What to Do With Your Fresh, In-Season, Raw Chestnuts ?
By Avi Landau
HOW I GOT MY STASH OF CHESTNUTS THIS YEAR
On a fine, fragrant autumn morning, I walked into the Azuma Community Center in Tsukuba . Peering out of the office, from the reception window, was a woman of a certain age- I recognized her as an acquaintance of mine. She does not know my name, nor I hers. In my mind, though, I think of her MADAM CHUZEN-JI. Thats because I know her from several events held over the years at the Chuzen-Ji Temple on Mt. Tsukuba.
After exchanging greeting I asked her if anything had been going on at the temple recently, but she said that she hadn`t been there for a while.
Then, an idea seemed to have suddenly crossed her mind. I could tell from the sparkle appearing in her eyes and the mischievious smile curling on her lips.
“DO YOU LIKE CHESTNUTS?” she asked? “Sure,” I replied, and before the word was out of my mouth she had disappeared from the office. I could just barely make out her urging me to ” Wait a moment, please!”
She was back soon, though- even before I had suffiicient time to comtemplate what I assumed she was going to be bringing from either her car or a back room at the community center- some of the Tsukuba area`s large and flavorful chestnuts- among the most famous in the whole country- one of the representative foods of autumn (along with matsutake mushrooms, mukago baby yams and sanma- pike mackerel)- and just in season at that moment (mid-October).
She appeared again holding a plastic bag heavy-laden, nearly bursting with KURI (the very chestnuts I had been comtemplating as I waited). I peered inside and saw the big, plump chestnuts from her garden- much more delicious looking than what you find at the supermarket, or foraging in the woods. I took one out, held it in my palm weighing its substantial ripeness and heft. I felt the thrill of the hunter-gatherers who cherished chestnuts in the Japanese Islands for millenia before rice cultivation was introduced ( and those people of yore could never have imagined such plump KURI, the modern product of skillful Japanese plant breeders).
As these prehistoric images danced in my head, she gave me instructions for the simplest way of preparing them.
SIMPLEST WAY OF PREPARING RAW CHESTNUTS
Boil for 30 minutes and leave a further ten minutes in the hot water
Eat by either cutting in half and digging out the “meat” with a spoon, or peeling the shell and skin with a knife (which can be tedious and time consuming).
Chestnuts not eaten right away can be frozen and reboiled anytime you want them
THE classical way of enjoying your chestnuts, however, is by making CHESTNUT RICE (KURI GOHAN or KURI MESHI). Many Japanese enjoy this dish AT LEAST once every autumn- as SEASONALITY is a key element in traditional Japanese cooking and Japanese culture in general. In October, you can buy packets of season-evoking chestnut rice in the food section of any department store (DEPACHIKA).
Most Japanese families have their own recipes, handed down from generation to generation, for making CHESTNUT RICE. It can be fun to ask your colleagues, friends and acquaintances how THEY prepare their KURI GOHAN, The variety is fascinating. Here are some of the ideas I have gotten from a survey I took this past week: I`ll begin with the simplest recipe and tell you how to get more complex.
SIMPLEST RECIPE FOR CHESTNUT RICE (KURI GOHAN) – for purists!
Put rice** into rice-cooker
Place chestnuts on top of rice
Cook as you would cook plain rice
When rice is finished cooking, mix chestnuts in
OTHER POSSIBLE INGREDIENTS FOR CHESTNUT RICE
As I have already stated, each family has their own recipe.
In addition to the most basic ingredients mentioned above, some add a little:
DASHI (Kelp stock)
I tried one recipe which called for adding
chicken mince simmered in soy-sauce, sake and sugar to the chestnuts and raw rice before cooking- the result was divine!
( but you can select any of the ingredients mentioned above, use them alll, or try any combination thereof, to add to the rice cooker when you make KURI GOHAN)
* There seems to be an overwhelmimg consensus backing the idea that using fresh RAW chestnuts (as oppossed to the packaged, precooked type) for your KURI GOHAN provides the best taste and color.
The problem is, though, that peeling chestnuts, which involves removing both the hard outer shell and then the thin astringent layer of skin around the edible fruit. is tedious and time consuming.
Apparently the effort is worth it. Here are some different ideas for making it easier to peel your chestnuts.
Soak in water overnight
Soak in hot water for one hour
Boil for a few minutes.
When you begin the actual peeling to slice away the bottom of the chestnut ( the oppssite side of the pointy end) and then peel away the outer shell by driving a fruit knife away from this sliced off bit.
You then have to carefully scrape off the brown outer layer until only the golden fruit remains.
Another factor that varies from family to family is the rice used. Some use regular rice only, while some use sticky rice (mochi gome) only- this is called KURI OKOWA intead of KURI GOHAN. The fact is, though, that most recipes call for a combimation of both types of rice: for example at ratios of 50/50 or 75/25 etc.
Experiment and find what feels best for you.
There is yet one more way to use your raw chestnuts- making SHIBUKAWANI (渋皮煮) which is a Japanese style marron glace. Though this is the most labor-intensive of the Japanese chestnut dish options, many housewives still make it every year.
SHIBUKAWANI means: STEWED IN ITS ASTRINGENT SKIN and as you can probably guess from the name, when preparing these chestnuts, only the hard outer shell is removed- and not the thin outer skin (though it is often rubbed with the thumbs).
To remove the atringency and bitterness (AKU in Japanese) the chestnuts are boiled in water and baking powder, for short periods- again and again.
When the AKU is removed the chestnuts are stewed in water and brown sugar- and a whole rnage of other possible ingredients- including liquor- i.e. brandy, rum. etc.
Like so many Japanese do, you can deepen your experience of the season with chestnuts, using one- or all of the above ideas. Then again, you could just pick up a packet of KURI GOHAN at the department store. Despite the efforts involved in preparing KURI on your own, if you take the time and trouble, you will discover that in cooking- more pain really CAN result in more gain !
From the Manyoshu Anthology of Classical Japanese Poetry (8th century)
When I eat melons, I think of my children
When I eat chestnuts, my longing for them is even worse……… (Yama no Ue no Okura)