THE GOCHISO GOURMET: The grain that binds us

columnist-logo_ryantatsumoto_FINALWhat is the one constant not just during Oshogatsu but throughout the whole year? It’s not toshikoshi soba (buckwheat noodles), which is usually only consumed right before the turning of the new year. Sure, we may consume soba during the year, but not with any regularity. And it’s not lobster or shrimp that symbolizes a long life, either. If you are consuming lobster on a regular basis throughout the year, you probably aren’t reading this column. It’s also not the traditional osechi ryori cuisine laboriously prepared before the end of the year to last the first three days of the new year, unless we want to spend the rest of the year working for an entire week to prepare meals that last just three days. And we don’t keep our kadomatsu (gate pine) or kagami mochi (two round rice cakes used as a Japanese New Year’s decoration) adorning our homes throughout the rest of the year, either.

But most of us do have rice or a rice-based products adorning our dining tables throughout the year, and just as the Nichi Bei Weekly has kept the community connected, informed and empowered, so too has rice kept the family connected as daily sustenance.

An Admission
I’ll fess up. I don’t consume rice anywhere near the same volume as I used to. This is partly because whenever I cook rice, I don’t portion control my servings to eat just until I’m not hungry anymore. I literally eat until I’m full. And because rice is the perfect accompaniment to saltier items like furikake (dry Japanese seasoning), shoyu-based foods, tsukemono (pickled vegetables) or even Spam, I’ll consume larger portions of side dishes that aren’t exactly healthy options. So rice is cooked in the Tatsumoto household maybe once every two to three weeks, at most. In fact, those two five-pound bags or freshly milled Hokkaido rice I purchased from The Rice Factory back in May that were supposed to be consumed by July for optimum flavor are still in my refrigerator. (Please see the “Got rice?” article in the June 22, 2017 issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly.)

The Koshihikari is almost gone, but the 50 percent Yumepirika is still about half full. And the other reason why our household doesn’t consume rice regularly is the job. For starters, I normally leave the house at about 5:45 a.m. and don’t return until about 5 p.m. That leaves me about three hours for post-work activities, including cooking and eating dinner. Because rice needs to soak for at least 30 minutes, and takes another 30 minutes to cook and steam, that leaves only two hours to eat and get ready for the next workday. So we usually consume either sandwiches or meals prepared over the weekend that don’t require rice as the starch. But I still indulge in rice-based “foods” on a regular basis.

Sake. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

The Fermented Grain
Though we all refer to that elixir produced when steamed rice is allowed to ferment as rice wine, the production of sake is closer to that of beer production. However, the multiple steps required, including polishing the rice grain down to just a fraction of its original size (seimaibuai), along with creating the koji starter, preparing the shubo (yeast starter), the moromi (main mash) and sandan shikomi (three-step fermentation process), make sake production as elaborate if not more so than Champagne production.
So while I always have a glass (or masu if it’s available) of sake at the stroke of midnight at the end of the year, I also enjoy sake throughout the year, whether it’s a junmai for heartier dishes, ginjo for lighter foods or a daiginjo for refined cuisine. I’m not particular whether the sake is honjozo, with added brewer’s alcohol that gives sake a slightly longer shelf life and consistent flavor, or junmai sake, which simply contains rice, water, yeast and koji. I recently have added namazake or unpasteurized sake — to my list of sake that I enjoy — for their fresh, lively flavors and fragrant aromas. I continue to keep a bottle or two of nigori or unfiltered sake around as well, as I feel they pair perfectly with spicier Asian cuisine due to the touch of inherent sweetness from the particulates in the sake.

And I always have several bottles of awamori in my pantry, not as much to imbibe, but as a cooking agent. This Okinawan cousin of traditional shochu is primarily made from rice, but is distilled to create a final beverage with a higher percentage of alcohol than sake. Since shochu can also be produced from barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat and brown sugar, I find that the final distillate from these foods give the liquor a much stronger flavor, whereas a distillate made from rice still gives it the flavor of sake, just at a higher “octane” level. So I use awamori to deglaze my cooking vessels for Japanese cuisine, as a marinade for Asian foods, and although I don’t consume it as is, I also use it for various Asian-inspired cocktails. And the slightly higher alcohol level gives it a longer shelf life than sake after the bottle is opened.

And while I usually reach for that bottle of ginjo or daiginjo sake first, I’ve also been known to occasionally indulge in Berkeley, Calif.-based Takara Sake’s flavored sake, namely their Hana Fuji Apple and Hana Lychee flavored sake. With very low alcohol (eight percent) and mildness sweetness, these pair with the spiciest of Asian cuisines and also are great to mix with vodka or other liqueur for fruit-based cocktails. Takara Sake also distributes a sparkling sake — Mio Sparkling Sake — that’s also very low in alcohol (five percent) with subtle sweetness that pairs perfectly with spicy tuna sushi.

The Tradition that Binds
So while consuming rice or mochi at the turn of the new year may not keep the family together, keeping these traditions alive does so more than that simple grain, as it makes us reflect on the past. Remembering those before us who shaped us and made us become who we are today. And it also doesn’t hurt to occasionally put away those electronic devices, especially during mealtime. I’ll admit that I’m as guilty as the next when I feverishly photograph dishes served to me, but I will put the phone down once the photo is snapped and re-engage with those who share my table. As the Japanese saying goes, “Ichi go, Ichi e” or “one time, one meeting,” literally translated as “one chance in a lifetime.” Though we may share the same table with the same friends or family, every occasion is unique and once it passes, it’s gone. So live for the moment.

And though I don’t consume as much rice as I used to, here’s my Obaachan’s recipe for sekihan (sticky rice with azuki beans). I’ve always enjoyed sekihan — my Mom said it’s because I’m half Kumamoto-ken, where beans are a favored menu item. Something about the earthy qualities of the azuki beans makes it pair with a variety of okazu (side dish) from fresh raw tamago (egg) to yatsumi-zuke (pickled cabbage) from the old Tropics Market to one of my faves … unagi (freshwater eel). Yes, there’s no fresh unagi in the 50th, but even that canned Hamanako unagi or vacuum sealed from the former Shirokiya or Marukai Market on hot sekihan seems to right all the wrongs in the universe …

Sekihan. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Sekihan
3 cups mochi rice
2 cups regular rice
1 tsp sea salt
½ cup azuki beans, soaked overnight
Black sesame seeds (optional)

Boil the soaked azuki beans for 30 minutes. Drain but reserve the cooking water. Wash the mochi and regular rice then add the reddish cooking water from the azuki beans to the usual water level. Add the sea salt and let it sit for at least 30 minutes. Add the drained azuki beans to the soaked rice and cook the rice as usual, letting it steam on low for 20 to 30 minutes. Serve sprinkled with sesame seeds.

So once again, I wish you and yours in this Year of the Dog, health, happiness and peace of mind in 2018! Shinnen akemashite omedetou gozaimasu or in the 50th, Hau’oli makahiki hou!

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University 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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