On a recent trip to visit our daughter in Japan, I found the diversity of food fascinating, but almost intimidating in its scope and variety. We were staying in her apartment in Tokyo’s Aoyama district, and on our first night we popped out to a corner pub (izakaya) for a quick bite.
The food was simply prepared in a tiny kitchen and served at the bar with no fuss. We had marinated grilled chicken, a lovely dish of miso-scented aubergine and tofu, slices of avocado and freshly caught grilled fish. We chose tap beer to accompany our feast and it was a relaxed evening with fairly familiar food.
The next night we went to Narisawa, named in the San Pellegrino Top 50 restaurants of the world. The atmosphere was slightly formal, yet this experience was also relaxed and friendly. We were served world-class cutting-edge food, beginning with the theatrical touch of doughy chestnut bread cooked at our table over a stone heated to 300°C. This marked the start of a series of complex courses.
An astonishing amount of work had gone into every dish. It was late autumn and everything on the plate was in harmony with the season: prized matsutake mushrooms, late-season vegetables, sea urchin, langoustines, aged beef and more. My favourite dish was a purée of aubergine, cloaked in shiny gelatine film studded with tiny edible late-season flowers. It was colourful and delicious and not like anything I’d eaten before. We shared a bottle of savoury burgundy, finished with a special Japanese whisky, then reeled at the expense of the experience.
Over the following week we tried a variety of cuisines, and it became apparent that the Japanese place great importance on their food, regardless of whether it’s street snacks or fancy fare in serious restaurants.
We tried bowls of ramen noodles, slurping them up with the snacks that top each serving; meals based around the silkiest tofu; morsels of vegetable, meat and fish cooked over a charcoal robata grill; a touristy but excellent seafood restaurant with a breathtaking variety of fish dishes; and a couple of kaiseki meals in places where no English was spoken and where we ate through a set menu of tender treats, some of which remain unidentified. Three things became clear: the seasons were of prime importance; there were distinct regional cuisines; and everything on our plates was there for a reason.
I am bemused by the “shock, horror” response to the recent revelation that people have been eating horsemeat. In an oden restaurant in Tokyo’s Ginza district, we were served a range of fish cakes, tofu cakes and vegetables that have been simmered in a miso-soy broth. Then our host knowingly winked at me when tender sweet chunks of fine-grained meat were served. I knew immediately this was horse, having eaten it in France and New York years ago. My husband and daughter loved it, proclaiming it the best beef they’d ever had. I didn’t tell them what it was until we got back to the apartment. They were fine about it.
The most impressive (and most expensive) meals were in sushi restaurants. In most New Zealand cities, sushi has become a first food choice for lunch on the run. But in Japan, it is an art form.
The best places are tiny, like the one in which we ate near Kanazawa, where there were only seven places for diners at the sushi bar each night. Course after course was prepared in front of us from seafood caught that morning. It was all expertly cut and served as sashimi or as nigiri (seafood on top of tiny pads of freshly made sushi rice). The occasional morsel of grilled fish was served and we ate our way through almost every variety of shrimp, scallop, crab, sea urchin and fish in the North Japan Sea. After about 20 or 30 tiny courses (I lost count), we were served a comforting broth to signify the end.
In New Zealand, if I want top-notch Japanese food, I prefer to eat out, but with the help of two new books (see box above), I have started preparing a few home-style dishes. Both the following recipes are adapted with the kind permission of the authors.
CORN KAKIAGE FRITTERS
- 6 young corn cobs
- 2 spring onions, sliced into fine rings
- best-quality peanut or grapeseed oil
- 1 cup (150g) high-grade flour
- 1 cup (250ml) cold sparkling water
- 1/4 tsp fine white sea salt
- 6 large ice cubes
- fine white sea salt or organic soy sauce for dipping
Set the cobs in a large bowl and use a sharp knife to cut off the kernels. After all the kernels have been removed, go over each cob with the back of the knife to remove the last bit of corn. Add the spring onion to the bowl and toss the mixture with your fingers to break up any kernel clumps. Line a baking sheet with a thick layer of newspaper then place a layer of paper towels on top. Set next to the stove.
Add oil to a depth of 5cm to a 20cm frying pan, then warm it over a low heat. Whisk the flour with the water and salt in a medium bowl. Add the corn and onion mixture to the batter, then add the ice cubes and stir. Remove the ice cubes. Increase the heat under the frypan to medium-high; the oil should not be smoking. Before starting to cook, test the temperature with a drop of the batter. As soon as it hits the oil, it should sizzle and form a small ball, but it should not brown.
Use a soup ladle to put 4 individual scoops of batter into the pan. Cook the fritters over medium-high heat until golden brown on the bottom – about 5 minutes. Carefully turn over and cook the other side until they’re golden brown and the oil bubbles have largely subsided. Drain the fritters on the paper towels, then cook a second batch. Eat immediately with sea-salt flakes or soy sauce.
Serves 4, with 2 large fritters each.
Wine match: chardonnay or ice-cold beer.
TONKATSU PORK CHOPS
- 4 (150g each) thick boneless pork chops or cutlets
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 6 tbsp plain flour
- 3 eggs at room temperature
- 1 cup panko crumbs
- 3 tbsp grapeseed oil
Lightly salt the meat, then place between 2 pieces of plastic wrap. Pound lightly but evenly with a meat mallet or rolling pin to spread them out a little. Remove the paper and sprinkle generously with flour to coat, shaking off the excess.
Beat the eggs in a shallow bowl and place the panko crumbs on a plate. Dip each chop or cutlet into the egg, then dredge in the panko crumbs. Place the crumbed pork pieces on a dinner plate and cover with plastic wrap until needed. They can be refrigerated overnight, then brought back to room temperature before cooking.
Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Once the oil is sizzling, fry the cutlets until golden brown – about 2-3 minutes per side. They should be slightly pink in the middle, but they can be cooked longer if you prefer. Serve with finely sliced raw cabbage dressed with a citrusy dressing and store-bought tonkatsu sauce or a savoury chutney.
Wine match: a dry style of pinot gris.
Two Japanese Cook Books
- Zenbu Zen, by Jane Lawson (Allen & Unwin, $79.99). A wonderful account of an Australian businesswoman’s bid to release the stress in her life by living in the city of Kyoto. It’s filled with recipes and stories and gives excellent insight into Japanese culture. Lawson also paints an accurate picture of the charm of Kyoto in this beautifully photographed book that offers a taste of authentic, approachable food.
- Japanese Farm Food, by Nancy Singleton Hachisu (Andrews McMeel, US$35 by special request). The author moved from California in 1988 after marrying a Japanese farmer. She shares the recipes from their life on the farm, and the vibrant images capture their meals and daily life. As one of my Japanese friends said, “This is truly authentic food; it’s exactly the food my mother cooked for us when we were growing up near Kyoto.” Highly recommended, but it will have to be ordered from an internet bookseller.