As a food writer of the Northern Rockies who specializes in the preparation of local and seasonal food, I must come to terms with the fact that I will never write a story about sushi. Most of the hick mountain towns my readers call home don’t offer immediate access to the ocean and its fresh, sushi-grade fish.
This is unfortunate, because of all of cooking’s many realms, sushi-making is the area in which I have received the most formal instruction. When I was 16, I took an eight-week sushi class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, where I worked as a door boy. In class, we learned about much more than the preparation of raw fish. The teacher initiated us into the care and detail-orientation of Japanese cooking, which I believe is one of the most highly evolved cuisines on earth. Each morsel of food, treated carefully to bring out its best qualities, is combined with others in a simple, balanced and sophisticated way.
Here in the mountains, I try to put the same effort and attention into the locally available morsels. And sometimes I go to Sushi Hana, Missoula’s own top-notch sushi joint, for inspiration.
The other day I was there, waiting for my raw fish (flown in daily from Seattle), and the waiter brought a cucumber-and-fruit salad called sunamono. As I partook of its sweet and salty pleasures, I couldn’t help but realize that both the cucumbers and strawberries were in season, right here, right now. The salad also contained melon, which isn’t quite ready yet. But it hit me that I could substitute cherries for the melon and make myself a locals-only salad. Only problem was, the waiter was as tight-lipped as an on-duty samurai about the secret recipe, which he threatened to defend with all of his honor, if necessary. I bowed deeply, with all due respect, and shuffled on my way. Meanwhile, my heart was filled with determined certainty: It will be mine. Oh yes, it will be mine.
I got online and scoured the web, quickly realizing that there are two common spellings for sunamono: The other way is sunomono. Searching under both spellings yields a plethora of recipes, all of which contain cucumber. Some contain noodles, others contain prawns, or wasabi. None contained fruit. Meanwhile, a search for “cucumber strawberry salad” yielded a truly disturbing number of Jello-based recipes. Alas, the Sushi Hana recipe must be an in-house deal—hence the carefully guarded secret. No matter. When there is no trail, Chef Boy Ari is prepared to bushwack.
Back at the restaurant I had jotted down some of the obvious ingredients—surreptitiously, on a paper chopstick wrapper, so as not to reveal my true identity. Toasted sesame seeds, vinegar…I noted the absence of cucumber seeds, and the perplexing thickness of the delicate sauce.
Back at the lab, that thickness proved to be the biggest hurdle of all, because this dish can easily become too watery. I tried extra brown sugar. I considered corn syrup. Finally, on the third try, I settled on corn starch, my new favorite ingredient. After several more attempts, I got it.
And here it is, my sunamono recipe:
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 teaspoons rice vinegar
3 teaspoons Ume (plum vinegar, available in the Asian section of most stores)
1 teaspoon tamari
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 medium cucumber
Pinch of salt
2 teaspoons sesame seeds
2 teaspoons corn starch
1/2 cup each of cherries and strawberries (or melon)
Slice both ends off the cucumber. One end at a time, press the sliced end back to where it was connected, and swirl it around in a circular motion—wax on, wax off. This draws out the dry, bitter undertones of the cucumber in the form of a greenish white liquid.
Wash cucumber; discard ends. Peel cucumber (if you want to be slick, you can leave thin racing stripes of peel), slice lengthwise, and remove seeds with a spoon. Slice very thin. Sprinkle with salt, mix, and let sit in a colander. The salt draws water from the cucumber. Once in a while, stir the cucumber slices and squeeze them gently.
Meanwhile, combine the sugar, rice vinegar, plum vinegar, lemon juice and tamari.
Pan-fry the sesame seeds over med/high heat until they start to brown. Toss cucumbers, sesame seeds, sliced strawberries and cherries together in a bowl; stir in sauce. Let sit in fridge.
After half an hour, the salad should be very liquidy. Put the cornstarch into a little saucepan. Pour about 2 tablespoons of the liquid from the salad into the pan. Stir to dissolve cornstarch, and pour the rest of the salad juice into the pan. Heat pan, stirring, until sauce starts to boil and thicken. Cool, and then add the thickened dressing back to the salad. Chill and serve.
But if you prefer to use Jello as thickener instead of cornstarch, well…see if I care.