Read an Excerpt
The devastation of Japan’s Tohoku and Kanto regions (see map, page 6) began with an earthquake of remarkable force on Friday, March 11, 2011, at 2:46 in the afternoon. The record-breaking tidal waves (tsunami) that immediately followed left crushing, crippling destruction in their wake. In the days, weeks, and months thereafter, nature’s onslaught continued with hundreds of very strong aftershocks, many accompanied by yet more tsunami and by landslides. When winter thawed into spring, melting snow revealed deep, destructive fissures in the landscape. To compound the horror, damage to the Fukushima power plant produced severe and extensive energy shortages and wreaked radiation havoc, forcing widespread evacuation and focusing world attention on safety issues in the use of nuclear energy. The triple calamity—earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown—officially has been named the Great Eastern-Japan Earthquake Disaster (Higashi Nihon Dai-Shinsai), shortened by most to a painfully simple word: Disaster (Shinsai).
Yet, as Japan struggled—continues to struggle—to rebuild in the aftermath of tragedy, the prevailing mood is one of dogged determination, imbued with hope. In a single Japanese word: kibō. And that is what I have chosen to name this culinary tribute to the Tohoku.
The Birth of the KibŌ Book Project
When the first huge, terrifying quake hit on Friday afternoon, March 11, I was in my Tokyo kitchen preparing for a cooking workshop the following day. Having lived through several large quakes before, including one in which I spent hours trapped in an elevator before being rescued, I went into automatic action trying to pretend it was just a drill, not the real thing. Trembling (me and the earth together), I shut off the stove and clambered my way to the front door. As I propped it open—a precaution since frames can shift, jamming doors shut—I witnessed a crane on the construction site across the street sway and totter. I donned my emergency-ready knapsack and crouched down in the doorway. The initial quake lasted for several minutes—it seemed as though it would never stop.
Still trembling (me and the earth), I turned on the emergency news channel and learned the center of seismic activity (the largest on record in Japan, revised later that month to 9.0) was off the coast of Sendai (see map, page 7). Gigantic tsunami (tidal waves) were predicted, and came . . . and kept coming, with hundreds of aftershocks. Transportation in Tokyo came to a halt, and communication services were widely disrupted—frustrating, frightening. And then, news of the nuclear accident in Fukushima…
In the weeks that immediately followed the Disaster, it became increasingly clear that mass evacuations, necessitated by the nuclear accident, would create a diaspora: displaced communities and disrupted lives.
Like others in Japan who had been spared significant property damage or personal injury, I wondered how I could help. As volunteer groups sprang up everywhere to address emergency needs, I found myself thinking more about long-term recovery. I was especially concerned with the plight of the refugees who were being relocated to distant places. I wondered how a writer and teacher of Japan’s traditional culinary arts could assist those in the devastated Tohoku area. After much soul-searching, I resolved to chronicle the culinary heritage of the Tohoku—especially of the three prefectures that were hardest hit: Fukushima, Miyagi, and Iwate (see map, page 7)—before traditional foods there morphed into unrecognizable fare, or disappeared entirely. By writing in English, I could engage a wide-reaching readership, introducing them to local flavors while providing the global community with a way to share in the region’s aspirations and determination. Even further, I sought a publishing house that would join me in supporting Japan’s rebuilding and renewal efforts.
My stalwart agent, Lisa Ekus, helped me hone my proposal. In the stifling heat of the summer of 2011, with frequent and severe aftershocks still rocking the Tohoku and nuclear power plant closings throughout Japan leaving homes and businesses everywhere with little or no cooling, we submitted my proposal to Ten Speed Press.
They responded enthusiastically, and shared my philanthropic commitment! But . . . they also challenged me to rethink the platform, time frame, and scope of what I had originally envisioned. There would be time later, they said, for a more exhaustive treatment of the subject. (They knew, all too well, from working with me on my previous books, Washoku and Kansha, that my manuscript would be “information dense.”) Instead, they urged me to write something much shorter, more timely: an e-original that could be published by March of 2012, the first anniversary of the Disaster. That meant delivering a complete manuscript in just a few months—Washoku and Kansha had each been five-year projects! Both those books had been written with the help of a demographically diverse, geographically dispersed group of volunteer recipe testers whose feedback enabled me to understand how best to make unfamilar food enticing and accessible. I knew that Kibō would benefit from the same approach, so I immediately sent out a call for volunteers through my newsletter. I was, thankfully, wonderfully deluged with offers to assist me.
At the same time, Ten Speed Press assembled a multitalented team of editors, designers, photographer and food stylist, public relations and marketing experts. Dozens of people came together to help me create this book. Please read the details in my “Cast of Kibō Characters” (page 124).
Recipes and Culinary Tales from the Tohoku
Having committed to an electronic format and an incredibly short timeline for finalizing manuscript, I was faced with the difficult task of selecting just a few dishes to represent the Tohoku region. I consoled myself with a well-known Japanese saying: hara hachi bu ni isha irazu. Similar to our saying “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” the Japanese say, “A stomach eight-tenths full needs no doctor.” Culinary satisfaction is not linked to satiety, but rather to being slightly hungry when you leave the table. In Kibō, I aim for hara hachi bu: to whet your appetite for more.
In Western cultures, we speak of “breaking bread together” as a way of establishing and nurturing human connections. The recipes in Kibō are more likely to have you marveling at the deep, rich flavor of miso-seared scallops or sharing the simple pleasure of a plain salted rice ball (onigiri) recalling that it was the first food tasted by most survivors in the shelters.
Everyone in Japan has an onigiri story. Most are nostalgic narratives of mother waking early to pack lunch, hands reddened from pressing steaming rice into bundles. Mom is likely to have stuffed the rice with katsuo-bushi (fish flakes) if her child had an athletic competition or an important exam to take (a play on words because katsuo means winning and bushi means warriors). Biting into a fish flake–filled onigiri half a century later, a retired businessman might recall the glorious moment he learned of his acceptance to a top university, or the day his high school ball club won the regional pennant. For many of today’s teenagers, whose mothers are no longer dedicated homemakers, onigiri might conjure up konbini camaraderie: classmates gathering at the local convenience store for an afterschool snack.
What is my onigiri story? Had you asked me before the Disaster, I would have reminisced about the young New York woman who visited rural Japan in the 1960s (me, then) who became a middle-aged omusubi maven (me, now) (see The Language of Food, page 20). The story would have started with my first taste of shockingly sour uméboshi (pickled plum). Buried deep inside a bundle of lightly salted rice that the locals had called omusubi (not onigiri), I found the softly wrinkled, dusty-pink, mouth-puckering plum oddly wonderful with the rice: an unexpectedly satisfying mini-meal. In the ensuing years, I have made countless omusubi for my daughter and her grade-school teammates (I wonder if their food memories associate smoky-sweet katsuo-bushi with winning the swim tournament?), for my husband and his fishing buddies (their preferred filling is tarako or cod roe), for my kitchen assistants (omusubi filled with bits of soy-stewed kombu or salted salmon flakes…or whatever happened to be on hand that day), and for myself (I remain a staunch fan of uméboshi).
Now, after the Disaster, I have a different tale to tell: it is an ode to onigiri, a chronicle of culinary bonding between a culturally diverse, compassionate community—Yanesen, part of Tokyo’s retro Shitamachi district—and the survivors of tsunami-ravaged Kesennuma Port, in Miyagi Prefecture (see map, page 7).
Like many Tokyoites who had survived March 11 greatly shaken-up but with little personal injury or property damage, Yanesen residents wanted to help those in the stricken Tohoku shelters where ready-to-eat food was still in short supply weeks later. They swung into action with a “soup kitchen” of sorts. Dubbing themselves the Onigiri Troops, local housewives, shopkeepers, and members of the Otsuka Mosque (a Tokyo-based Islamic group) gathered at Genkoji (Buddhist) Temple to produce thousands of onigiri. Their activity was recorded by nonfiction writer Mayumi Mori and posted to her blog, which is how I became aware of their efforts.
Mori’s camera zooms in and out, creating a riveting collage of images and sound snippets early in April. We see the mosque’s truck being packed up with food and supplies (somehow they managed to navigate nearly 200 miles of quake-ruptured roadways to make multiple deliveries). We hear the organizers tell us how they gathered dozens of volunteers and got donations from local merchants. We see the efficient onigiri production line (scooping, weighing, shaping, and wrapping the rice bundles) and follow a woman who hauls a tray laden with hundreds of finished onigiri to the bone-chilling room at back. (Optimal kitchen hygiene requires the rice be completely cooled before packing it up for the long journey.) We see tired women taking turns massaging each others sore shoulders and taking care of each other’s children.
The most poignant episode is of a young, bandana-clad mother struggling with her decision to leave the Tokyo area; her newly launched business selling produce from small local farms cannot survive the onslaught of consumer uncertainty regarding possible radiation contamination. She is concerned, too, for the safety of her own family. But she does not want to abandon the Yanesen community that so warmly welcomed them, the newcomers from Osaka, just a few years ago. The camera captures her tears, and then gently pulls back.
In closing, the production line replays in slow motion, ending with mini-portraits of several volunteers—disposable gloves removed now that the rice-pressing work is finished. Gauze masks lowered reveal tired, but smiling, faces.
Pressed Rice “Sandwiches”
Salted, pressed rice sandwiches—onigiri—are easy to pack up, transport, and eat, making them a substantial, satisfying finger food. Most are shaped into triangles, though logs called tawara, or “rice sheath,” and balls are also common. Plain, white rice stuffed (like a sandwich) with a filling is the norm, but mazé gohan (cooked rice that has been tossed with other cooked foods) is also used in making onigiri. Rice “sandwiches” are usually wrapped with strips of nori (laver), though onigiri are sometimes slathered with miso or brushed with soy sauce and grilled. (These are called yaki onigiri, or grilled pressed-rice and are divine!) In children’s lunchboxes, onigiri are often decorated and made into cute shapes. The finished food can be called either onigiri or omusubi (see The Language of Food, page 20).
This recipe shows you how to form four (substantial-sized) to six (small-sized) triangular-shaped onigiri from 2 cups of cooked rice. You can easily feed a large crowd by cooking more rice; consult the chart in the Cooked White Rice recipe (page 78). I offer instructions here for stuffing your onigiri with classic fillings—uméboshi (sour pickled plum) and/or okaka (seasoned fish flakes)—and wrapping them with nori (laver), but feel free to experiment with other foods.
Makes 4 to 6 onigiri
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups cooked white rice (meshi, page 78), freshly prepared and still warm
1 uméboshi (pickled plum), flesh pulled from pit, torn into 2 or 3 pieces
1 (3- or 5-gram) packet katsuo-bushi (fish flakes, see page 91), drizzled with a few drops of regular soy sauce, then tossed to moisten (this mixture is called okaka, seasoned fish flakes)
1 (7-by 8-inch) sheet nori (laver)
Salt the rice. When making onigiri more than 30 minutes in advance of eating, salting and cooling the rice is critically important to maintain proper hygiene (salt retards spoilage). Transfer freshly cooked rice from the bowl of your appliance or stove-top pot to a large wide bowl. The classic Japanese vessel is a flat-bottomed, wooden tub called a handai that is briefly wet down with water to keep the rice from sticking to it. If you do not have a handai, a heat-resistant shallow glass bowl is fine (and preferable to a metal one, because glass does not retain heat). A large wooden salad bowl that has not been previously seasoned with garlic or oil is also an option.
Using light cutting and folding motions (pretend you are working with whipped egg whites, folding them into a cake batter), spread the rice out in your bowl. Sprinkle with half the salt and toss the rice with light cutting and folding motions to distribute. Cool the rice to the point that large clouds of steam are no longer visible. The Japanese use a broad, flat fan called an uchiwa to aid in this process; stiff cardboard (from a pad of paper) also works well. Sprinkle the rice with the remaining salt and toss to distribute evenly.
Divide the rice into four 1/2-cup or six 1/3-cup portions. Have a bowl of room temperature water nearby, to dip your hands and/or spatula in as needed to keep the rice from sticking to them.
Wet both hands with water, shaking off excess. Scoop up a portion of rice and lightly compact it into a sphere (this action is called nigiru and is the origin of the name of this dish). Transfer the rice to your nondominant hand and, with the fingertips of your dominant hand, press the center to make an indentation. Place either 1 of the pieces of uméboshi or a half (if stuffing 2 onigiri) or a third (if stuffing 3 onigiri) of the okaka mixture in the indented space. As you do this, cup the palm of your hand to enclose the filling, making a sphere. Repeat to stuff all portions, setting aside stuffed rice bundles on a clean work surface (covering a cutting board with plastic wrap first will keep them from sticking and simplify cleanup).
Take a stuffed rice sphere in your moistened, nondominant hand.Bend your dampened fingers of the other hand to form a V-shaped “roof” over the top of the rice ball. Exert gentle pressure with this top hand to mold the rice—this “roof” becomes one of the triangle’s pointed tips—and flatten out the bottom. Flex your wrist, turning your fingers up. As you do this, the rice ball will flip so that the edge that previously was formed against your top hand now rests on the flat palm of your bottom hand. Exert gentle pressure again to form the second pointed tip on top. Repeat the roll, press, and flip motion to complete the making of the triangle.
Repeat to make the remaining onigiri. As you work, group the rice bundles by filling to make it easier to identify later. Many home cooks will create their own system of identification according to the shape of the rice (triangle, log, or ball) or design of the nori band (kimono-like crossed-in-front strips or short bands placed under the base and pressed to front and back of triangular onigiri; bracelet-like bands, some broad and others narrow, for log-shaped onigiri; smiling faces or basketball designs “drawn” with strips of nori on balls). Have fun inventing your own. If you are making 6 small-sized onigiri, filling half with uméboshi and half with okaka, I suggest you cut your sheet of nori in half lengthwise, then across twice to yield 6 short strips, each about 11/2 by 4 inches. If you are making 4 larger onigiri, it’s best to cut a single sheet of nori into 4 strips, lengthwise.
Finished onigiri can be served on a platter. If you are making them ahead of time, cover the platter with clear plastic wrap and store at cool room temperature. Refrigerating the rice bundles makes them unpleasantly tough. If you are packing onigiri into a picnic box, wrap each in clear plastic—the modern method—or in dried bamboo leaves called takénokawa, the old-fashioned method (see photo, page 16). Nori can be wrapped around the rice bundles immediately after shaping them (sticks easily to warm rice) or just before eating, which gives the onigiri a more distinct seashore aroma and slightly crispier texture.
The Language of Food
Tonjiki, written with calligraphy for “gather” and “food,” are thought to be the prototype for modern-day onigiri. Several references to tonjiki appear in the eleventh-century novel Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki Shikubu. In her tale of court romance and intrigue, tonjiki are described as “compact, egg-shaped spheres of cooked rice.” It seems they were prepared in the banquet kitchens not to be served to guests, but rather to feed the household help. The rice was mixed with millet and other less costly grains.
The Japanese language today has two words for pressed rice bundles: onigiri and omusubi. Both words begin with an honorific “o,” showing that rice, no matter what you call it, is a food to be honored. Each of the words, onigiri and omusubi, derive from verbs that describe the compressing action needed to shape cooked rice into easy-to-carry bundles. Nigiru means “to press together.” Musubu means “to tie together, to bind.”