The Grain that Binds Us
What is the one constant not just during Oshogatsu but throughout the whole year? It’s not
the toshi-koshi soba 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. It’s not the lobster or
shrimp that symbolizes a long life. And if you are consuming lobster on a regular basis
throughout the year, you probably aren’t reading this column. No, it’s also not the traditional
osechi ryori cuisine laborious prepared before the end of the year to last the first 3 days of the
New Year. Unless we want to be kitchen slaves for the rest of the year spending one week to
prepare meals that last just 3 days. And we don’t keep our kadomatsu or kagami mochi adorning
our homes throughout the rest of the year.
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.
I’ll fess up. I don’t consume rice anywhere as near in the same volume as I used to. 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, shoyu based foods, tsukemono or even Spam, I’m consuming 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 5 pound bags or
freshly milled Hokkaido rice I purchased from The Rice Factory back in May that was supposed
to be consumed by July for optimum flavor are still in my refrigerator – the Koshihikari is
almost gone but the 50% Yumepirika is still about half full.
And the other reason why rice isn’t consumed regularly in our household is the J-O-B. For
starters, I normally leave the house about 5:45am and don’t return until about 5pm. That leaves
me about 3 hours for post-work activities including cooking and eating dinner. Because rice
needs to soak at least 30 minutes and takes another 30 minutes to cook and steam, that leaves
only 2 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.
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, the moromi and sandan shikomi 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. And 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. And I recently have
added nama-zake or unpasteurized sake to my list of sake that I enjoy for their fresh, lively
flavors and fragrant aromas. And I still also keep a bottle or two of nigori or unfiltered sake
around 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 as this Okinawan cousin of traditional shochu is primarily made from rice but
distilled to create a final beverage with 24% (versus 16 to 17% in 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 though 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 based Takara Sake’s flavored sake, namely their Hana Fuji Apple
and Hana Lychee flavored sake. With very low alcohol (8%) 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 (5%) 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
And though I don’t consume as much rice as I used to, here’s my Obaachan’s recipe for sekihan.
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 from fresh raw tamago to yatsumi-zuke from the old Tropics Market to
one of my faves… unagi. Yes, there’s no fresh unagi in the 50th but even that canned
Hamanako unagi or vacuum sealed from the former Shirokiya or Marukai Markets on hot
sekihan seems to right all the wrongs in the universe…
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 adzuki 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 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! Shinmen akemashite omedetou gozaimasu or in the 50th, Hauoli makahiki hou!