Thursday, October 10, 2013

Home Recipe: Japanese Casserole Rice

While most of us would have no idea where the rice we eat every day came from or how long it's been sitting in the warehouses before consumed these days, new crop rice - or shinmai (新米) in Japanese - is much celebrated in Japan, just like other seasonal food delicacies found in different time of the year.

These are 30kg bags - not that we haven't thought about carrying one back
New crop rice was defined as rice harvested, milled and consumed in the current season, typically all within 6 months. Given Japanese rice only yielded one crop per year in the autumn, shinmai season would start in September/October and last until January/February the next year. In Japan, shinmai season was impossible to miss - comes the beginning of September there would be banners flying around supermarket and rice shops annoucing the arrival of shinmai in bags big and small from all over Japan. Amazon Japan even has a specific section selling new crop rice from various regions online. 

What we have picked up from Ehime Prefecture
So how good is shinmai? - this is one part where Chinese and Japanese have totally different opinions. Chinese - in thie case mostly Cantonese since people from the north were more into noodles instead - totally dismiss the idea, thinking new crop rice is unsuitable for cooking anything other than congee. It's too moist, sticky and mushy - according to traditional wisdom. Hence most people opted for old rice, or at least a mixture of new and old rice. However, Japanese loves shinmai for its fluffiness and the fresh taste. Of course this is a matter of personal preference, but I do like shinmai for the intensely clean rice flavor (without the stale aftertaste usually came with old rice) and soft, pillowy texture. As for the problem of mushiness, I think the trick is the proper control of water in the cooking process and some patience in soaking the rice beforehand.

Rice Paddy Field ready for harvest - the best view of autumn!
So why are spending all these time talking about shinmai? Well, we happened to pick some up on our recent trip to Japan. We were driving along the countryside of the island of Shikoku, and everywhere we can see the golden paddy fields with rice ready to be harvested. And we bought a pack of 3kg shinmai from Ehime Prefecture. Once back home, I was trying to make a dish that were inspired by the trip and also made use of the ingredients we picked up.

The recipe I am sharing here is a typical Japanese homestyle dish called Kamameshi (釜飯), which literally meant casserole rice. That means rice would be cooked in a casserole not a rice cooker - if that sounds scary to you, don't be. It's as easy, and in most cases, quicker and better, once you learned the techniques. The rice did stick a little to the pot but it can be easily removed after a good soak of warm water afterwards. It's similar to Cantonese "Bo Jai Faan" (煲仔飯) but instead of putting the sauce after the rice's cooked, for Kamameshi we cook with the sauce so the taste is more subtle and spread out.

I listed lemon as ingredient, but instead I used Sudachi - Japanese lime we picked up from Tokushima Prefecture in Shikoku (and smuggled back home)
To complete the dish, I put in buna shimeji mushrooms and salt-cured saba (mackeral) which is commonly available at this time of year, but you can substitute with anything you can find in the market. Even use the super-aromatic Matsutake mushrooms if that happened to be in season and you don't mind breaking your wallet. This casserole dish is good on its own as a complete dinner so you have less to clean up too.

Shinmai Kamameshi with Saba (鯖魚新米釜飯)

Ingredients: (yield 3-4 persons)
2 cups of rice - I used the standard cup as measurement unit not the small rice cup. Each cup should yield about 3 bowl of rice so adjust according to your appetite.

Cooking Liquid: 0.5 cup of normal men-tsuyu sauce + 1.5 cup of water + 1 teaspoon of mirin

1 Pack of Buna Shimeji Mushrooms
3 pieces of Fish Fillet - anything from cod to sea bream to sea bass works. I used saba (mackeral) on that day just because it's of the right season.

1 Lemon

Sea salt to taste

Men-tsuyu Sauce - aka multipurpose Japanese cooking sauce
Just a couple notes on cooking liquid:
1. The amount of liquid used depends on the type of rice you are using and also your personal preference. Normally I would stick to the 1:1.1 proportion (1.1 cup of liquid for every cup of rice) but for shinmai, I cut that down to 1:1. If you want it more sticky, try 1:1.2 - I personally won't go more than that.

2. Men-tsuyu sauce is cold noodle sauce sold in bottles in local Japanese supermarkets. The one I used (and the portion provided) is the normal concentration version. If you can't find it, try substitute with soy sauce with much reduced portion.

Cooking utensils. Enamel cast iron pot is my pot of choice for cooking rice. Alternatively clay casserole works. For 2 cups of rice I would use a 2.4L pot - brand and size (and color) doesn't matter, in case you don't realize (or haven't read my LC 10 Commandments). But just so you know - the one I used was Le Creuset 22cm round oven.

1. Prepare the ingredients. Wash the mushrooms slightly with water, rub away any dirt and remove the lower part of the stems. Chop the fish into smaller pieces if necessary. Sprinkle with plenty of sea salt on top and leave on the counter for at least 20 minutes. 

2. Wash the rice. It really depends on what rice you are using, but what I usually did is rinse the rice under running water for at least 3 minutes or until the water became pretty much clear after running through the rice. Remove any sediment you spotted.

3. Soak the rice. This is a step most people omitted but it's a key step for cooking a bowl of perfect rice. The purpose is to re-introduce moisture into the rice before cooking. The "ritual" I follow is soak the rice in water for 15 minutes first, remove the water, then soak the rice for an additional 15 minutes with the cooking liquid to ensure some of those flavors would be absorbed by the rice first.

4. Cook the rice. Put the rice and cooking liquid in the pot, cover the lid, and cook on medium-low setting on the stove. Stir a few times to prevent sticking as the water slowly comes to a boil. Alternatively, rub a thin layer of oil in the pot before putting the rice and liquid in if you are that paranoid about sticking - it does help a little bit.

5. When the water reaches boiling point, turn the stove to the lowest setting possible. Wait until the water was completely boiled off then put the mushrooms and fish on top of the half-cooked rice.

6. Continue to cook in the lowest setting for 20 minutes. At that point, try and make sure the rice's completely cooked.

7. Remove the fish from the pot, remove the bones and cut the meat into flakes. Use your fingers if you don't mind the heat. Squeeze some lemon juice into the meat and better yet, grind up some zest for the aroma.

8. At this point, turn off the heat, put the meat back to the rice and mix everything completely in the pot. Close the lid and leave the rice to sit for 2 minutes inside so the flavor and steam can be settled.

9. Bring the whole pot to the dining table, put the rice (with the fish and mushrooms) into small bowls and serve.

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