The bento-box craze has yielded a number of intriguing cooking concepts, not the least of which is the idea of turning chicken into ham. "Torihamu," it’s called in Japanese, literally "bird ham."
The idea is to approximate the curing process for ham through a 48-hour soak in salt and a mix of sweeteners, sometimes with dry herbs added.
M. Nishimura recalls reading about the process several months ago but can’t lay her hands on the article. There are hundreds of recipes in Japanese for making and using torihamu, but for English speakers the Internet is the best resort. Many food blogs and websites are circulating versions of one basic recipe.
Now, anyone who tells you that torihamu is just like real ham is overpromising. What you get is a texture reminiscent of ham and a flavor like a very good deli chicken cold cut, which is still saying a lot since it’s much cheaper to make your own and much better for you without all those preservatives.
To get started you need a couple of large chicken breasts, a plastic bag, salt and your choice of sweeteners (mix and match among honey, molasses, white and brown sugar). Imagine brining a turkey — it’s a similar thing. After the curing period, you cook the chicken either by poaching or roasting. Poaching involves boiling water, adding the chicken, then letting it steep off the heat until done. Roasting is done on very low heat.
Some recipes call for letting the chicken sit several hours until the water cools, but I find that scary. Others call for cooking the chicken in a cocoon made of plastic wrap, but I find that scary, too. Plastic wraps aren’t designed for stovetop cooking (it says so on the box). If you think you’ll get better flavor or texture that way, proceed at your own risk. I’d suggest at least using one of those plastic bags designed for the oven.
I’ve tried torihamu twice, the first time using a honey-brown sugar combo and the poaching method. The result was a little blah, so the next time I tried honey with molasses and, in a blast of inspiration, liquid smoke. Much better flavor. I also did a test run with roasting, and found the texture to be more ham-like.
But the world of torihamu is filled with possibilities. Knock yourself out.
This recipe is based on general instructions posted on the websites wikihow.com and justbento.com.
2 plump boneless, skinless chicken breasts, 6 to 8 ounces each
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/4 cup molasses
1/4 cup honey
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon liquid smoke
Puncture chicken breasts with a fork all around. Rub salt well into chicken. Place in sealable plastic bag.
Combine molasses, honey and liquid smoke; pour over chicken. Remove air from bag and seal. Turn bag so chicken pieces are well coated. Refrigerate 48 hours.
Remove chicken from bag and rinse. Roll into a log and wrap with string to hold shape (this step is optional if you don’t want to fuss with it).
To poach: Bring pot of water to boil. Add chicken breasts and reduce heat to low. Simmer 5 minutes, then cover and turn off heat. Let chicken poach 45 minutes to 1 hour, until cooked through.
To roast: Place in 250-degree oven 40 to 50 minutes (chicken might look undercooked on the outside; cut into center to check for doneness).
Let cool slightly, then remove string and slice. Serves 4.
Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving (based on 6-ounce chicken breasts and 50 percent sodium and sugar retained from marinade): 160 calories, 1 g fat, no saturated fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 750 mg sodium, 16 g carbohydrate, no fiber, 14 g sugar, 20 g protein
Nutritional analysis by Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S. Write "7 Waterfront Plaza, Suite 210, Honolulu 96813. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.