by Kate Heyhoe
Mention Japanese food and certain images come to mind: sukiyaki, sushi, sake, and green tea being among the most common. But today's Japanese food, while maintaining its noble traditions, is breaking out of the bento box, so to speak.
The unifying factor behind the best Japanese food, traditional or modern, is embodied in the notion: "ichigo ichie." It means "just this one encounter, this one chance," a moment that should be valued as if it were to be the last. It's this reverence for the ultimate ethereal experience which is at heart of Japanese hospitality. Lose that, and you lose all sense of authenticity.
Today, a handful of bold chefs are daring to marry Western ways with ichigo ichie, and producing surprisingly good results. Even Kodansha, a publisher specializing in Japanese culture, is showing the Western world that Japanese cooking can be mildly wild and crazy, and still maintain the rigid Japanese standards of aesthetics, purity, and balance.
Nobu Matsuhisa is probably the most famous innovator of new Japanese cuisine, and now operates restaurants on nearly every continent. Nobu handles the fundamental elements of Japanese cooking like building blocks, and then constructs dishes that reflect and include a world-traveler's collection of materials and experiences. But instead of being overwhelmingly complicated in a Charlie Trotter kind of way, Nobu the Cookbook speaks to the home cook with the Japanese hallmarks of simplicity and purity, and warmly, joyfully invites us into his kitchen to play. The result: one of the few four-star chef cookbooks that you can actually cook from, and not just gaze at (though the dazzling photos are more than suitable for gazing alone).
Deep in the heart of Texas (of all places), a younger chef is turning Japanese cuisine on its head. Named as one of Food & Wine Magazine's Best New Chefs of 2005, Tyson Cole spins his own unique brand of breakaway Japanese cooking. Cole, a boyish 35, is unassuming, warm and welcoming. At Uchi in Austin, he's injecting Japanese classics with an American sense of adventure—without compromising their integrity, or crossing into ill-fated fusion or tacky trendiness. Even the strictest Japanese sushi masters can comfortably respect Cole's work.
Here's why: Dishes at Uchi are carefully crafted to give simple pleasure, from understated elegance to mischievous fancy; they often resonate with sensual poetry, like haiku on a plate. Cole loyally employs core Japanese ingredients (katsuobushi, yuzu, matsutake or other mushrooms, and miso, for instance) to create an umami foundation, the essential and elusive fifth taste. But he also injects surprisingly complementary ingredients from the Western kitchen: watermelon, goat cheese, tangerine juice, foie gras, pumpkin seed oil, zucchini blossoms, microgreens, and cranberries. In his "crudo," raw red snapper meets yuzu, orange vinaigrette, and garlic (a most un-Nipponese element) in a brilliant Zen balance. In another dish, jewel-like pieces of maguro sashimi dance with nibbles of goat cheese, touched with pumpkin seed oil, rice vinegar, microgreens, and black pepper. Then there's Cole's intoxicating pan-Asian perfume of Prince Edward Island mussels in kaffir lime-miso broth, laced with red chili oil and green cilantro. A Dr. Seuss whimsy appears from the yakimono grill in the form of tako pops, sesame marinated baby octopus, perched on skewers like funny little hats. In an earthy wabi-sabi kind of way, thin slices of wagyu beef come with chopsticks and a smooth, sizzling hot "sear it yourself" river rock, accompanied by traditional ponzu sauce on the side. Sound a bit over the top? Yes and no. Yes, because Cole opens up new concepts of flavor, and no because they work stunningly well.
You may not be able to taste Cole's or Nobu's cooking first-hand, but Kodansha's books can help bring some of the concepts of new Japanese cooking into your home. Consider how these tomes shatter the preconceived notions of Japanese food:
Myth: Beer and sake are what you must drink with sushi.
In Japanese Dishes for Wine Lovers, wine expert J.K. Whelehan recommends champagne at the sushi bar, as a beverage which, like beer's cleansing bubbles, refreshes the palate when eating a variety of fish. He pairs Machiko Chiba's beautifully photographed recipes with a range of Western wines, detailing the challenges presented by such flavorings as soy sauce, wasabi, kombu, mirin, shichimi, and the overall concept of umami. Examples: A half-dry Riesling with vegetable-topped, wasabi-spiked soba noodles; Chateauneuf du Pape Cotes du Rhone with sweet, steamed eel; and Tinto de Toro Pinot Noir with a rare Tuna Tataki with Wasabi.
Myth: Green tea is for drinking.
While green tea is indeed a beverage, it can also be an exciting cooking ingredient, as shown in New Tastes in Green Tea: A Novel Flavor for Familiar Drinks, Dishes, and Desserts. Matcha and sencha (Japan's most popular tea leaf) are the green teas of choice in this book, at least when it comes to cooking, but the author provides neat snapshot-descriptions of nine types of green tea, tea utensils, and tips and techniques for making green tea. Author Mutsuko Tokunaga's imaginative cooking applications start with the simple Matcha Butter, a blend of the powdered green tea used in tea ceremonies and butter, spread on toasted English muffins. She also makes Green Tea Gnocchi, Green Tea Croquettes, as well as scones, cupcakes, ice cream, chiffon cake, and another Italian specialty, tiramisu, all using matcha green tea.
Myth: Japanese pickles take weeks to cure.
Easy Japanese Pickling in Five Minutes to One Day proves that the savory condiments punctuating authentic Japanese Meals can be whipped together in almost no time. You'll find ideas applicable to all cuisines in this handy do-it-yourself guide. Try the shredded Red Cabbage Tsukemono, with spicy-sweet or olive oil variations; Lemon-Infused Cherry Tomatoes; and Pickled Honey-Lemon Ginger or Honey Garlic.
Kodansha publishes a full range of Japanese-focused topics, and their cookbooks include the traditional as well as contemporary tomes, like Eric Gower's The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen, all with great attention to detail and fittingly aesthetic design.
If you're the type that's always seeking out the latest buzz in cooking, keep these chefs, authors and publisher on your culinary radar screen.
Copyright © 2005, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created August 2005
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