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Every year around this time, I constantly crave one of my favorite foods, kuri-gohan, or chestnut rice. The combination of sweet chestnuts on top of the even more subtle sweetness of shinmai (new-harvest rice) is irresistible. (Check out my classic recipe for making chestnut rice from 2016.)

And yet, I often hesitate to make it because the preparation can be such a bother. Even after you remove the spiky burr, the chestnut protects itself within two more layers of skin. The outer layer, called the onikawa — or the “ogre skin” — is not that hard to remove if you soak it well. But the thin inner skin, called the shibukawa — or “bitter skin” — is almost impossible to remove, and ruinous to your fingers if you try.

So I went looking in my collection of shojin ryōri (Zen Buddhist cuisine) resources for some ideas, since chestnut rice is a classic of this genre, and found an alternative way to prepare it. Instead of removing all the inner skin, you can get rid of its bitterness by sauteing the chestnuts in dark sesame oil instead, which also adds an extra layer of rich, nutty flavor to the rice.

The result is a hearty and very chestnutty version of this classic sweet-savory fall dish. It may not look as pretty as “normal” chestnut rice, but it tastes great. This version combines mochi rice and regular uruchimai rice for a stickier texture. Try to use new-harvest versions of both if you can.

 

Serves 5 to 6

Prep: 30 mins., plus soaking time; cook: 30 mins.

 

• 600 grams fresh chestnuts, weighed before peeling

• 2½ rice-cooker cups (450 milliliters) regular Japanese rice, shinmai if possible

• ½ rice-cooker cup (90 milliliters) short-grain or mochi rice, shinmai if possible

• 2 tablespoons dark sesame oil

• Water

• 3 tablespoons sake

• 1 teaspoon salt

 

1. Soak the chestnuts in enough water to cover overnight. Alternatively, soak them in boiling water for at least 20 minutes and leave until cool enough to handle. Drain.

2. When you are ready to start peeling the chestnuts, combine the rice and rinse in several changes of water. Leave to soak in enough water to cover.

3. Using a small, sharp knife, cut off the bottoms of the chestnuts and peel off the smooth, hard shell (the onikawa). You can leave the inner skin (the shibukawa) on, but I prefer to cut off about half of it — the skins can be a bit chewy. Lay the chestnuts as flat as you can on your cutting board and chip off the skin a little at a time, until at least half of the creamy white inside is exposed.

4. Heat a frying pan over medium-high heat with the sesame oil. Saute the chestnuts until they are lightly browned on all sides (about six to eight minutes), which removes bitterness and adds extra nutty flavor. If you left all of the inner skin on, be extra diligent browning the chestnuts here to make them as crispy as possible.

5. Drain the rice, and put it in a heavy pot or a rice cooker with 3½ rice-cooker cups (630 milliliters) of water. Add ¼ cup additional water if you are not using new-harvest rice. Add the sake and salt and stir to dissolve. Add the chestnuts and the oil from the pan on top. If you are using a rice cooker, cook using the regular white rice setting. If you are using a pot, bring it up to a boil, then turn down the heat as low as possible and cook while keeping the lid on for 13 to 14 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave to rest with the lid on for an additional 15 minutes.

6. Before serving, mix the rice with a paddle, being careful not to crush the chestnuts.

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