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Nature and Japanese Cuisine
Joanna Conway, The Epoch Times

Lu Yu, the tea connoisseur, said the finest teas should “gleam like a lake touched by a zephyr.” In Shintoism, the indigenous religion of Japan, fowl were believed to be messengers of God and were therefore only reared to announce the breaking of dawn. This reverence for plant and animal life is inherent in the country’s ethos towards food. Dishes reflect nature as the sea reflects the sun. Staring into a steaming bowl of ramen, the noodles float like thick locks of hair in a tranquil pond. A spray of pine needles or a single chrysanthemum blossom would garnish dishes from the traditional schools of cookery. Summer brings fresh soy beans and iced noodles with the hottest day of the year, christened “eel eating day.”

Historically an insular island, Japan’s receptivity to foreign influences has been relatively guarded. China brought them tea and Buddhism in the sixth and ninth century, and red meat was introduced in the 1850s. The popular dish Tempura (batter-dipped seafood and vegetables) is in fact adopted from Portuguese settlers and is derived from the Latin word ‘tempora’ meaning ‘ember days’. Japanese cookery strives towards the elimination of anything artificial from the plate and cooks each item separately so that the taste remains pure. Preferring blander and simpler flavours, Japanese food is innocently unsophisticated in nature. ‘Oyakodon’ a dish featuring both chicken and egg translates endearingly as ‘mother-and child rice bowl’.

Witnessing the crazy 5am tuna auction at Tokyo’s fish market shows that fish is no small matter to the people of Japan. Sashimi, the expertly cut slivers of raw fish, is as close to nature as you can get, bar scales and a heart beat.

We may toy with sanitised trays of California rolls from M&S, but like a fish out of water, take the food out of the country and it loses much of its meaning. I appreciate the delights of sushi, but not all the time. I rarely order it in a restaurant, owing to unpleasant flashbacks of supermarket varieties. Sometimes I might order a piece or two of Inari Sushi or the omelet topped Tamago Sushi (incidentally the ‘s’ in sushi becomes a ‘z’ after certain vowels). Inari Sushi is named after Inari the rice god, whose fox servant is said to be partial to the fried tofu pouches this sushi is encased in.

This recipe for Inari Sushi does require a couple of items from a Japanese or Asian food store, but other than that it’s really easy. Two pointers: wash the rice thoroughly otherwise it will turn into a big, gummy mess; and squeeze out the tofu pouches meticulously or you’ll end up with sushi-like wet pillows. Japanese children are said to be particularly fond of this type of sushi because of the slightly sweet taste of the tofu. On my packet of aburage, the fried tofu sheets, there was a little picture of a fox. So if you’re a child or still eat like a child, I think you will enjoy this dish.

Inari Sushi recipe makes 8 pieces

140 g short grain Japanese rice

Pinch of salt

175-180 ml of water

11\2 – 2 tablespoons of sushi vinegar (Mitsukan seasoned rice vinegar)

Half a Packet of aburage deep fried tofu pouches (8 pouches)

350ml instant dashi

2 tablespoons light soy sauce

11/2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon mirin

Ginger pickles and Kikkoman soy sauce to serve.

Put the rice in to a big bowl and wash it thoroughly under running water until the water comes out clear. Use a kneading motion with the heel of your hand making sure that all the starch is rinsed out. Drain the rice for half an hour in a sieve. Add the salt and put into a medium sized pan with the water (absorbencies of rice vary; the water should cover the rice by an inch). Stretch a tea towel under a tight fitting lid for the pot. Bring to the boil over high heat then transfer to a very low heat for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat (under no circumstances should you peak under the lid!) and leave to rest, undisturbed, for another 15 minutes.

Tip the rice into a large mixing bowl and sprinkle one third of the vinegar on to the rice. Use a spatula to quickly and lightly cut and fold the vinegar into the rice (as if mixing egg whites in a soufflé). Be careful not to break up the grains too much. Repeat the process with the remaining vinegar making sure that the rice doesn’t become too sticky. Set aside and use within a few hours.

Put 8 tofu pouches into a bowl and douse with boiling water to remove some of the oil. Put the dashi, soy sauce, sugar and mirin into a sauce pan then add the tofu pouches and simmer for 15 minutes until the stock is reduced. Frequently press the pouches with a spoon to stop them from inflating. Let them cool in the stock, then remove. Using a chopstick as a rolling pin, roll each pouch. This step is vital to ensure the pouches open easily. Ease a pouch open with a sharp knife and using wet hands take a small oval of rice and insert it gently into the tofu pouch. Fold the edges over to enclose the rice and place open side down on a serving plate. Serve with soy and ginger pickles.

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