Fall is in the air! With the return of cooler weather, your appetite may be making a comeback too. Luckily, fall is a great time for gourmets to indulge in Japan. There’s an abundance of fresh produce in season, and some of the tastiest fish are returning to the colder waters up north. Most of all, it’s the time for shin-mai (new-harvest rice). Japanese people can be fanatical when it comes to rice, and the new harvest is eagerly anticipated every year.

When it comes to rice, you can divide people into two camps in Japan. The first camp consists of the “white rice or no rice” people, who insist that the only rice worth eating is pure, unflavored white rice, simply steamed. My stepfather, who’s from Aomori prefecture in the Tohoku region, represents this camp. He’s adamant that only plain white rice is worth eating, the perfect centerpiece to a meal. He frowns at the idea of, in his mind, adulterating the purity of rice by cooking anything in it.

I belong to the second camp, though, who like to cook rice in different ways occasionally.

Japanese mixed rice, in which various ingredients are combined with uncooked rice and liquid and steamed together, is called takikomi gohan. It’s healthier than other mixed-rice dishes, such as fried rice (chāhan) or pilaf, since no oil is added.

Takikomi gohan is also a delicious way to experience seasonal tastes, since many recipes call for foods that are specific to the time of the year. For example, in spring you might use bamboo shoots for takenoko gohan, or fresh green peas for mame gohan. And in the fall, there are chestnuts for kuri gohan, sweet potatoes for satsumaimo gohan, mushrooms for kinoko gohan, and even juicy, fat Pacific saury for sanma gohan. These seasonal delicacies combined with new-harvest rice are so quintessentially Japanese.

Making takikomi gohan is a two-step process. First you need to prepare the ingredients you are going to cook with the rice. Tender ingredients such as mushrooms can just be chopped up, but harder ones like chestnuts need to be precooked until tender. The ingredients may be flavored subtly, with just a bit of salt, or more assertively with soy sauce, mirin, sake, sugar and so on, to make the resulting rice almost a one-bowl meal.

The takikomi gohan pictured uses three ingredients that are in season now: tender new-harvest burdock root (shin gobō), new-harvest carrots and fresh shiitake mushrooms. I’ve also added some jidori (free-range chicken).

To make this, finely julienne or shave the burdock root and soak in plain water for half an hour. Julienne the carrot also, and slice the shiitake mushrooms thinly. Cut the chicken into small pieces — the dark meat works best.

Combine everything in a bowl and add sake and mirin in equal amounts, soy sauce to taste (the more you add, the saltier the rice will be), and a pinch of dashi stock granules. Mix with rinsed rice and cook in a rice cooker using the amount of water you’d use for plain rice. It smells earthy and wonderful while cooking.

Serve with an optional garnish of blanched green beans and sliced thin omelette (usuyaki tamago) for color. It’s fall in a bowl.

Makiko Itoh is the author of “The Just Bento Cookbook” (Kodansha USA). She writes about bentō lunches at www.justbento.com and about Japanese cooking and more at www.justhungry.com.

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