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To learn about a country or culture, peek in their kitchen (photo gallery)

The best way to learn about a country is to look into their kitchen. I caught a glimpse of Japan by attending a Japanese cooking class hosted by Chef Ben Huo and Linda Henderson of the Rikubetsu Friendship Society in Lacombe.
Members of the Rikubetsu Friendship Society

The best way to learn about a country is to look into their kitchen. I caught a glimpse of Japan by attending a Japanese cooking class hosted by Chef Ben Huo and Linda Henderson of the Rikubetsu Friendship Society in Lacombe.

Formed in 1986, when towns of Rikabetsu, Japan and Lacombe, Alberta were twinned, this society was created to enhance the understanding of the Japanese culture.

Both having roots in Japan, Chef Huo and Henderson shared their culinary culture while demonstrating how to prepare some Japanese favourites.

Chef Huo began the evening by making a light salad using carrots and daikon. The daikon and carrot salad, called Namasu in Japan is essential for the New Year’s celebrations meal. The bright colour combination of red carrots to white daikon is particularly favoured by many Japanese.

“Japanese food has to look fresh and vibrant,” explains Chef Huo, “Appearance is equally as important as the taste. The more beautiful the food looks, the more delicious it is thought to be.”

Then came the soups of Japan. I learned that soups play a main role in a Japanese meal. Having one soup is a must when having a meal in Japan. They are classified into two broad groups: clear and thick soups.

Clear soup (osumashi/suimono) have three tiny solid bits of ingredients in them — often a bite of seafood, a slice of complementary vegetable, and a not-necessarily-to-be-eaten thing for fragrance (lemon peel, pepper leaves, whatever). They’re served after the appetizer, as the beginning of the main part of the meal; as palate cleansers (like sorbets); and sometimes in place of the last course of thick soup, with the rice.

Thick soups — generally known by the generic name of shirumono are made of stock, miso, and lots of meat and vegetables. These soups are generally served toward the end of a meal.

Unlike North American soup which use vegetable or meat broth for the base, Japanese use dashinomoto, a powdered fish soup base and a soybean paste (mishoshiru).

If you have ever looked through a Japanese cookbook, you may have noticed that pepper is not often incorporated into recipes. “Japanese recipes do not have pepper,” explains Chef Huo. Japanese like to taste all the natural flavours of the food.

“Pepper is always missing because it (pepper) shortens the taste range and takes away from the other ingredients.”

The spotlight then went to Henderson who demonstrated how to make sushi.

To many the term sushi is synonymous with slices of raw fish. Contrary to this belief “sushi does not actually mean raw fish or uncooked seafood. Instead, the term “sushi” refers to the vinegared rice,’ Henderson clarified.

To simplify the rice roll, Henderson divided Sushi into three basic varieties.

The most common types and the ones most people are familiar with are the Maki Zushi and Nigiri Zushi.

Maki Zushi often consists of a layer of rice, seaweed and fish or vegetables rolled into a cylinder, usually with the aid of a bamboo mat. The roll or log is then cut into appropriate widths. The thicker rolls are called fuomaki, the thinner ones are known as hosomaki, and the inside-out rolls are termed uramaki.

Nigiri Zushi is made by topping vinegared rice with a dab of wasabi and a thin, bite-size slice fish or other seafood. For this type of sushi you can use a sushi press, which is a plastic box that has a removable bottom as well as a top. You simply press your rice in, top with desired topping and cut into shapes. Using a sushi press is an easy way to make impressive, hassle-free sushi.

Sushi meshi or rice is the most important ingredient in good sushi. When preparing the rice, use a short grain Japanese variety. Wash the rice until the water turns clear.

The proportion of rice to water is 1:1. Combine the rice to water and soak for 30 minutes. Cover and bring to a boil and reduce the heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside for 15 minutes. Do not lift the lid. While the rice is still warm, remove from the pan and place in a large bowl. In Japan, the rice is mixed in a wooden bowl called a hangiri or hadai.

And it is time to flavour your rice.

“Each restaurant has a “secret” recipe for flavouring the rice,” explains Henderson,

“But a simple recipe is just a combination of vinegar, sugar and salt.” You don’t simply pour the vinegar mixture into the rice but add it slowly. Henderson advises, that you add 2 tablespoons vinegar mixture at a time while you fan the rice.

“Fanning the rice is very important,” explains Henderson, “because this will keep the rice kernels separate and shiny.”

What you decide to include into sushi is all a matter of personal choice. Crab, shrimp, gently steamed carrot slices, avocado, cucumber, asparagus, are just a few examples.

But Henderson warns: “Never use four fillings. The number four in Japanese is the same word for death.”

With this belief in mind, it is always customary to serve sushi in more than or less than four pieces.

When eating sushi, mix a bit of wasabi with a little soya sauce, then dip the sushi in the mix using your chopsticks or fingers.

That’s right! Eating sushi with your fingers is very proper. Some people, preferring to keep the flavours pure, put a dab of wasabi on their sushi before dipping it in soya sauce.

Even though a dessert is not a traditional ending to a meal in Japan, our culinary journey ended with Green Tea ice cream.

I would like to thank Chef Ben Huo and Linda Henderson for providing an enriching experience into the culinary culture that took 20 minutes of my drive time rather than the hours of flight time to Japan.

How to make Maki Zushi

Pour 1/2 cup the vinegar mixture in a small bowl.

l Put a sheet of plastic wrap over the bamboo mat.

l Place the seaweed, “nori’ on the mat. Typically, the shinier side is put face down.

l Dip your fingers into the vinegar mixture. With damp hands, grab the cooked rice and spread it onto the Nori. Do not compress the rice too firmly otherwise your maki will be too solid.

l Leave about half an inch of space at the edge of the nori furthest from you, and rub a bit of vinegar water . This will help the two sides of nori to stick together.

l Line up your ingredients in the middle of the nori. Holding the closest edge of the bamboo mat, roll the sushi away from you.

l Tighten the roll as you go. Be careful not to make it too tight, however, or fillings may start to fall out.

l Once tightened, you should be able to unwrap the bamboo without the roll coming apart.

l Cover your roll with the bamboo mat and press your hands over it to further pack the roll.

l Move your full roll to a cutting board. Slice it first down the middle. From there you can cut it into sixths or eighths, whichever you prefer.

Vinegar mixture for Sushi Rice

1 cup vinegar

1 1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon salt

Combine ingredients in a saucepan. Heat until the sugar is dissolved. Do not allow the mixture to boil. Allow to cool to room temperature. After use, refrigerate in an airtight container.

Clear Soup with Seafood Sticks

Sprigs of cilantro or chives

4 artificial crab sticks

400ml first dashi stock

15ml Shoyu (dark soy sauce)

1.5ml salt

Blanch the stems of cilantro or chives in hot water. Take a crab stick and carefully tie the cilantro in the middle. Holding it in place with knot. Snip the end of the crab stick to form a tassel. Place one seafood stick in each soup bow. Heat the stock in pan and bring to a boil. Add shoyu and salt to taste. Pour the stock gently over the mitsubu and seafood stick.

Miso soup with pork and vegetables

200g/7oz lean boneless pork

1 parsnip, peeled and sliced

2 oz daikon, peeled and cubed

4 fresh shitake mushrooms, stalks removed, and caps quartered

1/2 of 10oz packet of tofu, cubed

Sesame oil for stir-frying

2 1/2 cups second dashi stock

4 1/2 tablespoon miso

2 sprigs green onion, chopped

1 teaspoon sesame seeds

Cut pork into small bite sized cubes. Heat a little sesame oil in a heavy pan. Stir-fry the pork, then add the tofu and all the vegetables except the green onions. When the colour of the meat has changed, add the stock. Bring to a boil over a medium heat and skim off the foam until the soup looks fairly clear. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Put miso in a small bowl, and mix with 4 tablespoon hot stock to make a smooth paste. Stir one-third of the miso into the soup. Taste and add more miso if required. Add the spring onion and remove from the heat. Sever very hot in individual soup bowls and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Daikon and Carrot Salad

8 inch daikon, peeled and coarsely shredded

2 carrots, peeled and shredded

1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoon caster(superfine) sugar

4 1/2 tablespoon rice vinegar

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

Place the daikon and carrot in a mixing bowl. Sprinkle with the salt and mix well. Leave for 30 minutes. Drain the vegetables in a s sieve and gently squeeze out the excess liquid, then transfer them to another mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, mix sugar and rice vinegar together in a bowl. Stir well until the sugar has completely dissolved. Pour over carrot mixture. Salad can be served immediately or left to marinate overnight. To serve, heap in the middle of a small bowl or plate. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve.

Green Tea Ice cream

1 cup vanilla ice cream

1 teaspoon green tea powder (matcha) (found at TNT superstore in Calgary or Edmonton)

Soften the ice cream. Add matcha; mix well. Refreeze or eat immediately.

Madhu Badoni is a Red Deer-based freelance food writer. She can be reached at Watch for Madhu’s Masala-Mix blog on