Friday night, October 12th, at the Matsuri Restaurant kitchen, where volunteer twice a week...
The kitchen "swimming" in sea of orders tonight, as Chef Ono put it -- 350 guests plus a party of 80. During a break in the action, finally, around 11pm, I noticed Ryu, the chef-de-cuisine, tending to a large mixing bowl filled with salted water and two dozen clams. I ambled over. "Their tongues are sticking out," he said as he poked one of them. Ryu has been resting the clams for several hours, giving them a chance to disgorge the sand and other gunk between their hard shells; the water has become brackish and muddy. "As soon as they're clean, I'm going to prepare them saka-mushi," he said.
While Japanese eat fish, shrimp, even chicken and horsemeat raw, shellfish is typically cooked. I asked the Chef why. "When you cook clams and oysters you bring out their natural flavors," he said. When they're cold and raw -- the way we eat them in America -- you don't taste as much. Saka-mushi is a traditional preparation where the clams are steamed in sake. The sake takes away the gaminess of the clams as the alcohol evaporates, the chef explained. "Use just a little sake, so it doesn't overpower the flavors and liquids released by the clams."
"Touch as little as possible," is one of Chef's mantras of Japanese cooking. This simple recipe that he shared with me stays true to this philosophy:
- Dozen clams
- 1/2 cup sake (use a junmai "everyday" sake -- not a fancy one)
- 1 teaspoon usukuchi soy sauce (light colored soy sauce)
- 1 tablespoon thinly sliced scallions
- Soak clams in lightly salted water for at least 4 hours (overnight is ideal). Change the water when it becomes cloudy
- In a medium saucepan, add the clams and sake, cover and heat
- When clams open (about 3-5 minutes), turn off heat and mix in the soy sauce
- Transfer to a serving plate, garnish with scallions and serve
- Add grated yuzu skin (Japanese citrus) in addition to scallions
- Squeeze a drop or two of fresh ginger ("shizuku" - a tear drop, as they say) to add another layer of flavor
- If you want to turn this dish into a soup, add a half cup of water with the sake when you begin steaming
- Works with mussels and oysters, too