The fishing town of Mori on the eastern coast of the Oshima Peninsula is famous for three things; sweet farmed scallops, bountiful catches of Pacific herrings and an abundance of Japanese flying squid. It was this easy-to-catch and incredibly popular squid that, with the ingenuity of a local shopkeeper, would help rice rations stretch twice as far during WWII and go on to become the regional dish of Hokkaido. A bentō shop in Mori railway station came upon the idea of filling the cavity of the plentiful squid with the slowly dwindling rice supply before boiling it in a seasoned broth, the added bulk of the squid making the precious rice go that bit further. As with so many other modern classic dishes, frugal cooks and wartime necessity had resulted in the creation of something delightful.
Plump, burnished squid stuffed to almost bursting point with sweet, pearlescent rice and glazed with a thick, sticky soy sauce have remained a station bentō favourite since they won their creator first prize in the annual Keio department store ekiben competition, which sought to find the best regional delicacies from around Japan. Ikameshi makes an impressive but deceptively simple centrepiece for a meal, and is perhaps at its most hauntingly beautiful when served in a dimly lit, traditional izakaya accompanied by a handful of good friends and a glass or two of the local spirit. We’ve shortened the preparation time of our ikameshi by steaming the rice before filling, which means that the squid cooks in about five minutes, preventing it from becoming tough.
- 1kg whole squid (we used two medium sized squid)
- 200g Japanese short grain rice
- 50g carrot
- 25g fresh shiitake mushrooms
- 5g piece of ginger
- 10cm x 5cm piece dried kombu
- 15ml soy sauce
- 30ml mirin
- 15ml sake
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 250ml water
- 150ml dashi
- 50ml soy sauce
- 30ml sake
- 15ml mirin
- 20g sugar
- Rinse the squid well then with one hand, grasp the body of the squid and with the other, firmly hold the legs and tentacles and pull to separate the entrails. Feel around in the cavity until you find the clear, plastic-like spine, then pull on the exposed tip to remove it; wash the cavity of the squid to make sure it is clean inside. To detach the legs and the two longer tentacles cut through the head just below the eye, making sure you also get rid of the beak.
- Wash the rice thoroughly in plenty of cold water, then drain well and transfer it to a large earthenware donabe or a saucepan with a tight fitting lid. Pull off and discard the stalks from the shiitake mushrooms, peel the carrot and the ginger, then cut all the vegetables into equal-sized small dice; chop the squid tentacles and legs into small pieces. Measure the water into a jug, and mix in the soy sauce, mirin, sake and salt. Add the diced carrots, mushrooms, ginger and chopped squid to the pan, then pour over the water and soy sauce mixture; stir to make sure everything is combined. Wipe any dirt or grit off the dried kombu then add this to the surface of the rice.
- Put the lid on your pan and place it on a high heat until the liquid inside has come to a boil- this should take three to five minutes. When you can hear the water bubbling fiercely inside the pan, turn the heat as low as it will go and leave to cook undisturbed for ten minutes. Take the pan off the heat and allow the rice to steam and rest for another ten minutes, before removing the lid and discarding the kombu.
- When the rice is resting, prepare the sauce for the ikameshi; add the dashi, soy sauce, sugar, mirin and sake into a large frying pan. Bring the liquid to a simmer over a medium heat, stirring to make sure the sugar is dissolved.
- Whilst the rice is still hot, pack it tightly into the prepared squid tubes and pin the opening closed with a cocktail stick or bamboo skewer, then place the stuffed squid into the sauce and cover with a lid. Cook the squid and sauce over a high heat for two to three minutes on each side, until the flesh turns opaque. Remove the ikameshi from the pan, and continue to cook any remaining liquid until it has reduced to a thick glaze.
- Anoint the ikameshi with the thickened glaze before cutting it into centimetre-thick slices and serving with shredded ginger to counter the richness of the sauce.
Serves 4 people.