Articles by 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.
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