Takikomi-gohan---Japanese mixed rice---is a dish that allows diners to enjoy the taste and colorings of Japanese rice at its finest. This is a traditional homestyle cooking recipe that adapts to include vegetables and seasonings according to the season, and sometimes draws on playful poetic or classical references to those ingredients. As it is cooked, the tastes of ingredients like seafood, mountain potatoes and taro root infuse the rice and give it an astounding mix of depth and taste. The fragrance and taste of the seasons are imbued in each and every grain of rice. Adding to this is the freshness and color of the seasonal ingredients against the backdrop of plain white rice. Because Japanese rice is cooked by infusing it with a high water content, the flavors and colors infuse the rice all the more.
Takikomi-gohan is a dish best enjoyed as a family, and each family has its own "traditional" ingredients and seasonings. But here are a few basic recipes that you can easily customize in your family.
Takenoko rice is a dish that heralds the arrival of spring. Takenoko are otherwise known as bamboo shoots. Because bamboo grows quickly, the window for harvesting and eating the shoots while they still taste good is short. This brief slice of time is itself one thing specific to the time and place to be thankful for. Because they tend to be bitter, it's good to parboil them with a little rice bran to draw out the bitterness. If you don't have rice bran, it's fine to use the water you've washed the rice in. After you parboil the takenoko cut into thin slices, you can add them to the rice with dashi broth and soy sauce. The deliciousness of this dish is in the way the crunchy "bite" of the takenoko meets the soft bed of rice and relays the freshness of spring.
Another recipe uses red snapper, whose color suggests the pink cherry blossoms whose bloom is on the horizon. Takikomi-gohan that uses this fish is called "red snapper rice," but because red snapper is something of a luxury food, people tend to eat it in restaurants rather than at home.
People often eat "mixed bean rice" as spring turns to summer. You buy peas still in the shells, like snow peas or snap peas, take off the shells and add to the rice, season them with cooking sake or salt and dashi broth and cook the seasoned combination in a rice cooker. The green peas make a striking contrast with the plain white rice, and the sweetness of the peas brings out the hidden sweetness of the rice, a perfect treat for the beginning of summer.
Fall. The season of the rice harvest, when season ingredients take a sharp turn, and the varieties of takikomi-gohan increase exponentially. First is "matsutake rice," full of mountain yams and fragrant matsutake mushrooms. Wash, then cut the matsutake mushrooms into thin slices, and add matchstick slices of fried marinated abura-age tofu along with konbu dashi, soy sauce, and cooking sake. The best part is the cloud released when you take the lid off the cooking pot to release the fragrant rice and matsutake mushrooms.
"Chestnut rice" is a perennial favorite in fall. Add peeled chestnuts to a half-and-half mix of regular rice and mochi rice and cook. The new rice and lustrous golden chestnuts make a stroking color combination. The deep sweetness of the chestnuts mixes with the mild sweetness of the rice to make a true fall classic.
A hearty seasonal takikomi-gohan can also be made with new rice and seafood such as oysters and saury that are abundant in the fall.
Sushi rice is rice seasoned for sushi mixed with other ingredients, and is another longtime staple of home cooking. For instance, simmered shiitake, simmered dried kanpyō gourd and vinegar-dressed lotus root mixed with rice are called "chirashi sushi." You prepare each of these ingredients as you would on its own, and then mix it with the already prepared sushi rice. The sweetness and slight sourness of each ingredient mingles sublimely with the rice. You can decorate it with strips of sliced thin omelet make it even more festive. This is a regular feature of special occasions. Though it typically appears at the girls' doll festival held each year in March, chirashi sushi is eaten all year long.
Another variety of sushi rice is inari sushi, the little pouches of fried marinated abura-age tofu stuffed with sushi rice that is flecked with seasonal vegetables. Inari sushi too are a year-round treat. Their name comes from the fact that the titular deity of many local Shintō shrines, inari, are imagined to love fried tofu, and the ears of one of their familiars, the fox, also resemble the wrinkly ears of the inari sushi when they are prepared. These are a very popular portable food, and the seasonings of their stuffing can vary widely according to the season and locale.