were too precious — and this limited their size. But even though my kabochas were small, they had a sweet flavor like a chestnut.
Kabocha’s history starts continents away
Most people think kabocha is a Japanese squash variety, and that’s at least partially true. It was introduced to Japan by Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century. Different theories have arisen as to how the name kabocha came about. Some say it is derived from the Portuguese word for squash, abobora, as have many other foods the missionaries introduced such as tempero, which the Japanese refer to in the slightly altered form as tempura. Others say kabocha came from the word Cambodia, another place Portuguese missionaries traveled to. But if you trace kabocha’s roots further, you will eventually end up somewhere in the Andes region in South America.
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I can see how this prolific squash transplanted itself from continent to continent, its seeds traveling around the world in missionaries’ pockets or carried by migrating birds, dropping to the ground and sprouting in back yards of Japanese temple gardens and fields. Today, it has become a beloved and familiar landrace variety we call kabocha, which, by the way, is also a generic Japanese word that refers to all pumpkins and squash.
My mother associated kabocha with food shortages during World War II. In the Japanese countryside where she fled with her family, they basically subsisted on kabocha. You would think my mother would have grown tired of it, but she loved it. She would put it in our miso soup and our bento boxes to brighten up our meals, and she would fry it up into tempura. Kabocha was always present during American holidays, which we celebrated just as much as we did Japanese holidays after our family transplanted to America.
The nutritional benefits of kabocha are many. It is full of beta-carotene and fiber, and it’s a low-carb alternative to butternut squash, with less than half the carbs (7 grams vs. 16 grams) per 1 cup serving. For all those people looking for a guiltless holiday food that is low in carbs, kabocha is the answer.
How to cut kabocha for cooking
Still,if you hesitate to pick up kabocha at the market because of its hard rind, you should know there is a way to handle it without chopping off a finger. First you have to slice off the stem, which is a very simple thing to do with the help of the knife: Just cut around the stem and pull it. Then turn the kabocha upside down and cut out the navel. With a long mixing spoon or pair of long chopsticks, make the two holes bigger. Next, take a heavy, sharp knife and cut into the hole, holding one end of the kabocha with your hand to stabilize it. Cut the squash in half, working on one side at a time. You will end up with two halves, and the rest is easy. Just scoop out the seeds and start cutting the halves into quarters, then into eighths and on into smaller, bite-size pieces.
When cutting kabocha, I like to leave most of the skin on and bevel the corners so they don’t get mushy while cooking. One more tip for preparing kabocha is not to overcook it, because it will make it mushy. It cooks rather fast, about 8 to 10 minutes in boiling water, which makes it an easy, colorful and nutritious addition to everyday meals.
For special occasions like Thanksgiving, kabocha can be in the spotlight. Put kabocha next to the turkey, where it will be appreciated by all, or serve it warm as a dessert with a dab of melted butter and warm azuki bean paste.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Yield: Makes 4 servings.
1 1/2 pounds (600 grams) kabocha
1 tablespoon soy sauce
6 tablespoons cane sugar
Pinch of salt
1. Cut kabocha into bite-size pieces, leaving some skin on.
2. Place the kabocha and enough water to cover it in a medium-sized saucepan. Add the soy sauce, cane sugar and salt.
3. Cover with lid and bring the water to a boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer. Cook for another 8 to 10 minutes until the kabocha is cooked through, but not mushy. Test with a toothpick. Drain the seasoned water.
4. Serve warm or at room temperature with the skin side up. It can also be served with adzuki bean paste (see recipe below).
Adzuki Bean Paste
Prep time: Overnight soaking
Cook time: 3 hours
Total time: 3 hours, plus soaking time
Yield: Makes about 3 ½ cups
1 1/3 cups (250 grams) adzuki beans
1 1/3 cups (250 grams) cane sugar
Pinch of salt
1. Rinse the adzuki beans, then place them in a large pot and cover with water to soak overnight. Once hydrated, the beans will expand in size, so make sure the beans are submerged in plenty of water.
2. Bring the pot of beans to a boil, then remove from heat and discard the broth.
3. Fill the pot again with water and cook over low heat until the beans are cooked. You should be able to smash them between your fingers with no hard core in the middle.
4. Continue cooking the beans over medium-low heat, and add the sugar in three parts. Stir the beans to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pot.
5. Add a pinch of salt and cook until two thirds of the liquid is absorbed in the beans. If you want a soft bean paste, the beans should leave a tail when you scoop up the paste and drop it back into the pot. If the bean falls in one lump, it will become a harder bean paste.
6. Once the bean paste is cooked to a desired texture, transfer it to a cookie sheet to let cool. Wrap the paste in plastic and store it in the refrigerator. It will keep for 10 days in the refrigerator or three months in the freezer.
7. Serve warm with Braised Kabocha.
Main photo: Braised Kabocha With Adzuki Bean Paste. Credit: Sonoko Sakai
Hideo Ono, a lean 65-year-old with deep crow’s feet around his eyes and a farmer’s tan, has been growing rice in the village of Tajima, Niigata, in the northwestern part of Japan for 20 years. The region is known for growing the best rice because of its distinct four seasons and good water that filters down from the surrounding snow-capped mountains.
Despite being a late comer to his career as a farmer, Ono is the founder of Joint Farm, a co-op that grows one of the most sought-after premium-grade heirloom short-grain rice varieties, known as Koshihikari rice. The varietal is sold under several labels, including Gensenmai and Mugenmai. Compared to the insect-resistant, higher-yielding, modern strain of the Koshihikari BL varietal most Niigata farmers are cultivating these days, Ono prefers the heirloom Koshihikari because of its distinct flavor and fragrance.
Koshihikari rice is sold in milled and unmilled styles, but if Ono had his way, everyone would eat brown rice, the unmilled variety. In fact, when Ono is not in the fields working, you will find him on the road, doing brown rice cooking demonstrations and tasting events all over the country and overseas.
Brown rice the better choice for good health
Why is he so passionate about spreading the gospel of brown rice? Ono advocates brown rice instead of white rice because of its many health benefits. Brown rice is known to lower the risk of developing diabetes, and it’s high in fiber, which promotes cardiovascular health. It is also a good source of minerals that support bone health, and its oil has been known to lower cholesterol. Finally, it can also help prevent weight gain.
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Ono attributes his well-being to eating a diet full of brown rice, but he said he was not always so healthy.
On a recent visit to Ono’s rice farm, he pulled his wallet out of his pocket and showed me a faded photo of him taken with a sumo wrestler nearly 20 years ago. “Can you guess which one is me?” Ono asked. At first glance, I could not tell because both men were heavy. Ono pointed to the man on the right and said, laughing, “That’s me. I am fatter than the sumo wrestler.”
In a flashback to his days as a furniture salesman in the 1980s, Ono said that in his 40s he suffered from obesity and high blood pressure. Warned by his doctor that he was a walking time bomb, he knew he would die early if he kept up his excessive drinking and poor eating habits. That’s when Ono decided to restore his health through a diet centered on vegetables and brown rice. At the same time he took up farming, a much more physical job. He went to apprentice with a local farmer and never looked back.
While pursuing his new lifestyle, Ono met Atsuko. They got married and moved to Tagami, where they started their rice farm.
Ono and the farmers in the Joint Farm co-op grow rice sustainably and organically; they make fertilizer pellets from naturally recycled rice bran; coffee grinds; tea leaves; minerals; and okara, which are soybean curds that occur as a byproduct of tofu. He is against using animal manure in farming because the feed given to fertilizer-producing animals can contain a number of chemicals which, if used, would inevitably pass through to the rice.
“The fertility of soil and quality of fertilizer together play important roles with regards to the quality of the rice,” Ono said.
One of the highlights of the visit was the farm-to-table suppers at Ono’s farmhouse. His friend, chef Fumihiko Ono (no relation) from the Yagi Culinary Institute, joined us from Tokyo for what turned into a two-day feast. It began with a trip to the market to buy local fish to make sushi.
Tagami is about 45 minutes inland from the Sea of Japan, which is known for its abundance of seafood. We bought a whole young Isaki (baby yellowtail), Hachime (a local fish that looks like a small snapper) and a wiggly leg of an octopus with the biggest suction cups I have ever seen.
Back at Ono’s farm, Chef Ono cleaned the fish and prepared sashimi while the rest of us harvested tomatoes, eggplant, okra and cucumbers from the farm. We also enjoyed regional delicacies the Onos had prepared in advance, but the unique part of the sushi supper was the rice.
We made it using short-grain brown rice, which would be considered heresy to most Japanese people, who are accustomed to eating short-grain white rice with sushi.
To make the sushi rice, the brown rice was seasoned with vinegar and salt, but no sugar. Chef Ono arranged the sashimi for the temaki-zushi (sushi hand rolls). The vegetables were washed in cool well water and left whole for us to bite into.
The diners all made their own hand rolls, starting with a stack of nori seaweed. The fillings along with soy sauce, wasabi paste and pickled ginger were passed around so everyone could create their own sushi rolls.
The brown rice sushi tasted nutty and sweet and paired very well with the seafood, vegetables and sake. We spent two days feasting, visiting a nearby egg farmer, a soy sauce artisan and Ono’s majestic rice fields.
When it was time to leave, Ono said, “Come back to Tajima during harvest time,” filling his face with a wrinkly smile. The distinct flavor and texture of the brown rice lingers. I appreciate what it takes to make such exquisiteness.
Brown Rice Hand Rolls
For the best results, follow the rice-to-water ratio recommended by the rice manufacturer. Pickled ginger and plum vinegar are sold at Asian grocery stores. Plum vinegar is a byproduct of making pickled plums. The vinegar is salty, so no salt is needed to season the sushi rice.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Total time: 1 hour
Yield: Makes 4 servings
For the brown rice:
2 cups short-grain brown sushi rice
1 strip of konbu seaweed, about 3 inches long
3½ cups water
4 tablespoons plum vinegar, or add more to taste
For making and serving the sushi:
12 sheets nori seaweed, toasted and cut in half lengthwise
4 tablespoons wasabi paste
Soy sauce (Japanese-style koikuchi shoyu)
Pickled ginger (optional)
2 Persian or Japanese cucumbers, cut into sticks ¼ inch by 4 inches
2 ripe avocados, peeled, seeded and cut into eighths
1 pound albacore tuna, cut into slices ¼ inch by 4 inches
4 kiwis, peeled and sliced
8 ounces salmon roe
8 medium shrimp, cooked and peeled
½ pound smoked salmon, thinly sliced and cut into strips
2 bunch of sprouts (daikon, scallions, kale or any sprouts you like)
½ cup roasted sesame seeds
1 bunch green scallions, julienned about 2 inches long
To make the brown rice and sushi fillings:
1. Combine rice, konbu seaweed and water in a heavy pot and let stand overnight.
2. Bring rice to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover with a tight-fitting lid, reduce heat to a low simmer and cook 45 minutes. (No peeking.) Remove from heat, without peeking, and let it continue to steam for 10 minutes.
3. Season the cooked brown rice with plum vinegar, then transfer it to a large bowl. Prepare the rice as close to serving time as possible.
4. To arrange the sushi platter, slice up as many fillings as you like to make a colorful presentation. Store in the refrigerator until just before serving, and then prepare the sushi rolls as close to serving time as possible.
To assemble temaki-zushi:
1. Each roll is made of half a toasted nori seaweed sheet. If smaller rolls are preferred, cut the seaweed sheets in quarters. The roll should contain about 2 tablespoons of sushi brown rice, or enough to grasp with one hand.
2. With a spoon or chopsticks, scoop up the rice and lay it onto the sheet of nori. Spread with hands chopsticks or a spoon.
3. Dab the nori with a little wasabi paste, then lay 2 to 3 fillings on top of the bed of rice.
4. Wrap the seaweed sheet and its contents into a roll.
5. Dip it in soy sauce and eat. Freshen your palate with a few bites of pickled ginger.
Main photo: Brown rice can serve as the base for delicious sushi rolls. Credit: 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.