Temaki Zushi Dinner

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I have no memory of having “real” sushi until I was seven or nine years old. Even then, it was not exactly “real” sushi as they were at Kaiten Zushi restaurant, not at a boutique sushi bar. As a child, my father never took us to a sushi restaurant where you would sit down at a sushi bar and order omakase or whatever you like. As a matter of fact, I cannot remember any occasion where all of our family went out to a sushi bar at all.

The only memory of sushi we had at our home was Temaki Sushi dinner. Temaki is one of the most popular ways for Japanese to have sushi at home. The other form is Chirashi, vegetables, and fish scattered over a bed of sushi rice. Both Temaki and Chirashi are very economical and easy to make since you don’t need a lot of fish and use vegetables instead.

In the US and many parts of the world, people thinks of fish when they think of Sushi. In fact, sushi is more than fish. According to one theory, the word Sushi is said to be an abbreviated from of the word  “Su•Meshi,” which means vinegared rice in Japanese. So by definition, as long as you use Sushi rice, it can be called Sushi whether you use fish or not. Indeed, there are many forms of vegetable Sushi in Japan. Chirashi can be both only vegetables or a combination of fish and vegetables.

Temaki is a hand roll sushi. At home, all you need to do to prep for temaki is to cook sushi rice, cut some vegetables like cucumber, shiso leaf, pickled radish, buy a sashimi fish pack at a supermarket, make some tamago- egg custard and put them on a large plate along with nori seaweed. Everyone picks up a sheet of nori and put whatever fish and vegetables they want, roll it up in their hand and eat it. It’s that simple. Temaki is very simple to make, and almost anyone can make it without training. Hold a sheet of nori in your have, place some sushi rice using shamoji, the rice paddle, pick up any filling you like, roll it from the bottom up, turn to form it like an ice cream cone. When it comes to cut rolls, some mothers in Japan can make them, but not all of them. Nigiri is something only trained professional sushi chefs can make, so naturally, temaki dinner is the most convenient and easiest to do to enjoy the fresh fish available at the supermarket. Fish sashimi pack had standard fish, tuna, tai, hirame or other white fish, squid, octopus and sweet shrimp if lucky, if not occasional hamachi. There was no salmon when I was growing up. Salmon sashimi and sushi only became popular in the 90s in Japan. Sweet shrimp was one of my favorites, and I loved Natto Maki, fermented soy beans, notoriously famous for its foul smell. I also liked the garnish in the sashimi pack, called Tsuma, a thin strip of daikon radish that was white and half translucent. It tasted great when dipped in soy sauce, kind of refreshing and palette cleanser after raw fish.

Galloping Gourmet

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Grown up in Japan, I always enjoyed watching cooking shows on TV.

I have no idea exactly when I started watching TV shows. What I remember now is that I have a vivid image of my father watching “Galloping Gourmet” by Graham Kerr, and I was right next to him watching with him.

There was only one TV in my house, and my dad controlled what we could watch, meaning, we were able to watch only what he wanted. Galloping Gourmet was on Sunday morning. Because it was Sunday and my father thought I had more time to do homework, he let me watch the show.

The fact that it was cooking show was not what fascinated me. What stimulated my curiosity was the way the host entertained the audience. It was not how Graham Kerr chopped the vegetables that mesmerized me. It was not how innovative his recipes were. It was definitely not his cooking techniques I was drawn to. He was, rather clumsy and even a child with no cooking experience could tell he was not a great cook.

What mesmerized me was how he charmed and captivated the studio audience, as well as me, with his talks, wits, and facial expressions as he sautéed meats, pour some wine, and took a sample bite of mouth-watering over roasted lamb.

Sipping a glass of Bordeaux, dressed up in a tuxedo, Graham Kerr was cool, sexy, charming, charismatic, and entertaining.

I believe, to this date, Graham Kerr had and has one of the greatest influences on the way I conduct my cooking classes.

Before I knew it, I was helping my mother by doing daily grocery shopping, with a list in my hand.  I was the only “boy” in school uniform waiting at the checkout line at a supermarket during the busy evening hour. I felt like I was the only male customer in the entire store, as the rest of the were housewives, in a hurry, eager to go back to their home so that they could start cooking the dinner. Because I was just about the only male customer in the store, I stood out from the crowd, and everyone in the supermarket stared at me. Some of them said to me, “Oh, you are doing errands for your mom. How wonderful it is.”

Now looking back, this childhood experience was a great training. As an adult, I do enjoy going grocery shopping and farmer’s market looking at fresh seasonal ingredients and new products on the shelf.

After “Galloping Gourmet,” I watched many other cooking shows on TV and thought, there were boring. They were straight forward cooking shows with the chef explaining the ingredients, demonstrating how to cook the dish. There were no jokes, no drinking wines, no tuxedos and no audience laughing and eat the dish at the end of the show. The (usually female) chef talked about the ingredients, how to prep, cut them and started cooking and voila, it’s done.

Still, “Regular” cooking shows served me well. I looked at them as a tool for me to learn or more like an education program on TV.  I started to write down the recipes I liked from those shows and handed to my mother, telling she should try to make it because it looked good. When she cooked the dish for dinner, she gave me some for tasting asked me how it turned out, so I tried it first and told her what I thought. If and when the recipe got my approval, my mom serves it to the whole family for dinner. If everyone likes the dish, then it became the regular item on the menu.

Osechi

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More than Christmas, New Years are  important to Japanese. Traditionally, Christmas in Japan is a commercial holiday, not a religious one. For the lack of turkey in Japan, they have developed a “tradition” to eat oven-roasted whole chicken for Christmas, thinking, that must be what people eat in Western countries.

For the first five to seven days after the new year’s day, most of the people are off. In the olden days, all the businesses were closed during the first two to three days. On the first or second day, literary, every citizen of the Japan visit shrines to pray, a ritual known as Hatsu-mode.

At home, people celebrate the arrival of the new year with a traditional meal called Osechi.

One of the ideas of Osechi, supposedly is to relieve mothers from daily cooking and chores, at least during the first three days or so after the new year. Everyone is supposed to eat the same Osechi every meal for a couple of days. But the fact is that mothers never got a day off, even during the new years or with Osechi. They work so hard before new years to make Osechi, and after the new year day.

Though it varies from region to region, a typical Osechi has at least ten to twenty dishes, all beautiful arranged in square lacquer wear box called Jyu•bako, typically two or three stacked on top of each other.

Each dish in Osechi has its own meaning. The color red and white signifies good luck. Shrimp is a sign of longevity because its shape resembles the old Japanese folks’ back being curled up. Black beans rhyme with working hard. Small fish represents fertility. And the yellow is the color of gold, property.

I don’ know why and black beans were, at least for me, the main focus in Osechi. It took three days to cook it from scratch. The first day, my mom soaked the beans in water. Thr second day was cooking.First, cook with soy sauce and sugar for five to six hours over low heat. Then let it sit and cool down for a few hours, start cooking again for another two or so. Let is sit overnight, and on the third day, if the beans are soft, then it was done, if not, cook until they are soft. The last part is very important because if you cook too long, the beans will become too hard.

Most Japanese mothers start preparing for Osechi at least two to three days before the new years, which means they need to start shopping for ingredients as early as the day after Christmas.

I remember started seeing Osechi ingredients in the supermarket after mid-December.

After Christmas, all mothers in Japan are busy getting ready for the new years. Their first job is to clear all the Christmas decorations from the house, clean up and store them back into the storage. Then, they need to start planning for the new years. There are decorations for the front door, a mochi display and shime•nawa, sacred rope decoration for the gods, then, cooking schedule for the Osechi which included one giant ingredients list, shopping, prepping and cooking schedule.
Shopping usually calls for multiple days of visiting multiple stores, as  Osechi calls for vegetables, fish, meats, dried goods and eggs and soy sauce, vinegar, dried bonito, kombu kelp, mirin, sake, in addition to some special ingredients used just for Osechi.

Osechi, I suppose is an equivalent of Thanksgiving Dinner in the US, multiply it by ten times.  It happens once a year for all the family to gather around the table, enjoying the gifts and blessing from nature, by cooking, creating and eating special dishes made. It’s a unique tradition and important occasion. They say in Japan that the depth of a relationship is measured by how many meals you shared with that person and every time I hear this saying, I think of Osechi.

Every year, I watched my mom shop, prep and cooked each dish. Cooking over twenty or so dishes by herself was an enormous task. I remember my sister helping mom peeling and cutting some vegetables. I can’t remember if I ever did. The sound of a knife hitting the cutting board rhythmically. The aroma of vegetables simmered in soy sauce filled the house, as I sat wand watched the year-end tv shows on TV, highlighting all the news from the year. It was incredible to see her creating all those dishes in such a tiny kitchen space large enough to hold two people, then store everything in a fridge. All, this while she continued to cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner in addition to all the cleaning and other house chores she had to perform before the arrival of the new year.

That is why December is called “Shiwasu”, meaning that everyone is so busy that even the teachers (because school is off) are busy running around. Finishing the year properly is just as important as starting the year correctly. Japanese believe that without a proper preparation, there will be no good fortune.  I think our ancestors learned this great customer from China.

So, I am grateful for my mom for cooking all the Osechi. I am grateful for China and its people to pass on the great tradition to Japanese. I am grateful for my dad for his hard work to allow us to celebrate each new year in peace, visiting shrines. I am grateful for the nature to provide so many wonderful seasonal offerings in such multiple colors. I am always grateful I was born there and grew up eating the Japanese traditions.

Curry Rice

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I don’t remember when this tradition started and by the time I was four, Sunday night was curry rice night. Japanese style curry is different from Indian, Thai, or Chinese Curry. The soup is lot thicker and darker in color and always, it’s over rice. Beef curry is perhaps the most popular kind, followed by pork, chicken, and seafood. We always had beet curry rice at home.

In the beginning, everyone ate the same curry rice and by the time I was seven or eight, we had two types of curry: Thin curry for dad and regular “thick” curry for my sister, my mom and I. The thin curry was a watered down version of thick curry, which no one liked, except my dad. I disliked it because it tasted like, well, thinned down curry, less flavor than the thick one and I saw no meaning in that. The reason for thin curry was because, according to my dad, that was the curry he grew up eating, not because it tasted better.

My father grew up post-WWII when the most of Japan was poor, and some people had literary nothing to eat. Though his family was poor, they had food to eat because they had land to grow some vegetables like potatoes and carrots. Once a week, they had curry rice for dinner. But, because the food was scarce, they needed to make it last as long as they could to feed the family of six. The way to do that was to thin down with water, so they have more to eat. It was not necessary delicious, but because it was the style of curry my dad used eating, even after he had his own family, that was the curry he wanted to eat.

Sukiyaki was another dish my dad had a strong say in the flavor, though, luckily, everyone liked the way he seasoned. Sukiyaki at home was one of my dad’s favorite dishes. My mom put portable stove top on the dining table along with Sukiyaki Iron Pot and threw, beef, enoki mushrooms, shirataki (clear noodle made from potato), baked tofu, long green onions, shyungiki (greens) and shredded daikon radish. My dad seasoned it with soy sauce, sugar, and sake and it tasted great.

My mom made both my sister’s and my bento lunch box every day when I was in kindergarten. During cold winter days, there was a bento warmer at school, and all the kids put their bento wax in the warmer to slowly heat them up It was nice and warm by lunch time. The trick for my mom was to avoid putting fresh salad or vegetables because they tasted awful when heated up in the warmer. I remember the smell or rice and other food filled the classroom, making all of us hungry.

Thirty vegetables a day

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When my father and mother got married, my mom was not really ready to be a housewife. She did not know how to cook.

My dad and mom met while they were working at the same company in Yasugi, a small town in Shimane prefecture in Japan. Shimane is like West Virginia in the US. If you ask people in Tokyo, many would say they may have heard of it, but not sure exactly where it is.

Both of my parents belonged to the company outdoor club and went mountain hiking on one weekend. My dad asked my mom out, and they went out on a date several times, after which, my dad proposed her.

In the beginning, she hesitated and refused to get married. However, her parents and relatives all told her to rethink and suggested she should get married, saying that if she missed the chance, she would never get married.

My mom did not want to get married because she wanted to continue working. She wanted to become a successful businesswoman just like her grandma, who was a successful local entrepreneur running her business.

She kept saying no to my dad, and her family kept pushing her and finally, she gave up, and they got married.

Because she never planned to get married so early in her life, she was not prepared to become a housewife. In Japan, young girls were supposed to go through training to become a housewife, learn to cook, clean, saw and all the other chores around the house from their mother. Apparently, my mom skipped all of that and when she got married, after she said yes and before the wedding ceremony, she learned as much cooking as she could along with all the other skills she needed to become a Japanese housewife.

I remember, in the kitchen and small pantry, there were many cooking magazines, cookbooks, and cut out recipe articles all piled up with my mom’s pencil marks and notes. Back then, most of the pictures were black and white, and since I never seen most of them, I had no idea how they tasted or looked like in real color. I tried to imagine the color, but my imagination, or lack of it, gave me no color to add to the picture. I imagined that my mom read all those and studied cooking. I wanted to but couldn’t read most of them because all of them had kanji, Chinese characters and I had not yet learned them at school.

My mom always cooked a variety of dishes, always adding something new to grow her repertoire.

I remember her Kimpira Gobo – burdock and carrot simmered in sweet soy sauce, miso soup with seasonal vegetables so chunky, homemade udon noodles she made only from flour and water with a touch of salt. After making the dough, she would lay it on the floor, covered with cheese clothes and then step on it with her feet and then let is sit for an hour or so, to bring out more gluten in the dough and makes the texture of the noodle firm, yet not too chewy.

She put just about every vegetable she had in the fridge because she heard in somewhere that we are supposed to eat thirty different foods every day. Thirty foods, that was a lot and her way of accomplishing that was to make a dish, which she could put anything in.  I did not mind so much about the amount of food and vegetables in one dish. What I disliked was the fact that when there were too many ingredients, some of them, did not go well together.

Thirty foods a day, you should eat, she kept saying as if it was a mantra.

Kaiten Zushi

Kaiten Zuzhi.jpgThe best thing about Kaiten•Zushi was that I could pick up any sushi I wanted and as much as I wanted. It was not all you could eat, and the price was straightforward and affordable: ¥100 for the most plate of two-piece nigiri and ¥200 and ¥300 for the special items like Ikura and Uni and of course, Toro. Each plate was color coded and priced accordingly: Blue for ¥100, Green for ¥200 and Red for ¥300. I can go to a lot of Blues and not too much Red, may be one.

After sitting down at the counter seat, my mom took two teacups and poured some green tea out of hot water dispenser, located right in front of our seats. Everything was self-serve, and that was one of the reasons why the sushi was so affordable.

I immediately saw my favorite nigiri: Maguro. Maguro was quintessential sushi item. The flavor of tuna spreading through my mouth, mixing with the aroma of wasabi and soy sauce made me happy and glad that I had a headache because otherwise, I wouldn’t be here eating Maguro Nigiri for lunch. Maguro Nigiri was a blue plate, which meant it was ¥100 so I could eat a lot, so I grabbed two more plates, and finished right away, then a plate of cooked shrimp which was also on a blue plate. Then it was time for Ikura and Uni. Ikura was on a Green one and Uni was the most expensive: Red plate. Just about the only time I had Ikura before was on New Year’s Day in Osechi Ryori – a traditional Japanese New year’s Meal. I love the moment I put Ikura in my mouth and chew, as the rich oily flavor spread through my mouth. The second to the last piece for me was Toro, tuna belly on Red plate of course. It was Chu•Toro – medium fatty tuna. It was nice and sophisticated, not too fatty. I never had O•Toro until I grew up and I prefer Chu•Toro to O•Toro, as I find O•Toro to be too fatty and overwhelming in my mouth. I suppose it could be because I got used to eating Chu•Toro in my early stage of eating sushi.
The history of Kaiten•Zushi goes back to 1958, when an owner of a sushi stand came up with an idea, after seeing the conveyor belt at beer production factory. He opened the Kaiten•Zushi restaurant, “Genroku•Zushi” in Osaka, which later became two hundred plus franchise sushi chains in Japan. The usage of Sushi Conveyor belt was patented until 1978, and after the patent was expired, many companies including franchise opened their own Kaiten•Zushi restaurant, which spread all over the world. As of October 2016, there are over 2,000 Kaiten·Zushi restaurants in Japan.

My mother told me to stack up the finished plate in front of me so that we could see how much sushi we ate. I though I had ten to twelve, and I had no idea how many my mother had. Altogether, we had about twenty plates stacked up.

My mother called the waitress and asked for the bill. She quickly counted the number of plates stacked up and added them up. That was when I realized the stacking plates up not just for us to see, but also to make it easier and faster for the waitress to count the plates.

“¥2,200 please,” the waitress said.

My mom handed three ¥1,000 bills, and we left the restaurant after receiving the change. I felt being satisfied both from the food and experience, that, I could order and eat whatever I wanted. I felt like a grown up.

A couple of weeks later, we went back to the same hospital to hear the result of the test. It turned out that the reason for the big doughnut machine was to check my brain wave or brain itself to see if there was any damage to it. The doctor was talking to my mother saying something like they found irregular brain waves, but nothing significant. Either way, I cared less because none of it made sense to me. The only thing I was interested in was going to Genroku•Zushi again. I was hoping we were going there for lunch, but was unsure if my mom was thinking of going there. I was anxious to find out, so when my mother told me that we were going there again, I was thrilled.

The second time I was there, I knew what to do. Right after we sat down, I reached for the tall teacup and poured myself green tea. I grabbed a pair of chopsticks and took some gari, wasabi from the container and poured soy sauce on the plate. I was ready to pick up my plate of nigiri. Maguro, Shrimp, Ikura, Tai and many sushi were on the revolving conveyor belt, waiting for me to pick them up. Just about when I was ready to pick up my first plate of Maguro, I heard a male customer at the end of the table, saying something to the sushi chef inside of the sushi bar. After saying OK, the chef immediately took his knife, sliced a couple of thin pieces, formed nigiri, plated and handed to the male customer.

“Here you go. Mirugai,” the chef said handing the plate over the conveyer belt.

“Thanks a bunch!” the man said with a big smile on his face.

I saw him ate the two pieces of giant clam.  Then I realized that I could order whatever I wanted if I don’t see the item on the conveyor belt. I had no idea I could do that. I thought I could only pick up what’s on the conveyor belt. I asked my mother if I could order some nigiri.

“Sure, you can. You see the names of the nigiri on the wall? That’s the menu. You can order from them.”

I could order from the menu? That is the menu? On the wall, were a bunch of large wooden tags with the name of fish written on them. There were twenty or thirty of them all around the inside of the restaurant. I was thrilled, even though I never heard of most of the fish.

Even now in Japan, going to a sushi bar with a family of four was something only the wealthy could afford. There are many forms of affordable sushi restaurants as Kaiten•Zushi, take-out sushi chains, and delivery sushi restaurants, going to a traditional boutique, high-end sushi restaurant is a very special experience. For one, a traditional sushi restaurant has no menu, no price. It’s not like the sushi chef will tell you what to do or how to order, so the whole experience can be very intimidating unless you know what to do. This is why it’s always a good idea to go with someone who’s been to the particular sushi bar, if it’s your first time going there.

The reason for no price and no menu is because the price of fish and its availability fluctuate every day. To avoid the loss, sushi chefs adapted this system. The downside of this system was that some sushi chefs took advantage and charged a higher price to some novice sushi customers, especially when they were on a company expense, which was very popular during Japan’s bubble economy in the 80’s.

My father never took us to a high-end sushi bar – ever. When I told this to my American friends and people who took my sushi class, many of them seemed surprised and asked me why.

I think the reason was that my father grew up in a very poor family. After the Second World War, my father’s family struggled to service and the food was scarce. He told me that his family lived on eating so-called  “thin” porridge, which was mostly water and very little rice and some yam to thicken the dish. So to him, sitting at the sushi bar was too much of a luxury and not know the price scared him.

There was, however, an occasion we had sushi delivered to our home when we moved. It is customary in Japan to order a plate of nigiri sushi when there is something to celebrate at home and moving into a new home was definitely one of those occasions. Graduation and getting a new job are some of those sushi dining opportunities.

My first memory of Sushi

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My first memory of eating sushi goes back to when I was nine years old, living in Tokyo.

I was suffering from series of unknown severe headaches, which attacked me at least once a month. When it struck me, my mom had to call in sick and stay in bed at home. My head felt like splitting in half, and there was not much anyone could do. Aspirin was the only remedy that seemed to ease the pain, not fully, but only numb my pain sort of half way. My mother suspected the cause of my headache to be either from the time I hit my head when I was hit by a car, or from the time when my friend accidentally hit my head with a baseball bat. Whatever the cause was, no doctor seemed to figure it out why and how to fix it.

I have no memory of when we started going to this University Medical Hospital in Shinjuku for MRI. I later heard that this hospital was one of the only three hospitals in Japan, who had MRI at that time. One morning, my mother told me to get dressed because we were going to a hospital.

“How about school?” I asked my mother.

“You are not going today. We are going to Shinjuku so it will take a whole day.”

“A whole day?”

“Yes, so get dressed now.”

I had no idea why we had to go to the hospital so far away, taking a bus, and two trains, though, it really did not matter to me where we were going. All it mattered to me was that I did not have to go to a school that day. It was like a small excursion trip and I loved it.

We took a bus from our home to the railroad station, got on a train, transfer to a different train, then took another bus to the hospital and the whole trip took about an hour and a half, door to door. The hospital was bigger than any other hospitals I had seen before, as I was only used to going to small local clinics. We went into the waiting area where no patients were waiting, which was positioned away from the general waiting section. I remember feeling special because there was no one waiting to be called at where we were.

A nurse opened the door and called my name, immediately after we sat down. We stood up from our chair and entered the room. I changed into a paper-thin cotton light blue disposable hospital patient robe – the kind you tie in the back. I was told to go to a different room, where I saw a big donut-shaped machine the size of an automobile with a metal bed attached to it. The nurse told me to lie down on the metal bed and stay still until finished. I had no idea what was about to happen, even though I said, “Yes” to every instruction she gave.

I lay down on the cold metal bed, waiting for another instruction. Then, the bed moved slowly, taking me to the inside of the white giant donut. There was some mechanical sound resembling nothing like I’ve heard before and I suspected, it was doing something. It felt like I was laying there for thirty minutes or maybe it was fifteen minutes: I had no idea. Because I felt nothing and only heard some quite noise, I figured it was something like X-Ray. Then, I was out of the donut machine, as the bed moved me out of the donut and the nurse told me that was it. No medicine, no shots, no checking my heartbeat.

I took off the hospital robe and changed to my clothes, and with my mother, we left the hospital. We took a bus to Shinjuku station, and that was where we had lunch – a kaiten sushi restaurant. Nigiri sushi on a conveyor belt.

“What a great idea!” I thought. Until that day, I never had nigiri sushi before. I probably had sashimi at home, and hand rolls for dinner, but not nigiri.

Hand roll sushi dinner is pretty popular in Japan. Even in Japan, not everyone knows how to make nigiri. In fact, most of the Japanese would not know how to make nigiri. Probably only sushi chefs, professional Japanese chefs, and those who attended culinary school know how to make nigiri. There are, however, many forms of sushi Japanese can enjoy at home. Chirashi is a form of sushi with vegetables and fish sprinkled over sushi rice and served either individually in a bowl, or on a large plate to share with a family. Hand roll is another one. To do a hand roll dinner, all my mom had to do was to buy pre-sliced fish sashimi pack at a supermarket, and cut vegetables like cucumber and pickled daikon, shiso leaves, lay them on a large plate, make sushi rice and miso soup. We each grabbed a sheet of nori, put sushi rice, fish and vegetables on the rice, roll it up and dip in soy sauce to eat. Hand roll is pretty easy to make, and anyone can make it at home. Prep is straightforward and easy, yet, very satisfying. I always wonder why hand roll sushi dinner is not popular in the US.