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Gourmet Secrets: Tastes of Japan

If you have the nerve and finely-tuned tastebuds, try an Omakase meal decided by the chef in charge

brunch Updated: Sep 01, 2018 23:47 IST
Karen Anand
Karen Anand
Hindustan Times
At the Westin Gurgaon their Asian restaurant Eest serves an Omakase Japanese dinner prepared by a Japanese chef from Kyoto

Japanese is one of my all time favourite cuisines. I love the austerity, the attention to detail in the design, the taste, texture, simplicity and of course quality. There’s also the health aspect. There is very little fat, overcooking or sumptuous sauces, and little or no dairy which makes the food easy to digest. Teriyaki, Teppanyaki and Yakitori are meats cooked on a grill or over charcoal, and the sauce used to season them is made from soy, sugar and mirin or cooking sake. Other strong flavourings which you can add are shichimi pepper and wasabi which are condiments. That’s not to say that the Japanese themselves eat amazing sushi, sashimi and shabu-shabu every day. These are expensive dishes reserved for special occasions. An everyday Japanese meal consists of a bowl of rice, a bowl of miso soup, pickled vegetables and some simply prepared fish or meat. Noodles (udon, soba and ramen) are also very popular for light one-dish meals since they are quick and inexpensive.

Japanese ingredients, though now available in India, pose a bit of a technical problem. Everything is written in Japanese, often without English translations

Don’t be misled into thinking that because the individual portions of food that make a meal are small, you’ll finish a Japanese meal hungry. You have to order a variety of dishes and enough of them to satisfy a hearty appetite and interest your palate – and then there are always copious quantities of rice, just in case.

Japanese ingredients, though now available in India, pose a bit of a technical problem. Everything is written in Japanese, often without English translations. For example, there are several types of Nori (seaweed wrappers) which I only discovered when I served sushi (a brave move of my youth) to some Japanese clients. I also discovered that I had been using the wrong wrapper for several years. The actual nori for a sushi roll was much thicker than the one I bought and was later sent to me from Japan by the client. If you are attracted by the unknown, by an array of mind boggling flavours and are prepared to endure a life time of embarrassing culinary moments, read on.

What’s what

Japanese ingredients, with all those strange pronunciations, represent the first stumbling block. So here are some tips. Dashi is a stock made from dried kelp and dried bonito flakes. Instant dashi granules (dashi-no-moto) are sold in packets like soup powders and provide a practical alternative which you can add to soups for instant flavour. Pickled ginger or gari, is a sweet vinegared ginger, sometimes dyed pink, and is a must for sushi. Mirin is a very sweet rice wine and is used only for cooking and for adding to sushi rice and to make yakitori and teriyaki sauce. Miso is a protein rich salty paste of fermented soya beans. It is sold (either red or light) in bags or tubs in Japanese and health food stores and used for soup and dressings. Wasabi is probably the most popular accompaniment of all. Light green Japanese horseradish (wasabi) is widely available as a ready mixed paste in tubes, although wasabi powder (available in tiny tins) mixed with a little water gives a much closer approximation of the freshly grated root. Nori (seaweed), the most important, is dried kelp or konbu, an essential ingredient in basic stock or dashi. Nori is dried and sold in very thin, dark green sheets for sushi. Here are some guidelines to help you navigate your way through a sushi and sashimi menu.

The raw and the rice

Sashimi is simply sliced raw fish

Sashimi is simply sliced raw fish. The most popular are salmon, tuna (maguro – lean and reddish in colour), belly of tuna (toro - fatty, whitish and very expensive), yellow tail, squid, mackerel, snapper and prawn. An assorted platter of sashimi is called Sashimi Moriawase. You also have “tataki”, which comes under sashimi although the tuna or beef which is commonly used is quickly seared first and then served with some accompaniments and a dressing like a salad.

Sushi is raw fish, omelette or vegetables with vinegared rice, rolled in different ways with or without the seaweed wrapper, nori. Shaped sushi which is 2” oblong bits of rice topped with raw fish, is called Nigiri Sushi. Aburi Sushi is the same thing but with fish which has been slightly seared. Temari Sushi are balls of rice on which thin slices of fish are sculpted. Then you have all the “Maki” which are rolls.

When attempting sushi at home, you cannot compromise on the above ingredients – you must use Japanese rice, nori, gari and wasabi. If you can get hold of a bamboo mat for rolling, then go ahead with nori maki, otherwise only attempt Nigiri, Aburi, Temari or cone rolls, which you can form with your hands. Don’t rush anything. Sushi takes time and practice. And remember, when you cut a sushi roll, you must wipe and wet your knife each time and your knife must be razor sharp. In India, it could be tricky attempting raw fish at home. I suggest you use poached prawns or smoked salmon.

When attempting sushi at home, you must use Japanese rice, nori, gari and wasabi

Hail to the chef

Japanese food has evolved from a singular and original ideology, which borrowed little from its neighbours and still less from the outside world. It epitomises perfection in preparation, cooking and presentation, with the skills of the cook ranking almost as importantly as his knowledge of seasoning and the combining of ingredients. We were recently staying at the Westin Gurgaon and were surprised to hear that their Asian restaurant Eest serves an Omakase Japanese dinner prepared by a Japanese chef from Kyoto - chef Hashimoto. Omakase is the Japanese tradition of allowing a chef to choose what you eat. Within and outside Japan, it’s a favourite of Japanese businessmen when they entertain. They just determine a rough price with the restaurant, some definite courses and leave the rest to the chef while they talk shop. The word actually means “I will leave it to you”. It’s a fine tradition that gives the chef creative freedom and the customer a memorable dining experience. Omakase lets the chef flex his culinary muscles. The dishes can be pure simplicity itself or something really sublime and skilful. It depends on his mood, the ingredients available and of course the season. It can range from a few courses served over a couple of hours or a banquet which will only stop when you want it to.

It’s best to reserve an Omakase dinner at least a day in advance to allow him some culinary bandwidth and time to source and prepare a menu. Japanese chefs are generally proud guys (yes, they are almost always men – a Japanese sushi chef once told me when I accosted him with the fact that I had never met a Japanese female chef: “The Japanese kitchen is a dangerous place. We throw insults and knives around freely!” – and like to show off and go that extra mile. Expect innovation, a staggering selection of dishes both tried and tested and unusual and artistic presentation.

Salt baked whole fish is part of the Omakase experience

Ordering “omakase” can be a gamble but I feel it’s a risk worth taking. Not all the dishes may be to your liking, but to experience the depth and style of a chef’s personal ability as well as communicating with him across the counter makes for an entertaining and uplifting evening. I learned, for example, that the soy sauce served with sushi is different from that served with sashimi (the latter is thinner). Fresh wasabi called kinjo (which they use at Eest) has a completely different flavour and intensity than the powdered and tube one. Miso darkens with age but is still perfectly fine to use in soups... well answered questions and endless food banter …all priceless.

Our Omakase experience began with oven dried smoked freshwater eel (unagi) bones and wobbly marinated bits of raw octopus in wasabi (not my favourite course), a platter of the most precisely cut, beautifully chilled sashimi, followed by traditional miso soup with tofu and seaweed, sushi including sea urchin, salt baked whole fish and a Japanese green tea crêpe with ice cream topped with sweetened red bean paste and brown sugar syrup from Okinawa island to finish.

I don’t know of any other Japanese restaurant in the country brave enough to undertake an Omakase experience so if you are in Delhi or Gurgaon I strongly urge you to try it.

Author Bio: Culinary expert and explorer Karen Anand has been writing extensively on the subject of food and wine for 30 years. Apart from having her own brand of gourmet food products, she has anchored top rated TV shows, run a successful chain of food stores, founded the hugely successful Farmers Markets, and worked as restaurant consultant for international projects, among other things. Her latest passion is food tours, a totally curated experience which Karen herself accompanies, the first of which was to Italy.

This is a fortnightly column. The next edition will appear on September 16.

From HT Brunch, September 2, 2018

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First Published: Sep 01, 2018 19:35 IST