Okuizome

To celebrate my little man’s 100 days on earth, I prepared a feast for his “first eating” or okuizome as per the traditions of my ancestors. The okuizome is a Japanese weaning ceremony held 100 days after birth to celebrate the tiny person and wish him an abundance of good food throughout his life. Since eating is one of life’s greatest pleasures, I wanted to make sure my little man would have an abundance of deliciousness throughout his life. Of course, little man does not have any teeth yet, nor is he eating a dungeness crab, so we just pretended to feed him. Yes, I pretend fed a toothless baby a celebratory crab carcass. Then I took photos as per another proud Japanese tradition of enthusiastic photo-documentation.

Though traditions vary with region, according to my mom and the interwebs, a typical okuizome meal includes red bean rice (osekihan), a whole red snapper with head and tail intact (tai) to symbolize a strong neck, other auspicious foodstuffs such as octopus, lotus root, beans, or pickled plum (umeboshi), and a smooth round pebble to symbolize strong teeth.

In Japan, babies are dressed in fancy kimonos and have okuizome dining sets with tiny dishes for the occasion. For example, check out my cousin Anna’s little man’s okuizome portrait with his whole fish!

Here in Davis, I had to improvise a bit. My local supermarket did not sell a red snapper or any whole fish with the head and tail intact except for a limp looking rainbow trout. Clearly, you cannot have a proper celebration without a proper carcass. So I went with a dungeness crab instead. I figured it’s reddish in color, a proud celebratory carcass, a nice nod to the region and season, and I got to eat it afterwards. I asked the guy at the fish counter for one baby octopus which I boiled. I included a slice of melon on the tray because Japanese people love melon (don’t really know why) and placed a smooth rock that I found on a beach in Hawaii in the dish. Oh and I actually made osekihan from scratch!

Osekihan is eaten during special occasions in Japan and made with mochi rice and azuki beans which give the rice a pinkish color. It is the Japanese version of beans and rice. In general, I am not a big bean fan and I had never made beans and rice in my life. I also always thought osekihan was made by pouring some prepackaged “osekihan” powder into cooked rice which turned it pink. But for my little man, I actually soaked the azuki beans overnight and prepared osekihan for him. Here it is sprinkled with black sesame seeds and salt (gomashio) and served in little man’s special rabbit bowl.

Little man’s okuizome may have been a wee unconventional, but it had some California flair and it’s really the effort and spirit that counts.  And even though I know this is a food blog, I had to include one picture of my little man.

Lotus Leaf Sticky Rice

The gooey sticky rice wrapped in fragrant lotus leaf with delectable meat filling is one of my favorite dim sum items.  Why make dim sum at home when you can go to a dim sum restaurant and be eating a wide array of steamed and fried dumplings, custard cups, bean curd rolls, puffs, and sesame balls off metal carts pushed by salty Asian ladies within 5 minutes of sitting down and pay approximately $10 per person?  For one, I live in Davis and there are no dim sum restaurants in town.  Also, Yuan was cooking for a dim sum dinner party (even though dim sum is technically breakfast/brunch food) and wanted to try out some menu items before his event.  I did not object to being the guinea pig for his dim sum trials.

Although it is in no way a 30 minute meal, this was a fun afternoon cooking project and best of all, freezes extremely well for future snacking.  Of course, I was eating for two and ate six or seven of them in one sitting leaving very little leftovers for freezing. Whatever, they were delicious!  Here is the recipe we used:

Lotus Leaf Rice (Lor Mai Gai)

  • 1.25 lb sticky rice (sometimes labeled glutinous rice)
  • 3 tsp soy sauce
  • 4 large lotus leaves
  • 2 tbsp dried shrimp
  • 4 dried shitake mushrooms
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 3/4 lb chicken or pork (we used pork belly, but chicken thighs would also be good)
  • 1 crushed garlic clove
  • 2 Chinese sausages (lap cheong) thinly sliced
  • 2 scallion stalks sliced
  • 1 tbsp oyster sauce
  • 3 tsp soy sauce
  • 3 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp corn starch

Put rice in a large bowl, cover with cold water and soy sauce and soak overnight.  Drain rice and steam so the rice is slightly underdone.

Soak lotus leaves in boiling water for 1 hour.  Soak mushrooms in warm water for 30 minutes, squeeze out excess water, then coarsely chop.  Soak dried shrimps in warm water for 1 hour. Yes, it is a lot of soaking.

For the filling, heat 1 tbsp of vegetable oil in a wok or large non-stick pan until hot.  Stir fry meat cut into 1/2 inch cubes.  Add shrimp, mushroom, garlic, sausage and scallions and stir fry for 1-2 minutes until aromatic.  Add oyster sauce, soy sauce, sugar, and sesame oil and toss well.  Combine corn starch with 3/4 cup water and add the slurry into the filling mixture.  Simmer until sauce is thickened.

Make rice into balls about the size of a golf ball and flatten slightly.  Cut the lotus leaves in half.  Place one rice ball on the leaf, put filling in middle, and cover with another rice ball.  Wrap rice in the lotus leaf like a burrito and tie together.  Steam for 30 minutes.

These delectable packages can be frozen and steamed for 40 minutes.

Shellfish Holiday

We three squabbling asians have a different idea of celebrating Independence Day.  This year, in celebration of Yuan’s new real job, he decided to blow his paycheck on shellfish and he, along with Little Miss, showed up to Davis with a giant cooler full of blue crab, spot prawn, lobsters, clams, and oysters.  Then we cooked it all and ate ourselves into a shellfish stupor.   First, Little Miss and Bjorn had the brilliant idea of conducting a spot prawn race on a papertowel track.  Turns out tiny legs and large bodies do not allow them to travel very far – or really at all outside of water.  Next time, they should try the friskier blue crab.

We made a decadent paella with the spot prawn, crabs, and clams.  Here, one of the blue crab is attempting an escape.

We split the lobsters, then grilled them with herb butter.  The oysters were eaten on the half-shell by everyone but me due to my gestational state.  I’m bitter about it so I am not including any pictures.

A shellfish feast!

Matsutake! Mushroom of My People

Every fall, the people of Japan eagerly await matsutake season and pay an absurd amount of money to consume this delectable and distinctively fragrant fungi. Here, the close North American cousin of the Japanese matsutake is tricholoma magnivelare and although it is not as popular as Japan’s tricholoma matsutake they are very similar in texture and smell. Oh, the sweet sweet matsutake aroma…

I hounded the mushroom vendor at the farmer’s market for almost two months in search of the cherished mushroom and finally purchased 4 small mushrooms for $30/lb. I excitedly told a friend about my great triumph in obtaining my precious matsutake to which he replied, “oh, I just went hiking on the coast and they were growing all over the place. I’ll take you if you want to go tomorrow morning.” I immediately forgot that I’ve been told my entire life never to pick your own mushrooms for fear of death, and got up at 7 a.m. (believe me, this is EARLY for me for a Saturday) to drive to go mushroom picking.

We went down a trail, then bushwacked into the woods a bit, and lo and behold! A MATSUTAKE! I couldn’t believe it! It smelled like the real thing, looked like the real thing, and was growing out of the ground! I squealed like a teenager at a Jonas Brothers concert and did a little happy jig. Jake taught me to look in the leaf litter for slight mounds near tan oak and huckleberry bushes, and the distinctive characteristics of the matsutake, like the shreddable stem, white color (some with brownish discoloration), and gills attached to the stem, which is covered by a partial veil. Then he showed me how to pry them from their leafy beds.

When I started the day, I made a personal goal to find at least one matsutake during the trip but once I started to recognize what to look for, they were everywhere!! Then I really hit the motherlode. I saw a small white button peeking out from beneath the fallen leaves and as I was uncovering it, I noticed that there was an half arc of them.

By the time we stopped for lunch in this awesome field, we had collected almost three bucketfuls of matsutake. On the way back to the trail, we stumbled upon a patch of chanterelles, including the prettiest chanterelle I have ever seen! I ate an all mushroom diet the next day, then spent about 24 hours worried about dying of renal failure due to some deadly mushroom I had just consumed, but remembered that I definitely know what matsutakes smelled like and really, nothing else smells like it. I’m also still alive.

Over the course of the last month, I have been experimenting with various mushroom recipes. Usually, you try to find ways to economically stretch out the precious fungus that you paid an arm and a leg for and you barely have enough to make the two matsutake classics, matsutake soup “dobinmushi” and matsutake rice. I made a matsutake dashi and steamed some rice with the broth, a splash of sake and soy sauce, and sliced matsutakes. The steam from the rice cooker filled my house with that wonderous pungent piney aroma.

I gave some to the local Japanese restaurant owner (who then gave us some complimentary treats!), I froze some for later, and made mushroom dashi which I keep in the freezer. I also made matsutake noodle soup, matsutake dumplings, matsutake egg custard (chawanmushi), and various chanterelle and matsutake omelettes, pastas, and sautees. The chanterelles were meaty with the most amazing buttery texture and the matsutakes infused everything with their wonderful matsutake fragrance. Highlights were a shellfish pasta with chanterelles and matsutakes, and this simple but savory matsutake butter saute with ginger and homegrown chives.

Thanks to Jake and mother nature for a matsutake adventure in deliciousness.