Essentials of Japanese Cooking:  Umami and Dashi

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Last month we began our exploration of umami, the “delicious taste” discovered by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. Umami is the rich flavor imparted from foods that contain high levels of glutamates, a type of amino acid that, when ingested, tells the brain that the food the body is about to receive is savory, desirable and full of protein.

Umami is at the heart of a Japanese cooking liquid called dashi, which was studied by Dr. Ikeda and which forms the foundation of many Japanese dishes. Dashi is an all-purpose, light stock made simply from an umami-rich ingredient and water. Its role in Japanese cuisine can’t be overemphasized, as it is used to season simmered and steamed dishes, flavor soups and create a base for marinades.

While preparing dashi is simple, it requires a meticulous attention to detail.

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Top left, shaved Bonito flakes; bottom, konbu

When made from scratch, dashi is made from clean, soft water. Various ingredients are added to the water to give it flavor and to impart umami. The classic way to prepare dashi is to make ichibandashi, which typically consists of simmering shaved bonito flakes—dried, smoked skipjack tuna—and dried konbu kelp in water. While this type of dashi is used to prepare many Japanese dishes, many cooks also use variations of the classic dashi in modern Japanese cooking. Dashi made from dried shiitake mushrooms, dried baby anchovies or sardines, dried scallops, or even just konbu or only bonito flakes have become common additions to the Japanese cook’s dashi repertoire.

When making dashi at home, it’s important to use high-quality ingredients that have been air dried, avoiding frozen ones, as freezing alters the flavor and aroma of the ingredients. The best quality bonito comes in stick form and is approximately six-to-eight inches in length. Bonito sticks look like dense, brown hunks of wood that have an ash-white coating. The sticks are made by filleting skipjack tuna, boiling the fillets, then removing the skin and bones from the fish. The fish is smoked multiple times to dry it and to preserve the richness in the fish’s flavor. After, the dried fish is cultured to continue its preservation, and then finally, dried in the open air. When two sticks of bonito are struck together, they should make a hollow sound, like musical instruments! Dried bonito sticks are then shaved using an appliance similar to a mandoline, called a katsuobushi kezuri, and result in pink curls of fish.

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Konbu harvesting

Vegetarian dashi is commonly made using dried konbu or shiitake mushrooms, again with both ingredients of the highest quality. The most prized type of konbu is harvested from the cold waters off of the northern coast of Hokkaido. These giant kelp have wide, thick leaves and a rich amber color. They are harvested, rinsed in sea water and hung out to air dry. Once dried, the konbu will have a distinctive whitish coat, made up of natural sea salts and minerals, which holds much of the seaweed’s flavor. The dried konbu is simply wiped with a damp cloth and then it’s ready to use in making dashi. Simmering dried shiitake mushrooms also makes a vegetarian version of dashi, one with a darker color and more intense flavor.

Cooks often make their dashi from scratch, but when pressed for time, flavorful, high-quality instant, dashi products can be found at Japanese or Asian grocery stores. Modern cooks often keep both as staples in their pantries, giving them versatile options for this foundational ingredient in Japanese cooking.

We’ll share recipes about how to make dashi in our next blog post, so stay tuned! And as always, we’d love to hear how you’ve made dashi, so leave us a comment.

Zojirushi’s Home Bakery Virtuoso® Breadmaker (BB-PAC20)

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Making bread at home may not sound easy, but it’s a simple, satisfying process when using our Home Bakery Virtuoso® Breadmaker (BB-PAC20). An art form that requires high-quality ingredients, superior equipment and a careful, artisan process, bread-making is a craft that can surprisingly be accomplished by both a novice and an expert.

We’ve designed the Home Bakery Virtuoso® Breadmaker to take the guesswork out of bread baking, without sacrificing any of the nuanced steps that create delicious loaves. The basic process for making bread in our breadmaker is straightforward: put in wet ingredients, put in dry ingredients, add yeast into a small well on the top, choose the setting and let the machine go to work. This simple process takes the age-old know-how for making classic loaves and streamlines it so that anyone can make bread. One of the key features of the machine is the dual kneading blades. These blades mix the ingredients evenly, thoroughly combining the flours, liquids, yeasts and seasonings into a smooth dough. The breadmaker keeps the dough at the correct temperature for rising, then bakes the bread on all sides, including the top, thanks to the built in lid heater.

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The Home Bakery Virtuoso® Breadmaker has three inspired and innovative settings that make it the choice of bakers. The quick baking setting makes bread in a little over two hours. The exclusive Home Made setting allows expert bakers to set their own knead, rise and bake time—and the gluten free setting adjusts the time and temperature to make flavorful gluten free bread with a perfect crust. This versatile breadmaker can even make quick breads, pizza dough, sourdough starter, even jam and meatloaf!

As with all of our products, we’ve made it easy to use with a large LCD display, a big window on the lid so you can watch every part of the bread making process, and a measuring cup and spoon accessory. The machine is easy to clean, as the nonstick inner pan can be removed for washing. And best of all, we’ve included an instructional DVD and over 100 recipes in the breadmaker booklet, so you can quickly get started.

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Breadmaker makes a traditional 2-lb. horizontal loaf

You’ll find many recipes on our website, and one of our favorite bakers, gfJules, has expert tips on using our machine. Our owners love our Home Bakery Virtuoso® Breadmaker, too. Over 1100 reviewers have given this machine a compiled 4.5 stars on Amazon.com!

We know you’ll love this breadmaker as much as we do… and look forward to your comments below!

What Is Rice Really?: The Tradition of Growing Short-Grain Rice

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Growing short-grain rice in Japan is critical to feeding the people of the country and feeding the spirit of its traditions. We continue our series from last month about growing short-grain rice with a look at how it is harvested and the traditions that embody the hopes of the Japanese people as they cultivate this important crop.

As we discussed in our previous post, rice is cultivated in four stages: sprouting, planting, growing and harvesting. Once rice is mature, usually at the end of summer, rice fields are allowed to dry in the sun or are drained. Harvesting machines, such as combines, gather and thresh the mature rice, so that rice seeds can be transported to drying facilities. Once at the drying facilities, warm air is forced through the rice to remove moisture so it can be stored and further processed. The dried rice is sent to mills where it is cleaned and dehulled, leaving the nutritious bran layer intact, resulting in brown rice. The brown rice is then packaged and sent to market or further polished to remove the bran layer, resulting in white rice. This short-grain white rice is also packaged and sent to market, where it is purchased by home cooks and chefs alike. By the time the rice reaches a person’s plate, it has been touched by many hands and by many days in the sun, water and wind!

Growing rice is a very important part of Japanese culture, and Japanese people participate in rich traditions that celebrate the entire process from initial planting to the harvest.

During the planting season in spring, the people of Sumiyoshi, in Osaka, believe that an auspicious beginning to the season will help the rice grow. To create a happy atmosphere that fosters good energy for the year’s crop, the community asks eight ceremonial maidens, called ue-me, to sanctify the rice seedlings at the local shrine. These blessed seedlings are given to the shimo ue-me, another group of women who participate in the festival, to plant them in the rice field to begin the season.

This elaborate and beautiful play is a delight to watch:

Planting leads to growing, and growing rice depends on abundant rain, fertile soil and lack of disease and pests. The people of Tsurugashima gather for a tradition called the Suneori Amagoi, during which they supplicate their water-loving snake god for abundant rain to help grow their rice crops. They build a giant decorative snake from bamboo and straw, imbue it with symbolic sacred charms, and parade it through the town to Kandachi Pond, where it is symbolically brought to its sacred home.

…and we mean giant snake:

During the summer months, pests can become a problem in the fields, so the people of Yata celebrate a tradition called Yata-no Mushi Okuri. During this festival, the people build a straw effigy of Saito Sanemori, a warrior from the Taira clan, who became angry when he was defeated in battle and whose grudge was transformed into an insect. They parade this effigy through the rice fields, with the goal of burning it at the end of the procession. The burning effigy is said to attract and kill the insects and pests in the area, and by doing so, release the crop from the warrior’s grudge.

As the summer turns into autumn, and the rice crops mature, rice-growing communities pray for an abundant harvest, giving thanks upon the season’s conclusion, when the land and the people can rest.

While traditions may vary from region to region, each of the seasons at the rice fields are beautiful, and if you’ve traveled to Japan to see them, we’d love to hear your stories.

For Dads Everywhere

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“Anyone can be a father, but it takes a lot to be a daddy.”
–Anonymous

I’m guessing most Dads have one of these fine art pieces on their walls, created by their own personal artist. When kids are this age, us Dads can do no wrong. We are the heroes of the universe, and we damn well deserve to be! As they get older of course, priorities change and maybe they don’t have as much time for arts and crafts, but it’s nice to know we’re still recognized on that one day of the year. Here’s my Instagram post from just last year, on Father’s Day:

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My son, who is way too cool to make a homemade card, actually drove out to my favorite breakfast place and bought me a plate lunch of Corned Beef and Eggs (without me asking for it) with his own money! My wife and daughter gave me some great new shorts, and we all went out for sushi for dinner. Pretty nice! Oh, and that screenshot in the corner? That’s the alert I got from Verizon that day, telling me that my kids had gone over the data usage limit on their cell phones. Oh, well…

In the grand scheme of things, Moms get more attention than us Dads–as well they should, I suppose, but can’t we do better than recycled Father’s Day cards? Ouch!

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Father’s Day had a hard time getting off the ground, apparently; but it shouldn’t have been, considering Mother’s Day had already been established by the early 1900s. It was met with skepticism in the early years of its formation, when people thought it was just another commercial holiday inspired by merchants to make money. Even though Mother’s Day became popular because it had the backing of retailers for exactly the same reasons, Father’s Day was a harder sell because fathers just don’t have the same sentimental appeal that mothers have. But eventually we made it, and here we are!

And have you seen some of those cute Dad videos on YouTube? When it comes to our kids, Dads can show a softer side too, and as only Dads can. I’m pretty sure we all have our moments with our kids–they just haven’t been filmed yet.

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Here’s another one that shows why Dads are heroes (we have quick reactions).

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This Father’s Day, treat your Dad, or GrandDad, or StepDad, to something he likes. After you’ve given him the necktie, power drill, golf balls and remote controlled drone, take him out for BBQ ribs;

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…or buy him a box of donuts!

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Happy (upcoming) Father’s Day everyone!

 

Images courtesy of Bert Tanimoto, Zazzle, @ironchefmom, Zojirushi, and thanks to Lucille’s

Japanese Street Food:  Grilled Ayu and Squid

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It’s almost that time of year! Festivals are starting in Japan and street food flavors are out in full force! Spring festivals kick off the season with the biggest festivals happening in the thick of summer. Japanese festivals are unique in that fireworks, music, dance and games are all enjoyed by festivalgoers who really come for the delicious varieties of street food!

One of the most loved street food dishes is anything on skewers, especially grilled ayu, or sweetfish, and ika, or squid.

Ayu are small fish in the salmon family, and when heavily salted, skewered and grilled over an open charcoal fire, they are considered a delicacy reminiscent of summertime, camping and festivals. The fish are generally available from June through September in Japan, and at street food stalls, you’ll see the small, whole fish skewered through the center and arranged in a circle around a hot fire, where they are shaped into an undulating wave and barbequed at low heat until crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. Ayu can be eaten whole–head, fins, tail, bones and innards–and the white-fleshed river fish tastes great served with a special sour and peppery dip called tadesu which helps bring out the delicate aroma and the flavor of the fish.

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Ikayaki

Ika, or squid, are also wonderful barbequed over an open fire. The squid are skewered through the body in a way similar to grilled ayu—sometimes whole and sometimes in choice pieces—salted and lightly brushed with soy sauce, and then grilled until juicy and flavorful. The dish, called Ikayaki, is often served simply and eaten directly off the stick.

If you can’t find grilled ayu or ikayaki at a festival, be sure to ask for it at an izakaya pub, where often these skewered delicacies are available to accompany a crisp beer!

Have you ever had grilled ayu or grilled squid? Share your stories with us below! And don’t forget to stay tuned for next month’s street food showcase!

Practical Solutions for Gluten Free Diets and How Zojirushi Products May Help With a Gluten Free Lifestyle

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Once you’ve decided to go gluten free, you’ll need to start in your kitchen. Whether it’s large or galley, stocked or empty, your new gluten-free kitchen will be your safe zone. Your gluten-free kitchen will become the place where you can always find and make yummy and safe gluten free foods. When your kitchen goes gluten-free, too, then you won’t be tempted to “cheat” by eating gluten — because there won’t be other options.

It is important to first understand why a fresh beginning is so essential to going gluten free successfully. Because gluten is just one tiny ingredient in lots of foods, it’s not something you can actually see. It can lurk in crumbs, sauces, pasta…. Which means that anything in your kitchen that has touched these things (think toasters, pans, colanders, lunch boxes, utensils, counters, dish scrubbers, tea towels, etc.) may still have gluten on it or in it. When this gluten residue touches your gluten free food, gluten contamination (or gluten cross-contact) occurs.

So start fresh with any pots or pans or appliances that may touch your food if they are scratched or difficult to fully clean, and make an effort to rid your kitchen of gluten entirely (or banish it to its own cabinet for others to use). Knowing you have a safe place to prepare and to eat food for any meal of the day will help you successfully establish your new gluten-free lifestyle.

Once your kitchen is in order, it’s time to cook! Even if you’ve never considered yourself to be a baker or a chef, you don’t have to earn a degree to learn to prepare easy home cooked meals. Beyond proteins like meat, fish and chicken – which are gluten-free unless and until they are marinated, basted, or otherwise dressed with a sauce containing gluten – you’ll want to explore new ways to incorporate gluten-free grains and breads into your family meals for a nutritious and delicious diet.

Cooking with Gluten Free Grains

Rice:

Brown and white rice are just the most recognizable rice options you may already be familiar with. Jasmine, wild*, basmati and sushi are among the over 40,000 varieties of cultivated rice in the world. Whole grain rice contains bran which houses most of the nutrition in a grain of rice – vitamins, minerals, resistant starch and energy from carbohydrates — but even white rice offers carbohydrate energy and nutrition.

Get creative with rice as a side dish, salad, substitute for pasta (even in Pad Thai and Macaroni and Cheese!), filler for crab cakes and other patties, and even as a meal in itself. With a Zojirushi Rice Cooker, making rice is as easy as a push of a button, so dinner can be served on your schedule.

Quinoa:

Quinoa is another wonderful option that is prepared in much the same was as you would rice. It is one of the most popular ancient grains to have resurfaced lately as a superfood and a gluten-free hero.

First cultivated over 5,000 years ago, quinoa is technically a “pseudo-cereal,” not actually a grain. As seeds, it may be ground into flour like a grain and also prepared as you would any rice dish. The primary difference is that it is richer than rice in B-vitamins, vitamin E, minerals, fatty acids, calcium and fiber and it is considered a complete plant-based protein source.

Pick your favorite rice dish and substitute white, red or black quinoa in its place; see how you like it. The small grains cook even faster than most rice and it offers a nutty taste that many favor over blander grains. Serve as a hot breakfast cereal option, hot or cold side salad, or even as a binder in veggie burgers or other patties.

Millet:

Another delicious gluten-free seed is millet. This tiny grain alternative has been cultivated for thousands of years. It can be found as a flour or in its whole form which can be prepared much like rice or added to muffins, salads or other recipes as a substitute for a nutty crunch.

Millet is mild in flavor, and offers an abundance of magnesium and insoluble fiber. It is delicious as breakfast porridge or as an alternative to rice or potatoes as a side dish. Prepare in much the same way as you would rice.

Soups:

Many of us think of hearty bowls of chili or thinner tomato-based broths when we think of soup, but there is no end to the creative possibilities of what you can make in a pot.

Creamy cauliflower, vegetable lentil, green pea, and even cold soups like gazpacho can be made more quickly using a Zojirushi Stainless Steel Thermal Vacuum Cooking Pot or in a standard pot on your stove. Just be sure to verify all ingredients like stock and broth are gluten-free.

Oats:

Oats are a delicious way to add healthy fiber to your diet, but for those who are living gluten free, only certain oats are safe. It is essential to purchase only certified gluten free oats, grown under the purity protocol, to ensure there has not been cross-contact with gluten-containing grains. Independently certified gluten free oats can include traditional rolled oats, instant or quick oats, oat bran and steel cut oats.

Make a large batch of oatmeal in a Zojirushi Rice Cooker on the Porridge setting, and re-heat as you need quick breakfasts, snacks or even hearty side dishes. Or use Zojirushi stainless steel food jars to make yummy steel cut oats in the container with no fuss, then take the food jar with you to work or for travel. With a little planning, a warm and hearty meal of gluten free steel cut oats and fruit is better than any fast food or snack bar.

Baking Homemade Gluten-Free Breads:

If you’ve been unsatisfied with the gluten-free options available to you in pre-made or frozen breads at the grocery store, take heart! Making your own homemade gluten-free bread is the answer!

Even if you’ve never baked a loaf of bread in your life, you can bake gluten-free bread that tastes like real, soft and delicious bread and you’ll never have to settle for store-bought or hard, frozen gluten-free loaves again.

The reason why it doesn’t take an expert bread maker to make gluten-free bread is because all of the laborious steps involved in coaxing and babying gluten breads into life are absent in the making of gluten-free yeast bread. The steps are quicker and simple, and start-to-finish you can make a gorgeous loaf of gluten-free bread in about 2 hours.

The keys to remember about baking gluten-free bread are these:

  • There is no kneading or punching down of the dough
  • There is no second rise
  • Shape the breads before rising
  • Don’t over-work the dough
  • You may use quick rise yeast for even faster rise times
  • Check the temperature of your bread before removing it from the oven or bread machine – make sure it has reached 205 – 210° F or it’s not quite done baking

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The absolute easiest way to gluten-free bread nirvana is by using a bread machine with gluten-free setting. Older machines didn’t offer the gluten-free option, and were pre-programmed for all the settings necessary to exercise gluten into holding its shape. Those same settings are actually counter-productive in baking gluten-free breads, which is why a gluten-free setting is so helpful.

However, it is possible to program some machines for your own gluten-free setting. If doing so, set your machine to a 20-minute mix cycle, a 45-minute rise cycle and a 60-minute bake cycle for a 2-pound loaf.

With any bread maker, the liquids should be at room temperature and go into the pan first, followed by all dry ingredients and lastly by the yeast, poured into a well in the center of the dry ingredients.

The Zojirushi Home Bakery Virtuoso® Breadmaker may become your best friend in gluten-free baking. It bakes a beautiful 2-pound loaf with an easy and reliable gluten-free setting and two mixing paddles for even distribution of dough.

Anything from gluten-free green tea bread to brown rice bread to raisin bread is possible … and easy with this machine. It even makes cakes and can mix pizza dough or other shaped bread dough for you to bake in the oven.

I actually travel with my bread maker so that I can have fresh-baked gluten-free bread with me wherever I am, and I don’t have to worry about clean up or a contaminated kitchen space. I regularly bake homemade bread in my hotel rooms and enjoy soft sandwiches or breakfast bread for several days.

The most important thing to remember about going gluten free is that it’s not about deprivation – it’s about delicious new and healthier possibilities. Doing more cooking at home may seem overwhelming at first, but you’ll soon find it is a more economical, nutritious and safe way to live gluten free. Feeding your family home cooked meals is also a wonderful way to spend more time together. Remember that your kitchen is your safe haven and be sure to keep it well stocked with ingredients to favorite recipes so you are always able to bake up something yummy!

 

*Wild rice is not actually rice, but is prepared in the same fashion and is a wonderful alternative to rice in the same dishes.

Essentials of Japanese Cooking:  The Science of Umami

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The essential ingredients of Japanese cooking—sugar, salt, vinegar, soy sauce and miso—are primary ingredients, but how do they influence taste? Does ryori no sa shi su se so actually mean flavor, or are they the building blocks of the unique flavors of Japanese food?

In our post this month, we explore umami, what it’s made of and its essential role in gastronomy around the world.

Umami was first discovered in a measurable way by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University, now the University of Tokyo, in 1908. Dr. Ikeda, a chemist, theorized that there must be a reason why kombu dashi stock, used in many Japanese dishes, imparted such a rich, savory taste to food. In his quest to understand why, Dr. Ikeda discovered that kombu, the type of seaweed used in preparing dashi stock, was high in glutamates, a type of amino acid that creates a savory taste with a full mouthfeel. Dr. Ikeda’s discovery was followed by those of Shintaro Kodama, who discovered a ribonucleotide called inosine monophosphate, and of Akira Kuninaka, who discovered the ribonucleotide called guanosine monophosphate. These three substances, when absorbed by the taste buds on the tongue, creates a biochemical signal that tells the brain that the food is savory and full of protein, an important human evolutionary adaptation that aided in determining whether a food was safe and desirable to eat.

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Tsukudani , a side dish, made with umami-packed kombu (photo by Jun Owada)

Since the discovery of salt approximately in 5,000 BCE, the tastes of foods have been categorized into seven categories: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, spicy, astringent and umami. Different cultures have used a subset of these seven tastes as part of their gustatory culture. For example, European culture generally used the first four tastes. Indian culture uses six of the seven. And, before umami was discovered, Japanese culture only recognized four of the seven tastes. Dr. Ikeda coined the term umami, from the Japanese root words “umai” meaning delicious and “mi” meaning taste, and since its modern discovery, umami has become known as the fifth taste in Japanese cooking tradition. While some cultures might only use a subset of the seven tastes in their traditions, they actually use umami as part of their flavor profiles, because glutamates, inosine and guanosine are compounds found in a broad variety of food, everything from seaweed, fish, shellfish, beef, pork, eggs and chicken to mushrooms, tomatoes, cabbage, soybeans, yeast, milk and cheese. Food cultures across the world use these ingredients, and when combined with the other tastes, create savory flavors that are more intense than alone.

The inclusion of cured meat, tomatoes, and Parmesan cheese make this pasta dish rich in umami flavor

The inclusion of cured meat, tomatoes, and Parmesan cheese make this pasta dish rich in umami flavor

Combining umami ingredients is done in many well-known, familiar recipes… tomato sauce topped with parmesan cheese, sautéed mushrooms, broth and vegetables. Savory flavor becomes more intense when a glutamate component (such as fish or seaweed) is combined with an inosine or guanosine component (such as mushrooms) or simply with table salt. Ancient Romans created garum, a fish paste, that was used as an umami component to many early Italian dishes. In more modern times, American cooks created ketchup, also full of umami and made with tomatoes, garlic, onions and vinegar, and Australians have created Vegemite, a fermented yeast paste full of umami.

The intensity of all flavors in food is increased when an umami ingredient is introduced. And umami is one of the most important elements of Japanese food, especially in dashi. We’ll explore this in more detail next month. Stay tuned, and as always, we’d love to hear your experiences with umami!

 

Main photo by Sage Ross

Zojirushi’s Travel Mug (SM-YAE48)

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We’re all searching for a way to be stylish, save money and still enjoy our favorite foods and drinks… and one of the best ways to do that is to make your favorite coffee or tea at home and take it with you when you’re on the go. We love our Travel Mug (SM-YAE48) for just these reasons: convenience, savings and style.

This mug is a new addition to our other taller, thinner models. It rests much more securely in car cup holders, and fits better under a pod brewer. The same wonderful features you find in Zojirushi vacuum-insulated bottles can be found in this travel mug: an easy to clean electro-polished SlickSteel® interior, wide mouth opening, and superior heat/cold retention. The Travel Mug also has a solid locking mechanism that makes it leak-proof when used according to the instruction manual, and the lid is a snap to clean, thanks to its larger surface area and removable gaskets. The flip-open top is designed to be comfortable while drinking, fitting the contours of your face. Best of all, the mug has a unique vent that allows liquid to pour out smoothly, which is great if you’re on the move and don’t want a huge mouthful of liquid splashing down your chin!

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Since launching our Travel Mug last July, we’ve gotten great feedback on Amazon.com from our owners. One of our favorite 5-star reviews is from Tygr, who posted this review on March 3, 2016:

How did they improve on near perfection? They did with this new mug model!

I love it. I had one of the previous models that I loved but this one is even better. Since they’ve widened the bottle the overall height was reduced so it not only fits perfectly in my cup holder but it also fits perfectly into my coffee maker so I can now have it brew directly into the mug — something I couldn’t do with previous versions! I love the chocolate color and the fact that the lid locks in place when open so it won’t fall forward when drinking out of it. Same unbelievable super long time for keeping things hot or cold. Who would have thought that they could improve on such an awesome product? — But they DID!”

The Travel Mug (SM-YAE48) comes in four beautiful colors: Lime Green, Cherry Red, Dark Cocoa and Stainless. Check out our product video and our website. We know you’ll love it as much as we do, and as always, be sure to share your comments with us! And don’t forget to pin a photo of your travel mug with #ZoGo!

What is Rice Really?: Growing Short-Grain Rice

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Rice, rice and more rice… we continue our series about What Is Rice Really? after having explored the plant, and short-grain, medium-grain and long-grain rice. Have you tried any of the recipes we’ve suggested yet?

While you were cooking rice, have you ever wondered how it actually gets from its beginnings as a tiny seed to your kitchen?

Growing rice—especially in Japan—is an endeavor both large and small. The careful attention that rice farmers pay to each minute detail of the rice growing process leads to the crop yields that feed the Japanese people. Farmers consider two things as they grow rice:  the plant itself and the environment used to grow it.

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Tilling the rice paddy

Rice farmers care for the rice plant from dormant seed through harvested food. Rice seeds were originally gathered from wild rice plants; however, in modern times, rice seeds are carefully selected and stored from previous harvests, as well as hybridized in cultivation facilities. The type and quality of the seed is hugely important to the type and quality of the yield in any given growing season. Rice seeds are the unhulled, unprocessed grains that are selected from the rice crop during harvest. Good seeds are generally of uniform size, will germinate 80% of the time, are free of pathogens, and produce seedlings that are vigorous.

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Seeds can be sown in a rice field in one of two ways: either through transplantation or direct seeding. Transplantation uses pre-germinated seeds that are sprouted in a seedbed comprised of water, nutrients (such as compost) and soil, generally indoors to protect them from contaminants and animals. Once the seeds have sprouted and have established themselves, they are transplanted, either by hand or by using a seeding machine. On the other hand, direct seeding allows farmers to broadcast ungerminated seeds in fields, and let them establish themselves wherever they fall. In larger farms, and especially in Japan, farmers transplant seeds to better ensure a safe and predictable harvest.

Growing rice is only possible when an environment is created that will allow the plants to flourish. Rice farmers are incredibly concerned with the quality of the soil, the quantity and purity of the water, the heat of the sun and protecting the plants from diseases and pests. Managing soil is the first step in rice production. During a Japanese winter, soil lays fallow and is allowed to rest. In the beginning of spring, around the time when cherry blossoms are in full bloom, rice fields or paddies are tilled, which means the soil is dug up, churned, and aerated with straw. Farmers amend the tilled soil with fertilizers, such as compost or nitrogen and potassium, and begin smoothing the rich, loamy land in preparation for drenching with water.

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Fall rice harvesting

Water in Japan is a vital resource–from rain, to rivers, to reservoirs–and rice is grown using wet cultivation. In the spring, the smoothed, tilled land is flooded with water to a uniform depth, and then planted with seedlings. Every day, the water level is monitored to ensure that the plants grow with adequate hydration, and that water is flowing with nutrients along flat fields and terraces. The intense heat of the summer months, combined with nutrient-rich soil and plentiful water, helps the rice plants to grow tall and healthy. Along with watching the water levels, farmers look out for insects that seek to consume the plants, weeds that want to overtake the growing areas and diseases that could infect the plants every day. You may have seen images of green rice paddies, but a successful crop grows tall and becomes golden through the summer, until it is ready for harvest in the fall.

Have you ever visited a rice field? We’d love to hear your experiences… and stay tuned for next month’s post about harvesting rice in Japan. The harvest season is an important time throughout Japan, when Japanese people share rich stories, traditions and festivals!

 

Hawaii 5-O

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I was feeling a little nostalgic today, so I thought I’d write about my home state in terms of 5 Hawaiian “Local Grindz”. Being on the mainland, eating like a local is the closest I can get to being there! Hawaii is such a mixed bag of cultures, the choices that I could come up with seem infinite, but in my opinion there are a handful of favorites that never change, no matter how many generations have passed. I also qualified my 5 based on them being distinctly native to Hawaii; although I refuse to verify whether they actually originated there. Close enough, I say.

1. Poke
Regardless of what Polynesian fisherman first started cutting up his leftover ahi catch into little pieces so he could eat it as a snack, Hawaii gets the credit for this dish which has become a mainland sensation. Since most Americans are more used to raw fish now since the widespread popularity of sushi, poke (pronounced po-keh) has found it easier to gradually work its way into the mainstream.

Poke has been around for a long time in Hawaii, available in containers at almost every supermarket in the Islands; kind of like how salsa is sold in the refrigerated section here. Usually seasoned with soy sauce, sea salt and sesame oil, the raw ahi tuna is mixed with green onions, Maui onions and limu, an edible algae that has long been part of the ancient Hawaiian diet. Sprinkled with sesame seeds, a bowl of fresh poke is like eating the catch of the day, right on the beach.

teri-beef2. Beef Teriyaki
Teriyaki is an interesting study in origins. In Japan, where the taste of tangy-sweet soy sauce and sugary flavor was undoubtedly first made, the term teriyaki is mainly used to describe a cooking method. The “teri” part refers to the glaze of the teriyaki sauce, and “yaki” means to grill. With all the Japanese immigration to Hawaii in the late 1800s, the taste was brought over, but it can be said that the sauce itself, as the marinade that we know today, was a Japanese-American invention.

It took an influence of Western culture to apply teriyaki to beef, I’m sure. If I think back to my early days of basic plate lunches, “teri-beef” was always a staple. It makes sense–what can possibly go together better as a combination than beef teriyaki, macaroni salad and rice? Add some chopped cabbage and you’ve successfully fended off your guilty conscience of not eating your vegetables. I can smell it on the grill even now…

spamshelf23. Spam Musubi
There is no way that this isn’t a Hawaiian original. Who the heck else glorifies Spam like this? Think about it, locals consume more Spam there than anyplace else in the U.S.; it’s available as breakfast meat at McDonald’s and Burger King. Another Japanese influence, Spam Musubi is like the perfect portable snack food. And they even stack up like bricks because they’re shaped that way!

It is the ubiquitous picnic favorite, bake sale staple and pot luck standard of local cuisine. Even though every family has their own way of making Spam Musubi, in the end it’s still rice and spam and shaped the same way. Even though the high sodium content is probably not that great for you, I love it anyway. If you’ve never heard of Spam Musubi, read my post here on how to make it.

saimin4. Saimin
My Dad would always complain about not being able to find good saimin when he was living in California. He was right. It’s tough to find–in many ways this Hawaiian classic has been supplanted by the ramen juggernaut that is taking over the world, even in Hawaii. But to me, there will always be a place for saimin, and I predict it will make a strong comeback one day.

The noodles are practically the same between the two dishes, but the saimin broth is much lighter than ramen, both in taste and color. Typical toppings would be some scrambled egg slivers, green onion, Chinese cabbage, char-siu (a Chinese style BBQ pork) and kamaboko, the pink and white Japanese fish cake that you see everywhere with the swirl in it. How much more Hawaiian can it get, with all those cultural roots. Plus, a common substitute for the char-siu that you’ll often see is Spam!

By the way, there are McDonald’s locations in Hawaii that serve their own brand of saimin, which isn’t bad–I’ve tried it.

shaveicesyrup5. Shave Ice
“Shaved” Ice, or kakigori, as it’s known in Japan, was no doubt the influence that became the Hawaiian “shave” ice as we know it today. But the Hawaiian version has earned its place as an American original. The ice is much finer than Japanese kakigori; and the flavors are distinctly tropical, like guava, pineapple, coconut, passion fruit, lychee, and mango. Some of them taste so much like the real thing it’s uncanny–they remind me of how they get those flavors into the tiny little jelly beans.

There’s no doubt every country in the world has its own version of finely shaved ice dessert, but this one that evolved from kakigori has its unique toppings and fillings at the bottom. Ice cream and/or adzuki beans inside, for example; or flavored with sweet condensed milk along with the colored syrup, often called “Japanese style” or “snow cap” among the locals. Read more about some ice desserts here.

If you go to Hawaii, you must make a pit stop at Matsumoto’s Shave Ice stand on the way to the North Shore of Oahu–everyone else does, including busloads of Japanese tourists everyday, since 1951!

Images: Poke by IronChefMom, Teri-beef plate by Chad YamamotoAisle of Spam by SassySSSShave Ice syrup by Lilly Zay, Saimin by Aloha-Hawaii.com