This week, we’re taking a little detour from Nagoya and our rapidly-dwindling stock of Hatcho miso, and trying to make some food from just down the coast in Mie. Mie is the next prefecture over from Nagoya, just a short ride away on the lovely Kintetsu Shimakaze express train, and it mostly famous for… well, the northern end of it is mostly famous for having a lot of factories and (formerly?) being extremely polluted. But south of that, past Yokkaichi (pollution), Suzuka (car racing), and Matsusaka (beef!), are Ise and Shima, pleasant, mostly industry-free towns full of shrines, scenic coastline, and seafood. Every time I mention Ise to Anna — which is more often than you’d think, since our model Shimakaze has to drive there — she asks for Ise ebi, a delicious and very expensive spiny lobster. That’s not what we’re making, though, since I’m unemployed and don’t currently have a lobster budget.
Instead, we’re making a kind of sushi from Shima called tekone zushi. “Tekone” means “hand mixed,” and it’s a kind of chirashi zushi. Rather than little pieces of artistically cut fish delicately perched atop perfect tiny rice balls, chirashi zushi is a large bowl of vinegared rice with ingredients haphazardly scattered on top of it. Sometimes that’s raw fish, but sometimes not. Also unlike regular sushi, and luckily for me, you need almost no skill to make it, just a rice cooker, vinegar, and whatever stuff you want to throw on top. The main ingredient in tekone zushi is raw fish, usually katsuo or tuna, marinated in soy sauce and sugar (lots of sugar), before being mixed with the rice. The whole thing is topped with ginger, seaweed, and/or shiso.
Tekone zushi supposedly originated, according to my Ise Shima tourist guide book, with busy fishermen who used to make it on board their fishing boats, though Japanese Wikipedia disputes this, saying the katsuo boats didn’t go far enough from shore for that to be necessary. Either way, if you go to Ise or Shima you’ll see restaurants selling it everywhere. Apparently, people also make it at home for festive occasions, which makes sense since it’s moderately fancy and easy to make a lot at once. I first ate it a couple years ago at a restaurant in Ise called Tekone Chaya, where it came as part of a little “try our local foods” set with a bowl of Ise udon, plus chawan mushi, and some little side dishes. It was delicious and, unlike most of the other fancy local seafood, seemed like something I could plausibly make at home.
By the time we went back to Ise in April, I thought I had made a pretty passable version, only to discover that the real one is much, much sweeter than what I’d come up with. (As usual, it turns out that the secret ingredient in a lot of Japanese food is sugar.) Then last week, while I was futzing about on the internet trying to figure how much more sugar to add, tekone zushi was featured on my favorite Japanese food show, 秘密のケンミンショー (rough translation: “Secrets of Prefectural Residents Show”). They visited a number of prefectural residents’ homes and watched them make tekone zushi for family gatherings and, oh, that is really an obscene amount of sugar.
I also learned that when making it at home, they prefer to use frozen fish — the supermarkets there sell frozen katsuo specifically for tekone zushi — and fry (!) the leftovers in butter (!!) to make “tekone chahan” fried rice. (I haven’t tried that one yet, but when I do I will report back.) So, between our taste-testings, internet research, and the Secrets of Prefectural Residents Show, I’ve finally been able to assemble a good recipe. For comparison, the internet recipes I originally consulted asked for roughly eight grams (2 teaspoons) of sugar per 100ml of soy sauce. My current recipe, which I maintain tastes a lot more like what we ate in Ise, uses 50 grams (over 4 TABLESPOONS).
INGREDIENTS (for approx. 3 servings)
- 225g (0.5lbs) raw fish — The best fish for this are katsuo (“skipjack tuna,” not actually a tuna) or tuna, red fish without too much fat. Apparently you can also use buri (yellowtail), tai (sea bream/porgy), aji (horse mackerel, not actually a mackerel), or isaki (um… grunt?). Our local Asian grocery store sells frozen, pre-cut tuna for sashimi, so that’s what I use.
- 2 (Japanese) cups rice — confusingly, Japanese cups and US cups are somehow not the same thing. A Japanese cup is 0.85 of a US cup. I’m listing this in Japanese cups, because most rice cookers use Japanese cups. If you’re using a generic American cup measure, use 1.7 cups instead.
- 100ml soy sauce
- 50g (4.25 tbsp) sugar — This may seem like an excessive amount of sugar. And some very authoritative looking recipes use far less. But between our taste tests in Ise, the Secrets of Prefectural Residents show, and other very authoritative looking recipes, like this one from the Mie Association of Fishing Cooperatives, I’m pretty confident that excessively sugared is the correct method of preparation.
- 1tbsp mirin
- 4tbsp rice vinegar
- 0.25 tbsp MORE SUGAR — This is to mix with the rice vinegar, as if to mock us thinking that perhaps the shovel-full of sugar in the marinade somehow wasn’t enough.
- Optional toppings — I usually use sliced ginger, kizami nori seaweed, and sometimes shiso (ooba). You can also use picked beni shoga ginger or green onions, or whatever combination of those you (or your three year-old) likes.
- Cook the rice, leave in the rice cooker.
- Prepare the marinade. Heat the soy sauce, mirin, and sugar until it’s simmering and the sugar has completely dissolved. The marinade should still be liquid though, don’t let it thicken.
- Let the marinade cool. You don’t want your marinade to accidentally cook your sushi.
- Slice the fish into (relatively) thin pieces. Not any kind of fancy-knife-skills, so-thin-you-can-see-through it type of stuff, just like half a centimeter or something.
- When the marinade is cool, put the marinade and fish in a bowl and let it sit for 30 minutes. I leave it in the fridge.
- While the fish is marinating, mix the rice vinegar and the tiny bonus sugar together. (Some recipes call for adding salt here, but I skip that, the soy sauce is enough sodium for me.)
- And also cut up the toppings. Ginger can be either thin strips or thin little squares, shiso either thin strips or chopped, green onions are definitely chopped.
- When the marinating time is up, strain fish from the marinade, but don’t throw the sauce away! Make sure the fish is well-drained and collect the sauce in a bowl.
- Add the marinade and the vinegar-sugar mixture to the rice and mix. You can actually dump both directly into the rice cooker with the finished rice and mix it there.
- Put the rice in a large, wide bowl and mix some more. (I use a big round, flat-bottomed wooden bowl.) You want the rice to all have a bit of vinegar and sauce on it. When you’re done it should be a light brown color.
- Let the rice cool for a minute or two.
- Scoop the fish onto the rice and mix together. I usually mix some of the fish and leave some to spread attractively on top. Although the dish is called “hand mixed” sushi, I usually just mix it with my rice scooper.
- Sprinkle your toppings attractively over the rice and fish. My current favorite topping mixture is raw ginger, nori, and shiso, but the three year-old hates ginger and is trying to veto that.
Serve in the large bowl, with a rice scooper so people can take their individual portions. Because my two sushi consumers are PICKY, I sometimes have little bowls of various toppings that people can add to their own dish after taking it from the communal dish.