Every country has its own assortment of fascinating kitchen gizmos waiting to be discovered. Here in Japan I tried to resist, thinking simplicity was best, but as soon as I clutched my first kitchen toy, I was lost - and that was over 25 years ago!
Now what could that small, shiny, copper basket with the screen lid be? Judging by its long, brass handle, it's obviously meant to be used over fire, but you could only pop 10 grains of popcorn in it. What's often in sauces or sprinkled on top of a number of dishes? Of course, a sesame seed roaster! Naturally, I had to have one. It works, but remember: if the seeds turn color, they are too well done, so be careful and keep shaking.
Tea is universal, but the staple tea of Japan is green tea (sencha) or roasted tea (bancha) brewed in pots without built-in strainers. Just look around--hand-made strainers of bamboo or wire mesh with or without stands abound. They are practical and beautiful.
Most countries have sieves; Japan's are handsome and easy-to-use wooden hoop ones. What I prefer for making soft and creamy puree is one that looks like it's made of black plastic mesh but is, in fact, made of horsetail hair. This traditional sieve provides the give needed to insure proper mushing and yet is strong enough to hold together. To use, rinse and lower over a bowl. With someone steadying it, put some well-cooked peas or other vegetables on top. Using a flat paddle, push down and pull to puree. Keeping the paddle flat to utilize maximum surface area is the secret. Wash carefully and dry well.
The 'cookie' cutter, although not used for cutting cookies, has reached an evolutionary peak in Japan where there exists a veritable garden of designs and sizes. Although meant for shaping vegetables, they can be used for cookies, pate, etc. Hint: cut hard things into slices before shaping, and use a pot holder to pad your hand if necessary.
Though larger, rice molds are available in nearly all the same shapes as the cutters. Each comes with a matching pusher. Put the rinsed mold on a wet cutting board, and stuff with rice. Press gently enough with the pusher so the rice just holds its shape (packed too hard, it tastes bad). Pick up the whole set and put it on a serving plate or tray. Holding the pusher steady, slip the sleeve up and out. Gently remove the pusher. Rinse and repeat. After a few tries, you'll get the hang of it.
The favored shop for passionate chefs looking for the best in kitchen toys is on Kyoto's Nishiki food market street. Aritsugu always has something amazing sitting in their window. Their specialty is knives, which is why I first went there. Lacking knowlege and cash, I was none too confident, even before entering. A talk with the master somewhat reassured me. Basically what he said was, 'Since you don't know how to use or sharpen the expensive knives properly, I won't sell you one. Buy a cheap one, practice, and when you're good enough I'll sell you a better one'! I found a shop I could trust, and ever since then I've been buying most of my tools there. Please note: they accept only cash.
Four more handy items you won't want to be without:
Here's something that looks like a twisted metal skewer. Welded on it are two loops tilted at opposite angles with the downside edge sharpened. Since you'll never guess, I'll tell you what it does: it makes spirals. 'So what' you say? Make one from a carrot and another from a daikon. Work them together, steam so they're still crunchy, put two or three on top of a steamed fish, and voila!-- instant dinner conversation topic.
Want to make lemon spaghetti? Use this handy tool with five tiny rings at one end, pull it around the lemon and presto!--little squiggles of lemon peel for garnishing chicken, fish, salads, pies, etc. Ask for a 'remon guretaa' (lemon grater).
If you want just zest (don't we all?), Japan has wonderful tin-plated copper graters that are completely handmade and incredibly easy to use. (Don't grate into the white part of the lemon--it's bitter!) The larger graters are more convenient and can be used for vegetables like potato, daikon, and carrots. Now that you've zested your lemon, you need this little bamboo gizmo to brush it off onto whatever you're garnishing. No fuss, no mess, no nicked fingers. No kitchen should be without one!
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