I heart Japanese food. I love everything about it—the importance of color and presentation, the adorable variety of serving vessels, the delicate flavors, the emphasis on fish, and the comforting aroma of steaming sticky rice. Today we had the pleasure of listening to food writer and cooking instructor Deb Samuels talk about her years spent living in Japan and how the cuisine became an integral part of her family life.
Deb started the conversation with rice. "No matter what the package says, it has to be washed", she said emphatically. The grains should be rinsed until the water runs clear, then soaked for 20 minutes before cooking. If you have a Japanese rice cooker (lucky me!), the soaking is taken care of. To accompany our rice, Deb prepared traditional miso soup by making a simple dashi with water, kombu (dried seaweed), and katsuobushi (dried, shaved bonito). White miso was blended in with a ladle and chopsticks just before serving. We also took turns making tamagoyaki, the traditional rolled egg omelet that is cooked in a special rectangular pan. And we all had fun grinding toasted sesame seeds in Deb's suribachi—the Japanese version of a mortar and pestle. The toasty paste was the base for a sesame dressing that would later get tossed with cooked spinach. Our lunch prospects were really starting to shape up.
For the finale, Deb introduced us to a growing food trend in Japan called onigirazu. It's a sort of mashed up version of the traditional onigiri rice ball—instead of being hand-formed, the rice is flattened, wrapped in nori, and cut in half. Western inspired fillings like spam, American cheese, and tomato sauce are popular. Bizarre and brilliant at the same time. Check out this video of onigirazu being made.
In the afternoon we turned to another (very different) Asian cuisine—Indian. With chef Robyn De Luca's recipes in hand, we took a regional tour of the subcontinent by cooking up North Indian lamb curry, Goan shrimp curry, Punjabi greens, potato samosas, lime rice, and griddled parathas. The intoxicating mix of exotic, toasty spices quickly filled the air. There were ingredients I've never heard of, like asafetida (a dried resin from a fern), atta flour (a type of whole wheat), and methi (the leaves of fenugreek). Once again, I was enlightened by new techniques that I would never tackle at home.
It's inspiring to learn about other cuisines that are so dramatically different from American or European styles of cooking. Next up on our calendar is another technique review day. After today's exposure to Eastern styles of cooking, I wonder if I'll be able to approach the food differently. How would a Japanese cook deal with a whole chicken? What kinds of Indian spices would work well with a sea scallop? Tomorrow I just might give it a go.