Saturday, October 31, 2009

Counter Culture-Three Meals in Japan

The open kitchens in American fine dining are a relatively new concept. In order to increase the entertainment of its guests, restauranteurs began designing spaces that expose the action in the kitchen. This has been a long tradition in Japanese restaurants. We are all familiar with the sushi bar, but the Japanese ryotei seats guests at the counter of kaiseki tradition. On my most recent trip to Japan, I had three memorable meals at the counter, where the intimate interaction with the technique driven chefs exposes another layer of their skills.

Yoshihiro Murata received international recognition with his beautiful book, Kaiseki, the exquisite cuisine of Kyoto's Kikunoi restaurant. I always visit Kikunoi when I am in Japan. The service and style of the cuisine are very special. A kaiseki meal often begins with a course known as hassun (八寸), which is a presentation of many appetizers in a seasonal theme. The end of September hassun is presented in a cricket cage, with a sprig of hagi, Japanese bush clover. The cricket cage symbolizes the passing of summer's chirping insects. Removing the cage reveals the fall delicacies of barracuda sushi, ginko nuts, eel roe in mousse, grilled chestnuts, and other hors d'oeuvres, presented on a leaf of kuzu (arrowroot).

The kaiseki meal follows a certain progression, with appetizers followed by a clear soup, then sashimi, grilled foods, steamed foods, and so on. The beautiful lacquerware and seasonal motifs on the plateware are all a part of the experience. About half way through the meal, the chef uses a dish made by one of the greatest masters of twentieth century ceramics, Kitaoji Rosanjin. The dish imitates a painters palette, and facilitates six individual variations of texture and flavor. Here, the selections include (clockwise from top left) a terrine of mushrooms and ayu roe, duck breast with negi, braised satoimo (taro root), glazed scallop on a leaf of shungiku, asian pear and salmon stuffed with egg yolk, and a salad of shiitake and marinated shungiku (edible chrysanthemum).

This is the season for hamo, a seawater eel from Osaka Bay and the Inland Sea. It is larger and leaner than the freshwater eel unagi, but it is more seasonally celebrated. The many small bones are impossible to remove, so they are cut into tiny, edible pieces by a heavy knife known as hamokiri bocho. The sous-chef, Maruyama-san, told me his hamokiri cost about 400 dollars. He uses the hamo no honekiri technique to make the proscribed twenty cuts per inch (issun ni nijyuyon hocho).

A proper Japanese meal consists of shokuji (食事), serving rice, pickles and miso soup, which come at the end of the meal. Maruyama-san presents the rice course in an okama, an old fashioned earthenware pot that fits into a charcoal stove. Of course, a kaiseki restaurant will enhance these simple dishes with their own style. On this occasion, the rice has been garnished with uni and nori, and the white miso soup is pureed with yurine (lily bulbs).

The next meal would be my first time dining at Hisao Nakahigashi's famous restaurant, Sojiki Nakahigashi. It is a very small restaurant, and the seats are often booked several months in advance. Although the Michelin Guide only rates the restaurant with one star, it is one of the hardest reservations to get in Kyoto. The clever name of his restaurant is an indication of the chef's tsumigusa (foraged, or freshly picked) cuisine. The word sojiki is a creation of the chef, but it suggests "eating leaves or grass." There is a more subtle suggestion that it is an apothecary cuisine, of sorts, and it was this inclusion of wild and bitter flavors that I found fascinating.

The chef presents his hassun course on a leaf of satoimo, and garnished with a shaft of susuki, one of the seven flowers of autumn. In the glass dish is a wonderful salad of figs and white miso, a variety of nuts include chestnuts, a ginko nut stuffed with egg yolk, and broiled mackerel stuffed with walnut (amazing). There were also some tsukudani-style dojo, a small eel-like freshwater fish often caught in the rice paddies!

The chef's dishes are often composed of contrasting textures and sensations. He always offers seasonal variations of his koi zukuri, carp sashimi served with a salad of dozen vegetables and herbs, toasted sansho peppercorns, the famous natto made at the nearby temple of Daitoku-Ji, and a sherbet made of daikon! Alternating bites of the fish and veggies, dipped in the spicy sansho, the salty natto and the cool, refreshing sherbet stimulates all the senses, the tingling sensation of sansho gradually dissipating into the cleansing sherbet. It could be regarded as Nakahigashi's gargouillou!

The chef preparing a wonderful broth to serve with his rich line-caught hamo and ginger jelly, green beans, tomato and yuzu. The balance was perfection, acidic yuzu complemented by the rich and smoky eel with tomato, the brightness of ginger, and the slight bitterness of the yuzu peel. Over the chef's shoulder, a shaft of rice is tied to a paper-folded lightning bolt, a shinto symbol of respect for nature. You can also see his charcoal stove behind him with the okama inserts.

This is me enjoying a refreshing, crunchy salad of green beans, thinly sliced myoga, spaghetti squash, and purple chrysanthemum, with a dressing of sesame and white miso. This fresh and light course with its firm textures was a nice little intermezzo.
Another small course in the meal demonstrates several levels of the chef's genius. He does an exciting job of pairing his courses with a complimentary sauce, or in this case, a beverage. Fresh kyoho grape juice is served alongside a small salad of poached and peeled plum tomato, a salty and bitter pesto made of ayu (a small, sweet-fleshed entrails, a dab of hot mustard, and a slice of pepper served with its blossom. The dish was a marvelous combination of flavors, and I noticed that the glass was cut from the base of a European wine glass, an incredibly subtle and clever connection to the grape juice. The chef often uses several parts of the same plant in his dishes. In this case, using the pepper and its blossom. In another course with sweet potatoes, he also braised the leaves of the plant.
After the shokuji, which the chef serves unadorned (just plain white rice), the chef scrapes the sides of his okama for a special treat. The rice crust that has caramelized to the bottom of the pot is called okoge, a crunchy snack that is fun and tasty with the toasted green tea served after the meal. This reminded me of my days in Switerland serving fromage fondue in earthenware pots. When you reached the bottom, the cheese had caramelized into a layer that you peeled off and pop in your mouth. They called it la religieuse.

The meal at Sojiki Nagakigashi is always concluded in the same way, cold coffee, burnt sugarcane candies and a rare, unsalted cheese from Shiga Prefecture. It is such a little known product that many of my Japanese friends had never heard of it. This was really an inspiring meal for me, reflecting a style of cooking from a mostly bygone era.

Once I returned to Tokyo, I had my first three star dining experience. Chef and owner Toru Okuda of Koju has received a lot of accolades for his small Ginza restaurant. As would be expected from a three star restaurant, the service was great and the glassware and plateware were beautiful, but his style was unique and very classy. The plates were mostly rough and unglazed ceramics, and the glassware was sleek and modern. It made for a nice contrast. The first course was grilled abalone, sliced and served with lime and salt. This is one of the chef's departures from traditional Japanese seasoning of wasabi and soy sauce. Very minimal to let the natural flavors shine.
In the sashimi course, the chef invites the diner to evaluate the flavor of lime and salt against wasabi and soy. Two pieces of each cut are offered for comparison. There were four types of sashimi. Two cuts of tuna, the chutoro from the highly prized middle section of the belly, and akami, the familiar deep red loin section, squid (which is always one of my favorite sashimi items in Japan, but something we rarely see in America), and madai, a sea bream which the Japanese regard as the king of fish, served here with the skin. I found that the tuna was best with wasabi, while the other two were best with lime and salt.

Here, chef Okuda slices barracuda rolled with matsutake and grilled. You can see that there is no bar or counter between the diner and the chef's work table. It was as if he were on the other side of the dinner table, a very open design which requires impeccable cleanliness and technical finesse at all times, a lot of fun to watch.

This is the yakimono, or grilled course, decorated with autumn leaves of maple and magnolia. The rolled barracuda, unagi served both shirayaki (unseasoned) and kabayaki (glazed with sauce), accompanied by ginko nuts and tatami iwashi, a toasted cracker made of tiny sardines, dried and pressed into thin sheets. Beautiful and tasty! This was one of the few glazed plates used in the meal, with the shine and color imitating the autumn leaves garnishing it.
Japanese kaiseki always gives a very strong impression of time and a connection with nature that I adore. As is always the case with something so seemingly simple, it requires an enormous amount of work to make something so minimal into something so rewarding.

Fruit & Vegetable Compression

Over the past few years, several cookbooks have hit the shelves detailing the techniques of "sous-vide" cookery. Although this is a huge topic of it's own, I want to address one of the simplest techniques that can be applied using a vacuum sealing machine: compression. This is not really an accurate term to describe what happens, but for the sake of familiarity, I will address it as such. Certain vegetables, like cucumber and tomato, and certain fruits, like watermelon and apple, are very porous, with thousands of hollow little cellulosic bubbles of air. Their textures are light and sometimes crisp. The compression technique simply employs vacuum sealing these foods with a flavored liquid. No cooking is required, just vacuum sealing! What happens inside is not really compression. All the air in those porous cell walls is EVACUATED from the fruit and the bag by the vacuum created. The liquid in the bag then floods into these cells and creates an entirely new texture; an opaque persimmon sealed with lime and salt becomes translucent; a crisp slice of watermelon sealed with olive oil becomes dense and substantial.
This first picture shows a very interesting crab apple from Queener Fruit Farm in Scio, Oregon. It is enormous in size, larger than a red delicious apple, with a russet skin and a beautiful, marbled red and white flesh. Tommie & Peter say it is called the Russian Giant Crab. It's not terribly delicious in the raw, but it does maintain it's beautiful color when cooked. That got us to thinking about how we might transform it into something delicious.
We peeled the crab apple and sealed it in a bag with some of Tommie's apple cider, lemon juice and salt. After about 20 minutes, all of the once porous cells have filled with liquid. The once light, crisp and bland flesh is now bright, succulent and flavorful. Now, we can use it to create interesting contrasts of texture and flavor to garnish duck breast with buckwheat noodles and porcini. The last picture shows the garnishing ingredients of Spitzenburg apple, curled green onion, calendula, and compressed crab apple with red currant preserves.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Japanese Cookbooks

On my most recent trip to Japan, I scored some great new cookbooks. As I was thumbing through them (from right to left), a few notable differences struck me. Cookbooks and magazines everywhere have become more dependent on photography to atract buyers, but the photos and the page layouts were very different in Japanese books, and they tell us a lot about how we differ as a culture and as cooks.

Seasonal Beauty at Kikunoi

This beautiful book hit the shelves in English just weeks before my first trip to Japan in autumn of 2006. The chef, Yoshihiro Murata is the third generation chef of the family restaurant, Kikunoi. The book is divided into four chapters addressing the four seasons. The innovation of the book is that it often has a full page photo of his dishes with a description of its inspiration and meaning on the opposite page. It also displays the beautiful dishes and lacquerware that kaiseki is often served in, and how it is presented to the guest. All the recipes are presented at the end of the book in the appendix, not that the recipes are less relevant than the pictures. Murata-san is a very talented chef. The photography of the book is stunning, but the strength of the book lies in the stories that accompany his dishes, revealing both his innovation and purpose. Japanese cuisine, and especially kaiseki, is a highly seasonal and symbolic art whose meanings are often lost on foreigners. Kodansha (講談社) has been publishing in English for years, and are very experienced in translating for a foreign audience. I am greatly indebted to the chef and his publisher for the timing of this release, just prior to my first tour of Japan.

Two Books from Bunka Shuppan (sorry, in Japanese only)

This is chef Toshio Tanahashi's only recipe book, Shojin, Vegetables are Genius (精進、野菜は天才). I have enjoyed shojin ryori before I bought this book, but my appreciation has deepened tremendously since. Shojin is devotion cuisine, the vegetarian fare of the Buddhist temples. Although humble in origin, it is the predecessor of the tea ceremony and kaiseki cuisine. The chef ran a restaurant called Gesshinkyo out of his home in Tokyo for many years (read more about him here), named after the temple Gesshinji in Kyoto where he apprenticed. The publisher, Bunka Shuppan Kyoku (文化出帆局), like many in Japan, have been publishing books with step-by-step photography, showing how the recipes are executed, not just what they look like at the end. The page layout seems especially appropriate for Japanese cooking, since there is a great appreciation for appearance in the presentation of Japanese dishes. The book is divided into twelve chapters, and the pages reveal a few dishes from each month, as well as instructions and photos of technique, the appearance of the raw ingredients (shokuzai), and the ritual devotions of preparation. The most famous example of this is the chef's use of his ninety minute morning meditation to grind sesame in his mortar for the daily gomadofu!

Another great book from Bunka Shuppan is Grass, Leaf, Root (草 菜 根), by Hisao Nakahigashi. The chef is very famous for his foraged ingredients and his organic renditions of kaiseki. The name of his restaurant in Kyoto, Sojiki Nakahigashi, gives an indication of his style. Sojiki means "to eat grass," but the first prefix suggests that these grasses and leaves are medicinal. That is to say, his restaurant is like an apothecary. Indeed, one of his most defining characteristics is the presence of bitterness in his food, which people often associate with medicines, and his use of the whole plant in his dishes. If you are served sweet potato, it would probably be served with its greens, and the same would be true of peppers, carrots or lotus. If you are served a small fish in one course, you are likely to have it's roe or innards in the following course. The chef says his mentor instilled this approach-his mother. He does not seek the finest ingredients in the country, rather he has a great connection with local products. Only lake and river fish are served, local meats, wild vegetables, and he is intimately attuned to changes in the seasons. If the beans are tender in early summer, and starchy in early autumn, they are used for what they are instead of being discarded for the next prized commodity. And people respond to his cooking...the restaurant is often booked several months in advance! I like this book, because it features many forgotten ingredients that people want to remember, and the photography often shows the chef foraging or working with the farmers who supply him. These connections have become very popular in American cookbooks, but here the connection goes a little further to the source.

Reference Books and Everyday Cooking

Of course, it is not only celebrity chefs books that people want to read. I am always drawn to the detailed Japanese reference book. Whether it is about food, architecture, motorcycles, or electronics, the Japanese people have a penchant for diagrams of the smallest detail. This book published by NHK from their Today's Cooking series (きょうの料理), gives great instructions for the classic Japanese repertoire, more washoku than kaiseki. Photographs demonstrate techniques often hard to explain in words, from peeling a chestnut or cleaning fresh bamboo shoots, to simmering mackerel in a miso glaze. None of the techniques are very difficult, but the pictures reveal the simplicity of the steps and the beauty of the ingredients. Regardless of the level of difficulty, all these books have one common thread, an intuitive understanding of seasonality. The readers of these books have a great understanding of the seasons, and their Shinto heritage and traditions weave together these ingredients in a kind of story we may have once had, but have now forgotten.