I’ve inherited a lot of great traits from my parents: my extroverted nature, my creativity, my ability to talk for hours, and my love for Japanese food. Clearly order of importance does not apply to the list (or does it?). If any of my readers follow me on social media, they would see my intrusive love affair of Asian food through twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Thank goodness that Internet wasn’t developed later in my adolescence because if I had Instagram during my cognac years, you’d all be annoyed/angry out of hunger and poor picture quality (I was a horrible photographer at a young age…just ask my dad about a trip to Grand Canyon and the last time we saw our family camera). A place that you would have seen a lot of pictures from is our favorite sushi spot: Koi-San.
Koi-San is this amazing Japanese restaurant tucked in a standard suburban strip mall in Orange County. A no-frills restaurant that served quality Japanese food that followed the tradition of simplicity, freshness, and traditional ways. It was, although I was not aware at 8 years old, satisfying to know that this was my first endeavor into Japanese food. In a time when the beginning of the trend of big box Japanese/Asian fusions were created with Buddha statues dangling from the ceiling, fire coming from cocktails, and a sweet teriyaki sauce being added to everything in the menu, Koi-San sought to focus on the important thing: the simplest of flavors of the ocean in a casual setting. All of this was run by a husband and wife duo: Sam and Yoko. Sam, the trained sushi chef, worked the back of house and Yoko was in charge of the front of house. Although, upon entering the restaurant you would think that it was just an Aunt and Uncle inviting you to their home.
I credit my love for Japanese food because of Koi-San. When I was young, I would be so excited to sit at the sushi bar (a privilege that I thought only “grown-ups” where allowed to take part in). There where pictures and autographs of “B” and “C” list celebrities [Is Jose Feliciano still an "B" Lister?] on the wall, pictures of vacations that the couple have taken were plastered in sections of the restaurant, and in the background you could hear the soundtrack of a classic Japanese opera playing a hauntingly friendly melody. During the holiday season, it wasn’t a rare sight to see Christmas cards from customers adorned with family portraits hanging from the ceiling. This is how we knew that Sam and Yoko had not just created a restaurant that served guests, but created relationships that became family.
Sam and Yoko are unfortunately not with us anymore. Yoko passed away a few years ago and on a recent trip home, my Dad informed me that Sam had passed away unexpectedly a few months ago. I’ll miss them. Not just for the food, but for the qualities that they embodied: Yoko, with her child like laugh and her attempt to always sneak candy to me at the end of every meal. It was fun to watch her think of a strategy so that my parents, or other children in the restaurant, didn’t catch her passing on sugar to me. This continued well into my teenage years (although she still did it with the same mischief). Then there was Sam, who was stern and commanded attention. He had a razor like focus when it came to creating his dishes. Ensuring that the fish that he picked that same morning would be enjoyed for its freshness and flavor.
I still remember my first time ordering sushi without my parents’ assistance. I ordered, until I could handle raw fish and spicy mustard, a California roll without wasabi and a lettuce roll. The California roll was standard, but the lettuce roll was Sam’s invention. It was simply iceberg lettuce, sushi rice, and some secret sauce that he made in house. I really loved this dish. It was so simple in flavor yet complex at the same time. The crunch of the lettuce would blend with the creamy-ness of the sauce and tenderness of the shrimp. Beyond the blend of textures, you could taste the sweetness of the shrimp marry with the tang of the vinegar in the rice. It was fresh, light, simple and everything that reminds me of summers in Southern California. Sam and Yoko were a great pair. Although I never told them, they were instrumental in my appreciation of Japanese food and the hours, training and respect that a true sushi chef puts into their food.
1/4 lb large uncooked shrimps (about 6-8)
6-8 bamboo skewers
2 cups cooked short grain/sushi rice
3 tbs rice vinegar
2 tbs sugar
1+ tsp salt
1/2 c mayonnaise (of course)
2 tsp ketchup
1 tsp poppy seeds
1 head of iceberg lettuce
Simmer water in a large pot
Skewer each shrimp with bamboo sticks lengthwise to prevent the shrimp from curling while cooking
Lightly cook the shrimp in hot water until just cooked through.
Chill and set aside
Mix cooked rice with 2 tbs vinegar, 2 tbs sugar, and 1 tsp salt and let cool to room temperature
Blend mayonnaise, ketchup, rest of the vinegar, poppy seed, and salt to taste. Set aside until the rest of the ingredients are ready.
Remove large clean lettuce leaves and place a ball of rice in the middle of the leaf.
Top the ball of rice with a tbs of sauce and shrimp.
Wrap the both sides in and te bottom of the roll up to prevent the filling to come out (like a burrito)