Thursday, January 6, 2011

Untangling my Chopsticks with Japanese Comfort Food in the New Year

Denizens of some lakeside and seaside communities like to dip into icy waters for a Polar Bear Plunge on New Year's Day, believing that it brings one good luck and fortune in the months ahead. For me, the alternative of a gentler dive into a great book about Japanese culture and cuisine has proven to be just the ticket for starting the New Year in our house.

After the delightful indulgences of the holiday season, I have been ready for some lighter, more delicate fare to balance things out and rereading Victoria Abbott Riccardi's "Untangling My Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto", (NY: Broadway Books, 2003) has been the perfect cup of (green) tea to start 2011 for the Crispy Cook.

This book is the current book selection for Cook the Books, the bimonthly foodie book club and I have the privilege of hosting the book discussion and roundup for this round, which ends January 28, 2011. We love to have new members join us in reading our selected book and then blogging and cooking up something inspired by our anointed book, so be sure to check the Cook the Books website for more details and to see the cool roundup of posts after our deadline.

I initially read this evocative book a couple of years ago for a Books About Food Reading Challenge, and here's my summary from that first reading:

"Untangling my Chopsticks" recounts the author's year spent in Kyoto, Japan, learning about the art of kaiseki. Kaiseki is the traditional and highly ritualized series of foods to accompany green tea ceremonies and involves a series of small dishes of exquisitely prepared and garnished foods.

Riccardi lands in Kyoto without much knowledge of Japanese culture or language, but is fortunate to have some friends of friends to stay with until she finds other lodging, enrolls in language classes and snags a coveted spot in a prestigious tea kaiseki school where there is an American ex-pat to help her navigate the new culinary and language challenges she faces.

The kaiseki banquets she studies sound exquisite; they evolved from Buddhist monastery traditions into highly formal social dining banquets in which tastings of thick and thin whipped green tea are interspersed with samples of the freshest, seasonal dishes, exquisitely garnished. She also provides interesting glimpses of Japanese home cooking and ordinary restaurant fare, and includes many recipes easily adapted to Western kitchens.

Though this book is but a glimpse into a highly complex Japanese culinary tradition, it was a mouthwatering introduction and I will be referring back to it when attempting my own forays into Japanese cooking."

I enjoyed my reread of Riccardi's book just as much, and found that I was bookmarking different pages the second time round. There is so much that is elegant and seasonal about this refined style of cuisine that I know I will be seeking out many times over.

I am a novice Japanese cook, so I thought I would start with the basics of preparing dashi, the kelp and bonito broth that is a mainstay in many Japanese dishes and then prepare a simple donburi, "Japan's quintessential comfort food", according to Riccardi. Donburi is a bowl of hot cooked rice topped with eggs and other proteins along with vegetables in a salty, sweet broth.

I made dashi according to Riccardi's recipe (page 48) which was very easy, once I had the correct ingredients: konbu, or dried giant kelp, brought just to the boiling point in a pot of water and then removed, and dried bonito flakes. I then used some of my dashi in a Shrimp and Egg Donburi and some as the stock for a slurpy bowl of rice noodles later that same week.

The donburi was a great dish for a wintry, overcast January day, with candles lit on the table and the woodstove crackling away. Our featured book notes that donburi restaurants pepper Japan and describes this dish thus:

"Scrumptious, healthy, and prepared in a flash, it redefined the meaning of fast food" (p. 21)

Certainly seems a better fast food alternative than a "special sauce" burger and fries on so many levels.

Shrimp and Egg Donburi (adapted from Riccardi's Chicken and Egg Rice Bowl recipe in "Untangling my Chopsticks")

4 cups hot cooked rice

1 cup dashi (I made homemade dashi which is super easy, but there are also canned and powdered dashi products available in Asian markets)

1/4 cup soy sauce (check to make sure this is wheat-free)
1-1/2 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. mirin (sweet rice wine)

4 eggs

1/2 lb. large shrimp, shelled and deveined (I used frozen shrimp)

3 Tbsp. snipped chives or scallions

Mix dashi, soy sauce, sugar and mirin in medium soup pot. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer two minutes.

Break eggs into mixing bowl. Untangle your chopsticks and use them to beat eggs until blended. Chopsticks work surprisingly well at this.

Add shrimp to simmering broth. Pour eggs over the shrimp and then sprinkle on the chives. Let simmer without stirring , until shrimp turn pink. Gently stir up shrimp and eggs and cook another 1-2 minutes, until shrimp are completely cooked.

Divide hot cooked rice into four medium bowls. Pour shrimp-egg mixture and broth over rice in each bowl.

Slurp away!

This dish really calls for those big porcelain Chinese ladle spoons which I didn't have, so you can slurp up a good portion of rice, broth and egg/shrimp chunks.

Serves Four.

I will be trying this again soon with tofu cubes and sliced raw fish. Truly great fast food!

As hostess of this round of Cook the Books I have already received some great submissions based on "Untangling my Chopsticks" and look forward to seeing what the rest of the batch looks like. Be sure to stop back at the Cook the Books website for the roundup after January 28.


Alicia Foodycat said...

Those sorts of soupy rice dishes are so delicious! It looks wonderful Rachel.

Poetry of the Day said...

it is very comforting/

Maggie said...

The rice bowl sounds delicious! I really needed a good book recommendation. I hope I can find time to get something together for the round up.

Claudia said...

Great review of the book Rachel, and a very tasty recipe choice. Now I want a bowl of that tonight.

Deb in Hawaii said...

Donburi is such a great comfort food. What a great choice for the book--I am with you sticking to something simple is good.

I should be posting mine in a day or two. Have enjoyed re-reading the book, perfect pick for January!

Simona said...

Interesting review, Rachel. And very nice rendition of the dish. I have actually made my dish: I just need to concentrate on writing the post.

Kelly said...

Looks delicious! I love how comfort food has no language barriers.

Deb in Hawaii said...

Had to come back and look at your rice bowl again. lol ;-)

Thanks again for hosting such a great book! One of my favorites.

Anonymous said...

Great pick Rachel. I have cooked a few more dishes from the book, and they turned out delicious!

Asianideas said...

One of the best book I'd ever read for cooking. Great review of the book Rachel, and a very tasty recipe choice. Now I want to cook that tonight.