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Sashimi and Sushi - Rice

DK PublishingDK Publishing 2/07/2014 DKBooks
© Provided by DKBooks

© Provided by DKBooks

Rice

Green in the field was pounded into rice cake—Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902)

While the herbed rice cake flavored with wild greens conjured up in this haiku appeals to my senses, it particularly moves me because, besides being a great author and literary critic, Shiki is credited with introducing baseball to his hometown in Japan. He loved the game, and his nickname, “Noburu,” was a play on the Japanese words for “ball field.” As many know, I started out aiming to be a professional baseball player, so it’s a particularly appealing poem for this chef.

It is sometimes hard for people to grasp just how important rice is to Japanese culture. Like potatoes to the Irish, it is, first of all, the basis of all sustenance. In early times, this staple was used as a medium for paying taxes. Samurai received their salaries in the form of rice. And much of Japanese cuisine evolved in the perfection of cooking rice. Sushi, remember, refers not to the fish, but to the vinegared rice, and it is by the nuanced characteristics of the rice cake under the fish, as well as the quality and cut of the fish itself, that a great sushi chef is judged.

I am told by many that they could pick out my sushi in a blind tasting. And much of that distinction is owed to the rice. It makes me very glad to hear that, since at the beginning of my career, I spent four years learning how to cook rice before they even let me pick up a knife!

If this rigorous training surprises you, you are in for a treat—that is, if you love Japanese food. By learning to understand rice and to taste it properly, you will raise your level of appreciation of much of Japanese cooking. All my food is a celebration of the senses—visual as well as gustatory—and anyone can enjoy it. But if you really pay attention, you will experience the food at another level.

What makes my rice so special actually goes beyond cooking. You see, in Japan, I would use a blend of two different varieties of rice: koshi kikari, which is the very best but is too strong by itself, and akita komachi or sasa nishiki, to temper the flavor. Unfortunately, I cannot obtain these particular types of rice in the United States, so I’ve devised my own system: I order the best-quality brown sushi rice available from California, and I polish it myself.

Brown rice, with the outside husk intact, remains fresher much longer than unprotected white rice; that’s one reason I begin with the whole grain. Each morning we decide how much rice we will need for the restaurant, and just enough is processed for that day. My special machine lets me decide exactly how far to take the polishing. I always leave a little of the outside for flavor and texture while being careful to preserve the entire haiga, or rice germ inside. That’s why when you taste my sushi, the rice sticks together yet each kernel has its own integrity.

Beyond sushi, there are many different rice dishes and categories of rice dishes in Japanese cuisine. In this guide, you’ll find a wide range of appealing rice recipes: from Buri Bop and Sushi Rice Risotto to my play on Chinese congee, Scallop Congee. Some have many other ingredients and techniques involved. But always keep in mind that while the rice may seem as if it is just the humble foundation, without the proper base, the rest of the dish will be lacking. And since I know you cannot polish your own rice, I simply recommend you purchase the best quality sushi rice available to you.


Chef’s note

Here’s an interesting and very traditional trick you can use when cooking rice. Place a piece of Japanese charcoal, bintan, right in the pot with the rice and water. Just like activated charcoal used for filtering, it will remove any impurities from the water and will make your rice taste even better. Just make sure you use genuine bintan and not ordinary charcoal or charcoal briquettes. Bintan can be purchased in some Asian specialty stores.

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