12 February 2007

Ochazuke Redux

So M and I spent a weekend at The Four Seasons Inn in West Dover, Vermont. Fireplace and jacuzzi in the room, very relaxing, very nice, and a very good breakfast. It's run by a lovely English expat couple, Ann and Barry, and their family.

I spent good part of our relaxing weekend delving into The Folk Art of Japanese Country Cooking by Gaku Homma. It's a quirky book. My friend Brian left it on my desk for a week to peruse at my leisure. Of course, I didn't get to it and so he took it back. If I'd taken even a cursory look through the book and at the back cover, I would've quickly seen that this book was written by the founder of Denver's Nippon Kan, the Japanese cultural center, aikido school, and restaurant all rolled into one. I've eaten at Domo (the restaurant) several times! It's the first place I had yuba, the tofu skin that's so much better than tofu. Anyway, the book sat on my desk until Brian had to take it back.

Then, to get it through my head that this was something I'd enjoy, Brian finally bought me a used copy. I read half of it this weekend, and it's a strange mix of reminiscence, folk wisdom (read: superstition), warnings against folk wisdom (read: common sense), impossibly simple recipes, impossibly complex recipes. Sort of like this blog.

The book brought me back to one of my culinary obsessions: ochazuke. Not, mind you, because ochazuke is treated, or even mentioned in the book, but because it was a primer on Japanese country culinary terms. Country people need to preserve food naturally, so pickles (zuke) come up a lot. For instance, umezuke are pickled plums. Wouldn't that make ochazuke some sort of pickled tea? This recipe for ochazuke, which I oddly found on Nigella Lawson's web site, sorts out that confusion, and makes it clear that pickles are an essential part of the dish, which they were when I had it in Japan, but have never been here in the US. Though I've always ordered pickles to go along with it.

The above-linked recipe sort of cuts to the core of what I want ochazuke to be in my world. I like the image of "pawing through the fridge" and making do with what's on hand. That's what we did last night. This recipe makes a great choice for something substantial after a long trip because it's made entirely from the pantry, but is somehow wholesome and fresh-tasting, maybe through some sort of Japanese halo effect.

We arrived home at 8pm and were eating by about 8:30. I pressure-cooked some brown rice, which gives it a nice, substantial texture, and used genmai-cha, the japanese green tea with brown rice in it (and in this case, popped sorghum seeds). There's something bitter and unsatisfying about the tea I've been using, though. I think maybe Chinese green tea might be a better option, as it's less grassy. That might be sacrilege to purists, but I've started to realize that the thing I'm chasing here is not the perfect ochazuke, but the perfect ochazuke-style meal for my and my fiancee. I feel fine putting whatever I want in it. I served along with it:
  • arare maki nori (seaweed-wrapped rice crackers)
  • wasabi
  • bonito flakes
  • shredded nori
And that's where the traditional ended.
  • Rather than salt or a flavor packet with tons of MSG, I ground up a fish-flavored stock cube in a mortar and pestle with a little Wondra flour to loosen it to granules. Still salt, still MSG, but a little more on my terms than just tearing open a packet.
  • We tore open and flaked some smoked salmon given to us by some friends from the Pacific Northwest. It was awesome. We used a tiny bit and it went a long way toward providing flavor.
  • I put in some wasabi green peas, mostly because the wasabi powder I got from Sunrise Mart kind of sucks. I love the crunch of the wasabi green peas and they have enough of a hit of wasabi to satisfy me.
Honestly, I liked this version a lot more than any other I've made before, and it was easier and more fun for M and I to assemble our own little dishes, and more satisfying with the brown rice than with white. Bonito flakes add a sly smokiness, but honestly I could skip them altogether, as they end up papery in the broth without adding as much flavor.

We ate some kosher pickles from Gus' Pickles on the Lower East Side right before we had dinner. We should've just chopped them and had them as garnish. A bit of sliced omelet would also have worked very well.

I also would like to try this with some barley in the mix with the brown rice. Really, now we're getting far away from ochazuke in its pure form, but as long as it keeps getting better and we keep liking it, I'm up for that.

That smoked salmon's still in the fridge, so we might take another swing at this tonight. And more on Gaku Homma's odd treatise later.

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