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The cherry orchard

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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Are ants a regional thing? I ask because I've never had an ant problem at a picnic. It's always yellow jackets. The things just love me. I've only been stung a few times, but I remember every one. The itching — my God, the itching.

Wasps, as I would tell my analyst, are only one component of my picnicophobia. There's also the food, traditionally an afterthought. All kinds of Americana manage to weasel their way into the picnic basket: mushy potato salad, bland cold-cut sandwiches, soggy coleslaw. (And this brings up another picnic danger: WEASELS.)

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Laurie Colwin and I are picnic pals. "Many years ago I took a stand against picnics," she wrote in her classic More Home Cooking. "When dragged into the out-of-doors for lunch I would crab about sand in my food, yellow jackets buzzing near my drink . . . and I found most picnic food boring."

I love the great indoors, and my biggest fear in life is wet socks. So if you're going to lure me to a picnic, the food had better rock. (And the weather had better be perfect.) That's why we're going to put together a Japanese picnic.

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h3. Under the cherry blossoms

Have you ever discovered a whole world in your backyard, like in Horton Hears a Who? It happened to me.

Last year, in Betty Reynolds's delightful [%amazonProductLink asin=080483301X "Squeamish About Sushi"], I read that every spring in Japan, people picnic under blooming cherry trees. It's called hanami. 

"Eating portable foods and drinking sake while viewing the blossoms has been a tradition since ancient times," explained Reynolds in the book. Families and offices spread out blue tarps and eat and drink under the pink blanket of flowers all day and into the night. 

Meanwhile, my wife, Laurie, was reading about the same thing on Tara Austen Weaver's blog, Tea and Cookies:

bq. This time of year the parks in Japan are filled with friends and families celebrating the cherry blossoms. They sit on the ground under blooming trees and eat, drink, and make merry. They make so much merry that it’s not uncommon for some drunken soul to take off his necktie, wrap it around his head bandanna-style, and begin to serenade the group with silly love songs. 

"Hey, we have cherry trees in Seattle," Laurie pointed out. "We could picnic in the quad at U-dub." (That's what locals call the University of Washington.) So we packed brownies and set off, feeling very proud of ourselves for pioneering a hanami tradition in Seattle.

When we got there, we found hundreds of Japanese-American families and students sitting on blue tarps, eating rice balls. The university's cherry trees have brightened the quad since 1964, so I'm betting hanami has been going on there for longer than I've been alive. I wonder what we'll discover next year.

In a way, it turns out, our brownies were authentic hanami fare. "They get their onigiri, they get their bags of fried edamame, but it's a lot of junk food," noted Sarah Marx Feldner, the author of the new cookbook A Cook's Journey to Japan. Feldner and I were reminiscing about our favorite Japanese junk foods: green tea Kit Kat, Hi-Chew candy, and my favorite, a coffee-flavored M&M-like candy called Coffeebeat.

In another way, however, our hanami totally missed the mark. "I don’t know what you observed with people in Washington," said Feldner, "but in Japan, with picnics, especially like hanami, it is so much about the beer and the sake." 

If you're picnicking in a place where you can get away with this, drink up.

h3. What's in the basket?

WEASELS!

That got your attention, didn't it?

Let's begin with onigiri, or rice balls. These addictive bento-box staples are sold at every 7-Eleven in Japan and handcrafted by every home cook. They're frequently formed into a triangular shape and filled with a salty ingredient: flakes of salmon, spicy cod roe, pickled plums, or bonito flakes. Smoked ham is not a traditional filling, but it certainly is good. I've also filled my homemade rice balls with Korean barbecue beef. 

Onigiri are frequently wrapped with a small — or large — square of toasted seaweed (nori). Some people like their seaweed applied at the last minute so it stays crispy, while others prefer it soft and yielding, wedded to the rice. This is a good conversation topic if you find yourself at a hanami picnic.

Forming onigiri into a nice triangle is very easy — if you cheat and use plastic wrap. I learned this from a great blog called Just Hungry, which gives detailed instructions. This method is so easy that I nailed it on my second onigiri.

How about something meatier? Try and follow me here. In Japan, they take chicken meat, fry it in oil, and eat it later, cold, at picnics or out of a lunch box. Wacky, I know. I shared my recipe for Japanese fried chicken (karaage) in a previous column.
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Pickles are a must, and Japanese pickles (tsukemono) are easy to make — or buy.

In fact, any dish that works in a bento box will be just as good on a picnic. I'm going to make like Mark Bittman here and reel off a few ideas:

 Sautéed shishito peppers
 Sesame noodles
 Chirashizushi, made according to Tara Austen Weaver's recipe; it's one of the most addictive things I've ever eaten
 Inarizushi, or rice in a little tofu pocket

And how about egg-salad sandwiches? Japanese egg-salad sandwiches, that is. "We made them and took them on the picnic," said Feldner of the version she included in her book. "Those are legitimate picnic sandwiches." 

Made with Japanese cucumber, soy sauce, and rice-wine vinegar, they could lure even me and Laurie Colwin to a picnic.

p(bio). [matthew.reviews@gmail.com "Matthew Amster-Burton"] writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle.


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