Today is arguably one of the strangest holidays to be observed in Japan: setsubun no hi, the turning of the seasons. Parents around the country strap on plastic ogre-masks and hop around the house while their young children pelt them with dried beans, yelling, “Demons out, good luck in.” Beans are scattered around the house in the four cardinal directions to protect against the red, blue, black and white devils in the coming year. The demons have ox horns and wear a tiger pelt, symbols taken from the Chinese compass that governs direction, travel and movement.
In another direction-related custom, people in Osaka celebrate the coming of spring by preparing specially rolled makizushi. Each person who wants to secure the best possible luck for the coming year must buy one of these sushi rolls and eat it whole (marukaburi), without speaking a word, facing the direction that is predicted to produce the most potential fortune for that year.
This tradition, originally from Aichi Prefecture, was appropriated by the Osaka Seaweed Sellers Association in 1977, when they sponsored a mass sushi-rolling on the famous Dotombori walking-street downtown. Intense marketing each subsequent year has catapulted it into a full-blown tradition; on the holiday this year, the Hanshin department store in Osaka will sell 40,000 rolls.
You might try using this holiday as an opportunity to perfect your own sushi-rolling skills. Generally, egg, spinach and a simmered mix of shiitake mushrooms and dried gourd are placed in the middle of the setsubun rolls. Making them is fun and easy. Just follow these simple rules.
Cooking rice for sushi
1) Use the rice cooker’s cup to measure the rice.
2) Wash the rice. The Japanese word for rice washing is togu , which has the nuance of polishing rather than actually washing. First cover the rice with ample water and discard this first cloudy water immediately. Next, with an open palm, rub the drained rice in a pressing motion against the bottom of the bowl, careful to agitate and force the rice upon itself. Add more water and discard again. Repeat this process several times until the water runs almost clear.
3) Cover with water and let the rice soak for 10 minutes.
4) Drain the washed rice into a sieve or colander fine enough to catch all of the grains. Let the rice stand for 5 minutes or until completely dry.
5) Next, place the rice in the cooker and add water up to the designated line on the side.
6) Replace the lid and press the button, the rice will cook itself.
7) While the rice is still hot, transfer it to a wooden tub or other shallow dish, and with a rice paddle mix in the seasoned vinegar at 130 grams per 1 kg cooked rice (about 4 cups uncooked rice). While mixing the rice, be careful not to overwork the rice and make it mushy.
Making seasoned sushi vinegar
You may buy prepared sushi vinegar in the store or make your own.
450 ml rice vinegar
325 grams sugar
100 grams salt
45 ml mirin
20 grams konbu
1) In a medium pot, add all of the ingredients. Heat, stirring to dissolve sugar and salt. Just before the liquid boils, remove the konbu and turn off the heat. Cool and store in a sealed container in the refrigerator. Keeps well.
For the setsubun roll
1 bunch of spinach
4 shiitake mushrooms
4-6 strips of kanpyo (dried gourd)
1 rolled omelet
1) Blanch spinach in hot water and immediately cool in an ice bath. Squeeze out excess water and set aside.
2) Simmer shiitake and kanpyo together in 1 cup of dashi, 1 tablespoon of dark soy sauce, and 4 tablespoons of sugar, until almost all of the liquid has been absorbed. Cool reserve. Slice shiitake thinly.
3) With two eggs beaten together with 1/2 cup dashi, make a rolled omelet by pouring a small amount of egg in a medium-size, hot square pan and rolling it on itself, repeating until all of the egg has been used.
Assembling the rolled sushi
1) Place the shiny side of a piece of toasted laver (nori) seaweed on a sushi-rolling mat (makisu).
2) With moistened fingertips, spread a thin layer of cooled sushi rice on the nori, leaving a 2-cm strip at the top of the roll without rice so that the roll may be sealed. Place a small amount of spinach, mushrooms, kanpyo and omelet near the middle of the roll.
3) Using the bamboo mat, roll the roll fairly tight and seal it with the strip at the top of the nori surface.
Two small rice-cooker cups of raw rice will yield just over 500 grams of cooked rice, enough for four rolls. For 500 grams of cooked rice, add 65 grams of sushi vinegar.