When it comes to loving japanese food, I was something of a late bloomer. In our town, the only ‘asian’ place was sandwiched between a Food Lion and the New Creations Hair Salon. The General Tso’s, about as American as apple pie, was undoubtedly delicious. At the time, sushi was largely a novelty food. But when I finally ventured into the big city to try what everyone was talking about, I was not so beguiled by the raw fish or fermented soy. Instead, it was the technicolor green salad of seaweed that caught my attention and captured my taste buds.
Initially, I didn’t dare try to recreate asian food at home. The whole thing seemed in one sense completely alchemical. But in another, it seemed entirely dependent on the quality and availability of certain ingredients. There was no question as to why I wasn’t trying my hand at Tuna Tartare. At the time, there wasn’t a single grocery store within 200 miles of my home that offered a form of tuna that was not stuffed into a cylindrical metal puck, reeking like the ghost of lunch boxes past. And so, japanese food was something I never really experimented with.
Okay. If I’m being completely honest, there was one time when I tried to make homemade sushi for my then girlfriend (now wife). And now that I’m being fully transparent, I’ll tell you that the results were so disastrous that I question why she ever stayed with me. The rice, the component upon which all good sushi is based, was a culinary paradox: both mushy and crispy at the same time. The shrimp, forsaken and left to boil for nearly ten minutes, was so chewy that it seemed unfit for human consumption. The debacle quite literally left a bad taste in my mouth, and thus, I didn’t dare return to making asian food for the next five years that followed.
While the wounds of that first experience with sushi thwarted any new ventures in exploring asian food, that didn’t stop me from using decidely asian ingredients here and there. Toasted sesame oil found its way into dressings and sauces, chicken was glazed with miso and green scallions, sriracha swaddled everything in its warm embrace. It was something of an accident when I pulled from the fridge two dense chunks of daikon radish and a bunch of green onions. The sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, and shoyu were there for the taking. When I sat down to this very simple dish, the result was something very like that day I stepped into a sushi joint and had my first bite of seaweed salad: there was a moment of quiet pause, followed by a smile.
daikon radish, matchstick slices (about 3 cups)
1/2 bunch green onions, finely chopped
1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
Slice off the outer layer of the daikon radish until the inner white flesh appears. In order to slice the daikon into matchsticks, I begin by standing the daikon up and making long thin downward slices. I then lay these thin slices flat and cut them into long, impossibly thin sticks.
After preparing the daikon, transfer it to a medium bowl and season it with a pinch of coarse salt. Let this sit for 3-5 minutes to allow the salt to pull some moisture out of the radish. Then, with clean hands, firmly press the daikon and drain any excess moisture. The more dry the radish, the better.
To the radish, add the rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, and sesame oil and mix well. Then, add the chopped green onion and the red pepper flakes. Serve immediately.