Well Seasoned - Japan

Shortlisted for Food Writer of the Year, Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards, 2013

Sitting on a tatami mat as the spring rain patters outside, I gaze at the zensai (appetiser) laid before me.   It’s a green bamboo basket filled with small tasting dishes including a char-grilled white asparagus tip, a little pile of mustard greens, an egg yolk cooked in miso, blanched dressed fiddle-head ferns, tiny deep fried river fish and a single pink prawn.   It’s early May and I’m in Miyamasou, a two Michelin-starred ryokan (Japanese inn) in the Northern mountain forests of Kyoto prefecture.   The dish in front of me, perfectly expresses the moment.   Outside, dusk is dissolving the rain into mountain mist. The dripping woods are bursting into green leaf and the last wild pink cherry blossom has fallen on to the mossy ground by a bubbling mountain brook.


No country’s food is more influenced by the weather than Japan.   They have transformed their cooking into an art form that literally reflects the subtle changes in the seasons day by day.   It is an approach that we too could benefit from, as it allows both cook and eater to appreciate every subtle nuance of the changing natural world.


Spring unfolds gradually across the islands of Japan.   Its course is marked by a trail of frothy cherry blossom, starting in March with the southern islands of Kyushu and Shikoku.   When the days have warmed to a pleasant 15°C in Kochi in Shikoku, the average night time temperature in Sapporo, Northern Hokkaido is   -7°C, far too frosty for cherry blossom.   It won’t be until May that their mountains are touched pink and white with their flowers.


This three month period from March to May is much loved by the Japanese.   After the biting winter winds on the Western coast and the snow falls on the Eastern side of the country, everyone enjoys the balmy days of spring with their gentle showers.   Their pleasure in such weather is increased by the knowledge that in June the weather will turn hot and sultry, with heavy downpours adding to the humidity.  


It is this sense of appreciation and of the passing of time that is reflected in their haute cuisine.   Over the centuries, the Japanese have developed a unique culinary philosophy. It is rooted in the Buddhist idea of simplicity and dates back to the development of the tea ceremony in the sixteenth century.


The aim of every chef is to capture a sense of time and place by reflecting the natural world.   Every dish is carefully balanced and ordered within the constraints of each particular style of cooking, to ensure that the taste, texture, appearance, smell and colour of the food evokes that moment.   Thus, chef Imaizumi at Sushi SORA in the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo, will serve a white-fleshed kasugodai (young Japanese sea bream) marinated with shrimp oboro during its brief season in the spring.   While it is at its peak, he will offer it as part of his carefully constructed spring sushi menu.   His customers will appreciate not only its exquisite taste, but also the subtle references to spring such as its rose-tinted silvery skin, delicate texture and transient nature.   


Whereas a British chef might try and express his sense of spring by serving a hodge podge of recipes such as wild garlic with spring lamb or a rhubarb fool in a loosely constructed menu, his Japanese equivalent will plan a set meal within a defined set of aesthetics and principles. To do this, the year is initially divided into four seasons.   In spring the aim is capture the taste of young buds and leaves, in summer, a feeling of coolness, in autumn, a sense of autumnal smells, in winter, ideas of warmth to contrast the cold, even if some of the dishes are cold.  


To help achieve absolute seasonality, the year is divided into 72 sections.   These are broken into five day periods so that the chef can ensure that he serves each ingredient at its season best.   This is because one of the guiding principles of Japanese cooking is to serve food at its peak or shun.   Just as there is one day when flowering azaleas reach their zenieth, so the same idea is applied to food. There is a certain day when a tree’s loquats are perfect.


Within these perimeters, the chef must then try and express two other elements: hashiri and nagori .   Hashiri is produce that is just coming into season, but has not yet reached its peak.   It gives the diner a sense of anticipation for ingredients and seasons to come. Strawberries accompanying a milk ice cream, for example, served in May at the end of an exquisite kaiseki meal at the three Michelin starred restaurant Kikunoi in Kyoto, bring the promise of the summer to come.   Nagori is food that has passed its absolute peak, but is still good.   It conveys a sense of the transience of life.   Thus, eating freshly prepared bamboo shoots that have been baked in salt in May at Miyamasou, reminds the diner that their season is nearly over and all things are ephemeral.  


Every dish that is prepared must conform to the principles of gomi goshoku goho , the five flavours, five colours and five methods.   The five flavours are sweet, spicy, salty, bitter and sour; the five colours red, green, yellow, white and black; and the five methods, roasting/baking, boiling/simmering, steaming, deep-frying and raw preparation.   Every meal must be balanced in each of these three categories to ensure that it is harmonious in every sense.  


Such aesthetics, however, don’t just refer to the food preparation, they also apply to the entire eating experience from the space you eat in to the dishes the food is served on.   As chef Imaizumi at Sushi SORA explains, spring is traditionally expressed with soft colours that can match the delicate colours of the food. At that time, white-fleshed fish and clams are in season.   Everything from the fabric divides of a sushi bar to the fabric around the chopstick at Sushi SORA will change.   In spring he will use soft greenish yellow fabrics.   Every serving plate will be chosen to compliment the food.   Most successful chefs use amazingly beautiful dishes that have been specially commissioned from famous artisans, often designated as ‘Living National Treasures’.  


In a traditional kaiseki restaurant such as Kikunoi, where diners eat in private tatami-matted rooms, a single painting and accompanying flower arrangement will be chosen to enhance your sense of the season.   Thus, as you watch the large black floppy butterflies flutter outside in the warm spring air, you find yourself presented with a beautiful purple lacquered bowl with yellow butterflies shimmering on its lid.   On opening, pale green tea soba noodles, floating in a clear broth, nestle a slice of white fleshed Wakasa tilefish with pale yellow strands of egg.   It is like eating spring.

Spinach with sesame dressing

This is lovely eaten almost as a relish with steamed rice.   Dashi is used to flavour most dishes in Japan and is sublime when well made. Japanese Cooking A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji (Kodansha International) gives excellent guidance.    If you’re unable to make it, it can be omitted from this recipe, although that is obviously not Japanese.

Serves 4

450g baby spinach

4 tablespoons white sesame seeds

1 teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons kikkoman’s soy sauce

3 tablespoons dashi

Fill the sink with cold water and thoroughly wash the spinach.   Drain into a colander and drop into a large pan of boiling water.   Return to the boil and immediately tip into the colander and cool under the cold tap.   You want to wilt rather than cook the spinach.   Squeeze the spinach dry with your hands, very roughly chop and place in a mixing bowl.  


Place the sesame seeds in a dry pan, set over a low heat and gently toast until golden.   Tip into a mortar and crush with a pestle.   Pound in the sugar,   quickly followed by the soy sauce and dashi.   Blend thoroughly and immediately tip over the spinach.   Mix thoroughly with your fingers so that the spinach is well-soaked with the dressing.  


Serve in small dishes at room temperature.


Asparagus with mustard dressing

This would normally be served before a meal, just after a welcoming glass of sake.   Japanese mustard powder (karashi) is very strong, so the best equivalent is to use English mustard powder.  

Serves 4

20 spears asparagus

2 teaspoons mustard powder

1 egg yolk

1 teaspoon Kikkoman’s soy sauce


Thoroughly wash the asparagus.   Trim and finely pare the tougher ends of the stalks with a potato peeler. Cut into 4cm lengths. Drop into a large pan of boiling salted water.   Cook for about 5 minutes or until just tender.   Drain and cool under the cold tap.   Pat dry on kitchen paper.


In a large bowl mix the mustard powder with two teaspoons water into a paste.   Beat in the egg yolk, followed by the soy sauce.   Add the asparagus and mix thoroughly.  


Divide between four small dishes and arrange the asparagus in a neat pyramid.   Serve at room temperature.  

The photo was taken at Sushi SORA and shows Ryosuke Harada, Chef Imaizumi`s Chef de Partie.

This appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of the Weather Magazine, see: http://www.theweatherclub.org.uk



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