MARILOU Cantiller had a lot to live up to in the kitchen when she married Ken Hakuta. Not only was her mother-in-law -- who lives in Japan -- said to be a very good cook, but Ken had helped support himself at Georgetown University by catering sukiyaki parties, at least every other week, and for as many as 80 people. A profitable sideline it was, and a fitting prelude to his attending Harvard Business School.
In addition to all that, Marilou's culinary background was Filipino, not Japanese.
But now, after five years of marriage and an occasional brief apprenticeship with Ken's mother, Marilou is able to come home from work at the World Bank, where she is a research assistant in the legal department, and prepare a seven-course banquet in the Japanese style. She's so comfortable now with Japanese cooking that she can adapt it to the egg-dairy-wheat-nut allergies of their 3-year-old son, and is ready to discourse on the fine points of sashimi and tempura.
Ken, who who runs his own exporting business and consults at the World Bank, still keeps his finger in the pot, and knows the ins and outs of the local Asian markets. But the cooking has become largely Marilou's domain.
Dinner for eight one Friday began in the morning at the Maine Avenue wharf, the source for most of the Hakutas' fish for sashimi. "Friday was a bad day for fish," complained Ken. "Rockfish, which is usually plentiful except in the height of summer, was nowhere to be found." And the red snapper was not fresh enough. So they bought porgies, which are not used in Japan, choosing the freshest by the brightness of their eyes, the luster of their skin and the rich color of their gills. At the Mikado grocery, which the Hakutas consider expensive, they bought fresh tuna ("not as fresh as can be found in New York or Los Angeles"), fresh uni (sea urchin) and satsuma-age (fried fish cakes), which other stores sell shrink-wrapped but Mikado has fresh. "This is a standard department-store item," Ken said of the fish cakes, which come flavored with various vegetables or coriander leaves. Either sliced and eaten alone -- at room temperature -- or with sashimi, they are dipped in soy sauce and wasabi, green Japanese horseradish paste.
Marilou arranged sliced fish and uni on a sashimi platter -- a large antique imari plate which had been a wedding gift from Ken's parents and, being too large for the refrigerator, had been chilled with ice cubes -- along with sliced geoduck clams, red salted pollock roe and sliced avocado.
Avocado? No such thing in Japan! But the Hakutas have included it on their sashimi platters ever since a friend told them that if you close your eyes and eat just-ripened avocado, it tastes like raw tuna. "It doesn't taste like tuna," admitted Ken, "but it tastes very good." And it is far less expensive than fresh tuna. For dipping the sashimi, the Hakutas serve Kikkoman soy sauce with either wasabi or grated ginger -- but not both -- for each diner to mix to taste. Marilou always decorates the platter with daikon, large fresh white radish that she shreds on a plastic Japanese benriner (a hand slicer with changeable blades) and soaks in ice water, or carrots also shredded and soaked, alfalfa sprouts and shiso (perilla) leaves, which are available seasonally at Japanese and Korean food stores. She also includes the typical sliced pickled ginger, but the Hakutas make their own rather than buying it already pickled. The platter was further decorated with the plastic "grass" typical as a Japanese garnish, and fresh flowers, in this case forsythia and crocuses.
The sashimi platter was served in the living room, along with small bowls of sunomono, a crab and cucumber salad with sesame seeds and sugared vinegar. The Hakutas used to serve chawan mushi, a steamed egg custard, but have dropped it since discovering their son's egg allergy. White wine and sake accompanied the sashimi for adults.
After the cold seafoods came hot ones -- Thorny Shrimp Balls (their shrimp paste made without eggs these days) fried at the last minute, and another Washington adaptation of a classical Japanese dish, Smoked Salmon Scrap Tempura. The Hakutas buy the fatty fins and necks of smoked salmon, which Cannon's sells far cheaper than the midsections. But as Ken warned, "Sometimes their supply is wiped out, as it was after we bought all their scraps." They deep-fry the salmon, without batter, in oil, just until the skin is crisped but not so long as to dry out the insides. It is quite salty, and goes well with beer; the crisp skin contrasts nicely with the unctuous smoked flesh, and the fins are good for picking bits of meat.
Next the dinner party moved to the dining table. Shoes had been removed at the door, and guests knelt at a low table on a tatami mat. "Our house is not this Japanese usually, but it converts very quickly," explained Ken. In other words, the Western-height dining table had been removed, and the children's play table had been moved in, supported by Pampers boxes from the stock they keep for their three-month-old son, and covered with a large cloth. "The best height for a Japanese meal is the toddler-size 48's," cracked Ken. The boxes should be full, so that the table doesn't collapse, added Marilou.
Since the Hakutas had only three zabuton, the cushions for kneeling on tatami, they did without them at dinner; "It's a form of Zen eating," improvised Ken, explaining that Zen implies enduring some form of discomfort. The room was lit by a Japanese lamp made by Ken's brother, a Yale psychology teacher who makes shoji screens on the side. And the table was set with blue and white fluted imari plates and imari sauce dishes in gold, red and blue. "In Japan they have a plate for everything," Marilou has learned. In between exploring oriental groceries, the Hakutas shop at auctions, where they have bought most of their antique plates.
"In Japan, the more expensive a restaurant is, the larger the plates and the smaller the portions," said Ken. "The cheaper a restaurant is, the smaller the plates and the larger the portions. There is a standard joke that after every $300-per-person dinner (expense-account dining, of course) one is so hungry that one has to stop at the outdoor stand-up noodle stand to fill up on a $1 bowl of noodles."
All the rest had been prelude. Next came an enormous tureen of mizutaki, a soup-stew of chicken and vegetables in seaweed-fish broth with a dipping sauce of soy sauce with vinegar and lemon, and side dishes of scallions, chopped hot red peppers and grated radish which guests mix to taste in the soy sauce.
Most of the ingredients had been purchased at the Super Asian Supermarket on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, which the Hakutas have found to stock the largest and freshest selection of Oriental ingredients at the lowest prices. The shop is, however, weak in Chinese ingredients, they said, much better for Japanese and Korean foods. For Chinese ingredients, they tend to shop at Da Hua downtown.
By the the end of the mizutaki, the dinner had lasted three hours and stomachs were stretched to capacity. Dessert was a pretty little frivolity, the only thing not purchased in Washington for the dinner. Cherry blossoms and green leaves, fashioned from sugar and agar agar, had been bought from a store in Tokyo that has been making these confections "for hundreds and hundreds of years," according to Ken. The designs are seasonal, but whichever the flowers or fruits they represent, they are traditionally served in Japanese inns with bitter green tea, a welcoming gesture as soon as you check in. The candies were arranged on rice paper, each flower in a lacquered dish, on a glass table with a spray of cherry blossoms behind it. The branches didn't bloom until the next day, but Ken shrugged, "It's Zen."
By dessert hardly anybody was kneeling. Reclining was nearer the truth. Lest it appear that Marilou Hakuta had learned to be a typical Japanese cook-housewife, Ken explained to the guests (who were not by any means considering a stop at a noodle parlor on the way home), "Nobody in Japan prepares a meal like this at home. Nobody would even try to prepare this at home."
But in case you want to try, here are the Hakutas' recipes.
DINNER MENU Cucumber and crab sunomono Sashimi Satsuma-age Okasan's Thorny Shrimp Balls Fried smoked salmon Mizutaki Wagashi (festive confectionery)
CUCUMBER AND CRAB SUNOMONO (8 servings) 2 small cucumbers 1 tablespoon sesame seeds 8 ounces crab meat 1 cup rice vinegar 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon light soy sauce (or mix 2/3 dark soy sauce with 1/3 water) 1 tablespoon sugar, or to taste 2 thin strips of peeled ginger root, finely sliced
Select small, firm cucumbers (Japanese variety if available), wash and slice them without peeling into paper-thin rounds. Salt lightly and put in a colander; weigh it down by putting a plate or bottle on top in order to press out some of the liquid, and let stand for about half an hour. Meanwhile, toast sesame seeds in a frying pan over a very low fire; seeds are ready when they are uniformly brown and start hopping in the pan; set aside. Rinse cucumbers and squeeze lightly to rid of excess moisture; place cucumbers in a salad bowl, taking care to spread these on one part of the bowl only. Take the crab meat, which has been picked over to remove any cartilage, and place it on the other part of the bowl. Mix the next 4 ingredients together until the salt and sugar have completely dissolved; pour the mixture over the crab and cucumbers and let marinate until serving time. Keep chilled. At serving time, drain excess dressing. Serve in a small dish by arranging small heaps of cucumbers and crab meat side by side; if desired, add finely sliced strips of peeled fresh ginger root. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve.
On a large round chilled platter, arrange a thinly sliced selection of the freshest raw seafood available. Any of the following are good candidates when in season: tuna, porgy, rockfish, sea bass, red snapper, flounder, yellowtail and squid (which has been skinned and rubbed with salt to milky whiteness). Scallops, geoduck clam, sea urchin and salmon roe are special treats, which may be added to the sashimi platter. A Japanese friend has introduced us to the tuna-like taste of a just-ripened avocado as a sashimi dish -- it's an inexpensive, much more readily available substitute, and has a taste quite close to tuna, yet uniquely its own.
For garnish, any one or all of the following are suitable: Japanese white radish or daikon, carrots, alfalfa sprouts and shiso (perilla) leaves (available seasonally at Japanese and Korean food stores). The first two should be shredded in long strips (use two 4- to 6-inch sections) and soaked in ice water to remove the somewhat bitter taste of the radish and the oversweet taste of the carrots. Alfalfa sprouts should be rinsed, and the husk of the seed removed as much as possible. Chill, covered, after draining. Shiso leaves should be rinsed, patted dry and stored in a plastic bag in the vegetable compartment of the refrigerator.
For the dipping sauce, combine Kikkoman soy sauce with either wasabi (quantity depends on your taste) or grated ginger (but not both).
In addition, most Japanese restaurants include a serving of pickled ginger (shoga), which provides a refreshing, palate-cleansing taste, either between bites of different types of fish or between courses.
Mikado, the Japanese food store on upper Wisconsin Avenue, sells two kinds of freshly made satsuma-age, or prepared fish cakes. These make good hors d'oeuvre plates; just slice and serve with a dipping sauce. These should be stored in the refrigerator and will keep for about two days.
Dipping sauce: Prepare Japanese mustard (wasabi) according to package directions; serve satsuma-age with soy sauce and a dash of the mustard.
OKASAN'S THORNY SHRIMP BALLS (8 servings) 24 large raw shrimp, shelled and deveined 3 scallions, finely minced, white part only 1 teaspoon ginger root, finely minced 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon mirin (sweet rice wine) or 2 teaspoons pale dry sherry 2 tablespoons miso (soy bean paste) 1 well-beaten egg white (optional) 1/3 teaspoon cornstarch 2 2-ounce packages transparent noodles (cellophane noodles), cut into 3/4-inch lengths Oil for deep-frying Lemon slices and soy sauce for serving (optional)
Mash-chop shrimp until finely minced, at the same time adding scallions and ginger. When very fine, add salt, mirin and miso, and mix well. At this point, add 1 well-beaten egg white, if desired; otherwise, use 1/3 teaspoon cornstarch. Using either your fingers or 2 teaspoons, form shrimp mixture into small balls. Place cut-up noodles on waxed paper and roll balls over the noodles until they are nicely covered with the noodles; they should look like sea urchins or chestnuts with their fuzz left on. Cover and keep chilled. Remove from refrigerator about half hour before frying time.
When ready to cook, heat enough oil in a deep fryer, wok or deep skillet to cover the shrimp balls. Fry 3 or 4 at the same time, all the while splashing the oil over the balls. The noodles will puff up immediately; remove them before the noodles brown. They will take only a couple of minutes at most. The resulting shrimp balls will be white, puffy balls. Drain and serve, either by themselves, or with lemon slices and soy sauce.
FRIED SMOKED SALMON
Buy the part of the salmon just below the head; ask the fish dealer for smoked salmon scraps. Heat oil in a frying pan until almost smoking. Place the salmon in the oil and let fry until brown on the outside; do not overcook. The salmon should be crisp on the outside and moist inside. This makes an excellent side dish and goes very well with well chilled beer.
MIZUTAKI (8 servings)
Dashi: 10 cups water 4 strips seaweed (kombu or kelp) 1/2 ounce dried bonito fish flakes (katsuobushi) 4 tablespoons soy sauce 4 tablespoons sake (rice wine) 2 tablespoons mirin (sweet rice wine) 3 tablespoons sugar 1 teaspoon salt 12 to 16 pieces chicken, with skin on 2 large onions, quartered 3 large carrots, sliced diagonally in 1 1/2-inch lengths 1 pound napa cabbage (Chinese cabbage), sliced diagonally in 3-by-1 1/2-inch strips 1 pound fresh large mushrooms, with ends of stems removed, halved 12 to 16 scallions, cut into 3-inch lengths 16-ounce can bamboo shoots, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices 2 16-ounce cans shirataki (translucent noodles) 2 to 3 squares of bean curd, cut into 1 1/2 inch squares
Dipping Sauce (or Ponzu): 3/4 cup light soy sauce 6 tablespoons vinegar 6 tablespoons lemon juice 3 scallions, finely minced 4-inch piece daikon radish, finely grated 3 finely chopped hot red peppers
First prepare the dashi by bringing the water with the seaweed to a boil; let boil for 5 minutes, then take out the kelp strips; lower heat. Put in the fish flakes and bring to a boil for another 3 minutes. (Do not over-boil, as the resulting sauce will be bitter.) Remove from fire and, using a strainer, pour this into another pot to remove all fish flakes; discard fish flakes. Add the next 5 ingredients and let simmer over a medium fire; taste and adjust seasoning at this point by adding lesser quantities in the same proportions each of the soy sauce, sake, mirin, sugar and salt until desired strength is achieved. Add the chicken pieces and onions, making sure the dashi covers all the chicken pieces, and bring to a slow boil, skimming away any scum or fat. Simmer slowly, keeping the stock clear, until the chicken pieces are tender, 1/2 hour or so. This stage may be done ahead of time, the chicken pieces removed to another pot with some of the liquid, so they don't dry out, and the cooking continued just before serving.
Meanwhile, arrange the vegetables, which have been washed and cut, attractively on a large platter. Cover with plastic wrap and keep in a cool place until ready for use.
Make the dipping sauce by mixing the first 3 ingredients together. Place the minced scallions, radish and red peppers in three separate bowls, cover with plastic wrap and store in refrigerator until ready to serve.
At serving time, put an electric hot plate in the center of the dining table and bring the simmering chicken and stock in a nabe pot (or similar cooking vessel, such as flameproof pottery, enamelware or glass) to the table, together with the platter of vegetables and the ponzu (with its accompanying bowls of hot peppers, radish and scallions). Add a selection of vegetables, bean curd and noodles to the pot and let simmer until the vegetables are just cooked. Guests may be served from the pot or may help themselves; the chicken and vegetable pieces are dipped in the ponzu sauce as they are eaten (guests should be provided with a small bowl to mix hot peppers, radish and scallions to taste with the soy-lemon-vinegar mixture for their individual sauce).