Years ago, my English lit professor, who had lived in Japan, observed with amusement that the Japanese in Hawaii were more “Japanese” than they were in Japan. That puzzled me because we all felt as American as anybody else.
It’s through the years that I’ve learned to make sense of Dr. Hurley’s remark — especially during the start of the New Year, and around our food practices. The Japanese like my grandparents, who immigrated to Hawaii in the early 1900s, brought with them their food traditions. Those traditions got stuck in time.
While the Japanese in the land of their birth may have evolved or changed, the isolated Japanese in Hawaii were still embracing the customs they remembered from childhood, with adaptations based on the availability of Japanese ingredients in their new homeland. And my grandparents passed those food traditions on to my parents, who passed them on to me.
That means, after making Thanksgiving dinner, cookie baking, decorating the Christmas tree, shopping for presents, sending out Christmas cards, cooking Christmas dinner and all the flurry of activities that surround the holidays, I have another round of cooking to do for the New Year.
Mochi is essential to mark the New Year; we make our own mochi using an electric mochi maker that steams the rice and pounds it into a smooth paste that we hand-shape into little unsweetened cakes a few days before the end of the year. We have soba noodle soup on New Year’s Eve to ensure long life, o-zoni (mochi soup) on the morning of the New Year, and a celebratory feast for New Year’s Day. (Is it any wonder why we need a Special Fork hiatus during the holidays?)
Over the past few years, we’ve worked out a plan for our New Year to circumvent holiday exhaustion: each family member makes at least one dish and I make the sushi. With Steve, Dave, Chris and our daughter-in-law Lynn, that gives us at least four dishes. The menu is open to any Asian dish that will go with sushi; in addition to Japanese, we’ve had Korean, Chinese and Thai contributions.
The unexpected bonus turned out to be that we enjoy the family time we spend cooking together. We have a spacious counter in the Special Fork kitchen; two sinks; a large sub-Zero fridge and a six-burner, two-oven range. All of five of us can be accommodated at the same time. Instead of inviting guests as we used to — my mom always had an open house for friends and neighbors — we just make this meal for us, which means there’s no pressure to be ready at a certain hour. We eat when everything’s done, whatever time that is.
As usual, I made three kinds of sushi: maki-zushi (sushi rolls), inari-zushi (the kind stuffed in fried tofu packets) and oshi-zushi (pressed sushi).
Of the three, oshi-zushi is the simplest. You do need an oishi-zushi press. Mine is a mold with three shapes, including flower and fan. It’s made of wood, and was a gift from my mom, who probably acquired it around World War II. Today, I think you can only get plastic, like this one.
For the filling, I use seasoned, canned tuna. Sometimes mom used canned unagi but we always preferred tuna as being more palatable.
Since Special Fork is all about easy prep, here’s a recipe for a pan version that has the same flavor as the pretty oshi-zushi shown above, but without requiring a special mold or time to press out individual shapes. If you’re ambitious, you can buy a sushi press and make the shapes.
If you do the shapes, make extra sushi sauce; use it to wet the inside of the mold, the presser and your hands, to keep the rice from sticking to the mold and to your fingers. Layer the mold halfway with rice, add a layer of tuna in the middle (but don’t go to the ends or the sushi will look messy from the side), top with a layer of rice and gently press. Decorate with carrot flowers, a parsley leaf and a little square of omelet. In my photo I just used a carrot flower and a sprig of green onion.
2 1/2 cups uncooked short-grain rice (standard measuring cup; not rice cooker cup)
5 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
1/4 cup sugar plus 2 teaspoons, DIVIDED
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 can (7 ounces) water-packed chunk tuna, drained
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon naturally brewed soy sauce
Shredded toasted nori and carrot flowers for garnish, optional
Cook rice in an electric rice cooker or on stovetop. While the rice is cooking prepare the vinegar sauce and tuna so they are ready when rice is done.
To make vinegar sauce: In a small non-reactive saucepan combine the vinegar, 1/4 cup of the sugar and salt and heat over low heat just until the salt and sugar have dissolved, about 1 to 2 minutes. Cool to room temperature.
To cook the tuna: In a small nonstick skillet, combine drained tuna, 2 teaspoons of the remaining sugar and soy sauce; mix well and cook over medium-low heat, stirring and pressing tuna chunks with the back of a fork to break up. Cook, stirring, until tuna is dry, flaky and slightly darker in color, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
When rice is cooked, remove rice to a flat, wide glass or ceramic baking dish (about 9 X 13 inches). Sprinkle with vinegar sauce and toss gently to combine well. Use a fan or a piece of cardboard to fan the mixture as you toss, to cool rice down.
To assemble, spread half the rice in an 8- X 8-inch glass or ceramic (not metal) baking dish, pressing down gently with a large spoon to make a smooth layer. Sprinkle with tuna to cover evenly and top with remaining rice, pressing gently. (Note: For the top layer, it helps to drop rice over the tuna in small spoonfuls to cover the surface, then smooth the surface with the back of a spoon; otherwise, you might dislodge the tuna as you spread the rice.) Press gently with the spoon to firm up the layers.
Garnish with carrot flowers and shredded toasted nori, if desired. To serve, spoon out with a serving spoon, keeping layers intact.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
- 2 1/2 cups uncooked rice using a standard measuring cup is equivalent to about 4 rice cooker cups, depending on your rice cooker.
- To make rice on stovetop, check out the how-to video on Special Fork.
- To toast nori, run the sheets over an open gas flame on your stove; cut into thin strips with kitchen shears.
- Carrot flowers are made by slicing carrots crosswise and punching out flower shapes with a flower vegetable cutter.
- You can also add a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds to your sushi for added flavor.
- Do not use metal dishes because the vinegar may react to the metal, discoloring the metal and leaving your sushi with a metallic taste.
Happy New Year from Special Fork!
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