With coronavirus making travel a tricky and even potentially dangerous prospect this year, we’re embracing the summer staycation. All week (and all summer) long, we’ll bring you transportive flavors and travel-inspired ideas from around the world, so you can take your tastebuds on a trip and give your mind a mini vacation while you’re still at home. Here, learn how to make chirashi sushi, the ultimate Japanese rice bowl for summer that poke fans are sure to love.
When the pandemic forced chef Jon Yao to temporarily shutter the intimate 27-seat dining room of his celebrated Los Angeles eatery Kato, it wasn’t a question of if the restaurant would pivot to a to-go model but how. “Even if it is just takeout,” says Yao, “we wanted to do something a little more high end … where if people wanted to celebrate, they kept us in mind.”
Rather than attempt the near-impossible task of replicating his elaborate Michelin-starred, Taiwainese-inspired tasting menu for the home experience, he found a worthy understudy in chirashi.
What Is Chirashi?
The centuries-old sushi spin-off, a bed of vinegared rice topped (most commonly) with raw seafood, has long been a favorite of the chef who notes the popularity of sushi in Taiwan which was colonized by Japan throughout the first half of the 20th century.
There were plenty of other reasons why chirashi fit the bill: It can withstand local travel, is well-suited for Instagram exposure, and it would allow Yao to flex his notably deft touch with aquatic ingredients. (Not to mention, Kato would be able to offer its seafood purveyors continued business.)
Michelin approval, however, is not essential if you want to try your hand at chirashi. “It’s simple,” says Yao who is quick to clarify, “but simple is the hardest thing to do.”
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Chirashi means “scattered” but beyond the literal definition the dish has been interpreted in a variety of ways over the years including versions adorned exclusively with vegetables.
While raw seafood is the most popular topper, there is no specific standard as far as cut and preparation.
“I’m not bound by any Japanese tradition,” Yao admits. “We just try to make something taste good and pay respect at the same time.”
At $125, Kato’s version is truly a luxury box, packed to the gills with a stunning assortment of Pacific treasures sourced locally and flown in fresh from Japan. (Even the box itself, imported from Taiwan, was specially made for the restaurant.)
The headliners include a rotating cast of whatever’s in season prepared in a manner that Yao likens to a poke bowl. “Everything’s cut really small, so it’s not instantly recognizable when you see it,” he says. “But once it’s in the mouth it flows very nicely.”
The current lineup harmonizes in a stunning interplay of textures and flavors. Rich bluefin tuna and creamy Santa Barbara sea urchin are served au naturel while sea bream and Japanese shima-aji (striped jack) are salt-cured and pressed between sheets of kombu. Abalone also gets the kelp treatment (steamed in this case) and joins Santa Barbara spot prawns, which are lightly blanched, to add a bit of snap and bounce. An addition of marinated trout roe offers bursts of brine along with eye-popping orange.
“We go so heavy on the seafood to match the size and look of the box,” says Yao. In other words, despite the hefty price of admission you’re getting your money’s worth.
Whether you decide to go all raw or include some cooked elements, sashimi slivers or bite-size pieces, focus on a single fish or showcase several ingredients, remember that freshness and high quality is key so it’s best to rely on a trusted supplier.
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If you’ve seen “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” you know that even if you have the best fish around, properly cooked and seasoned rice is of the utmost importance.
Yao uses a proprietary blend of specialty vinegars and sugar to pair with sushi rice developed by his purveyors. (If you don’t have world-class connections, let our sushi rice primer be your guide to mastering the technique.)
The Kato Box is filled with a little over a half cup of rice which is topped with toasted nori. “Even though it doesn’t stay crispy, the flavors combined are really reminiscent of sushi,” he says.
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Feel free to some final touches to your chirashi such a sprinkling of sesame seeds or additional shreds of seaweed.
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Include a dollop of wasabi for some heat and while soy sauce is a welcome addition, be sure to serve it on the side—if it’s applied too far in advance of consumption it may ruin the integrity of your box or bowl’s precious cargo.
Just remember to keep the add-ons to a minimum and let your seafood shine.
Header image courtesy of Yuuji / E+ / Getty Images