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Cooking Lessons From Japan

From a friendly and fast tutor in Japan, Debra Samuels's sesame dressing

For making sesame seed dressing, Japanese mortars and pestles: suribachis and surikogis.
For making sesame seed dressing, Japanese mortars and pestles: suribachis and surikogis.HEATH ROBBINS/Heath Robbins Photo

TOKYO - Some years ago, while living in suburban Tokyo with my husband and 18-month-old son, a kind neighbor took me under her wing and helped me navigate life as a working mother.

Akiko Nakajima moved at a rapid pace. She talked fast and taught me her speedy and delicious recipes. I have never seen anyone operate as efficiently in a kitchen as Nakajima-san, as I came to call her. I followed her around, jotting down instructions. “Wakarimasu-ka, Debbie-san?’’ (“Do you understand?’’) she asked. “Hai’’ (“Yes).’’ At least I hoped I did.

I learned my favorite sesame seed dressing recipe from her. We made it in a suribachi, a pottery bowl mortar with a brown glazed exterior and an unfinished pale grooved interior that looks like it has been swiped with the tines of a comb.

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Warm toasted sesame seeds are set in the bowl and crushed against the grooves with a tapered wooden pestle called a surikogi. The sound of the seeds popping, with their wonderful nutty aroma, is a warm food memory for me. Nakajima-san served it over a mixture of boiled spinach and crumbled tofu.

In “My Japanese Table,’’ a book with the many recipes I have learned over several decades of going to Japan, I embellish the salad with blanched bean sprouts. To make the dish, you have to drain the tofu or the salad will be watery. The classic way is to set the tofu on a wooden cutting board and place another wooden board on top, as a weight.

Now my Japanese friends often use the microwave for this task. Place the tofu on a plate and microwave for about 2 minutes. Drain off the pool of liquid that forms.

I now have my own suribachi and surikogi. But sometimes I make the dressing in a food processor because I usually keep a big jar of it in the fridge to spoon over steamed vegetables or fish.

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You see, Nakajima-san, I did understand.


Debra Samuels can be reached at debrasamuels@yahoo.com.