Grandma’s inari are one of those special dishes that we usually only got to enjoy on special occasions when we were kids. The most memorable of these occasions was New Year’s Day, when the whole family would get together and enjoy a buffet of traditional and not-so-traditional New Year’s foods like sushi, tai, gobo beef rolls, teriyaki chicken wings, kurikinton, kuromame, rolled kombu, sweet and crunchy tiny fish, daifuku, rainbow jello sandwiches, and Chinese chicken salad. One of my favorites was “football sushi,” as we called them, perhaps associating the chubby brown sushi with the New Year’s Day bowl games playing in the family room.
When I was a kid, my dad took me to my first sushi bar, where I asked for my favorite, “Football sushi, please.” The chef, of course, had no idea what I was talking about. After some explaining, I learned that they are really called “inari sushi.” The other thing I learned that day is that no one makes them as good as my Grandma’s. Although you can buy the inari ready made, and this is what most sushi bars use, I find that they are insipidly sweet.
It is said that these sweet, brown tofu pockets stuffed with rice are a favorite of Inari, the fox god. The simmered tofu pockets can also be used as a topping for udon or soba noodles–the noodles are called kitsune udon or kitsune soba which means “fox noodles”.
Grandma’s Inari (Football Sushi)
4 cups cooked rice, prepared for sushi
12 sheets abura age (thin, puffy, deep fried tofu sheets, about 2 1/2 by 3 inches square; pronounced with a hard G)
3 cups water
1/2 cup sugar
2 Tbs. soy sauce
1 1/2 to 2 tsp. salt
1/4 cup mirin
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds (optional)
Look closely at the abura age, although they are almost square, one dimensions should be longer than the other. Cut the abura age crosswise (across the long direction) in half. Alternatively, some cooks cut the abura age diagonally to make triangular pockets.
Place in a large saucepan pan of water and use a drop lid or the lid of a smaller saucepan to help submerge the inari below the water. Boil for 5 to 10 minutes to remove the excess oil. Drain and rinse thoroughly with cold water. Shake off the excess water and put the abura age back in pan. Add 3 cups water, sugar, salt, soy sauce, and mirin. Simmer for about 1 hour. Drain and cool.
Squeeze out the excess liquid. Carefully separate the two sides of the abura age to form a pocket, being careful not to tear a hole in it. This step may be a little challenging; I hold the abura age between the fingers of my two hands and use both thumbs to gently pry apart the sides. Alternatively, you could try cutting a pocket in the abura age with a knife, though the best time to do that might have been while they were still puffy before being boiled.
If you are using sesame seeds, sprinkle them on the rice and use the shamoji (rice paddle) to gently stir the seeds into the rice with a cutting motion, being careful not to smash the rice grains.
Fill each pocket with warm sushi rice, gently pressing the rice into the corners of the pocket. You want the pockets to be just full enough that they will stand on their own on a plate, but not so full that the inari pocket becomes tightly stretched or the rice bulges out the bottom.
If you like your inari more strongly flavored, decrease the amount of water in the simmering liquid.
Here is a basic recipe for sushi rice. I prefer my rice not too salty, so this recipe has less salt than most.
Shari (Rice for Sushi)
2 cups (360 grams) sushi rice (I use koshi hikari)
19 ounces water
2 inch square piece of kombu seaweed
1/4 cup rice vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 tsp salt
Put the rice in a mesh sieve. Put the sieve in a bowl that is just large than the sieve. Fill the bowl with cool water and use your hand to gently swish the rice around to remove the excess starch. When the water turns white, drain the rice and fill the bowl with clean water. Continue to swish and drain the rice several times until the water remains fairly clear. Drain the rice. Let the rice stand for about 5 minutes to drain completely. Put the rice in a rice cooker with 19 ounces of water and the kombu and cook. The rice should be fully cooked (not hard in the middle) but not mushy. If the rice is still hard, add more water and continue to steam until finished (being careful not to let it burn or overcook). If the rice is mushy, reduce the water next time.
While the rice is cooking, put the vinegar, salt, and sugar in a small saucepan. Heat over a low flame, stirring, until the salt and sugar dissolve. Remove from heat.
When the rice has finished cooking, put it into a wide flat bowl or sushi oke. While the rice is hot, sprinkle the sushi vinegar as evenly as possible over the rice. This can be done by pouring the vinegar over the back of your shamoji (rice paddle) while moving the shamoji over the rice. Then, use a cutting motion to mix and distribute the vinegared rice with the shamoji. Try not to compact or crush the rice. Use a fan to help cool the rice. Cover with a damp towel. Taste the rice. If you like it more or less flavorful, adjust the amount of sushi vinegar you use accordingly.