I’m on a quest. You could call it a culinary journey: Japanese food. It all started with a simple question, a while back – could I name more 5 Japanese dishes? Sushi is always the first to come to mind, usually followed by sashimi. Then there is a blank. We can picture a full feast of Asian food but cannot necessarily pinpoint to being, specifically, Japanese. And yet… Miso soup! Ramen! Teriyaki! Mochis!
Strangely, this is possibly the least represented cuisine in TV cooking programmes. Friends when asked whether they had tried at home instinctively answered the techniques were complicated, that the recipes required too many ingredients. A recent workshop – an introduction to Washoku or the Japanese art of eating – proved the contrary. Luiz Hara, author the excellent Nikkei Cuisine, who spend 3 years in Tokyo to develop his expertise in Japanese recipes, reminded me recently that a dashi, the classic broth can be made in 20 mn from 3 basic ingredients: water, kelp and bonito flakes. Now compare this to a bouillon, which will need hours to develop only a fraction of the intensity in flavour… I couldn’t help but join his presentation on Bringing Japanese ingredients into you every day cooking – the theme of his next book, to be published in September 2018.
The fifth taste of Japanese cuisine: Umami
So what is the secret? What makes Japanese cuisine so different, so satisfying? We rely on 4 tastes: sweetness, sourness, bitterness, saltiness. Washoku introduces a fifth one, umami, a perfect balance, an indescribable deliciousness. To achieve this at home, there are 3 ways: using seasonal ingredients that have naturally come ripe, dehydrated ingredients naturally rich in amino acids (fish flakes, dried seaweed or mushrooms) or fermented ingredients (miso, soy sauce, mirin or rice wine, sake). Easy to add to your everyday cooking. Start with one!
Japanese rice: a step further than sushi
Rolling rice in seaweed feels a little too much effort at the end of the day? So do the Japanese: sushi is a treat not a regular indulgence. Try Chirashi Sushi or scattered sushi instead, advises Luiz Hara. The rice is prepared the same way, cooked then mixed with rice vinegar, sugar and salt. Top with your favourite ingredients: good quality fish (although optional, cooked chicken will do too!), thinly sliced, rehydrated shiitake mushrooms, vegetables, omelet, sesame seeds… But Japanese rice also works wonderfully in stir-fries, risottos or even rice puddings: its weight and quality mean that is won’t break up and will bring the perfect texture to your dish.
Fall in love with miso
Yes, there is a world further that the famous soup! Luiz uses miso paste with a little lemon as a marinade for pork ribs, bakes aubergine with a mix of miso paste and mozzarella (the recipe is here – it’s a hit!) but you can start by something as simple as added a little to a salad dressing. Many Asians are lactose intolerant, he underlines and miso adds a natural creaminess to any dish. Tip: miso comes in several colours, the darker, the more fermented it is. If you’re unsure still, go with white miso, lighter. I’m told it even works in desserts: white in ice-cream, red with chocolate…
Matcha – tea leaves picked young, dried, reduced to a powder. Packed with antioxidants and Vitamin C: all things green are good for you it seems… You probably have already tried it as a matcha latte in London but it is, explains Luiz, as common in Japan as vanilla in Europe. It’s a lot more than just a hot drink: Matcha sake, apparently is a thing of beauty (I can’t wait to try that one, I’m quite a sake fan). But try it in baking – you just need to add a little to your normal recipe for madeleines, financiers… It works brilliantly with cream too, think matcha tiramisu or crème brûlée for example. Now tell me you are not tempted!
Want to learn first-hand why Washoku, Japanese cuisine, is so healthy? Or simply a taste of Japan? Join one of Luiz Hara’s supperclub. Or have a look at the Japanese embassy’s website who organise a wide range of activities presenting Japanese culture from Magical ‘akari’ lanterns installation to tea ceremonies vis Japanese whisky tasting.