A festival of clams

March 9, 2010

“Hina Matsuri is also called Kai Matsuri”, Emi tells us (kai means clam or shell). A clam is a symbol of spring, and clam shells in Japanese food symbolise a happily united couple because the two sides fit together tightly.

We are at Uzuki, Emi’s cooking class, and Emi is explaining some of the ingredients we are going to use for our spring dishes. We are cooking haru no chirashi-zushi (spring scattered sushi – Emi’s translation), soused nanohana (rape colza buds) with prawns, and Kyoto-style miso soup.

Chirashi-zushi – vinegared sushi rice topped with raw fish and a variety of other ingredients, is the food commonly eaten at Hina Matsuri. This festival for girls, also known as the Doll’s Festival, is held on March 3rd every year. Families and shops display Hina dolls (雛人形, hina-ningyō), representing an aristocratic couple and attendants from the Heian period. Originally it was believed the dolls had the power to contain bad spirits.

“Nanohana is evidence that spring has come,” Emi continues. Nanohana (or canola greens, a member of the cabbage family) is similar to kale or Chinese broccoli and has a slightly bitter taste. This taste is the wake-up call that spring has arrived in Kyoto.

Emi quickly gets us cooking, lightly frying egg and cutting it into thin strips to top the rice, parboiling the nanohana in dashi (stock), soy sauce and mirin, simmering the clams in konbu (kelp) stock until they open. She reveals some of the secrets of Kyoto cooking: using dried shitake rather than fresh to fold into rice (fresh retain too much liquid); simmering clams in konbu stock rather than bonito stock to retain their delicate flavour.

As with all Japanese food, preparation of the rice is all-important. We carefully fold in the mixture of rice vinegar, sugar and salt, and then fan the steamed rice to make it shiny and allow the steam to escape.

Finally we choose the toppings we want on our rice – nanohana, daikon (a kind of radish), snow peas, shitake, anago (conger eel), pickled seabream, prawns, and kinome (leaves from sansho pepper) to garnish. The miso soup, made with Kyoto white miso and the clams, is sweet and delicate. So delicious!


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