THE GOCHISO GOURMET: Eat rice

columnist-logo_ryantatsumoto_FINALA few years ago, local comedian Frank DeLima delivered a commencement address that started like this:

“Eat rice.

If you only pay attention to one thing I say, pay attention to this: Rice is the breakfast of champions … the lunch of champions … the dinner of champions.

Whole empires, entire dynasties have been built and fortified on its humble food.

One grain, by itself, is nothing. Just an embarrassing sticky white t’ing stuck on your T-shirt after lunch. But many grains together —that’s greatness! It is the foundation of a Spam musubi, the heart of a thousand plate lunches, the force behind the global kingdom of L&L drive-ins.

Rice holds the world together. Be a part of the world. Be a part of the future.

Eat rice …”

The Tatsumoto Oshogatsu

Growing up in the 50th, the Tatsumoto ohana didn’t adhere to a lot of Oshogatsu (Japanese new year) traditions, other than Mom’s annual New Year’s Eve party. I never really knew what toshikoshi soba (year-end buckwheat noodles) was. In fact, a lot of local Japanese families simply said you had to eat saimin (a noodle dish that’s popular among locals) before the new year, but they didn’t really know why. And my family never placed kadomatsu (entrance pine) at the front door, nor did we savor osechi ryori (traditional Japanese new year’s food) over the first three days of the new year. Ojiichan did insist on sipping scalding sake just as the new year started, and we did consume ozoni (soup with rice cakes) as the first meal of the new year, along with canned kuromame, but one constant was always there, the solitary kagami mochi — usually the plastic variety — with the tangerine placed on top of the two mochi.

It wasn’t until well after my undergraduate years that I started searching for the significance of these Oshogatsu customs and foods. After discovering why we follow these traditions, I have continued to perpetuate some or selectively ignore others. For example, there’s the kadomatsu, something about plants that thrive under adversity with strength and also flexibility are traits that we all love to embrace. And bamboo, pine and cherry blossom also make a lovely trio when arranged properly. Or having that first sip of o-toso sake to prevent illness throughout the rest of the year. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I also love sake. Then there’s shishamo (salt water fish) and kazunoko (herring roe), which I avoid. I don’t want any “fruitfulness” throughout the year, especially when approaching jiichan age. But the one constant has been the kagami mochi. Other than the symbolism of keeping family and friends together, along with being a reflection of life itself, if it weren’t for rice, most of Hawai‘i’s cultural cuisine would not exist.

Early on, I purchased a wooden stand for my kagami mochi. Initially, I would only purchase fresh mochi made specifically for display, along with a fresh tangerine that still had three leaves attached to the stem, to put on the stand. Fresh mochi, of course, has a limited shelf life before it starts hardening. If you didn’t purchase it while it was still soft and didn’t place the smaller mochi on the larger mochi, or if you purchased it after it started hardening, your kagami mochi would be so wobbly and you wouldn’t be able to balance the tangerine on top of it. And since Hawai‘i does have its fair share of humidity, most fresh mochi can’t be consumed on the 11th day’s kagamibiraki or mochi-breaking ceremony. You see, after three or four days, the mochi starts developing a pronounced black “beard” of the fungal variety. So never mind waiting 11 days, it’s usually tossed out within the first week. So for the past several years, I’ve reverted back to the plastic variety of kagami mochi, which is usually filled with individually wrapped edible mochi that I use in my ozoni.

Continue Eating Rice after New Year’s Day

Red rice. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Red rice. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

There’s no reason to stop eating rice after New Year’s Day has come and gone, and there’s no reason to continue eating just plain short grain rice. After all, the seeds of Oryza sativa (Japonica) rice or Oryza glaberrima (African rice) provide more than just a simple side dish to various proteins, they also provide a lot of color to your dinner plate. Yes, rice comes in more than the color white or brown. There’s red, black, dark brown and even green rice (soaked in bamboo extract) and the colored variety means you’re getting the whole grain and its associated nutrients and fiber. Though I grew up just consuming the basic short grain rice in Hawai‘i, I now include the whole spectrum of the rainbow in my rice products.

How about rice noodles? If you’ve sampled a plateful of spicy pad thai, then you’ve already tried rice noodles. Or if you’ve had a bowlful of hearty pho, then you’ve tried the noodle version of the venerable grain. Or perhaps you’d rather sample a sheet of rice noodles. A “sheet” of rice noodles? Well, if you’ve sampled either Vietnamese spring or summer rolls, then you’ve already tried these “sheets” of rice noodles, as they’re simply not cut into strands like traditional noodles, but left as a round sheet. The major benefit to rice noodles is that unlike wheat based noodles, rice noodles simply have to be submerged in hot water to “cook.” No boiling is necessary at all. The same goes for the sheet variety. In fact, whenever I see a package of these “sheets” of rice paper, it takes me back to my first visit to a Vietnamese restaurant. Both my mother and wife ordered spring rolls, which were meant to be wrapped in lettuce leaves. I ordered a dish that was meant to be wrapped in softened rice paper. Because the spring rolls left traces of oil on their fingers, they both cleansed their fingers in a bowl of hot water left on our table and even commented on how thoughtful the staff was to leave a warm finger bowl for them. It turns out that the warm water was meant to soften my rice paper. So my dish was now flavored with Mom and the Mrs.’ oily finger residue. Oh well.

Mochi. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Mochi. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Another option is to simply go back to those Japanese roots with pounded rice grains or mochi. Normally, I consume these either in ozoni or stuffed with sweetened bean paste. But earlier this year, we dined at a restaurant in Paia, Maui that produced Korean fusion cuisine, including a mochi that was stuffed with kalua pig (underground cooked pork that tastes like pulled pork), then pan seared and served with a hoisin gochujang (a sauce that’s a mixture of soybeans, spices and red chili) that I will be attempting to recreate this dish in the new year with leftover mochi from my ozoni.

And finally, rice doesn’t simply have to be eaten. It can also be sipped and savored in sake, which always has a place in the Tatsumoto oshogatsu, whether it was quaffing that shot glass of near boiling sake at midnight offered by Ojiichan years ago, or the o-toso-herb infused rendition in the present, or just enjoying a fragrant daiginjo with sashimi on the first day of the year, sake was and will always will be a part of the Gochiso Gourmet’s oshogatsu.

So, we can all continue to consume rice and rice products in the new year, both in traditional and not so traditional dishes. And as Frank DeLima ended his commencement address:

“Above all, eat rice.

If you have diabetes, make that brown rice”

I, personally, will be sampling the traditional ozoni along with a variety of sake along with kuromame (Japanese sweet black soy beans) and sashimi along with that traditional French carbonated beverage as the Year of the Goat makes its appearance. And as always, I wish you and yours health, happiness and peace of mind for the new year! Shinnen akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

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