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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 17, 2010

'Ham' from chicken

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By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

One way to enjoy torihamu is in a sandwich, with ripe tomato, mayo and good bread.

Photos by DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The chicken can be cooked trussed.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Torihamu is a Japanese alternative to cured meats, made at home with chicken breast. Choose large, plump, skinless pieces, trim fat, and marinate for two days before cooking.

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Literally, "bird ham."

It's skinless, boneless chicken breast, marinated in a sweet-salty brine, then poached or roasted.

Never heard of it?

Here in America, you're not alone.

In Japan? Not knowing what torihamu is would leave you very, very alone.

According to an article by Webmistress Makiko Itoh, founder of www.JustBento.com, torihamu swept Japan eight or nine years ago, born of the cutting-edge Japanese online community 2ch (aka 2-Channel) and popularized by www.Cookpad.com, a Japanese-language site that boasts one of the largest recipe archives in the world, including more than 300 recipes for making and using torihamu.

Torihamu appears as a standard ingredient in contemporary Japanese cookbooks and is a common feature in packed lunches in that bento-crazed country.

Unless you read Japanese, however, your torihamu research will come to a frustrating halt at a handful of English-language Japan-themed sites such as Itoh's.

One who has heard of torihamu is Jeannie Sakamoto of Pearl City, who learned about the dish when visiting cousins in Tokyo. "They make it all the time and here's what's funny my cousin thought it was an American invention. She couldn't believe I'd never heard of it or eaten it."

Sakamoto, who enjoys making bento for her 6-year-old's school lunch, and who packs her construction worker husband's lunchbox daily, always has a roll of torihamu in her refrigerator now.

Should you try it out? Asked Sakamoto, "Have you checked the per-ounce price of cold cuts lately?" Compare that to the per-ounce price of family-size packages of skinless, boneless chicken breasts, especially when they're on a special sale, she suggested.

All it takes is a little time and a few readily available ingredients to create this lunchmeat alternative. And torihamu is versatile: add strips to salads, top saimin with rounds, slice it for sandwiches, chop it up and mix it into meshi rice, bathe it in a sauce, bake it into a chicken pot pie.

You can season it as you wish, with herbs, spices, chilies or aromatics. Sakamoto takes a Japanese path with torihamu, poaching the marinated chicken in a light dashi (fish broth) flavored with fresh ginger, garlic and a few splashes of shoyu.

Torihamu does require 48 hours or more to cure properly, but only a tiny fraction of that time involves active work. Here's the basic technique:

• Choose large, plump skinless, boneless chicken breasts.

• Trim meat of fat and pierce all over with the tines of a fork or a bamboo skewer.

• In a zip-closure plastic bag, combine seasonings. For every chicken breast, you need 1 tablespoon EACH sweetener (honey, brown sugar, white sugar, molasses); sea salt and coarse black pepper and your favorite dried herb or herb mixture. Thyme is common, but use whatever you like.

• Place the chicken in the bag and squish and mush it around to coat. (Some recipes suggest rubbing the salt, pepper and herbs into the meat first, then placing it in the bag and adding the sweetener.)

• Place the chicken in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Remove, drain excess liquid and return to refrigerator for a further 24 hours.

• Pour off marinade and rinse chicken in cold, running water. Pat dry.

At this point, you have a choice: You can poach the chicken in simmering water as is. You can roll the chicken up into a log, secure it with a toothpick, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and then foil and poach it. Or you can roll it up, truss it with cotton kitchen string and poach or bake it at a low temperature. Some recipes suggest bringing the chicken to a boil, then turning the heat off and allowing it to sit until cold.

Web writer Itoh prefers to bake the chicken; she thinks it lends the meat a finer texture. However, poached torihamu has a more moist texture. Based on my kitchen tests, both methods work well. My personal preference is to roll, truss and poach "naked" (not in plastic wrap).

Slathered with mayonnaise, paired with juicy fresh tomato and served on good artisanal bread, torihamu has fast become a favorite in my house.