They may look like the shoelaces of a sneaker, as some of my students have remarked, but the long dried thin strips of kanpyo come from a large round gourd called fukube. The vegetable grows to an average weight of 12 pounds. After the harvest during the hot and humid summer in Japan, a machine peels the skin of the gourd and cuts its flesh into 1½-inch-wide strips. The strips are then bathed in strong sunlight for two days, which produces a concentrated unique flavor with a sweet acidic smell and bite. Good-quality kanpyo is the color of fresh cow’s milk with a slight yellowish tinge. Avoid brown strips, which have been stored too long, or ones that are too white, indicating that they may have been processed with bleach.
Prepared kanpyo maintains its taste and quality for three to four days in the refrigerator. Simmered kanpyo gourd is used over and over again in this book, so I suggest that you prepare a large batch and freeze it.
Before cooking the gourd, cut the strips into 8-inch lengths—the length of the short side of a whole sheet of nori, so the gourd strips fit precisely across it when you are making a sushi roll. In general, one package contains 1 ounce of dried kanpyo. When that quantity is cut into 8-inch lengths, you usually have 17 to 23 strips.
- 2 ounces kanpyo (dried kanpyo gourd) (2 packages), cut into 8-inch-long strips; you will have about 36 strips
- 2 teaspoons salt
- ¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
- ¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon shoyu (soy sauce)
- 2 tablespoons mirin (sweet cooking wine)
Place the kanpyo strips in a large bowl and add cold tap water to submerge and moisten them. Pour off all the water and sprinkle about 2 teaspoons of salt over the strips, then rub them in order to soften the fibers and also to clean the strips. Rinse under cold running tap water to remove the salt. Drain the strips and soak them in a bowl of cold water overnight.
The next day, drain the kanpyo strips and transfer them to a medium pot. Add enough water to cover them by 2 inches. Cook, covered with a dorp lid (see Notes) or a parchment paper disk, for 15 minutes, or until the strips are firmly done. To check, extract one strip and gently press it with your thumbnail. A sharp nail mark should be left on the surface (overcooking at this stage turns the strips unpleasantly soft so they tear easily).
Drain the kanpyo strips, discarding the cooking liquid. Pour the sugar and soy sauce into the cleaned cooking pot and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spatula. When the sugar is dissolved, add the kanpyo strips and cook them over medium-high heat, turning the strips frequently with a pair of cooking chopsticks (spiky metal tongs can puncture the gourd strips and damage them). When the cooking liquid is almost all absorbed, add the sweet cooking wine (mirin) and cook until it is almost all absorbed and the strips are coated with a layer of glossy, syrupy sauce. Drain the kanpyo strips in a strainer, discarding the cooking liquid. Turn the strips over several times to cool them off quickly. Store the kanpyo in the refrigerator or freezer.