Auspicious foods are a classic feature of Japanese festivals. At Hinamatsuri, also known as Girls’ Day Festival, on March 3, tradition dictates fare such as shirozake (white sake), arare (cubed rice crackers), and inarizushi (sushi rice in pouches of deep-fried tofu).
The Fox’s Favorite – A POCKETFUL OF RICE
The word inari originally meant a farmers’ god, bringer of good harvests. His messenger was a fox, so the entrance to an inari shrine, often reached through a series of red torii gates, is guarded on both sides by stone foxes. Offerings at the shrine have traditionally included sake, mochi (rice cakes) and sekihan (red rice). And, from the end of the Edo period (1603-1867), abura-age (deep-fried tofu) began to also be left for the fox messengers. One suggestion is that foxes acquired a taste for oily foods because when hungry they used to sneak into shrines and lick the oil from lanterns for sustenance. Whatever the reason, it’s generally believed that abura-age is their favorite snack. So sushi made with abura-age came to be called “inari” sushi.
Inari Sushi – Inarizushi
Inarizushi first appeared during the early days of the Tempo era (1830-44), a period of great famine. According to one story, it was introduced in the Ryogoku-bashi area of Edo (Tokyo) by a sushi shop employee called Jirokichi. At night he ran his own food stall, where he sold inarizushi dirt-cheap. He could only sell it after dark, however, because the people of Edo were so snobbish that they didn’t want to be seen consuming such cheap eats. Nonetheless, by 1846 inarizushi had become popular enough even to have its own vending cry.
Now it is readily available throughout Japan, with regional differences in the shape. The fried tofu skins may be triangles, or squares, or even turned inside-out. Sometimes they are tied up into little pouches with a length of edible dried gourd. The name varies, too – in Osaka, for example, it is called kitsune-zushi (fox sushi) or simply kitsune.
It took me a long time to like Inarizushi and I finally figured out that it was because most of what you buy can be cloyingly sweet. Once I started to make my own, lessen the sugar, and added in more sesame seeds, I became a fan. One variation I have begun doing is adding slivers of peeled Japanese cucumber to the sushi rice mixture. I like the contrast of textures, and the added crunch from the cucumbers. Perfect picnic food!
Sushi rice in pouches of deep fried tofu
- 2 cups Japanese short-grain white rice, washed and drained
- 3 tbsp sake
- A 3-inch (7.5-cm.) square of dried konbu (kelp), wiped with a damp cloth and slashed to release favor
- 4 tbsp rice vinegar
- 3 tbsp white sugar (up to 4 tablespoons for a sweeter rice)
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 tbsp toasted white sesame seeds, or more to taste
- 6 sheets abura-age (fried tofu)
- 1-1/2 cups dashi fish stock
- 3 tbsp soy sauce
- 3 tbsp white sugar
- 2 tbsp sake
- 1 tbsp mirin (sweet sake)
- 1/4 tsp salt
- Put the washed rice in an electric rice cooker or large saucepan, add the sake and slightly less water than usual (the aim is firm rice, not mushy), top with the kelp, and cook. Meanwhile, slowly heat the vinegar, sugar, and salt, stirring continuously, in another pan. When the sugar is dissolved, remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.
- As soon as the rice is ready, spread it on a large platter and cool quickly using a paper fan. Discard the kelp. Drizzle the cooled vinegar mixture over the rice and mix lightly with a rice paddle – trying not to mash the rice. Sprinkle in the sesame seeds and mix lightly. Leave to cool, covered with a damp piece of cheesecloth, until ready to use.
- Place the abura-age in a colander and pour boiling water over it to remove the oil, and soften the abura-age. Gently pat dry with paper towels and slice in half (across the middle, to preserve two pouch-like ends). Carefully open the pouches with your fingers, trying not to tear them.
- In a medium-sized saucepan, heat all the ingredients for the seasoning stock. Add the abura-age and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and simmer, semi-covered, for 20 minutes. Remove from heat, leaving the abura-age in the sauce to absorb the flavor until it cools to room temperature.
- Drain the abura-age, discarding the stock. Wet your hands with water and scoop up some of the sushi rice into a small ball, shaping firmly to fit one of the pouches. Stuff the pouches and place on a serving plate, seam side down.