Kunio Tokuoka, Kitcho’s Kaiseki Visionary

Savory Japan is updated for December with a new page in the LEARN section for Seminars and Classes. Featured there is an overview of the Japan: Flavors of Culture conference we attended last month and featured here in three postings. The page will be a home for links to more in-depth articles that will be added in the coming months. Kicking off the series is a cooking session with legendary Kitcho chef and owner Kunio Tokuoka, whose book we reviewed  a few weeks back.

Featured in this beautiful book on page 155 is this photo of Oyster Rice that would be perfect for the coming cold and snowy months, when oysters are at their most flavorful.

 Oyster Rice 

 Photo and excerpt from the book Kitcho; Japan’s Ultimate Dining Experience, courtesy of the author and publisher, Kondansha International. All rights reserved

SERVING VESSEL: Black earthenware pot, ca. 2000

ARTIST: Masatake Fukumori

 The lid of the pot comes off to release the irresistible aroma of oysters mingled with a subtle hint of soy sauce. Some of the oysters are deep-fried; others are simmered briefly in kelp stock, which is then used to make the rice. Just as the heat is turned off, both kinds of oysters are arranged on the rice and chopped water dropwort (seri) is scattered on top. Kunio has removed the black edges from the oyster meat, as he maintains that they do not taste good—once again defying conventional thinking in pursuit of pure, perfect flavor.

Japan, Flavors of Culture: Final Day

The final day of the conference (which took place on November 6), started with a selection of breakout sessions. I chose Flavor Convergence: Melding Culinary Ideas from Spain and Japan by Way of American and Peruvian Kitchens (how could I NOT choose this intriguing title?) which set the tone for the day, which was in many ways an investigation of the culinary reach of Japanese techniques, ideas and influence on the world, as well as the influx of Western ideas and foods to Japan.

The seminar was led by Toshiro Konishi, a fourth-generation kaiseki chef and chef/owner of Toshiro’s in Lima, Peru. His beef carpaccio–marinated in soy sauce, sherry and dashi–was a delight, as were the kombu-marinated oysters rolled in Iberico ham. The “flavor convergence” was indeed a success, and if I ever make it to Lima, it’ll be my first stop.

Other highlights included noted American food writer and critic Ruth Reichl’s fascinating timeline of the introduction of Japanese cuisine, ingredients and techniques on American dining since 1914, tracing their influences and misunderstandings on America’s collective palate. She also made a prediction that the Japanese concept of texture will be the next frontier. Here’s to hoping natto clears the hurdles to acceptance it currently faces!

Part of the reason for Japan’s culinary influence on the world stage is its’ well-known health benefits. After all, the Japanese have the longest life span in the world (especially in Okinawa) and one of the lowest obesity rates, as stated in the session Balance, Long Life and the Japanese Diet: Ideas for American Menus.

However, with the Westernization of diet– including the consumption of red meat–Lawrence Kushi, SC.D. at Kaiser Permanente showed some startling statistics charting the corresponding rise of breast and colon cancer. (I spoke with Mr. Kushi, who agreed to share the stats with us on Savory Japan for an upcoming article.)

Even though beef consumption is on the rise, in fine dining it is often merely a flavoring agent, used sparingly. This was beautifully demonstrated by seven Michelin-starred chef  Yoshihiro Murata of Kikunoi in his beef shabu shabu with two dipping sauces. Blanching and draining the beef takes away much of the fat, and the dipping sauces: Ponzu that contains dashi, mirin, vinegar, wasabi, sesame paste and lemon juice; and creamy tofu, made from ground tofu, sesame paste, light soy sauce and marscapone (which can be omitted) are both flavorful without having much fat. Additionally, they can be served with salads and vegetables as well as beef.

Perhaps the most healthy diet of all is vegan, and shojin (vegetarian) cuisine is not yet known in the West to the extent that kaiseki is. I was extremely lucky to attend Daisuke Nomura’s (chef/owner of two Michelin-starred Daigo in Tokyo) seminar Shojin Cuisine: Inside the Japanese Vegetarian Kitchen. Mr. Nomura has never been away from his restaurant and in fact closed it for two weeks in order to spread the concept of Shojin-ryori to the West. His restaurant serves shojin-ryori in the kaiseki-style to attract new devotees. I’ve long been a fan of this cuisine, but learned something new: the concept of tanmi (subtle flavor) during a tasting exercise. Okayu (rice porridge), fresh yuba (tofu skin) and simmered daikon were cooked first without flavor, then with a touch of salt, and finally, with dashi and other flavorings (the way they would be served at the restaurant). By tasting each dish successively from light to strong, I learned to appreciate and discern the subtlety of flavor of the main ingredients.

This concept resonated in my mind as I strolled the aisles of the World Marketplace during lunch, where we were able to sample many of the dishes created that day. There was a marked increase in salt, fat and spice the further one ventured from Kyoto and Tokyo; from traditional to modern and domestic to international. The dishes with the most flavor and “wow” factor tend to be bold and up front. I had to quiet my taste buds to appreciate raw yuba with no seasoning, or the richness of maguro sushi with just a light brush of soy sauce by Kyubey’s sushi artists. But these were for me the most satisfying flavors.

The conference ended with a fun segment about the TV show The Iron Chef, and Masaharu Morimoto, David Chang, Masayasu Yonemura and Kunio Tokuoka rose to the challenge of creating dishes with the secret ingredients kabocha (pumpkin) and matsutake mushrooms.

Finally, the closing included a traditional clapping ceremony led by the team of chefs. This led to a rousing standing ovation by the crowd, which seemed to surprise the modest chefs, all of whom left their restaurants during the busy fall color season to impart their knowledge to the crowd.

It remains to be seen what the effect of this amazing conference will be on the culinary world. With ideas exchanged and friendships formed, new ingredients tried and recipes improvised, who knows what will come next? We’re eager to find out, and look forward to the years ahead, when we firmly believe Japanese cuisine will be viewed as one of the greatest and most influential in the world.

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.

Japan: Flavors of Culture Conference & Festival

The opening day of the 13th annual CIA conference, Japan: Flavors of Culture; From Sushi & Soba to Kaiseki. A Global Celebration of Tradition, Art & Exchange started off with a thought-provoking subject: Traditions and Innovations in Japanese Cuisine: An Inquiry into the Source of Diversity. Moderator/presenter Yoshiki Tsuji illustrated this diversity within Japan by introducing three chefs from three cities which have been the driving forces in shaping the culinary landscape since the 1700s: Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.

First, Yousuke Imada, chef/owner of Kyubey in Tokyo gave an introduction of Edo-mae sushi while demonstrating the preparation of two classic neta (toppings): kohada (shad), which is marinated in salt and vinegar to soften the tiny bones and intensify the flavor, and toro (fatty tuna) preserved in a mixture of soy sauce and either dashi or mirin, to get rid of excess moisture and soften what is often called the “king of fish”.

Next, Yoshihiro Takahashi, 15th-generation chef/owner of Hyotei demonstrated nimono (simmered) tai (sea bream) with Kyoto vegetables and pumpkin tofu. Tai is not only a seasonal (November brings the best flavor) but a celebratory choice, while the appearance of matsutake mushrooms symbolizes the transition from autumn to winter — and the end of the season. He even described the proper way to enjoy the soup to the audience (many of whom had never been to Japan) — from the lacquer bowl that feels soft to the touch and transfers the warmth to the diner’s hands, to the proper way to sip the hot liquid — slurping with sound, so that air mixes with the soup to enjoy the flavor more fully.

Finally, Kunio Tokuoka, 3rd generation chef/owner of Kitcho demonstrated the art of the hassun (appetizer arrangement), Osaka-style. A culinary icebreaker for conversation to be enjoyed with sake: Part landscape, part visual poetry, full of symbolism and designed to be viewed from each diners’ perspective. His ikebana-like autumn arrangement included flowers from Napa Valley in honor of the conference, which brings together a team of 50 top chefs and culinary experts from Japan and 40 from the U.S., Europe and South America for what is the first serious investigation and professional exchange of its kind.

The knowledge each chef and presenter was able to impart in a few minutes left me wanting to spend three days (or three years) with each one. To bring such great talent under one roof was a massive undertaking that took three years of preparation by devoted teams of organizers, advisers and sponsors from Japan and the U.S.

This was followed by a tasting and dinner featuring food, drink, food products and book signings. The massive hall proved too big to explore in its entirety because we kept stopping for fascinating conversations with traditional Japanese producers of katsuobushi, tea and sake. Luckily we can return tomorrow for more inspiration.

13th Annual Worlds of Flavor, Japan: Flavors of Culture at The Culinary Institute of America

Savory Japan is deeply honored to be invited to cover the 13th Annual International Conference & Festival, Worlds of Flavor at The Culinary Institute of America.: Japan: Flavors of Culture – From Sushi to Soba to Kaiseki: A Global Celebration of Tradition, Art & Exchange. This highly anticipated three-day event, held November 4 to 6, will be the country’s largest and most important professional conferences ever to be held about Japanese Cuisine. The conference organizers have been at work for over two years to “present for the first time in the United States, a comprehensive, global standard of excellence in traditional Japanese cuisine as practiced by Japan’s most revered master chefs and food experts.”

The conference guest faculty will include more than 60 leading chefs and other luminaries of the Japanese culinary world. Confirmed chefs include:

From Japan:

  • Chef Kihachi Kumagai of Kihachi Restaurants
  • Chef Kiyomi Mikuni of the Hotel de Mikuni, Tokyo
  • Chef Yoshihiro Murata of Kyoto Kikunoi Restaurant (Three Star Michelin)
  • Chef Kunio Tokuoka of Kitcho Arashiyama Restaurant, Kyoto (Three Star Michelin)

From the United States:

  • Chef Nori Kusakabe of Sushi Ran Restaurant, Sausalito
  • Chef Masaharu Morimoto of Morimoto Restaurant, New York
  • Chef Hiroko Shimbo of Horiko’s Kitchen, New York
  • Chef Hiro Sone of Ame Restaurant in San Fransisco and Terra Restaurant, St. Helena (One Star Michelin)

Become a fan on Facebook at the CIA Worlds of Flavor Conference page to keep up-to-date on the roster, and visit the link above for full conference details and to register. In a recent posting on April 1, Savory Japan was named as one of the conference’s favorite sites on Japanese Cuisine & Culture! How awesome, and how very humbling!

With so much talent in one location, our heads will be spinning and our taste buds, tantalized. We will try our best to keep up, and keep you posted.

If you’re headed to the conference and festival, see you there!