I first had sushi when I was 12. I was at summer camp, and we took a trip into the city for the day. My friends – far more cosmopolitan than I – had been missing sushi ever since their parents dropped them off at Camp Ramah, and I, never having encountered the stuff, was nonetheless eager to tag along and discover the magic. The bus dropped us off at Faneuil Hall, and from there, we set out to find a sushi bar. Find one that’s crowded, they advised, as we walked along the side streets poking our heads into various Japanese restaurants. Never eat sushi if the restaurant’s empty.
When we finally found a crowded enough spot that they were satisfied, we sat down, wiped our hands, and prepared to eat. I was excited and curious – and they were downright giddy, thrilled to witness the first time I popped a piece of raw fish in my mouth. It was a tuna roll – that’s where I started. And admittedly, I was afraid I wouldn’t like the texture, so I sort of just swallowed it whole. And then coughed. A lot. They cackled away; it was a grand time.
While the tuna maki is what sticks in my mind from that day, it was also the first time I tried miso soup, seaweed salad, and ohitashi. In fact, before that day, I’d never heard of any of the things we ate. Miso was a foreign concept, seaweed salad sounded awful (until I ate it), and ohitashi – well, my friend Jess ordered it, and I literally had no idea what’d be landing on our table. But out came a bowl of spinach, dressed with something delicious. And that, I happily gobbled right up – no gulping or coughing involved. I was hooked.
These days, I rarely order ohitashi. I can’t seem to resist the allure of seaweed salad. Just when I thought it might not be something I ate much again, I found out how easy it was to make the stuff at home. Now it’s a whole different ballgame; now I definitely don’t order ohitashi in restaurants.
Sorry – let’s take a step back. Ohitashi: a cold marinated spinach salad, with soy, mirin, and sesame seeds. Secret ingredient: katsuobushi, which are dried flakes of bonito, a small, japanese fish not unlike mackerel. Bonito, like miso, is an umami-bomb. It makes everything taste super delicious. Super-delicious: that’s a technical term.
Katsuobushi smells like stinky cheese, only a bit worse. Think fish sauce. It tastes totally un-stinky, though. If you’re nervous about it, just remember that dashi – the basis of miso soup, soba broth, etc – is made with bonito flakes. If you’re still nervous, skip it. The salad will be great without it, and also vegan.
Sushi bars make ohitashi with spinach, but it’s great with any green – chard, collard, you name it. Kale would be even more firm, but it’d still be great.
One more note about ohitashi: it isn’t the sort of salad composed of light, airy leaves kissed with vinaigrette. The greens are blanched, then drained, then mixed with the dressing and allowed to just hang out for a while. At sushi bars, they wrap the spinach around itself, so the salad comes in a tight coil that you peel apart as you eat. That’s why it’s served not on a plate, where the greens can breathe, but in a little bowl. Sort of like miso soup, come to think of it.
But everything is flexible. Spinach or chard, plates or bowls, bonito flakes or not. It’s just a straight-up good salad. The world needs more of those, don’t you think?
adapted from a recipe on Food52
serves 4 as an appetizer
9 oz (about 12 cups) chard, rinsed and sliced into thick, bite-sized ribbons
1/4 cup light soy sauce (not low-sodium – usukuchi; or just use whatever soy sauce you have)
1/4 cup mirin
2 teaspoons sriracha (more to taste)
1-inch knob of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
1/4 cup lightly packed bonito flakes (feel free to skip if you wish)
Bring a pot of unsalted water to a boil. Once the water is boiling, add chard – you may need to do this in a couple batches – and blanch, just until softened, 1-2 minutes. Strain chard – if you’re particular, shock it in an ice bath; I’m not – and set aside. You’ll see that the chard has wilted considerably and is about a tenth of its former size. Don’t fret.
Meanwhile, make the dressing: combine soy sauce, mirin, sriracha, and ginger in a medium-large bowl.
Transfer the chard into the bowl with the dressing, and mix the two together using a fork to coat all the chard in dressing. Transfer the mixed salad into the fridge, and let sit at least one hour before serving. Believe it or not, this gets better the longer it sits.
To serve, scoop the chard into small bowls, and top with a sprinkle of sesame seeds and a pinch of bonito flakes. Eat up.