Thursday, May 26, 2005

A Tribute to Carbohydrates

Niigata Onigiri: On a lunch break from collecting rice or just out for a pinic with friends, Kitty White enjoys one of my favorite rice treats - onigiri. Onigiri is simply a rice ball lightly seasoned with salt. They can come with a variety of fillings and wrappings. It is estimated that 70% of Japan's rice production comes from Niigata. Save some for me please!

Summer must be right around the corner because all I can think of is onigiri - salted rice balls that my mom used to make when we took the long car ride up to Northport, Maine. This was the ONLY time she made them so whenever I feel the weather starting to heat up I can't help but feel the need to carb-out.

My mom preferred to keep her onigiri's simple. Rather than the fancy triangle shapes our onigiri were like small barrels. They accompanied a car-food meal of tamago (a kind egg omelet seasoned with soy sauce) and sometimes candied chicken. Occasionally she might hand the onigiri to me wrapped in seasoned nori, but for the most part, her onigiri was simple and delicious.

It came as little surprise that Hello Kitty is happy to offer her assistance in making lunches easier and just a little too cute. I think my mother would ridicule me for making onigiri in a mold, but then again, she ridicules my hand-made versions. When it comes to mom and cooking, she rules. I think if these little Kitty helpers existed when I was little, she might have entertained the idea of buying them for about three seconds. She'd look at these punch-out nori pieces and say "Oh, I can do much better than that!" and you can be sure she would.

According to the family expert (Mom, of course) real onigiri is shaped by hand. While she might think these molds are cute, she would consider this "cheating". These molds are positively new-fangled for my generation. I knew of only two shapes: barrels or the triangle. The following image should give you a better idea of how these molds would work when shaping and decorating your rice ball.

Rice is put into the mold, rounded-face down. When its the right thickness, the mold is turned over and the rice shape is pushed out from the rounded-face side.

Some of the above pictured molds come in far more elborate kits. They come with stencils that allow you to draw Kitty and friends in nori, sesame seeds, egg yolk or whatever strikes your fancy. They also include sheets of nori with Hello Kitty punch-outs. This might even be too much for me...

To see these mold kits and their results check out this Kitty fan's photo album

While looking for pictures of traditional onigiri I was happy to see that I am not alone in my love of this simple Japanese comfort food. With a strong culture of Obento box blogs (I'll cover that Kitty link in the next post) onigiris have become an art form for many at-home chefs. I am truly touched by their devotion to food and I hope their recipients can appreciate the enthusiasm that went into these creations.


Monday, May 02, 2005

A Taste of Spring

It's almost summer around here but my set of "Haru no mikaku" Kitty plushes were made complete just little over a week ago. Although these are not part of the regional line, they are part of Asunaro-sha's limited seasonal mascots. The series, "Haru no mikaku" or "Taste of Spring" features Kitty White as four kinds of "sansai". Sansai are edible wild plants that begin to appear in the early days of spring. In this limited series, Kitty appears as tsukushi or “horsetail brush”, takenoko or "bamboo shoots", kogomi or “fiddleheads” and fukinoto or “butterbur” flower bud. The cost of some of these luscious edible treats can be quite expensive in grocery stores so many people like to hunting for these wild plants. However, some people say the hunt for these delicacies have more to do with the rituals of spring. I'd guess that fukinoto and tsukushi are the crocuses of northern Japan -- indicators that the snow will be gone soon and cherry blossoms with follow. Other than takenoko and kogomi, these spring veggies are strangers to me so I had to rely on my mom's memory and the internet to give you an idea of the tastes and uses of wild plants.

Fukinoto is the sprout of the butterbur (a flower plant from the chrysanthemum clan) has a sharp and bitter taste. It is sometimes served minced with miso dressing or as tempura. Maybe its me, but doesn't everything taste better when its dipped in batter and deep-fried?

Tsukushi is a rhizome. Sometimes served in a soup or with a simple dressing of sugar and soy sauce -- I have no idea of its flavor, but I bet if you dipped it in batter and deep-fried it...

Kogomi are the coiled-up, baby leaves of the ostrich fern. I have had a version of these spinachy-asparagusy delicacies from Maine. My mom served them with a ground sesame seed and soy sauce dressing. I loved them and they weren't even deep-fried!

Takenoko are relatively common for westerners that have eaten stir-fries. I have yet to eat a shoot that hasn't come out of a can, but I've been told they are crisp and have a mild flavor.