Honoring Fukushima: Japanese-Style Chicken and Rice

By Riki Shore

Japanese-Style Chicken and Rice

Earlier this month marked the one-year anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that hit the Tohoku region of Japan. Mass evacuations and ruined homes disrupted lives and created support communities across Japan and abroad. Tens of thousands of people remain refugees, living in encampments that no doubt stopped seeming temporary long ago. Some will never return home.

People across the world strained to offer help in any way they could. In her Tokyo apartment, cookbook author and educator Elizabeth Andoh, born in the US but making Japan her home for more than 40 years, resolved to publish a cookbook honoring the cooking traditions of Tohoku, the region at the epicenter of the disaster.

Back in November, I volunteered to be part of Andoh’s project. Hoping to finish by the one-year anniversary mark, the book would be much shorter than her other “information dense” cookbooks, which also highlight the cooking traditions of her adopted homeland.

Kibo, meaning brimming with hope, includes recipes ranging from the ordinary (miso soup) to the extraordinary (squid jerky). Ingredients hail from Tohoku, such as Sendai miso, a chunky red miso paste, Coho salmon, and mountain vegetables, parboiled and sold vacuum-packed in brine.

The dish here is my American take on one that calls for those vacuum-packed veggies – Andoh’s¬†Michinoku Kokeshi Bento, or Fried Tofu and Mountain Vegetable Pilaf. Andoh writes of this dish:

[It is] cooked by a multistage method known as taki komi. Fried tofu and mountain vegetables are first cooked to create a flavorful broth. Then the broth is used in lieu of water to cook the rice. The ingredients that contributed to flavoring the broth are reintroduced in the final stage of cooking the rice.

I preserve the cooking method, but substitute boneless chicken thighs for the tofu and fresh vegetables for the vacuum-packed variety. (The latter are available in Asian markets, and they’re tasty too. I just thought most readers would be more likely to try this with fresh vegetables instead.)

The rice pilaf is filling and reheats well the next day. As Andoh suggests, it would make great lunchbox (bento) fare.

1 1/2 cups sushi rice
12 ounces boneless chicken thighs
8 ounces shiitake mushrooms
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
2 tablespoons sake
1 2/3 cups kombu dashi or water
1 and 1/2 tablespoons tamari
2 tablespoons mirin
3 scallions

1. Wash the rice well with cold water until the water runs clear. Drain the rice and place it in a medium heavy-bottomed pot. Add enough water to just cover the rice, and set aside.
2. Slice the chicken into bite-size pieces. Thinly slice the shiitake mushrooms.
3. Heat the sesame oil in a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until aromatic. Add the chicken and sear it for 1 minute. Toss the chicken with a spatula and add the vegetables, stirring to combine well. Cook for another minute.
4. Sprinkle in the salt, toss to combine, then add the sake to deglaze the pan. Immediately add the tamari and mirin and toss to combine.
5. Remove the skillet from the heat and strain the broth into a pyrex measuring cup. Add enough kombu dashi or water to measure 1 2/3 cups of liquid. Reserve the chicken and mushrooms separately.
6. Drain the rice and add the measured broth from step 5 to the rice pot. Cook the rice as follows. Cover the pot with a tightly fitting lid and turn the heat to high. When the liquid boils (about 6 – 7 minutes), lower the heat and continue to cook until nearly all the liquid is absorbed. This will take an additional 7 minutes or so. You can gently remove the lid to check, but in general you want to keep the lid on tight, so the steam remains in the pot. Once the liquid is almost absorbed, turn the heat to high for a final 30 seconds.
7. Remove the pot from the heat and quickly add the reserved chicken and vegetables on top of the rice. Do not stir. Replace the lid and let stand for 10 – 20 minutes.
8. When ready to serve, stir the contents of the pot to combine well, scraping the sides and bottom to incorporate any crusty bits. Top with chopped scallions, and pass the shichimi togarashi for those that like a little heat.

Learn more about the aftermath of Fukushima: