Learning about Washoku, Japanese cuisine

Washoku japanese cuisine yamashina aubergine, mangaji and fushimi pepper, 2 kinfds of kombu and bonito flavour sauce

 

Washoku. Washoku, Wa the word for Japanese, but also harmony. Shoku for the pleasure of eating. The art of traditional Japanese cuisine, so fascinating UNESCO has added it to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list. To learn more, I stopped by Tokimeite yesterday: one of the very few restaurants in London serving authentic Japanese dishes and specialising in kaiseki, its more refined presentation, often offered as a multi-course dinner. Not just a meal but a feast for all senses…

At the very heart of washoku is a respect for nature but also a real appreciation for the quality of ingredients. As the French, the Japanese take pride in their terroir, recognising the extraordinary taste of, say, a vegetable and meat produced in specific part of the country. Or simply preferring to wait for the right season to enjoy them, have the full strength of flavour. This way of thinking is more associated with upmarket restaurants all over the world these days – in Japan, this simply is at the very heart of home cooking. High quality ingredients prepared at the best time of the year guarantee exceptional dishes, no matter which house you stop by…

Although washoku encapsulates Japanese cuisine as a whole, there is not one but an infinity of Japanese cooking styles. Each of the 47 regions of the country has its own, which will have more refined versions per city or even sometimes villages. Again, terroir matters. Dashi, a wonderfully tasty stock, the cornerstone to most recipes (starting with miso soup or ramen!) will be slightly different based on the local produce. Fish by the seaside, dried tomatoes or mushrooms in the countryside. The harmony between ingredients will always be sublime but incredibly subtle changes mean the same dish might wow your mind (and tastebuds) differently depending on where you order it in Japan.

The pillar of Washoku dishes: making Dashi

The seminar I attended yesterday at Tokimeite focused on Kyoto, renowned for its wagyu beef but also its kyoyasai, 39 heirloom vegetables. A foodie’s idea of heaven! Chef Yoji Satake, head chef at Minokichi, one of the city’s most famous restaurants, had joined to present a few recipes. 300 years of tradition and expertise, passed down from one generation of chefs to the other, that is, indeed impressive… Amazingly, Japanese cuisine is not as complex as we imagine : it is about simple steps, using naturally succulent ingredients, cooked to perfection.

First was dashi, surprisingly easy to make at home: water simmered with kombu (dried kelp) for 60 minutes. Take the seaweed out (look at the size of each piece!) then simply add katsuo (bonito flakes) and sieve immediately. The result is crystal clear but intense in flavour, its fragrance filling the room.

We were then introduced the kamo eggplant, round in shape.  Once peeled, it reveals a solid, fresh pulp with a rich taste, which you can pierce with chopsticks and fry. The Japanese, however, rarely use butter nor oil: wagyu beef was preferred in this case, the marbled fat melting and adding beautiful nuances to the dish. That’s it: add a little dashi, top with spring onions. The way the meat melts on your tongue is out of this world.

 

Washoku japanese cuisine making dashi seaweed Washoku japanese cuisine kamo aubergine kyoto Washoku japanese cuisine cutting aubergines Washoku japanese cuisine peeling aubergines Washoku japanese cuisine grilling kamo aubergine with wagyu beef Washoku japanese cuisine grilled kamo aubergine kujo spring onion wagyu beef Washoku japanese cuisine grilled kamo aubergine kujo spring onion wagyu beef close up

Using Fushimi peppers

The next dish used fushimi, sweet, tender, green peppers. Once deseeded and chopped, they were, as before, cooked with wagyu beef. Chef Yoji Satake, however, took this to the next level, adding a mix of dashi, sake, mirin, sugar and soy sauce. This, my friend, is a teriyaki sauce! This was the dish is mother made him if he did well at school (guarantees you straight As, I’m sure). Although he equally enjoys wagyu served with a citrus dressing…

The Chef also demonstrated another way to prepare aubergines, by slicing the top of the skin thinly, without cutting too much through the fruit. It will be fried first then soaked in dashi – a treat in itself. The fushimi too will be fried before being blended into a paste, adding a little dashi to get the perfect consistency. It’s both simple and complex… and makes you forget there is no meat there at all. Umami bliss.

 

Washoku japanese cuisine mangaji peppers kyoto Washoku japanese cuisine fushimi pepper, kyoto wagyu yamatoni Washoku japanese cuisine cutting aubergine skin Washoku japanese cuisine yamashina aubergine, mangaji and fushimi pepper, 2 kinfds of kombu and bonito flavour sauce close up

A Japanese take on steak tartare, using Wagyu beef

Daisuke Hayashi, executive chef at Tokimeite, presented the last recipe, a contemporary touch: the most extraordinary steak tartare I have ever tried – and this is coming from a French person. He starts with a concassée, dicing the ingredients with infinite precision. The tiny aubergine cubes – no more than 5 mm – will be soaked with sweet and sour vinegar before being mixed with the cucumber and slow cooked wagyu beef, similarly cut. To add harmony to this base, he flamed another aubergine, peeled the skin off, crushed the flesh into a paste and added it to the concassée with a dash of soya sauce (which can be replaced by English mustard). If that wasn’t an experience unforgettable enough, inspired by British gardens, he decorated the plate with dried slices of sweet potato, turnip, carrots, fresh ones of radishes, even edible flower. A piece of art.

 

Washoku japanese cuisine slicing aubergine Washoku japanese cuisine slicing cucumber Washoku japanese cuisine dicing wagyu beef Washoku japanese cuisine wagyu and yamashina-nasu tartare salad Washoku japanese cuisine wagyu and yamashina-nasu tartare salad decorated with flowers

 

An inspiring lesson in washoku, which makes you want to jump on a plane to Japan straight away. This was a tiny glimpse of what Kyoto only has to offer. Remember: there are 46 additional regions and so many different ingredients you are yet to discover… Meanwhile, why not use a few Japanese ingredients at home? Try to make a dashi or teriyaki sauce yourself? Wander in a Japanese shop and go for something more adventurous? If savouring is more your thing than cooking, rejoice: there are more than 800 Japanese restaurants to try in the UK…

 

Washoku japanese cuisine tasting Washoku japanese cuisine grilled kamo aubergine kujo spring onion wagyu beef close up tasting Washoku japanese cuisine wagyu and yamashina-nasu tartare salad decorated with flowers close up

Share:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *