Food & Drink | JAPANESE KITCHEN

Colorful, portable and easy to make: Inarizushi is the best picnic food

by Makiko Itoh

Contributing Writer

In Japan, sushi has been popular as a feast dish to serve to a crowd for quite some time. I am not talking about nigiri sushi, however, where a small morsel of vinegar-seasoned rice is topped with a sliver of raw fish or other ingredient.

Although this is known as the sushi around the world, there are many other kinds of sushi — in fact, the word “sushi” refers to any dish that’s made with a vinegar-seasoned rice (the sushimeshi or shari) as the base.

Nigiri sushi has to be eaten as soon as it’s made since its toppings are raw, but many other types of sushi can keep for several hours. The vinegar, salt and sugar used to flavor the rice base help to keep it moist and fresh for longer than plain steamed rice so, when combined with cooked ingredients, sushi becomes an ideal make-ahead dish.

Another reason why sushi may be popular for feasts is because the kanji character for the “su” part of sushi can also be read as kotobuki, meaning good fortune and longevity.

Sushi is a great choice for the biggest and best celebration of spring, hanami (flower viewing). In particular, inarizushi, which I like to describe as “sushi in a bean bag,” is an ideal hanami picnic food since the sweet-salty bags (skins) of fried tofu (abura-age) help ensure the sushi rice fillings taste great for at least a few hours.

Inarizushi are also associated with the Inari Okami, the god of agriculture, fertility and prosperity, and are made extra festive with the use of red-brown abura-age. They’re also quite easy to grab with chopsticks, though it’s also perfectly acceptable to eat them with your bare hands.

This recipe is for a very colorful inarizushi featuring the colors of the season — green from the nanohana, the quintessential early spring vegetable; yellow from the “golden thread” egg; and pink from the sakura denbu, a sweet, shredded fish condiment available at any Japanese supermarket.

The inarizushi may look complicated, but most of the components can be made a day or two in advance. However, I do recommend making the rice on the same day for the best flavor.

Colorful open inarizushi: Sushi in pouches of sweetended, fried tofu

Ingredients (makes 8 large or 12 medium)

For the inari skins or bags:

  • 4 large or 6 medium sheets of abura-age (deep-fried flat tofu)
  • 350 milliliters water
  • 2 tablespoons sake
  • 2 tablespoons mirin (rice wine)
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 tablespoons dark soy sauce

For the shredded chicken soboro:

  • 200 grams ground chicken
  • 3 tablespoons dark soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon sake
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger

For the “golden thread” egg:

  • 1 large egg
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1 teaspoon sake
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • Vegetable oil for cooking

For the sushi rice:

  • 660 grams or 2 rice cooker cups (2 ) of plain hot cooked Japanese rice
  • 60 milliliters rice vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons roasted white sesame seeds

Additional toppings:

  • 1 small bunch nanohana broccolini
  • Salt for cooking
  • 2 tablespoons sakura denbu (fish condiment)
  • A few slices of cooked ham or smoked salmon (optional)

Preparation

Make the inari “bags” the day before. Put the abura-age in a pan of boiling water and boil for 2 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water. Squeeze out well. Roll a chopstick over each abura-age several times (this makes them easier to open up later). Put the water, sake, mirin, sugar and soy sauce in a pan and add the abura-age. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave to cool. Refrigerate until needed.

Make the chicken soboro. Combine the ground chicken and other ingredients in a small pan and mix. Put the pan on medium heat and cook while stirring constantly, until the moisture has almost all evaporated. Turn off the heat and leave to cool.

Make the “golden thread” eggs (kinshi tamago). Beat the egg, salt, sake and sugar together. Heat up a nonstick medium (about 25 centimeters in diameter) frying pan over medium-low heat and spread a thin film of oil over it, wiping out any excess. Add the egg mixture and swirl it around so that it covers the bottom of the pan. Turn off the heat, and leave until the egg has set. Carefully flip the egg out onto a cutting board and slice into very thin strips.

Make the sushi rice. Combine the rice vinegar, salt and sugar in a small pan. Heat while stirring until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Pour over the hot cooked rice and stir using a cut-and-fold motion until the vinegar mixture has been absorbed by the rice. Fold in the sesame seeds. Leave to cool to room temperature.

Three colorful inarizushi
Three colorful inarizushi ‘pockets’ surrounded by seasonal spring veggies | MAKIKO ITOH

Bring 1 liter of water to a boil and add ½ tablespoon of salt. Add the nanohana and boil for 2 to 3 minutes. Drain and cool in cold water. Drain again, and squeeze out very well. Cut into 2- to 3-centimeter pieces.

To serve

Drain the liquid from the abura-age. Cut each one in half, and open them up to form bags. Fill about two-thirds full with the sushi rice, fold over the edges and arrange on a plate or in a bento box. Top with the chicken soboro, egg, sakura denbu and a piece of nanohana. Arrange the remaining nanohana and ham or smoked salmon around the inarizushi.