Mon, Aug 12, 2019
Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs
The instructor started by spreading a precise amount of cherry blossom pink rice over a partial sheet of nori seaweed. Next, she enhanced both flavor and color palettes with a smattering of neon pink fish floss and a shock of scarlet pickled ginger. A thin row of shredded egg added a cheeky spark of yellow. She rolled these ingredients together into a slender roll, which she set aside.
These are the first steps for making an edible art most often called futomaki matsuri-zushi (thickly-rolled festival sushi) or just matsuri-zushi. It is the most iconic regional cuisine from Chiba Prefecture. Matsuri-zushi can be found in rural communities throughout the prefecture, though despite its widespread popularity there is little consensus about its origins. Some claim that matsuri-zushi evolved as an amalgam of other sushi styles; others say it was inspired by a favorite snack of faraway fishermen who used to chase schools of pilchard all the way to Chiba.
No matter how it was created, one thing is clear about matsuri-zushi: it absolutely must be shared. In fact, the intricate patterns disguise a significant amount of rice and fillings, so eating just one roll by oneself is a Herculean feat. This finger food is best enjoyed as a conversation centerpiece.
Our group also gathered to share this tradition. We learned the techniques at an old Japanese farmhouse overlooking recently revived rice paddies. We sat in a tatami room at low tables covered with mismatched bowls of different colors of sushi rice and other ingredients. For some it was our first time rolling matsuri-zushi, and for others it gave them the power to recreate childhood memories. In that farmhouse overlooking the formerly abandoned rice fields, we learned how to keep tradition alive.
After making the first roll, our instructor laid out a full sheet of seaweed and covered it with white sushi rice. On this field she formed two hills of pickled Toke karashina, spicy oriental mustard greens named for the neighborhood in Chiba city where they have been cultivated for over 300 years. These diverse flavors speak to both the deeply rooted traditions behind matsuri-zushi, and its embodiment of the ever-changing culture to which it belongs.
When sugar was an expensive luxury, serving sweetened food such as sushi was an act of generous hospitality. Still preserving this history, matsuri-zushi’s flavors and designs have also expanded to reflect contemporary Japanese diets; in one of our rolls, we complemented classic ingredients with a tuna and mayonnaise spread. Traditionalists might call this heresy, but as our instructor repeatedly told us: it doesn’t matter how beautiful or complex the matsuri-zushi is. If it’s not delicious, what’s the point?
Indeed, the point for me was being able to wrap my hands around the heartbeat of our little corner of the world. Chiba’s past and present – imported flavors and hometown original zest – are rolled together inside this delight for both the eyes and the taste buds. In its most simple role, matsuri-zushi provides both sustenance and unadulterated joy.
Finally, our instructor placed the first roll between the two green karashina hedges. Deftly wielding the bamboo mat, she carefully rolled them into one. Little by little the outer layer swallowed the inner core, until the edges of the nori came together perfectly without a millimeter to spare.
She cut the hefty roll into two, and turned the pieces outwards to show us the cross section. Even the most reserved members of our class squealed in sheer delight; inside the sushi roll, a rose had bloomed.
It is impossible to experience matsuri-zushi and not be moved to share it with everyone you know. The big reveal never fails to put a smile on someone’s face, and the care needed to make it conveys more gratitude and love than any language could ever hope to express. This same level of care is also the reason why the sushi has largely escaped commercialization. So treasure any chance you have to try matsuri-zushi, because it means your host is wholeheartedly sharing with you an intimate piece of the authentic Chiba history, culture – and most importantly – joy.
(Photos courtesy of Tori Proctor)
Tori is originally from Plano, Texas, in the United States. When she first came to Japan as an exchange student in 2015, she wanted to know more about other cultures’ methods of community engagement, so she researched Ainu culture and activism in Hokkaido and served the homeless population in Tokyo. Inspired by her service experiences in Japan, she came back via The Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme as soon as she graduated to work as a Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) for the Chiba city government. Her term as CIR ended in July 2019.
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