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What is Temari Sushi?
A treasure of Japanese ingredients and history.
Under a full bloom cherry blossom tree by the Kamogawa river in Kyoto, I was picking up delicate, deceptively simple balls of colorful sushi and was transported to places I have never been.
The wooden box, it's interior neatly structured in 3 rows of 5, held jewel-like pieces of elegant orbs of lightly vinegared rice topped with perfectly cut pieces of fish or vegetable. It was a work of art in itself.
I became obsessed with each unique piece, examining every centimeter of it's flawless, spherical form, while studying the paper menu of the list of ingredients I was given to honor the dedication and craftwork that went into each temari sushi.
Temari sushi, as intricate and meticulously crafted as they are, are served on happy and celebrated occasions. For me, it was on a particularly warm, bright spring day in Japan that my spirit, perception and appreciation for food changed.
In every savory bite and with each exquisite ingredient, I felt a connection and an affinity to their origin.
I felt the light's warmth on the coastal sands where elongated, oval mussels had bunched together.
I heard the curious swish of the wind carrying through tall and lush bamboo forests.
I saw the deep dark blues of the ocean's depth where groups of jelly fish floated.
I sensed woody and deciduous scents of old oak trees that shiitake mushrooms sprung from the sides of.
I tasted the salt of a wide Pacific Ocean where spawns of red sea bream swam up to the shallow waters against a sunset.
Every firm grain of rice, lightly sweet and somewhat tart, had held my attention and I. And then, just like that, my meal was over. The memory and day dream of every piece of temari sushi lingered with me.
I didn't think a 15 piece box of sushi would take me almost an hour to eat. It wasn't until my meal had come to a conclusion that I had the mental space to reflect on the actual origin of temari sushi.
And then I went back to the beginning.
Japan was different then. I imagined wild flames consuming wooden villages while different clans clashed for control over land in the mid 7th century.
Then there was harmony. It was in Central Japan, a region covered in valleys of forests and surrounded by mountains, where the development and stability of a centralized form of government branched and held the nation together.
Joy and delight rang from the peals of laughter from men, women, girls and boys of the Imperial Court and the village streets.
They played an agile, coordinated game back then that involved bumping, nudging, punting and perhaps seventy other ways to keep a colorful woven ball in the air for as long as the group's energy and rhythm could last.
The beautiful, intricate, handwoven balls used for play with stunning visual effects — geometric, floral, folk and animal motifs and gradients — were each a striking and miniature piece of art called Temari.
Eaten from right to left, in the same way Japanese books are read, here are the ingredients listed from the paper menu about each piece of the seasonal, spring temari sushi box from Kashiwai in Kyoto:
Mussels - lightly roasted sea urchin flavor (sea urchin flavor which I thought was especially sweet and tangy)
Kanpyo (dried gourd) - boiled sweet and salty and edomae work (edo-style preparation involves pickling the crunchy and hearty ingredient with salt and vinegar)
Boiled shiitake mushroom - boiled, small dried shiitake mushrooms (earthy and hearty)
Saimaki shrimp - topped with ponzu jelly (ponzu is a mix of citrus, vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, sake, and dashi amongst other things)
Namafu - Mugwort wheat gluten with butterbur and miso flavor (wheat gluten is combined with mochi rice flour and steamed for a chewy, slightly sweet delicacy)
Omi konjac - mixed with plum jellyfish (crunchy, chewy, slightly salty and sour)
Sweet and sour small sea bream - pickled myoga (myoga, also known as Japanese ginger, is slightly spicy, tangy and refreshing)
Raw yuba (tofu skin) - yuba sticks are cut into thin strips and boiled in a light seasoning, served with sakura-fu (delicate and spongy, topped with a chewy, pink and whiteish nugget in the shape of a flower)
Maguro no zuke - red tuna marinated in special soy sauce (a delicacy, inch thick slice, marinated until tender)
Young bamboo shoots - lightly boiled bamboo shoots wrapped in wakame seaweed (tender, slightly sweet)
Grilled conger eel - grilled conger eel from Miyajima with Japanese pepper (deep and rich charcoal grilled eel)
Smoked salmon - refreshing smoked salmon with herb scent (smokey with citrus)
Mackerel - wrapped mackerel with abura in cherry blossom leaves (abura means oil, the cherry blossom leaf was aromatic and slightly minty)
Sea bream seasoned with kelp - sandwiched with konbu seaweed, and serve with ponzu sauce (the fish was almost translucent and very light, it's special to take note during a meal when it is the last piece of meat served)
Unbaked sweets - mix white bean paste with cherry blossoms (slightly sweet, smooth and chunky texture, tangy from cherry blossom)
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