Forgive me if I seem to be going on about peace a lot lately but it’s obviously a bit of a theme in my life at the moment, or perhaps always: I tend to have a rather chaotic inner life and stillness is something I have to seek out deliberately.
Both times I’ve been back to live in Japan, Meiji Jinguu was a place that drew me for its otherworldly ability to calm. Despite its location in the hectic centre of one of the busiest cities in the world, as soon as one steps foot inside the torii, a hush descends. No matter what time of day and how many visitors there happen to be, there is a quiet there that seems ethereal. I don’t mean to say people whisper as if they are in a church – in fact, they do not, and there is even a pretty healthy trade in amulets so it’s not a haven of non-commercialism either – but the thick foliage and the pebbles crunching underfoot, the cool, clean tasting air and the plash of the water into the temizubachi all combine to soothe and refresh me.
Many are the times I’ve seen the strange procession that is a Shinto wedding, with a bride solemnly shuffling along with her hat that covers her horns of jealousy and the peace that the shrine engenders transcends for me even the spectacle and the tourists clicking busily away.
While I’ve never eaten chirashizushi at Meiji Jinguu, it reminds me of Japan when I’m feeling a bit homesick. I probably wouldn’t make other kinds of sushi (except maybe temaki) at home anyway since it’s a bit like making foie gras at home – possible, but best left to the experts. It’s the sushi that I think more Japanese people make at home than any other and I can even manage it here in Austria with zero access to good quality fish. On Girl’s Day in Japan, mothers stuff chirashizushi into thin omelettes and shape them into the dolls that represent the emperor and empress but I just slice the omelette thinly and stir it in with the rest of the ingredients.
Do you know any quiet spots in noisy cities?
This serves two greedy or three normal people. The ingredients are pretty flexible so you can leave things out if you don’t like them. Put the rice on to cook and prepare the other ingredients meanwhile; you’ll need to use a rice cooker or the absorption method for this. Use slightly less (a few tablespoons less) water than you normally would. A word to the wise: you can’t really refrigerate this because it will go hard and nasty so try not to make more than you can eat (or surprise your neighbours, go on!)
2 cups short grain rice, washed and steamed
A tablespoon of sesame seeds, dry-toasted in a pan
1/3 telegraph cucumber, seeds removed (and skin, if it’s thick) and julienned (or use a whole Japanese or Lebanese cucumber)
10 small or 6 large prawns, peeled and boiled (or you can use salmon roe, sashimi grade fish in cubes or even lightly smoked fish, flaked, if you like)
1/2 avocado, cubed
6 mangetout, boiled for 30 seconds, plunged into ice water, drained and sliced
1/2 sheet of nori, cut up in strips
A tablespoon gari (pickled ginger for sushi), minced
3 tablespoons sushi no ko (See picture, you can also use sushi vinegar, a mixture of rice vinegar, salt and sugar for this but I like the convenience and it doesn’t make the rice wet)
For the omelette
Beat an egg lightly in a bowl and add 1/2 teaspoon of shoyu and 1/2 teaspoon of sugar.
Fry like a pancake in a small pan over medium heat until set, turn out, cool and cut into strips.
For the carrot and shiitake
4 dried shiitake mushrooms, reconstituted in 1 cup water with stems removed and sliced
1 small carrot, julienned
Put 1/2 cup of water and the stock from reconstituting the mushrooms in a small pot over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of shoyu and 2 tablespoons of sugar and bring to a simmer. Add the carots and mushrooms and simmer until carrots are soft but holding their shape. Scoop out with a slotted spoon.
Turn the rice out into a large non-metallic flat bowl (or hangiri if you have one) and sprinkle the sushi no ko over. Get someone to fan it while you turn the rice gently over in a cutting motion to avoid squashing the grains.
When cool, scatter the other ingredients over and serve.