Japan: Flavors of Culture, Day 2

Today was the last day of this three-day extravaganza, and my head is spinning from the amazing amount of information I’ve heard, new flavors I tasted, and beautiful presentations I’ve seen. It’s simply too much to write about just now with any sense of clarity, for there simply isn’t enough time (nor space). So I’ll just give a brief overview and post a few photos. Please visit the Savory Japan Facebook page to see a more extensive photo album. When I return to Chicago I’ll post articles on certain subjects in their respective categories on Savory Japan.

The second day of this amazing culinary event started with classic, traditional Japanese cuisine, with an introduction to three chefs from three Kyoto ryotei (Japanese traditional restaurants), who in turn introduced three dishes. It ended with a showcase of Japanese and American chefs who push the boundaries of tradition to create their own unique dishes. In between, there were kitchen workshops, tastings and lectures on culinary history, food philosophy and even anthropology.

What follows are some highlights from day 2:

Hisato Nakahigashi owner/chef of Tankuma Kitamise, a counter style ryotei favored by professional tea masters created a lavish wansashi, (sashimi served in a bowl) for five people for a celebratory occasion.

Starting with a large square white bowl as his “blank canvas”, Nakahigashi created a landscape depicting San Francisco. A lobster represented the undulating contours of the Golden Gate bridge, while auspicious red- and white–fleshed fish: Maguro (tuna), hirame (flounder), hotate (scallops) and hamachi (yellowtail).

Nakahigashi also talked about the concept of shun, a celebration of the seasons. In Kyoto, the four seasons are divided into 12 months, and each month divided in two, marked by various subtle changes to the weather and available produce, as well as festivals. For instance, chestnuts represent the month of September. However, they are first green, then change to yellow and finally, brown. Each change is incorporated into the cuisine.

Next, a quick succession of chefs introduced various casual comfort foods, including Mr. Yoshihiro Maeda of Hanamaru Udon, a company that makes Sanuki style udon.  The ingredients for udon are simply flour, salt and water. (The softer the water, the better–It also has the be the right temperature, 30 degrees C or less). First, he mixed the water and flour together so that the water penetrated the flour to create flaky dough. This was then wrapped between two sturdy pieces of plastic and stomped by foot, then folded and repeated seven times. (Maeda explained that they have a machine to replicate this action). He then boiled the noodles and created a quick dashi soup. Other notable presenters included Ivan Orkin of Ivan Ramen, whose excellent ramen we got to taste during dinner.

This was followed by breakout sessions. I picked the seminar on Japanese tofu and  vegetable traditions, given by Kunio Tokuoka of three-Michelin-starred Kitcho. He made hirousu, deep-fried tofu balls with sauteed vegetables, as well as age dashi dofu (fried tofu) which was served in a rich soup made of chicken stock and smoked whipped cream. Both dishes were understated and elegant–but curiously–not vegetarian.

At the end of the day there was a fascinating showcase by Japanese chefs who interpret the food of the West, or use Japanese ingredients to create a new cuisine. The cross-cultural currents proved to be intriguing and made me want to try new restaurants.

Masayasu Yonemura’s demonstration was a standout due to his natural style and delicious-looking fois gras dish. His eponymous restaurant in Kyoto has earned one  Michelin star. There was also a session devoted to umami, and a seminar on the differences between kaiseki and cha-kaiseki, which I’ll cover later on Savory Japan.

As I said, it was a full day, with just too much information to do any justice to. I learned some new tips that I’m sure will help me be a better cook, and have added more restaurants to my list.

I’ll just say that I wish the conference was spread out over a week instead of just three days. However, judging from the international roster of guests and presenters, that would have been a difficult undertaking. The chefs were all unpaid, freely giving of their time and culinary secrets. Some of them even had to close their restaurants in order to attend.

I’ll follow up with a post on the highlights from today, Day 3, soon.