To say that things get ‘lost in translation’ in Japan is an understatement. And, more to the point, implies that there is an attempt at translation being made in the first place. Travelling in some of the lesser-touristed parts of Southern Japan for instance, where an English menu is just not on offer, and an English speaking restaurateur nowhere to be found, means sitting down to eat without any of the usual choices, expectations, descriptions, or explanations. Which, as it turns out, was actually quite enlightening. (Though I am not telling the entire truth here concerning translations. They were to be found, very occasionally. One ‘English’ menu included, for instance, ‘Hail clothes deep frying of the Japanese icefish.’ Intriguing, but not necessarily helpful!).
Topping the list of things that this strange experience taught me, is that there may be some truth to idea that if you eat something you dislike repeatedly, you might actually come to like it. So far, I’ve only ever heard of this technique proving successful with fussy children, (fussy adults being a little bit more difficult to trick into repeatedly harassing their taste buds, although I have tried). But, after seven days of non-stop and unavoidable tofu, when it dawned on me that I was actually happily anticipating being presented with another primarily tofu-based meal, I realised there may be something to idea. Although it’s likely the effect is only a temporary one, as I can’t say I’ve touched tofu since. Let alone the bright pink ‘Sakura’ tofu ubiquitously trotted out in celebration of the cherry blossom season.
Which brings me onto a concept, that, while quintessentially Japanese, has a wider appeal perhaps, than pink tofu. The term ‘mono no aware’ refers to the particular beauty the Japanese identify in transience, in fleeting, impermanent things, exemplified by the blossoming of the cherry trees that occurs in a south-north sweep, and heralds the beginning of spring. A slightly stiff breeze, or sudden rain shower is enough to send the delicate petals fleeing from their branches, which, while resulting in a very momentarily beautiful snow of pink, can leave the trees sullenly bare again in a matter of moments.
The moral of the story being, although my love of tofu may have been fleeting, it was certainly beautiful while it lasted. Or, when things change, as they always do, it’s worth remembering that the beautiful moments might be thought of more beautifully for it...
Beef Tataki with a Ponzu Dressing and Micro-Cress Salad
‘Tataki’ is a cooking method that involves searing meat very quickly at a very high temperature before plunging directly into an ice-bath to suddenly halt the cooking process. Quite high drama for a kitchen – plunging a freshly seared fillet of beef into a bath of ice!
What I found more unexpectedly exciting while writing this recipe though, was getting to know micro-cress. An extremely dorky admission, but sadly true. Tiny cress plants might not look like much, but they really punch above their weight when it comes to flavour, and there are new varieties becoming available all the time.
In order to do justice to the cress salad and the beef, this recipe includes two different dressings. This means a long list ingredients, but don’t be put off – once you get into it, things really are a lot more straightforward than they appear at first glance.
- 400g highest quality beef tenderloin fillet
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 3 large cloves of garlic – finely sliced
- 1 spring onion (green part) – finely sliced on an angle
- 75ml sunflower oil
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- ¼ cup sake or dry sherry
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons ponzu
- ¼ cup (loosely packed) dried bonito flakes
- ½ tablespoon lemon juice
100g mix of tiny baby leaves and cress, including any/all of:
- Astina cress
- Mustard cress
- Rock chive cress
- Shiso cress
- Small leaves of bull’s blood lettuce
- Small beet leaves
- Small watercress leaves
- 1 Spring onion (white part) – very finely chopped
- 3 tablespoons of soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon ponzu
- 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
- 2 teaspoons white vinegar
- 2 teaspoons water
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- ¼ Dijon mustard
- Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons sunflower oil
Begin by making the tataki dressing: heat the sake, soy sauce, and ponzu in a small saucepan, over medium heat until just before boiling. Remove from the heat, then add the bonito flakes. Set aside to infuse for 5 minutes, then strain out the bonito flakes.
Return the liquid to the saucepan and reduce over medium heat until it thickens slightly. Not to a glaze consistency, but until is it a little less watery and beginning to look a little glossy. Add the lemon juice and put aside to sit at room temperature until needed.
Prepare the beef by trimming it carefully of any extra fat or sinew. Season with a generous amount of salt and pepper.
Next, prepare an ice bath by filling a large bowl with ice cubes and a little water.
Heat a dry, non-stick skillet pan over high heat for a few minutes until it becomes smoking hot. Sear the beef fillet on each side for a maximum of 10 seconds per side. One you have an all-over sear and no more raw meat exposed, plunge the fillet straight into the ice bath in order to cool it rapidly. Remove after a few seconds of cooling, and pat the fillet thoroughly dry using paper towel.
Now, wrap the fillet very tightly in cling film, rolling to tighten, and twizzling the ends of the wrap in the style of a sweet wrapper to tighten even further. Refrigerate for a minimum of 2 hours.
In the same pan you used to cook the beef, heat the sunflower and sesame oils together until hot, and shallow fry the sliced garlic and spring onion until golden brown. Take care not to burn these as they cook very fast. Drain on paper towel and store at room temperature until ready to use.
Make the salad dressing by combining all the ingredients and stirring thoroughly to dissolve the sugar. Store the dressing in the refrigerator until ready to use.
To serve, remove the beef tataki from the fridge and let it sit at room temperature for 15 minutes, before unwrapping and slicing into 5mm rounds with a sharp knife.
Next, toss the cress with a little of the dressing. The extra dressing can be stored in the fridge for up to 4 days.
Now, pile the cress salad neatly at one end of a serving platter, arrange the tataki slices along the length of the platter, and top with the garlic and spring onion chips. Last of all, drizzle the tataki dressing scenically around the edges of the beef before serving.
Light & Crispy Shrimp Tempura with Tentsuyu Dipping Sauce
I had been hearing (from a certain someone) for years about a tempura restaurant in Tokyo to which no other could purportedly hold a candle. But the restaurant had since moved location, had a Japanese-only website, and was incredibly difficult to book. A fair bit of Google-translating and concierge cajoling later though, I finally had a booking, and was, at long last, going to be able to try it, and judge for myself.
The first restaurant I ate at in Japan, on the southern island of Kyushu, also happened to be a tempura restaurant. We didn’t have a booking, but stumbled across it empty, walked in, and sat down. The tempura was great – light, super-crisp and served directly from the hot oil, across a small bar. Salt, lemon, grated daikon, and tentsuyu – that flavoursome dark dipping sauce – accompanied by a few mimed instructions from the chef regarding what to add to what. It was the best tempura ever, and I told this to the disbelieving Tokyo-tempura proclaimer.
Two weeks later, finally sitting across the bar at Ten-Ichi Tempura in Tokyo I was stuck by how remarkably similar it looked to the first tempura restaurant. At the time, I put this, along with the fact that the menu, and even the dishes themselves were exactly the same as the first place, down to the supposedly incredible ‘uniformity’ of Japanese culture. The meal was good, but not better than the first, I informed the incredulous proclaimer…
It was not until I got home and looked at the photos I had taken that I realised the restaurants were of course one and the same. The Ten-ichi fame had spread far and wide apparently, so much so that far off Kyushu had even managed a branch. The confusions that arise when not only can you not be sure what you are eating, but you also can’t even hope to recognise the characters that make up the restaurant name!
- 12 very large prawns
- 3 tablespoons cornflour
- 1 litre of sunflower oil for deep frying
- 100ml sesame oil (to add flavour to the deep-frying oil) - optional
- 100g rice flour
- 80ml sparkling or soda water – refrigerated for at least 5 hours prior to use
- 1 large egg yolk – gently whisked and refrigerated
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon finely milled salt
- Four small ice cubes
- 1½ cups water
- 16 square inches, (2x8” strip) dried kombu (kelp)
- 1/3 cup bonito flakes (Katsuobushi) (approx. 2 heaped tablespoons)
- Just under ½ cup soy sauce
- 1/3 cup mirin
- ¼ cup peeled and finely grated daikon to serve
- 1 tablespoon finely grated ginger to serve (optional)
- Sea salt and lemon wedges to serve (optional)
Measure out the 100g of rice flour and store in the freezer prior to using.
To prepare the tentsuyu sauce, soak the konbu in a medium saucepan containing the 1½ cups of water for 15 minutes. Now, place over a medium heat and warm the water and konbu until just pre-boiling, i.e. remove from the heat once small bubbles begin to form at the edge of the saucepan. Next, add the bonito flakes and stir through, allowing to steep for 5 minutes, but no longer (it can turn bitter if left longer than this).
Strain the mixture through a fine sieve, discarding the konbu and bonito flakes. You now have a dashi (Japanese stock), the basis for a number of famous Japanese dishes, including miso soup!
Return the dashi to the medium saucepan and add the soy sauce, and mirin, before placing back over medium heat. Bring to a boil, and once again, remove immediately. Put aside to cool to room temperature, before refrigerating until needed.
Prepare the prawns by carefully removing their heads, and shells, but leaving their two tail fins attached. De-vein by making a shallow slit along the spine of each prawn. In order to stop the prawn curling when deep-fried, make a series of shallow incisions along the underside of each prawn, such that it becomes straightened. Lastly, rinse the prawns and thoroughly pat dry with paper towel. Place in the refrigerator until needed.
When you are ready to cook, make sure you have everything that you are going to need assembled and ready to go – including your diners! The secret to a crisp tempura batter is to keep it cold, cold, cold. And shrimp tempura is only tasty when it is very crisp and hot, so everything needs to happen pretty fast from here…
First, pour the sunflower oil and sesame oil (if using) into a large, high-sided saucepan. For deep-frying, the oil should only ever come to halfway up the sides of the saucepan as its level will rise considerably as it bubbles up during cooking.
Heat the oil to 170°C, or the temperature at which a chopstick placed in the oil will immediately begin to bubble rapidly. (It does help to have a frying thermometer to confirm the oil temperature as if it is too cool the tempura will become oil-logged and heavy, too hot and the oil becomes very dangerous).
While the oil is heating, take the prawns from the refrigerator and, using a fine sieve, dust the prawns on both sides with a fine coating of the cornflour.
Next, remove the rice flour from the freezer to a large metal bowl. To this, add the baking powder and salt. Now pour in the very cold sparkling water, whisked egg yolk, and ice cubes. Stir very briefly (using a pair of chopsticks if you are very concerned about authenticity!) to form a loose, lumpy batter. Take care here not to over-stir (30 seconds is more than enough), as too much mixing will result in a doughy finish.
Holding the first prawn by the tail, dredge through the batter, before placing carefully in the hot oil. Quickly repeat, adding another two prawns to the pan.
(Overcrowding will result in a very quick temperature reduction, so don’t feel tempted to fry more than three at a time! If you are keen to get your tempura to the table as quickly as possible, I’d recommend having two deep-frying pots running concurrently, to speed the whole process up. Lots to juggle, but super-fresh and crisp tempura is the reward.)
Immediately after you’ve added the prawns, pick up a small amount of batter using one hand and flick this into the hot oil. Using your other hand, and a heat-proof utensil such as a frying sieve, or spatula, direct the frying prawns towards the floating batter bits, sweeping them through so that they stick. This will give the prawns that spiky restaurant appearance.
Fry for 2 minutes before removing the prawns to a metal rack to drain off any excess oil.
Repeat with the remaining prawns, and then head straight to the table with them – remembering to turn off the heat below the oil.
Mix the grated daikon through the tentsuyu sauce at the table. Grated ginger can also be added to the tentsuyu if you like. Or skip the sauce altogether in favour of a squeeze of lemon and sprinkling of flaky sea salt. The hotter and fresher the tempura, the more delicious they are with just lemon and salt. Less hot, and the tentsuyu deliciously covers a multitude of sins!
Chicken with a Miso & Ponzu Marinade, Namasu Salad & Wasabi Yuzu Kosho
Chicken sashimi is rather popular in Japan, and given the number of people who asked prior to my trip whether I intended to try it, I really was not given much option other than to do so. Very keen to retain my foodie credentials, I ate it not only once, but twice. The first time just to say I’d done it, the second time to check that it really was just as un-exciting as I thought it was the first time. Slathered with quite a lot of wasabi, it tastes, not surprisingly, like wasabi. Scrape the wasabi off in order to try to taste the flavour of the raw chicken, and it tastes, rather surprisingly, of nothing at all. A little ironic I feel given that people seem very ready to ascribe a ‘chickeny-ness’ to almost every exotic meat in the world!
More interesting, I thought, than completely raw chicken, was that most of the ‘cooked’ chicken dishes I came across in Japan were served on the decidedly pink side. This took a little getting used to, but I kind of came around in the end. And although I can hardly recommend purposefully under-cooking chicken at home, I do think that some of the more fearful over-cooking that we subject it to might be worth a re-think. Especially if you have a lot of trust in the source of your chicken.
The inspiration for this dish came from a little izakaya in Shibuya. Served almost charred on the outside, moist in the middle, and accompanied by a dot of spicy yuzu kosho, we devoured our first order so spectacularly, that we had to immediately get a second.
Yuzu kosho, a condiment made from cured yuzu peel and hot chilies, is wonderful mouth-popping stuff. Combined, as I’ve done here with wasabi paste, it’s even more so. You can buy yuzu kosho pre-made in little jars from Japanese grocery stores, or make it at home by combining yuzu peel and bird’s eye chilies in an 80:20 ratio before adding 10% of the total weight of that mix in salt. Pop this in a jar in the fridge to cure for 1 week before using. It will keep in the fridge for up to one month.
Lastly, namasu, a slightly pickled salad of daikon and carrot, traditionally served at New Year in Japan, adds some colour to this dish. It is especially pretty, I think, against a black plate. In this recipe, I’ve added tarragon to the namasu. It’s not traditional, but the herby citrusy-ness works well with the other ingredients, and the bright colour complements the deeper green of the yuzu kosho.
- 2 skin-on chicken breasts
- 2 tablespoons shiso (white) miso
- ⅛ cup sake
- ⅛ cup mirin
- 1½ teaspoons yuzu kosho
- 3 tablespoons ponzu sauce
- 10cm daikon radish – peeled
- 1 medium carrot – peeled
- Heaped teaspoon of sea salt
- A few sprigs of fresh tarragon – leaves picked
- 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest strips
- 1 tablespoon caster sugar
- 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon water
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
Wasabi Yuzu Kosho (to serve)
- ½ teaspoon wasabi paste
- 1½ teaspoons yuzu kosho
- Drop of lemon juice
The chicken needs to marinate overnight, so start the night before you intend to serve.
In a small saucepan, over medium heat, mix the sake and mirin and bring to a boil. Allow to boil for 1 minute in order to evaporate off the alcohol. Now reduce the heat to low, and introduce the shiso miso, stirring to dissolve. Cook for a further 2 minutes in order to reduce the mixture to a thick-ish consistency.
Remove from heat, and add the 1½ teaspoons of yuzu kosho, along with the ponzu, stirring to combine. Now put aside to cool to room temperature.
Slather the cooled paste over the chicken breasts before placing these in either a non-reactive container or zip-lock bag to marinate in the refrigerator overnight.
To make the namasu salad, thinly slice the peeled daikon and carrot using a mandolin. Next, carefully julienne the slices into narrow strips using a sharp knife.
In a small bowl, mix the sea salt through the julienned vegetables and allow to sit for 10 minutes.
To make the dressing, mix all the ingredients together, whisking until the sugar is completely dissolved.
After 10 minutes, squeeze the daikon and carrot strips gently with your hands to remove excess water, then place in a clean bowl. Add the dressing and refrigerate for a minimum of four hours.
To make the wasabi yuzu kosho, mix the two pastes together in a small dish along with a drop of lemon juice and refrigerate until needed.
When you are ready to cook, heat your in-oven grill to high. Remove the fillets from the fridge, and gently wipe off some of the excess marinade (but not all of it). In particular, make sure that some marinade still clings to the chicken skin. Now, place the fillets on a baking sheet, and grill for approximately 6 minutes, or until the chicken skin has become golden, and even a crispy dark brown in parts.
Finish in a 200°C oven for a further 6-8 minutes, depending on the size of your chicken breasts. If in doubt make a small incision in the thickest part of the fillet to check progress. The moment you can no longer see pink – it’s done.
Remove from the oven to a chopping board and cut into approx. 1cm slices.
To finish the salad, add the picked tarragon and lemon zest. Then, to serve, arrange the chicken on a platter, with a little of the namasu salad, and a small dollop of the potent wasabi-yuzu kosho paste alongside.