In kitchens around the world, there are dozens of gadgets cluttering the walls and drawers, not to mention the precious counter space. Some people simply must have the latest lemon-juicer to add to their collection of 12, while others are on a never-ending quest for the perfect garlic press.

I, however, subscribe to the “simple is best” approach. My lemon-juicer is a fork, and the best thing for garlic is the side of a heavy knife. While I can sympathize with kitchen-hardware addicts (I myself have a thing for cookbooks), after spending years in professional kitchens around the world, I have made myself a tool rule: I don’t buy it (literally or figuratively) unless I have seen it actually used regularly in two or more restaurant kitchens.

In Japan, several tools fall into this category. The two that I present today are among the most useful.

Suribachi and surikogi

Classic washoku tools, the suribachi and surikogi (top) and the uragoshi

Suribachi (or the grinding bowl, as it is translated by many Japanese cookbook writers) is the equivalent to the mortar, and the surikogi corresponds to the pestle.

The distinction of the Japanese hachi (bowl) is that the inside is grooved or ribbed, which makes quick work of grinding or pounding. Like suru, ataru means to grind in Japanese, and thus this bowl is sometimes called an ataribachi, and sesame ground into a paste is called atari-goma.

The proper way to use the suribachi (if you are right-handed) is to hold the kogi at about a 45-degree angle with your left hand and with an open palm of your right hand, push the kogi around the bowl, directing with your left hand. Your right hand, where you have the most leverage, does most of the work. To get what you have ground out of the little groves, use a chasen (little bamboo tea whisk) or a dry kitchen towel, if the ingredients are not wet. Uragoshi

With this tool, fine pastes, sauces or things that must be sieved are handled deftly. With a bowl in place under the uragoshi, use a shamoji (wooden rice paddle) to force the product you are sieving though the fine mesh. (In restaurant kitchens, we call this particular shamoji paddle a Miyajima, in tribute to the small island off of Hiroshima where the best ones are made.) When finished, a tap on the mesh will release most of what is left into the bowl. I use this tool so much everyday, to strain, to sieve, etc., that I can’t believe I worked without one for so long.

You can discover the simple joys of these tools in the following recipe.

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Goma dofu (sesame tofu)

Goma dofu is a mainstay of shojin ryori.

Goma dofu stands as a classic of Japanese shojin vegetarian cooking, but it is also on the menus of most fine restaurants. It is made with atari-goma, a paste very similar to tahini — the main flavoring agent in hummus. Atari-goma is ground from sesame seeds that have been roasted, while tahini is generally made from unroasted seeds. In this recipe, however, you may use either for similar results.

You may attempt to grind the sesame in a suribachi yourself, but to get the fine paste takes several hours. When using a ground sesame product, mix the oil in well that has separated and risen to the top before making your measurements.

There are many processed food starches used in Japanese kitchens, the most common is katakuri-ko (potato starch). Kuzu-ko, made from the kudzu vine, is higher quality but more expensive. Either will work, but kuzu-ko yields better results.

Soaking 20 grams of konbu (kelp) in 1 liter of water for three hours or more easily makes konbu dashi, a staple of vegetarian cooking.

100 grams atari goma
75 grams kuzu-ko
600 ml water
300 ml konbu dashi
45 ml sake
1 teaspoon salt uma-dashi* wasabi, freshly grated

1) Place the goma, kuzu-ko, water and dashi in a suribachi and mix well with the surikogi.

2) To completely incorporate and remove any lumps, pass the mixture through a fine sieve (uragoshi) into a clean, dry heavy-bottomed pan.

3) Dissolve the salt in the sake and set aside.

4) Set the pot over a medium flame and stir constantly with a rice paddle, preventing the sesame paste mixture from sticking to the bottom of the pan.

5) When the mixture thickens — after five minutes or so — reduce the heat to low and continue stirring for 20 minutes. This is the 20 minutes that makes or breaks the recipe.

6) Stir in the salted sake and pour the mixture into a shallow cake pan — a 15-cm square pan is ideal — and cool completely by placing the pan in a larger pan and surrounding with ice water.

7) When cool, refrigerate and let the tofu set.

8) Cut and serve with uma-dashi and a dab of freshly grated wasabi. The tofu will keep refrigerated for up to one week. Makes 8-10 servings.

* Uma-dashi

Uma-dashi (literally, delicious stock) may be used on many tofu items and is very good on soft-boiled eggs (yude tamago).

70 ml dashi (shiitake if making vegetarian, katsuobushi if not) 10 ml mirin
5 ml koikuchi shoyu
5 ml usukuchi shoyu

1) Combine ingredients in a pan and bring to the boil.

2) Cool and refrigerate; will keep for one week or more.

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