Dubai: “What’s your favourite Japanese food?” This was one of the questions the award-winning Japanese chef, Hidemasa Yamamoto, asked me in reply to my query about what entailed Japanese cuisine and Japanese fine dining. “Sushi and ramen,” I replied, embarrassed by my limited knowledge of Japanese food while sitting in front of a multiple Michelin Star recipient with movie star looks. Later that night, my colleague and I would get a glimpse of what Japanese fine dining really meant and how far it was from my idea of Japanese cuisine.
Well, maki rolls, usually with prawn tempura – dipped in soy sauce, garnished with a generous helping of gari (pickled ginger slices) with a careful dab of wasabi, just enough, so my nostrils are not on fire – may be my one of my favourite dishes to order in on lazy weekends. But, my answer wasn’t enough to impress the chef, who was in Dubai last week, visiting his newly-opened traditional Japanese restaurant, Hidemasa.
In fact, the 66-year-old chef says that you haven’t even tasted real sushi if you have not tried it sitting at sushi bars in Japan, where, according to him: “Sushi masters with skills perfected over many years, serve fresh seasonal sushi with the exact amount of sauce it needs.”
This brings me to the very essence of traditional Japanese cuisine, as well as Japanese fine dining – fresh seasonal catch and ingredients.
The essence of Japanese cuisine
Explaining what’s at the core of Japanese cuisine, Chef Hidemasa said: “Japan has four seasons, and seasonally available food ingredients are what make Japanese cuisine special. Each region from Hokkaido to Okinawa, a distance of about 3,500km, has special recipes every season based on the different seasonal ingredients.”
It is perhaps for this reason – the use of unique, fresh, and mouth-watering ingredients, as well as its remarkable presentation – that traditional Japanese food, was added to the ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ list of Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation).
Global popularity and history
Japanese cuisine sure has taken the world by storm, with Japanese eateries and restaurants popping up everywhere. Chef Hidemasa attributes its popularity to places like Hong Kong and Singapore, which were influenced by Japanese recipes and where Japanese restaurants started popping up quite early.
Chef Hidemasa, who has worked in the food industry for over 41 years, added: “Other than Hong Kong and Singapore when I visited the US in 1984, I saw that there were already a few Japanese restaurants that had been set up. The US has a very spontaneous crowd so I would say that it was from here that Japanese cuisine started spreading to all its states, and gradually outside, to countries such as the UK.”
Hit cookery shows on television like the Iron Chef, popular culture and anime also caused a rise in interest in Japanese cuisine, according to him.
While sushi became one of the most popular international dishes, its history dates back to somewhere between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC.
Food historians say that the original form of Sushi, called narezushi, was created out of necessity, by farmers who worked in paddy fields along the Mekong River in ancient southern China. To preserve the fish they caught, they began stuffing them with rice, rubbing them with salt, and storing them in barrels to ferment.
What started as a humble snack for the poor soon found its way across Asia and eventually arrived in Japan sometime around the 8th century AD.
By the 17th century, sushi became popular in the Japanese region then known as Edo, which later came to be known as Tokyo. Today, it is the city with the most Michelin star restaurants in the world.
During the Edo period (1603-1868 CE), also known as the samurai age, oshizushi (squeezed sushi) was the main style of sushi. While you might not think of sushi, tempura, and soba noodles as fast foods, that is exactly what they were in the Edo period.
In the early 19th century, the yatai, or small stalls selling food, became popular in Edo. This was the time that the nigiri-zushi was created. It consisted of a cluster of oblong rice with a piece of fresh raw fish on top – it’s how sushi is known worldwide. After the Kantō earthquake struck in 1923, sushi masters preparing nigiri-sushi left Edo and dispersed across Japan, taking the dish across the country.
The Edo period also saw the emergence of ‘kaiseki ryori’ or Japanese fine dining. It was a condensation of different dining styles from various Japanese regions, originally reserved for the upper class, and was soon popularised among the merchant class.
Explaining the evolution of Japanese fine dining, Chef Hidemasa said: “Japanese chefs started adapting different kinds of cuisines and techniques from the different regions of the country. They started implementing ideas from different types of dishes in Japanese cuisine, like the soba noodles, the udon noodles, and unagi (freshwater eel). Recipes that small restaurants were independently creating, Japanese fine dining brought all these dishes and seasonal materials from north Japan to south Japan and put them together.”
Today, kaiseki ryori is incredibly prestigious. Made using only the finest ingredients, it is considered to be the epitome of fine dining in Japan and is compared with haute cuisine in the West.
The modern version of kaiseki ryori consists of multiple dishes in small portions, with emphasis on seasonal and local ingredients. Chefs specialising in Kaiseki ryori, or fine dining, often decide the day’s courses depending on the freshness of the ingredients available to them on that day, added Chef Hidemasa. They pay special attention to the technique of preparing and serving these dishes, he said.
Each course is prepared in order to enhance the natural flavors of these fresh seasonal ingredients.
“This is why it is hard to find Japanese fine dining restaurants around the world. These seasonal ingredients have to be sourced from different parts of Japan and transported fresh. I have seen some fine dining restaurants in Singapore, Hong Kong… and Dubai will also get some Japanese fine dining restaurants, I believe.”
The presentation of kaiseki ryori is as important as its taste. Kaiseki ryori is considered to be an art form and a visual feast, where huge attention to detail is given to each individual course. Even the plates and bowls on which each dish is served are chosen for their aesthetic appeal.
Courses in kaiseki ryori
There is no specific number of dishes in these impromptu courses designed by the chefs. It all depends on the ingredients available. However, the pattern is usually similar.
The meal begins with a bite-sized appetizer followed by a soupy or soft dish. Then comes sashimi or thinly sliced, raw fish served with soy sauce and a small dollop of wasabi paste. This is followed by a boiled or a grilled dish – the grilled fish may be a local freshwater variety or seafood depending on the region and the grilled meat often features local wagyu (prime Japanese beef). After an optional palate cleanser, you are served a deep-fried dish or tempura followed by a steamed dish. And, a bowl of rice or clear miso soup is the last dish before moving on to the dessert.
Chef Hidemasa, who designed a 10-course fine dining menu at his latest restaurant in Dubai’s DIFC, said: “When you come for Japanese fine dining, come with an open mind. There is a lot of raw food, but don’t come with the assumption that you will not be able to eat raw food.
“If you have already tried sushi, then open your mind and raise your bar… you can explore many other dishes,” he added.
So, we kept this in mind every time a new plate arrived as we sat to taste the elaborate menu.
It is the freshness of the ingredients that gives these dishes a special taste, unlike what you have tried at any Japanese fast food restaurant.
The Chef’s culinary journey
Even though he used to help his mother in the kitchen as a young boy and had ramen cooking contests with friends during childhood, cooking was a passion Chef Hidemasa hadn’t truly discovered as a kid. Not quite a fan of school, it was Chef Hidemasa’s father who pushed him to pursue cooking. So he started his culinary journey in 1977 when he graduated from the National Cookery School in Italy and studied under the prestigious French chef Roger Verge, who pioneered the nouvelle cuisine movement in France. Initially, he was not very keen on becoming a chef, but later realised it was his calling.
He returned to Tokyo, where he worked at an Italian restaurant before moving to the US. Twenty one years later he returned to Tokyo to be the Chief Executive Chef for the soon-to-be-opened Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Tokyo. Under his supervision, the three restaurants of the hotel all acquired one Michelin star each. In April 2010, he was awarded the ‘Global Chef Award’ from the World Gourmet Summit.
Today, Chef Hidemasa loves to cook, especially beef dishes.
It won’t be easy to recreate his recipes at home till you have a way to import fresh ingredients from Japan. But, we found that it might be possible to make the soba noodles. So, we asked the Chef if he would share a recipe for Gulf News readers, and he gladly did. All you need to do is find an Asian supermarket close by for the right ingredients.
Recipe: Japanese-style soba noodles with caviar and extra virgin olive oil
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes (Until noodles are cooked to your liking)
- 120gms soba noodles (available at Asian supermarkets)
- ½ cup soba noodle soup (available at Asian supermarkets and amazon.ae)
- 5 gms Caviar
- Spring onions (chopped, small)
- Extra virgin olive oil
For the sauce:
- 1 tbsp Dashi stock
- Pinch of Bonito flakes (made from dried bonito fish that is grated into flakes)
- 1 tbsp of soy sayce
1. Gently cook the noodles until al dente. Remove the noodles from the boiler water and soak them in ice water for 2 minutes. Return to boiling water until fully cooked. Keep stirring to ensure the noodles do not stick together.
2. Using a large mesh strainer, transfer noodles to colander set in ice water. Remove colander from ice bath, and rinse noodles under cold running water.
3. Place the noodles in a serving dish and add the soba noodle soup and the olive oil. Mix the ingredients for the sauce and add it to the dish.
4. Place the caviar on top and garnish with some chopped spring onions.