The four heavenly creatures in Japanese mythology are: Seiryu the blue-green dragon, Suzaku the vermilion bird, Byakko the white tiger and Genbu the black turtle. They govern over the four points of the compass, appear as major constellations in the night sky, embody four of the five classical elements and are representatives of the four seasons. These godly animals are honoured annually with festivals held for each of them throughout Japan, but their presence can also be felt watching over you more subtly during other times of the year, if you know where to look.
One of the most well known events of Spring is Hinamatsuri, or Doll’s day- red fabric-draped platforms appear in houses, shrines and businesses, and atop these pedestals sit ornamental dolls in the form of the Emperor, Empress, ministers, musicians and other courtly attendants. People celebrate, pray for the health and happiness of girls in their family, drink shirozake, and most popularly, eat bowls of seasoned rice strewn with a confetti of celebratory toppings. Literally meaning ‘scattered sushi’, chirashizushi -whilst not only being delicious- pays tribute to the four heavenly creatures by means of their respective colours; blue, red, white and black, all of which are present in the toppings: crisp, tangy vinegared renkon for Byakko; savoury, umami packed shreds of nori and mushrooms for Genbu; crunchy, fresh pieces of mangetout for Seiryu; and finally the saline, bursting bubbles of ikura for Suzaku. Like the dolls of the festival, these toppings perch on a carpet of shredded sweetened omelette, laid over a platform of seasoned su meshi rice, creating a meal perfectly balanced in textures and flavours.
By far one of the simplest sushi dishes to make in the home, chirashizushi doesn’t require any of the precision slicing or delicate wrapping of seaweed commonly associated with the cuisine, yet it makes a fantastic, vibrant dish to bring to the table for celebrations of all kinds. It also works incredibly well packed as a bento lunch for those special occasions when you won’t be at home, and is perfect for taking to a tranquil spot in the countryside for a leaf or blossom viewing party.
Simmered shiitake ingredients.
- 5 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 300ml water
- 25ml mirin
- 25ml soy sauce
- 15g caster sugar
- Remove and discard the stems from the shiitakes, then put the mushrooms in a bowl and cover with the water. Leave them to rehydrate for at least four hours, but preferably overnight.
- When they have plumped up, remove the shiitakes from their bowl and place in a small saucepan. Strain the mushroom-flavoured soaking liquid through a fine sieve into the pan- to remove any grit or sand that may have been on the mushrooms- then add the mirin, soy sauce and sugar. Stir to dissolve the sugar, and bring the liquid to a boil, then turn the heat down to low and simmer the shiitakes for thirty minutes, adding a little extra water if necessary. Turn the heat off and put a lid on the pan, leaving the mushrooms to cool completely in the seasoned cooking liquid.
Vinegared lotus root ingredients.
- 175g lotus root (one medium sized lobe is probably about right)
- 125ml water
- 50ml rice vinegar
- 15g caster sugar
- 15ml mirin
- Place a small saucepan of water on the hob and allow it to come to the boil while you are peeling the lotus root. Slice the root into discs about 5mm thick and then add them to the water, cooking them for three to four minutes until they are lightly softened but still retaining their crisp texture. Drain the pieces of lotus root and set to one side while you make the pickling solution for them.
- Mix together the vinegar, sugar and mirin in your pan and place on a low heat, stirring constantly until the grains of sugar have dissolved and the liquid has just started to bubble. Take the pan off the heat and add the lotus root, ensuring the pieces are all completely covered in the warm vinegar solution, then set aside to cool.
Usuyaki tamago ingredients.
- 3 eggs
- 45ml dashi stock
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cornflour
- 3 teaspoons sugar
- pinch of salt
- vegetable oil for cooking
- Blend the cornflour and dashi into a slurry, then add to your eggs and beat well. Stir in the sugar and salt before passing the beaten egg mixture through a fine sieve or tea strainer to remove any lumps and ensure you have a completely smooth batter.
- Wipe the oil around a frying pan with a piece of kitchen roll or a brush- you don’t want too much excess oil, just enough to prevent your omelette from sticking. Allow the pan to warm slightly on your hob before adding a third of the egg mixture.
- Swirl the egg around quickly to completely cover the bottom of the pan and create a thin omelette. Cook over a medium-low heat until it is set enough to flip over (about a minute) and then cook for a further minute on the other side- you don’t want the eggs to brown at all; when it’s fully set, remove from the pan and allow to cool. Repeat this process two more times with the remaining batter.
- Roll your usuyaki tamago into a tight cigar, then finely slice it into long noodle-like strands (known as kinshi tamago). If you aren’t going to use your kinshi tamago threads immediately, cover them with a damp cloth to prevent them drying out.
- 400g Japanese rice
- 65ml rice vinegar
- 35g caster sugar
- 7g fine sea salt
- Simmered shiitake mushrooms from above recipe
- Vinegared lotus root from above recipe
- Kinshi tamago from above recipe
- 100g raw prawns
- 90g mangetout peas
- 25g ikura (salmon roe)
- 1 sheet nori
- Place the rice in a bowl in your sink and add plenty of water, ten centimetres above the level of the rice. Using both of your hands, swirl the rice around in the water, then rub the grains between your palms in a circular motion. Repeat this step a few times until you think you’ve rubbed all of the grains and the water has turned very cloudy with starch. Drain off the water, then add fresh water and repeat this whole process two more times. When you’re happy that your rice is clean and free of loose starch, drain well and transfer to a saucepan along with 560ml cold water.
- Cover the pan with a lid and over a high heat bring it to the boil- this should take three to five minutes. When the water has come to the boil, turn the heat as low as it will go and leave to cook for another ten minutes. When the ten minutes is up, turn the heat off but don’t remove the lid from your pan. Let the rice steam undisturbed for a further ten to fifteen minutes before removing the lid. Dissolve the sugar and salt in the rice vinegar then fold it into the hot rice. When thoroughly mixed, spread the rice out as thinly as you can and allow it to completely cool down.
- While your rice is cooling down, prepare the toppings for your chirashizushi. Blanch the mangetout in boiling water for about a minute and the prawns for two minutes, then refresh both in a bowl of cold water before cutting into bite-sized pieces. Chop the lotus root slices into quarters and shred the nori sheet as thinly as you can, being careful not to get it wet.
- Squeeze the simmered shiitakes to remove excess liquid, then finely chop and mix them thoroughly into the cooled rice before spreading it evenly across a large serving plate or bowl. Sprinkle the shreds of nori in a layer over the rice, then a tangle of the kinshi tamago threads. Scatter the lotus root, prawns and mangetout over the omelette covered rice, and finally dot small mounds of the glistening jewel-like ikura across the surface before serving.
Serves 4 people.