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Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The Japanese Influence Part 1 - Sushi & Gyoza

Over the last few years we have gradually been influenced by aspects of Japanese culture. I think this is a general trend, what with jewellery and fabric patterns depicting cartoon food with cute faces, the popularity of Studio Ghibli animation and the interest in Bento lunchboxes. However, as a family we have been directly influenced by my husband's eldest daughter. When she was at university back in 2005, she decided to join an Anime appreciation society and soon decided that she would like to visit Japan one day. Indeed, she realised this ambition in 2008 and has been going back pretty much every year since. Over the years she has shared with us a love of the Japanese cherry blossom and simple zen gardens, the numerous cute characters that feature on everything from keyrings to shopping bags, and, of course, food. We, in return, have embraced it. Last year my husband transformed our front garden into a Milton Keynes version of a Japanese rock garden, even explaining the various pieces of symbolism in it to any delivery driver who cares to enquire. My daughters, in awe as you might imagine, of their big sister, lap up the cute anime characters, especially when gifts are brought back from Japan. And we have all opened our minds to Japanese cuisine.

When I think about Japanese food I cannot help but think about sushi. Being not much of a fan of seafood at the best of times, the thought of raw fish makes me uneasy at best. However, I, like so many people, have been labouring under the misconception that sushi involves raw fish. I have now learnt that the raw fish version of sushi is in fact called sashimi. Sushi is the name for the type of rice used - a short grained rice that turns sticky when cooked. Sushi rice is just like risotto rice and I have used rice from a bag labelled "sushi rice" to successfully make risotto. This rice is wrapped around a core of something that defines the name of the sushi roll and is enclosed in a thin layer of black seaweed called nori. The core can be pretty much anything but is often egg in an omelette form, cucumber or, for more western tastes, chicken. It may also be raw fish, squid, octopus or similar in the case of sashimi.

Having had this explained to me, I was less reluctant to taste sushi and it was in March 2013 when we all went to Piccadilly Circus to the Japanese Centre to eat sushi and shop for Japanese food and cute Bento items. Even though there was no raw fish involved, I didn't, unfortunately, like sushi. The taste of the nori to me was over powering and was reminiscent of the smell of the strandline on a beach on a hot summer's day. I guess it is fairly predictable that someone who doesn't like "fishy" flavours is unlikely to like sushi. In contrast my husband and daughters loved it and have been fans of it ever since so it was well worth the experience. Just round the corner to the Japanese Centre was a shop called Minamoto Kitchoan, selling authentic Japanese confectionery so we popped in there too and bought some amazing things unlike anything I had ever considered to be a sweet before. Unlike Haribo or pick n mix, these were more like individual hand crafted mini-desserts, with a price to reflect this. Rather than absently cramming them into our mouths one after another, we made sure we ate each one slowly, concentrating on the flavours and texture - perhaps the way sweets should be eaten.

Back in October 2015, there was a street food fair organised by MXMK at The Buszy near to the train station. As part of this event, there was a free 2 hour Japanese cooking course so I enthusiastically signed my eldest daughter and me up for it. It was good too. We were shown how to cook Japanese omelette and gyoza dumplings and we were shown how to make sushi. I even managed to pursue the lady running the course to try making sushi without the nori so that I could enjoy some for a change. It was a very hands on experience and very useful to see it being done and to be able to ask questions rather than just reading a recipe. We enjoyed all the flavours too and were keen to try it at home.

A couple of weeks later we drove up to the Asian supermarket, Central Oriental, in Bradwell Abbey industrial estate, just round the corner from Concrete Cow Brewery. There we stocked up on sushi rice, nori, dumpling skins and a few other authentic flavours and a bamboo sushi mat. Then the following weekend we spent a good few hours creating pork gyoza and sushi. That evening we tucked into our first "Japanese" as opposed to our usual Saturday evening "Chinese". Not only was it tasty but it was different, something I always welcome. Our horizons had been broadened and we are all the better for it.


150g sushi rice
40ml sushi vinegar
Nori sheets
Other ingredients such as cucumber, egg, fish, cooked chicken

Put the rice into a large saucepan and fill the pan with water. Gently stir with your hand then tip the water away. Repeat until the water remains clear then leave it in the water to soak for at least 30 minutes. Drain the rice and measure out 180ml water and pour this into the pan. Put on the lid then bring to the boil and simmer for about 15 minutes until the water is absorbed and the rice is cooked. Once cooked, remove from the heat and leave to steam for 10-15 minutes. Whilst still warm, stir in the sushi vinegar and then use a fan or a chopping board to fan the rice to cool it down and remove the moisture.

If you want to make egg sushi, now cook a Japanese omelette. To do this, beat one to two eggs in a jug and add a splash of soy sauce, fish sauce and sesame oil. Heat some oil in a small frying pan. Traditional Japanese omelette pans are rectangular and these can be purchased at Asian supermarkets or online on Amazon or ebay. Alternatively, you can just use a small round one. Heat a little oil in the pan then pour in a thin layer of egg mix. As it quickly begins to set, start to roll it up, rolling it away from you towards the back of the pan. Now add another thin layer of egg mix, tipping the pan and lifting the roll of omelette up slightly so that the new egg attaches to it. Now roll the omelette from the back of the pan to the front, wrapping the new layer of egg around it as you go. Repeat until you have used up all the egg. You can serve this warm to eat straight away as an omelette but for use in sushi, let it cool down then cut it into long, thin strips.

To make a sushi roll, cut a sheet of nori in half and place it on a bamboo sushi mat about 4 pieces of bamboo from one end.  Next take an egg sized clump of cooked sushi rice in your hand then with wet hands spread it out quickly on the nori, leaving a little nori free around the top edge. Try not to prod and poke it too much as it squishes the rice and doesn't really help with spreading it out.

Place a strip of filling onto the rice such as cucumber, omelette, cooked chicken or fish.

Now roll the sushi up by quickly lifting the bamboo mat and curving it so that the closest edge of rice comes down on the free edge of nori.

Gently press down to make sure the sushi has closed properly. It is important to not over fill the sushi or it will not seal properly and will look messy.

You should now have a long length of sushi and this can be cut into individual portions using a large, very sharp knife and a swift downwards slicing motion. Use a damp cloth to clean the knife between cuts to remove the build up of sticky rice on the knife which will stop it cutting otherwise.

Arrange on a plate or tray and serve cold with soy sauce for dipping.

Gyoza (Japanese Pan-Fried Dumplings)

Gyoza can be filled with any number of different ingredients and it is common to see frozen vegetables ones or prawn ones in the supermarkets these days. This is a recipe for pork and cabbage ones.

1 pack of frozen gyoza skins, thawed
100g sweetheart cabbage (the ones that are pointed at one end)
250g pork mince
50-60g spring onions
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 tablespoon of grated root ginger
1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons miso paste
1 teaspoon sesame oil

Finely chop the cabbage and put into a large bowl. Add the other filling ingredients and mix together with your hands until everything is evenly distributed. Put a little water into a small dipping bowl and carefully lay one of the gyoza skins in the palm of one hand.

Place a heaped teaspoon of the filling mixture into the centre of the skin. Use a finger dipped in water to trace a line along the edge of half of the skin.

Fold the skin over the filling and push it together at one corner. Make a pleat in the skin and press down. Repeat until you have enclosed the filling with a neatly pleated edge.

The gyoza should be flat on the bottom and domed over the filling. Repeat until you have used up all the filling. The gyoza can be frozen at this point and can be cooked from frozen at a later date or cooked from fresh now.

To cook, use a wok or frying pan that has a lid. Heat some oil in the frying pan then place a few of gyoza in the pan so that they are not touching. Cook then for about 3 minutes until they are golden brown on the base. Now quickly pour a quarter of a cup of water into the pan and put on the lid. Turn the heat down if necessary so that it is just simmering. After about 2 minutes the dumpling skins should look slightly translucent. At this point, remove the lid and turn the heat up a little and continue to cook until the the water has evaporated. This should take about another 2 minutes. Serve hot with a dipping sauce made of 2 parts soy sauce to 1 part rice vinegar and a few drops of sesame or chilli oil.

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