Off the menu: when Japanese food is not just sushi

August 18, 2018

There are so many beautiful delicacies from Japan that you must try out. Let’s step back and understand them, says our food columnist Ajit Saldanha.

Some people eat food for fuel and then there are the palatally evolved, the chosen few who eat solely for taste and the sensory experience it brings.

The former are happy if you give them biryani, provided there’s lots of it, while the latter, regardless of gender, start squeaking excitedly when the word “sushi” is mentioned. When you’ve overdosed on olives, are bored with bolognese, maxed out on momos and fed up to the face with butter chicken, perhaps it’s time to take a walk on the wild side.

Many moons ago there was just one sushi restaurant in Bengaluru, the ominously named ‘Black Dahlia’; seriously what were they thinking when they named it after Connelly’s fictional serial killer? Today, there are nearly a dozen Japanese restaurants but try as hard as they can they can never quite attain the standard of sushi and sashimi served in the humblest ryokan from Tokyo to Kyoto.

Try out the myriad flavours of Japanese cuisine

So should you try sushi? By all means, but please not for the bragging rights that those with a sophomorically sweaty love of exotic food indulge in. I once took a friend of mine from Chennai to Sapporo East, a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan. He gamely laboured through the fish custard and the crunchy sesame salad but turned a delicate shade of green when the sashimi course was served. “Maccha, these chefs are in such a hurry they are serving raw fish… these people who are eating this, how hungry are they?”  

If you are new to Japanese food, ask for an omakase, a Japanese-style tasting menu with the chef’s choice of the freshest ingredients. You can look at the options and decide how much you would like to spend and from then on the chef takes charge. I was recently at a standalone restaurant named Jiki Miyazawa in Kyoto where we asked for an omakase for two at Y14,000, yes I know, I swooned.

As Jonathan Gold says, “At a good sushi place, the kind that makes you swoon, the first piece you are offered is the tell, a statement of purpose that should let you know whether you are in for an hour of bliss or an hour of sake-lubricated sadness at the happiness that might have been.”

The styling of Japanese food has an element of drama

Here we started with some intensely flavoured sake, served cold in an exquisite porcelain bowl. Then came the food, a five-course meal, kick started magnificently with some gorgeous hamachi, served sashimi style with freshly grated wasabi and the merest dab of Kikkoman soy sauce.

That was followed by three perfect slivers of maguro, which is tuna from the belly portion with a delicate layer of fat, redolent of the sea and beautifully arranged in a fantail with a little bowl of soy on the side. It is that precise union of the subtle and the sharp imbued with the clean, elegant flavour of the ocean and that amazing umami taste which has lovers of Japanese food swooning with delight. 

The next course was flying fish roe caviar, incandescent bright-orange jewels floating on a tightly wrapped roll of sushi rice with nori (seaweed).

We collected our thoughts, sipped our sake and compared notes. And then came the magical drama of the Wagyu: a beautiful slice of tender beef, crusted with the ashes of spring onion stalks, done to perfection, lightly charred on the outside and gleaming pink on the inside, crusted with a sprinkling of sansho pepper, made with what else, cherry blossoms?

 Yes the world may be our oyster but if we are to be dazzled by its pearly luminescence, we were immensely grateful that our culinary guide, our hotel concierge Omagashi-san, was a consummate professional. Rather than rely on certain popular websites where the reviews are written by ignorant foreigners, I prefer to rely on concierges and Tabelog, the Japanese website where users display their expertise without worrying about peer judgement, something which is omnipresent in Japanese society. This is especially critical with high-end Japanese food where discovering the difference between the adequate, the good and the ethereally sublime is tricky. Someone compared fine dining to diving for buried treasure; sometimes you find buried treasure but often you just wind up soaked. 

And here's my favourite Japanese recipe...

Chicken Donburi

Ingredients

1/2 kg chicken deboned, cut into bite-sized chunks

Any short grained rice cooked

A handful of snow peas or spring onion, cleaned and sliced

½ carrot julienne

1 spring onion, chopped fine for garnish

2 tbsp teriyaki sauce, or soya sauce with a dash of brown sugar and Worcestershire sauce, salt to taste

40g of kimchi

To marinade chicken: Use crushed fresh lemongrass, a splash of oil, a small amount of lime juice, 2 garlic cloves crushed, sprinkle of chilli flakes,

To garnish: Use toasted sesame seeds

Method

1. Marinate chicken for two hours in a ziplock bag.

2. Transfer to oven proof dish and bake in 180 degree C oven for 25 minutes.

3. Turn occasionally to prevent burning and to cook evenly.

4. Add a splash of white wine if the marinade dries out.

5. Add carrots and spring onions to the dish in the last 5 minutes so it stays crunchy.

6. Garnish with chopped spring onion, sesame seeds and freshly cracked pepper, serve with the rice and kimchi.

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