Archive | April, 2011

Homemade Sushi

27 Apr

Sushi is a familiar item on the Western menu these days — let’s face it, if you can find it at the SuperTarget in Cedar Rapids, it’s not exotic any more — but it seems like most (non-Japanese) people’s experience is limited to nigiri and maki, which is sushi with a slice of protein on top and sushi rolled with fillings in the middle, respectively. The world of sushi is much wider; the word refers to any dish made with seasoned rice (which, incidentally, was developed around the 8th century as a means of preservation). The sushi pictured above is called chirashi, or bara, and it’s basically sushi rice with an array of seasonal toppings (in this case, omelet, seasoned mackerel, tuna sashimi, and braised shitake); it’s often made at home for special occasions, like Girls’ Day (Hina-matsuri), as it was in my house, or in my grandma’s case, when my mom and I show up for a visit and she feels like making sushi.

My grandma is originally from Kumamoto, on Kyushu, the westernmost island of Japan (we’re not counting Okinawa here), so she makes her sushi in the kansai, or western style, with lots of mix-ins. (Like northern cornbread vs. southern cornbread, there are marked differences in kansai vs. kanto, or eastern, cooking. But that’s a subject for another post.) Here’s a basic sushi recipe to try at home, including the stuff my grandma usually adds in.

Sushi Rice (makes 6 cups)


3 cups rice (not actual cups; use the plastic cup that comes with your rice cooker. And if you don’t have a rice cooker, get one. I recommend Zojirushi.)
60 ml rice vinegar (not seasoned rice vinegar. In fact, read the ingredients to make sure it doesn’t contain anything weird, like salt or MSG)
3 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 piece of konbu (kelp), cut to fit the rice cooker

Optional mix-ins:

All mix-ins should be diced finely.

2 pieces of dried shitake, rehydrated overnight and braised in 2 tablespoons of soy sauce, 1 teaspoon of sugar, and some water
1/2 carrot, blanched
2 teaspoons sesame seeds


  1. Cook rice, with the konbu, in your rice cooker as you would normally, unless you have a super-fancy rice cooker with a “sushi” option, in which case, this would be the perfect opportunity to use it.
  2. Combine vinegar, sugar, and salt.
  3. When the rice is cooked, transfer it to a large, shallow, non-reactive bowl (a wooden salad bowl is ideal, but I’ve used stainless steel before). Mix in the vinegar mixture with the rice paddle (this should have come with your rice cooker) with large, cutting motions; this keeps the rice from sticking together. Simultaneously, with your free hand, wave a large fan to cool the rice. (If you’ve got someone in the kitchen with you, get them to do the fan-waving part.) And don’t throw the konbu away! Slice it up to mix in with the rice, if  you’re doing the mix-ins, or add it to a salad or something. It’s very good for you.
  4. Once the rice has cooled to room temperature — “skin temperature” is what the Japanese call it — it’s ready for use. Add the mix-ins at this stage, if using.

Now what do I do?

  1. Make chirashi sushi: put the sushi rice on a large plate or shallow bowl, and artfully arrange the toppings of your choice. Traditionally, this would include cooked shrimp, sliced omelet, snow peas, lotus root in vinegar, braised shitake, and nori, but feel free to use anything that tastes good at room temperature and with rice. Just make sure you have a balance of colors (red, yellow/ white, green, and brown/black). For example, you could do a very Western-style chirashi with smoked salmon, crab meat, and cucumber. Or a vegan one with fried tofu, snow peas, shitake, and carrots (cooked).
  2. Have a sushi party: get some large sheets of nori, a variety of fillings (anything that works in a chirashi would work here), and have your guests assemble their own. You don’t need a roller; temaki is by definition done by hand, so it’s more like making tacos.
  3. Make inari sushi: buy some seasoned tofu pockets (the ones in a bag, not in a can), or make your own. Stuff with sushi rice. (Incidentally, these are named after a Shinto deity whose shrines are guarded by foxes because…foxes love tofu pockets? Then again, once you’ve had inari sushi, you’d understand why foxes like them, too. They’re that delicious.)

New Toy: Silicone Cocotte

22 Apr

On my last trip to Japan, I noticed a trendy new kitchen gadget in the stores: the silicone steamer/baker. It’s designed to be used primarily for microwave cooking, though it can also go in the oven. It’s so popular that it’s spawned its own category of cookbooks and magazines — one of which included a free silicone steamer. (Although, at 1,500 yen — about $20 at the current heinous exchange rate — it’s more accurate to say I bought a steamer with a free cookbook.)

Let's play!

I’ve used the microwave for things like reheating and melting things (like butter, chocolate, and saran wrap), but never for actual cooking. I occasionally steam vegetables, but only when pressed for time; the bowl always gets too hot, and it seems like I end up with a puddle on the bottom and raw bits in the middle. The silicone steamer pot (I’m calling it a cocotte because it sounds more sophisticated, and microwave cooking needs all the sophistication it can muster) promises to regulate heat and steam so that things cook evenly without getting watery, and the silicone won’t get hot or melt like ceramic or plasticware.

Shrimp and tofu in chili sauce, pre-microwave

I decided to try a “stir-fry” recipe to really put the steamer/cocotte to the test. According to the book, using the microwave means you don’t need as much oil, so it’s lower in fat. Some of the recipes include tips on layering the ingredients — things that release a lot of liquid are placed on the bottom, for example — but in this case, I just tossed the shrimp and tofu with the chili sauce.

The final product

So, did it work? Am I willing to put away my wok and pots for the ease of microwave cooking? Well, the steamer definitely beats other containers; the pot itself didn’t get hot (although it’s kind of floppy, so you’ll want to use potholders to defend your hands against the hot steam that will leak out as the lid warps), and most importantly, the contents didn’t get watery, thanks to the vent in the lid. And it was a lot faster and cleaner than making stir-fry the traditional way, which involves a lot of tossing and swearing as whatever you’re stir-frying ends up all over the stove. However, you also don’t get that sauteed texture or carmelized flavor that you would from a wok. It’s definitely useful for a household pressed for time — you can prep your ingredients in the morning, and then stick the pot in the microwave and have a hot meal in 5 minutes — and I think I’ll use it for steaming and simmering, but I don’t think I’m giving up the stove anytime soon.

The Great Japanese Department Store Food Halls

19 Apr

The other day, I mentioned to Tom my last visit to one of the big department store basement food halls in Tokyo, and how I’d been offered a sample of something unusual*, and Tom suggested I do a blog post on the Japanese department store basement food hall, or depachika for short. (It’s an abbreviation/portmanteau of “department store” and “chikashitsu,” which means basement.) “But everyone** knows about the depachika,” I protested. “Besides, I didn’t take photos.” Tom quibbled with my definition of “everyone,” and upon consideration, I decided it would be fun to write about — even if I had to borrow someone else’s photos from Flickr.

Tasty offerings at the depachika. (Thanks, ae-j, for letting me use this!)

The depachika is a food wonderland. Imagine Harrod’s crossed with Whole Foods (the ginormous one in Chicago) with Trotter’s To Go, and then imagine if they were also giving out samples like a Costco on a Saturday. (I confess to making a lunch out of those samples many a time as a high schooler with a tiny allowance.) Some of the depachikas are like open-air markets (like the Odakyu Halc, where my grandma does a lot of her shopping), complete with whatever-mongers yelling out the day’s specials, while places like Isetan showcase high-end boutique foods. Halc is where you get food for yourself; Isetan is where you get food to give to other people, like these adorable sweets:

I took this photo myself, which is why it's not nearly as good.

My mom’s second cousin once removed on her mother’s side (or something like that) brought these on a visit. All of them are basically the same thing — sweetened bean paste — but that’s not the point. The point is that they’re an attractive and edible way to convey the greetings of the season, in this case, early spring (hence all the cherry blossoms).

I don’t want to imply that depachikas only sell food that’s fit for gifting. What’s great is that they sell the food you buy for yourself (deli items, groceries, the best prepackaged sushi ever) and the crazy-expensive-impressive stuff. I always miss depachikas when I come back from Japan. Whole Foods, you need to step it up.

*Horse sashimi, if you must know. It’s a delicacy in southwestern Japan, as I found out when I visited my grandma’s family in Kumamoto.

**”Everyone” meaning people who are obsessed with food, or have traveled to Japan, or both.

Fish heads, fish heads…

16 Apr

Eat them up, yum! (And then try getting that song out of your head. You’re welcome.) While Malaysia is the only country with dedicated fish head dishes, fish “offal” — the bits of head, tail, and spine that are usually discarded after filleting — are eaten widely across Asia, almost always in the form of a stew or hot pot. Japan, of course, is no exception, and when I was visiting last month, my grandma made a special treat: a nabe, or hot pot, made with snapper trimmings, including the head.

Nabe is a quintessential Japanese party food. You set up a portable range in the middle of the table, start some water boiling in a large earthenware crock, and add tasty things; people crowd around and pick out their favorite bits. The broth becomes more flavorful as ingredients are added, and at the end of the night, you add some rice and eat the resulting porridge. (At least, that’s the way we do it in my family.)

Laying out the ingredients

Aside from the main protein, typical ingredients include welsh onions, or negi (which is kind of like an overgrown green onion), Chinese cabbage, tofu, and mushrooms (shiitake and oyster are good choices). The things that take the longest to cook, like the onions and the cabbage, are added first.

Add a swig of sake...

Most Japanese nabe dishes are flavored with little more than the ingredients that go in them, plus salt, some kombu to boost the umami factor, and some sake. We had our nabe with ponzu, a dipping sauce made with soy sauce and yuzu juice (though lemon juice can be substituted in a pinch).

Ready to eat

As I mentioned above, usually you help yourself, but in my grandma’s house, it’s more like she hovers over the pot filling your plate as you exclaim that you can’t keep up. (“More! Eat more! The fish is cooking!) Attempts to get her to sit down and eat something herself, of course, are futile. We did save her half a fish head, though.

So, how was the fish head? Pretty delicious. There’s lots of good meat on those bones (remember, these are all the trimmings left over from filleting), and the simmering tenderizes those gelatinous fatty bits like the eyeball. Which is really more about eating the muscles around the eyeball than eating the eyeball itself. Plus, snapper bones are large, which made them easy to avoid. (It’s fish with tiny, fine bones, like mackerel, that cause problems. Take it from someone who had to get a mackerel bone removed from her throat with tweezers.) The best part, of course, was being gathered around the pot with the family — and having that porridge the next morning for breakfast.

SOK is back…with a toast!

12 Apr

I’m finally back from my trip to Tokyo! (I think readership of SOK actually went up while I was gone; I had more hits in March, when I hardly posted at all, than any other month.) Let me first offer a belated birthday toast to my grandma, who turned 97 this year. Pictured above is her homemade plum wine, or umeshu in Japanese.

Now, you may have encountered plum wine at your local Japanese eatery, in which case you probably think it’s some syrupy concoction with a weirdly tart fruit flavoring. Homemade plum wine is more like a fruit brandy, and it gets better with age. My grandma has been making plum wine since…I really have no idea, but I think we once unearthed a bottle from the 1970s. (The bottle above is from her 1998 batch, one year after my high school graduation.) The method is simple: take unripe ume (Japanese plums) and steep them in shochu (a Japanese distilled liquor, similar to the Korean soju or vodka) and rock sugar for at least a year, if not longer. My grandma doesn’t go so far as to distill her own shochu, but she does use plums from her garden. (By the way, these preserved plums are delicious in their own right. Lately my grandma has been turning them into jam, a hobby of hers.) My mom and I drink it straight as a dessert wine, but as a kid (like junior high to high school) I would get a wee dram watered down with, well, water (iced in the summer, hot in the winter).

As I mentioned, the flavor improves with age. We’d had a 2007 the night before, and it was still quite sharp. The 1998 was a lot more mellow, and had an almost caramel finish. Ume plums are quite sour, so even though umeshu is a sweet liqueur, there’s a distinctive tart flavor that compliments the fruitiness.

If you’re not as fortunate as I am to have a umeshu-making grandma, I suggest tracking down some green (as in unripe) plums to make some for yourself. You’ll never go back to the commercial stuff again.