The most memorable hospitality I’ve ever experienced while traveling, was not at the most refined Kyoto Ryokan nor discreet old world small hotels of Europe, although they were all unforgettable places with impeccable service and care, the most memorable hospitality I’ve ever experienced was in a village about an hour drive outside of Fes in Morocco.

 

Fes is an incredible ancient city. Once inside the city walls, it seems like you travel back in time several hundred years. But before walking into the city, every visitor is greeted by a swarm of kids who offer to be your guide. There is no way around it, these kids are clever, and most of them know just enough phrases in many different languages to grab your attention. It seems the only way to have them leave us alone was to hire one, so we did.

 

Our guide Mohamed said he was 15 years old but I think he was more like 11 and after about 15 minutes of walking trough the maze like streets with him, he was joined by another boy (I forgot his name) who said he was 18 years old but did not look a day older than 14. They were mostly interested in taking us to the shops so they could earn commissions from the shop owners. After a         couple of hours, we grew hungry, so I asked them to take us to a good place to eat, a place where a local might go to have a good relaxing lunch. They took us to what seemed like a hole in the wall, but turned out to be very spacious and beautiful once inside, then told us they would wait outside while we eat. I was not having that so I told them they must join us and if they did not, I would not eat.  Reluctantly, they came in to the restaurant with us. Once inside, a gentleman who appeared to be the proprietor of the restaurant received us but said something rather sternly to the kids. The kids then told me that they should wait outside, or if they are going to eat at all, they could not eat in the dining room. I then finally understood why our guides were so reluctant to come in and eat with us. So I told the proprietor that these young men were my guests, and they will sit with me to dine together. The lunch was very good, well prepared, and we all had a good time, but what was most remarkable was in that moment, everything changed, our guides became our friends and we became their guests to the city. In the afternoon, they took us to see many interesting places, now avoiding the shops. They now wanted us to see their Fes. They even took us through some gaps and holes (a short cut) within the walls. They made us feel like kids again in this ancient city.

 

At the end of the day, I asked them what we were doing tomorrow? They looked puzzled but responded we could do whatever we wanted. So I asked them to take me to their village. I had learned during lunch that they were Berber and their village was about a 2-hour drive from Fes. “ Do you really want to see our village? They asked me, responding that no one had asked them that before.” “Yes, I would love to “I replied.

 

The next morning we drove out to the countryside. After about an hour I started seeing fields with peculiar dome like structures of about 2 feet high. The kids told us that they were bread ovens and since the farmers only have time to bake once a day, they have more than one oven so they can bake enough bread for the whole family. “Would you like to see one?” they asked me. “Sure” I said. “OK, then lets go to that house” as they pointed to a small house in the distance “That small one? I asked. Do you know them?” “No, but its ok, we will have some tea there.” “What?!?!?”   A little hesitant I did what I was told and pulled onto the dirt road and headed to the tiny house.

 

We were total strangers and we showed up at this house un-announced and empty-handed. At the door, we were greeted by a girl of about 8 years old who was caring for her little brother (5YO) and little sister (2YO) while her parents where out working the fields. The tiny house was humble and had a warm feel to it. It was one room home and had hardened dirt like clay floors with one very large piece of carpet on it. The girl, or I should say our hostess asked us to go and wait for her under the tree shade outside because it was getting very hot inside the house, and I will never forget what happened after that.

 

Our hostess dragged and carried out the only carpet in her house for us so we could sit under the tree in comfort. Of course I tried to help as the carpet was probably three times her weight, but she would have none of that. We were her guests and we were to sit and relax. She then brought us fresh brewed mint tea, home made bread, olives, home churned butter, home made yogurt, and honey. She basically brought out everything she had in her house for us to enjoy in comfort under this beautiful tree.

 

The food was amazing, simple, rich flavors of nature. But what made the experience so memorable was the hospitality. She was responsible for her guests’ comfort and nourishment while we were under her care, and she did everything she could to make sure that this was done. I was moved, beyond moved. I had done nothing to deserve such hospitality and we were total strangers to her. I asked my guides what I could do to repay her. The boys told me not worry, that this was their local custom, but I had to do something in return. I went to look for a store and bought a hand full of loose candies and brought it back to her. The look on her face when I gave her the candies was that of surprise, joy, and slight embarrassment.

 

What I took away from her and this experience was learning the most important thing about hospitality. That true hospitality is to touch the guest’s heart, and the only thing that can touch a person’s heart is the heart of another.

 

E’ un’ antizanzara?” asked the man at the next table as he pointed to a large anti-bug candle in our cozy outside dining room. It wasn’t much, but that was the first Italian sentence I ever understood without assistance. It was a personal milestone, and it marked the beginning of an unforgettable dinner at L’Approdo da Felice in Santa Margherita. It was the late summer of the year 2000.

Santa Margherita is a seaside town a 30-minute drive (or 20 minutes, if you’re an Italian driver) east of Genova on the Ligurian coast. If you want to visit Portofino by car, you must pass though Santa Margherita, but don’t give this lively beach and port town short shrift. It boasts lovely cafes and several restaurants of note, most especially, L’Approdo, tucked in a tiny side street a couple blocks away from the water.

Like many good restaurants in Italy, L’Approdo is family-run — husband in the kitchen, wife and son in the dining room. The cuisine is typical Ligurian, and that means abundant harvests from the sea as well as honest fruits and vegetables from local farms. The restaurant doesn’t meddle with the ingredients, preferring to let them speak for themselves and that happens to be exactly the way I like to eat.

When I find a restaurant such as L’Approdo, I simply ask the kitchen to cook whatever they feel like. I do, however, always offer this guidance: “I am very hungry,” I say, “and I eat a lot.” In any language, that tends to make chefs happy.

My first dinner at L’Approdo began with antipasti misto, which included alici (similar to small sardines) marinated in olive oil with lemons (and what lemons they were!); fried, stuffed zucchini flowers; baked mussels with cheese and bread crumbs; mussels with white wine; and small squares of focaccia.

We had three dishes for our primi course. The first was trofie, small, handmade pasta with pesto, green beans, and potatoes. To make the dish correctly, a chef must boil the pasta together with the potatoes and beans. The trofie was followed by spaghetti with small clams (alle vongole) and spaghetti with olives and garlic in olive oil.

Let me tell you about these olives! They were harvested from nearby olive trees and pickled at the restaurant, and they were the first olives that reminded me olives are fruits.

Before the secondi, our hostess tied bibs on us for the course I will remember forever: a mountain of scampi with roe still attached atop a large white plate. We were told the scampi was cooked in secret sauce. How did it taste? Well, imagine boiling scampi in condensed scampi stock, then sautéing it with olive oil, lemon juice, and some kind of white vinegar over very high heat. At moments like that, all I can think is that it’s good to be alive.

For dessert we had a delightful simple plate of wild strawberries with lemon juice, sugar, and some Muscat wine.

Over coffee and grappa, our hostess told us about her restaurant. She said not many tourists find their way to her door because L’Approdo is not on the beach. I asked her about the scampi dish — not the recipe, but the dish. Long ago, she said, an Italian chef who studied cooking in France came to the area and opened a restaurant. Using the technique he’d learned abroad, he created this dish. Later, he gave permission to three of his cooks to use the recipe when they opened their own restaurants. We were told a restaurant owned by one of the recipe holders is closed and for sale. Buy the restaurant and you get the recipe, our hostess confided.

A great dinner on the Ligurian coast has a way of making you feel that anything is possible.

L’Approdo da Felice
via Cairoli 26, Santa Margherita
(39) (0) 185 281789

Daisuke Utagawa

By Daisuke Utagawa

Making decent ramen is not an easy task. But making good ramen is a task that can drive even well trained cooks crazy. Good ramen must be – first and foremost – well balanced. There are four major elements that make up a bowl of ramen. Balancing those elements is the most difficult part of making that really satisfying, “crave to have it again 3 days later” ramen. Here is a brief explanation of those 4 elements.

Soup stock – In Japan, there are largely two types of stocks made for ramen, Chintan stock (clear soup), and Paitan stock (emulsified turbid stock).

Chintan stock is typically made with chicken, pork bone, seaweed, dried fish, vegetables, and other house secret ingredients. It needs about 8 hours cooking time on top of overnight soaking time.

Paitan stock is mainly made with pork bones, pork fat and pork feet, (some make it with chicken bones) that are boiled for a long time to the point that stock is emulsified and turns milky color. This also takes long time to make.

Noodles – Different style of ramen calls for different type of noodles.

Sapporo ramen are typically made with thick curly noodles that are aged.

Tokyo style ramen are made with curly, medium thick, aged noodles. The noodles are curly so that they will carry the soup when it’s slurped.

Tonkotsu (paitan stock) are commonly made with thin strait non-aged noodles to go with the rich thick soup.

The type of flour, kansui (alkaline salt which gives noodles that particular springiness), and precise mixture of other ingredients as well as kneading time, pressure etc. are also house secret.

Tare – Tare determines the main flavor of the soup. Shio (salt based), Shoyu (Soy sauce based) and Miso are the top three popular flavors in Japan. Each Tare is made according to house recipe; most tare are aged to allow for each ingredient to blend well.

Spices, toppings, and flavored oil – Typical ramen toppings are Chashu (roast pork), Memma (simmered bamboo), Ajitamago (marinated boiled egg), Nori, fresh wok fried beansprouts.

Commonly used spices are ginger, garlic, ground white pepper, some even use a touch of dried citrus skin as kakushiaji (hidden flavor).

For flavor oil, scallions, ginger and garlic are slow cooked in oil to extract the flavors.

So, as one can see, it takes time and a lot of effort to make the above four elements, but that’s not even half of the story. The key lies in making the four elements come together seamlessly in a bowl so the complete ramen becomes “one”, and the finished product must be more than the sum of its parts. Just imagine how many variances there can be just for the stock, change one little thing in the makeup of four elements and it can throw the whole thing off balance!

Also ramen must be made to order, which means the stock, the tare, the boiled to order noodles and toppings and spices must come together right before serving. This juxtaposition of fresh and aged is what makes ramen so addictive.

Ramen is quick order, quick eating food. Let it sit in front of you while talking to your dinning companion? NO! The noodles will get soggy and loose that particular combination of springiness and elasticity as well as flavor it took so long for the cooks to perfect.

How to eat Ramen? As quickly as possible! Here are some tips on getting the best out of your ramen.

1) When the ramen arrives, start eating it straightaway, do not wait for your companion’s ramen to arrive, ramen never waits for people, people wait for ramen.

2) First, take a small sip of the broth directly from the edge of the bowl by lifting the bowl with both hands to your lips. This is by far the preferable option but you can use the spoon if you like. You want to do this to taste the broth before it’s mixed with other ingredients.

3) Then take the roast pork and push it down in to the soup to let it warm up so the fatty part becomes tender.

4) Go directly to noodles, pull out few strands of noodles, put them down as to fold them in half, pick up the folded noodles, – this way the noodles are shorter and much easier to handle- look down towards the bowl (very important) and slurp up the noodles. Be sure to let the air in together with the noodles when you slurp. This aerating helps you to enjoy full flavor of the broth, similar to tasting wines. Do not be embarrassed by the slurping sound. This is the proper way to eat ramen.

5) Repeat step 3 with occasional bites of toppings in between, until all the noodles are gone.

6) Now you can relax and enjoy the rest of the soup at your own pace.

7) Done correctly, it should not take more than 10 minutes to finish a bowl of ramen.

8) Enjoy that glorious afterglow of having had a good bowl of ramen.

Gochisousamadeshia!

Whenever I travel back to my home city Tokyo, there are few eateries I must go back to. Many of them are in the area called Shitamachi. The term shitamachi was originally used in Edo period (17th to 19th century) to describe urban areas that lay in lowland, closer to the river and sea, or outside of the central district of Shogun’s rule. But today it generally stands for a more humble part of Tokyo that still keeps the old world charm.

What makes shitamachi special is the people who live there. They are often blunt, in a hurry, and easily agitated, but also warm and have big hearts. At least that’s how they are characterized in many tales of shitamachi.

Masaru is an eatery that serves only one main dish, Tendon. Tendon simply put is a Tempura served over a large bowl of rice with some sweet and savory sauce. This typical shitamachi dish may sound simple but what goes in to making perfect tendon is nothing simple.

First the rice has to be of high quality, carefully washed and perfectly cooked. The ingredients for the tempura have to be of the top quality. Chef Takasaki goes to Tsukiji market every morning to pick the prawns he serves that day. He only uses domestic Kuruma-ebi, and if he does not find prawns to his liking, he will not open his restaurant that day.

Then comes the frying technique. Tempura for tendon is made differently to normal tempura. Because tempura has to be dipped in the sauce before being laid on the bed of rice, it needs to be a bit crispier as not to get soggy, but never too crunchy. Making crispy tempura without overcooking the ingredients is not an easy thing to do. Precise temperature of oil, the right timing, and the right type of oil is required on top of the chef’s skills to understand and adjust the cooking to each ingredient’s condition and character. In short, there is never a precise recipe one can follow. Of course there are general guidelines but micro adjustments must be made all the time. All simple prepared food such as sushi, sashimi or tempura show the flaw (or inability to truly understand the ingredients) of the maker, but at the same time, if a master made it, the same dish can be heavenly.

Chef Takasaki is a master of tendon. He is also quite a character. At his shop, which seats about 8 at the table and 5 at the counter, he seems very quiet. Through a small gap between the counter and the kitchen, one can catch a glimpse of him just doing his thing. No one really talks loud, they just wait for the tendon to arrive mostly in silence. Perhaps its because they waited in line for over 40 minutes, or perhaps the smell of tempura in the store made them very hungry.  Normally the chef does not speak either, but once you get him to talk, he won’t stop! Of course, me being an insensitive Japanese fellow, and a greedy eater, I always talk to cooks who make amazing food.

The only thing about Masaru is it is very difficult to find,  off of one of the most crowded streets of Asakusa, it’s as if the owner deliberately hid the restaurant from the public. But if you are in Asakusa, and want to try the best tendon, and don’t mind the wait, do try it once.

Another one of my “can’t miss when I’m back in Tokyo” is an eel specialty restaurant called Irokawa. I’ve had better eel elsewhere in Japan but I’ve never met a character such as the owner of this eel joint anywhere in the world.

Irokawa opened its doors in 1861 (When Abe Lincoln was the president of USA) and the current chef is the 6th generation owner chef of Irokawa. He is a pure old school edokko, a stereotypical character of shitamachi. He talks like one and acts like one. Rough but has a heart of gold. The restaurant has two 4 tops and 6 seats at the counter. Behind the counter stands the chef (often with cigarettes hanging from his lips) tending to his compact charcoal grill. He also goes to the Tsukiji market (on his bicycle) to pick his eel. His tare (sauce for eel) has been the same batch for over 40 years, accumulating the eel flavor every time the grilled eels are dipped before serving. They just keep adding the new sauce to the old one, never a new batch.

But the real reason I go to this place is to see the chef and to talk to him.

A typical conversation one might have with him would go something like this:

Customer upon sitting down: I’d like a beer please.

Chef: Asahi Dry.

Customer: Only Asahi Dry?

Chef: Yah, don’t like it? Don’t get it.

Customer: Oh sure, I’d love some please, and a skewer of kimoyaki and while I wait for a friend.

Chef: Just one skewer? Get two, I don’t like to do things over again, your friend would order one anyway.

Customer: Urr, ok then two please and maybe some shirayaki.

Chef: Got it, and you’re gonna have unadon for main.

Customer: Urrr I haven’t decided on the main…

Chef: That’s why I’m telling you. You’re gonna have unadon!

Customer: Ye, yes please.

After finishing the meal

Customer: Thank you, that was really good.

Chef: Of course it was good; do you think I serve bad food? If you are around this area come show your face again!

A first time customer will be shocked but once you become a regular, he is really fun to talk to. Besides, no one speaks the old Tokyo dialect anymore. The man should be a living treasure.

Once I brought a very good friend Andy Blue a wine and food writer from LA to Irokawa. Andy was quick to catch on to the vibe of the chef even though he did not speak Japanese. Andy made us laugh by saying “So he is a 6th generation eel chef? I guess when he was young; his father told him -pointing to the tiny grill – “son, one day this will all be yours!” I did not translate this to the chef…..

Masaru

1-32-2 Asakusa Taito-ku Tokyo

Phone +81-3-3841-8356

Irokawa

2-6-11 Kaminarimon Taito-ku Tokyo

Phone +81-3-3844-1187

By Daisuke Utagawa

I am often asked to name my top favorite restaurants/eateries in the world. Or, at least I think about what the top 5 would be time to time. Broken Tooth Shing in Hong Kong has always been my favorite top 5 even though last time I dined there was 2005, and I’ve had plenty of amazing meals elsewhere since then.

Broken Tooth is not a real restaurant, nor is it the real name of the chef. The Chef’s name is Lee Shing, and “broken tooth” is his nickname since he has one of his front teeth broken. It’s not a real restaurant because the establishment is not licensed and is in their small apartment in down town HK. What it is though is an eatery that can take diners through an amazing journey and even back in time –so to speak.

Broken Tooth only takes one group a night. Up to 18 guests. It will cost about $2500 for the 18 people not including the drinks. (Its BYOB) The place is booked months in advance and they wont take any reservations if you were not recommended by someone they trust. The guests sit in Chef Shing’s small living/dining/bedroom of his one room apartment. Not much of décor or comfort; big round foldable table and some milk crates with cushions to sit on. (Although the second time I visited, they had invested in some foldable chairs)

But none of these things matter because of the sublime food he makes and all doubt will be blown away at once when you walk in to the kitchen. The first time I went to the kitchen, I saw this old man crouching on the floor (wooden slats over concrete) cleaning fish. He was Chef Shing. I looked around and noticed that there was not a single gas or electric cooker, instead, there were several coal cookers of various size! I asked about this and the Chef told me that he doesn’t know how to cook with gas and the coal fire gives his food the right heat, and for him, its much easier to control the heat with coal fire. The only difficulty for him is that no one makes the coal range anymore so he has to special order them for his woks of various sizes.

Let me give you some background on Chef Shing. He was 86 years old last time I dined there in 2005. Chef Shing studied under a private chef of a well-known Chinese opera star. This was about 100 Years ago, and back then, all good chefs worked for someone rich and famous privately. This still holds true to some extent in today’s HK, as eating is one of the most important aspects of life in HK and people believe through eating well, one can live longer or even have a great fortune. The teacher of Chef Shing was famous for his skills. For instance he was the chef who invented snake soup with dried citrus skin, now a classic dish. Having such a chef as your own private chef was also a status symbol in those days.

Chef Shing learned all the techniques and secrets from his teacher. He also kept ingredients that is no longer available today such as dried giant grouper skin (I was told this type of fish is not found anymore in the area.) or dried scallops and dried fish maw from the time the sea was not polluted.

If you are lucky enough to get a table at Broken Tooth, they will ask you for your budget and you work out the menu outline with them in advance. Of course you can ask for some surprise dishes, but for me every dish was a surprise even if I thought I knew the dish very well.

My first visit, the meal started with:

A big plate (its all family style here) of something that looked like wokked (Stir Fried if you like) thick cellophane noodles with finely julienned celery. But it turned out these bean sprout sized noodles were actually sharks fin! I’ve never even seen sharks fin that fat!

And it followed with:

A dish of brazed dried abalone and sea cucumber with Shitake. So delicately flavored , the texture and the taste of those chunks of giant abalone as I sink my teeth in to it was something I can still recall today.

And then:

The famous snake soup. Chef Shing’s son who was serving told us that dried citrus skin which flavored the soup was from 30 years ago.

After that it was:

Steamed whole grouper together with some braised fish maw (also very old). The combination of fish maw and the fresh steamed fish was so complementary to each other that one enhanced the flavor of the other.

And still going with:

Turtle stew. A delicate collagen rich dish. Flavored with dried grouper skin.

And of course:

Couple of vegetable dishes, such as braised yellow nappa cabbage with dried scallops, and stir fried fresh greens.

Not to forget:

The most deluxe fried rice with sausages, and various seafood,  dried or otherwise.

And we finished with:

Sweet Red Bean Soup and some exotic fruits.

While I was eating, I had a sense that I was tasting history and a culmination of ages of great Cantonese cooking culture. Perhaps a sense that maybe Chef Shing is the last of the Mohicans so to speak. I’ve asked as delicately as I can if there was anyone who can carry forward his skills. His son said he learned everything from his father. I genuinely hope he did…

Sushi Dining Etiquettes?

By Daisuke Utagawa

Nov. 11, 2012

Over the years, one of the most frequent questions I’m asked by friends and diners at Sushiko is; “what is the correct way to eat sushi?” or some specific questions related to “How to eat sushi properly” I usually respond to this with a preface; “the best way is the way it tastes best to you”, and then explain some sushi dinning customs in Japan. Some are based on practical reasons and others more philosophical. Here are some answers I’ve given in the past.

Order Tamago (Sweet Omelet) first?

 

No.

In the olden days, people used to say “if you want to test the skill level of a sushi chef, and the quality of the restaurant, try the tamago”. To some extent this was true for those days. Eggs were expensive items back then so one could tell the intent of the restaurant if it was made with 100% eggs or some other stuff added, and tamago requires some skills to make. So this led to some dinners starting his/ her meal with tamago. From the point of enjoying sushi, this is not the best starter as tamago is sweet. The sweetness will numb the palate, making it very difficult to enjoy the umami or natural sweetness of the fish. You would not eat chocolate mousse before sampling lightly and expertly salted beluga caviar would you?

No drinking sake or other alcohol beverages when eating sushi?

 

Ether way is fine. This is more of a philosophical question.

In Japan, we often start with a little sashimi to go with the drinks. Sake, beer, etc. Some people will then stop drinking alcohol when the sushi course starts. For some they say its because sake is made from rice and sushi contains rice, and for others it’s the respect for the rice as its very labor intensive to make Japanese rice.

 

Hand or Chopsticks?

 

Both are OK for Sushi. But use chopsticks for other food such as sashimi.

In strictest sense, it’s always better to use chopsticks. The custom of eating sushi with hands came from the days when current style of sushi originated in Edo period some 300 years ago. The first sushi “joints” were sushi carts that would be parked outside the public bath. They did not carry chopsticks since most customers already came with clean hands.

 

Mixing wasabi with soy-sauce?

No, especially if you have been served fresh grated wasabi.

Fresh grated wasabi has a very delicate floral scent and mixing with soy-sauce will eliminate this beautiful flavor. With sashimi, the best way is to put some wasabi on the fish, then dip the non wasabi side in to soy-sauce before eating. With sushi, there should be wasabi already in between the rice and the fish but if you prefer more, do the same as sashimi.

Don’t soak the sushi in the soy-sauce before eating.

Not only will it ruin the delicate flavor and rice will fall apart, but too much sodium is not good for you! Soy-sauce is a flavor enhancer, not a gravy.

What’s the proper order in which to eat sushi?

I like to start with lighter delicate fish such as flounder, then try some shellfish, moving on to more bold flavored and oily fish, finishing with some temaki or sushi rolls. But if you have good relationship with your sushi chef, let him take you on a journey. After all that’s the whole point of sitting at the sushi bar.

When do we eat the pickled ginger?

The pickled ginger is a palate cleanser; eat them between different kinds of sushi. Don’t put them on the sushi and eat it together, or soak them in the soy dish to add flavor to the soy  sauce.

Don’t use the sushi industry lingo.

This happens more in Japan but some customers learn our industry lingo such as Agari (meaning finish or goal) for Tea, Gari for pickled ginger, Namida for wasabi Oaiso for the bill. Some even learn the lingo for numbers and use them to communicate with the sushi chefs and staff. This is a big turnoff for most sushi chefs. At best, they will think one is showing off, and worst, they will feel invaded… Ether way, its not the best way to forge a relationship with your sushi chef.

And for those who care to know, the proper way to eat at the sushibar.

In a strict sense, all nigiri should be made one or two pieces at a time. And when they are served, eat them straightaway. A properly sharpened yanagi knifes should slice through the cells of the fish rather than tearing them apart. If you pay attention, your palate can tell the difference, and its more flavorful when the fish is cut this way. But if you leave the sushi on the plate, the sliced cells will start to dry. Also leaving the sushi on the plate will make rice too cold and it will loose that delicate balance of looseness and form in short time. If the nigiri is made properly, the rice should be formed just right, not too tight, and not too loose, it should naturally break down to individual grins of rice once it’s in your mouth.

Either with chopsticks or by hand, dip the fish, fish side down (just the corner will do) in to the soy sauce and then put the soy side down on to your palate. This way you will not have to use excess soy sauce and enjoy a full flavor of soy as well. If you are using chopsticks, its easier to roll the nigiri on the side then hold it with chopsticks so one stick will be holding the rice, and another the fish, this way its much easier to dip and bring the dipped side to the palate.

Since you are sitting at the sushibar, you can ask if you want more or less wasabi in your sushi eliminating the need to add wasabi yourself.

Very few edible things are as satisfying and intoxicating as expertly made nigiri sushi. Lukewarm perfectly cooked and seasoned glossy sushi-rice unfolding in your palate while the vinegar from the sushi rice agitates the slightly cooler fish meat bringing out its full umami potential, while the sweetness of the rice plays well with floral quality of fresh wasabi, all held together by faint flavor of well made soy sauce.

And that is real sushi!

Daisuke Utagawa

In the 90′s, I started pairing Burgundy red wines with Japanese food. I thought that the delicate tannins in burgundy reds helped define the elusive umami in Japanese food. And by tannins leaving the wine to pair off with umami, it unlocked the hidden flavors of the wine. The result was like a savory flavor of fish coming back on your palate holding a bouquet of fresh and exotic flowers. Philosophically speaking, I think wine making in Burgundy region and Japanese cuisine is essentially the same. Both practice the idea of refining what nature has to offer to show its true and best quality, rather than to “create the taste”. In Burgundy, they say the “expression of the terroir” in Japan, we say “to give life to the ingredients”.

Back then, I was just having fun with my wine friends but one day an article came out on Wall Street Journal about my efforts. The article itself was fairly written quoting those who have tried it (and liked it) and those who did not. But the article ended with a quote from some wine guy in Boston saying “I’ve never tried it but I think it would be a waste of a good burgundy bottle”. I was a bit ticked off by it and so I decided to bring Sushiko staff to France and cook for the winemakers themselves. Let them tell me themselves if its waste of their wines! Needing guidance of how to go about inviting the wine makers, I spoke with my friend Becky Wasserman, who is a bit like an Ambassador of burgundy wines and who also lives in Burgundy. Becky, without even trying the pairing herself, embraced the idea and told me that normally no one will come to such event but if she hosted it, the winemakers would have to come. So we decided to do it on one Sunday in November for lunch. I believe it was 1999.

When the day came, I thought to my self, “what the hell did I get myself in to?” The wine makers came with their own wines of course, but they were all visibly uncomfortable, some were down right angry. Burgundian wine makers are not the sort who masks their feelings when it comes to wines or food. Most of them came to me and actually told me that this is going to be a disaster! Of course it helped that I did not understand French back then. To make matters worse, since I did not know which wines from their portfolio each of the 6 wine makers would bring for the event, I had to taste them on the spot and pair them with our food. When I was done choosing the order in which these wines will be served, Becky came to me and politely asked me if I might had miss communicated the order of wines with the staff. I told her I did not. Well that did not go well with the guests as I have put some Grand Cru wines before 1er Cru wines. That is never done in France! “What a savage!” must have thought the guests. But I was more interested in the emergence of the third character the sum of wine and the food pairing, and its progression as the story unfolds rather than just the progression of wines or food alone. Of course the fact they all brought fabulous wines helped. (I knew they were not going to bring wines that did not show well to the event, after all, there are other wine makers there!)

By the time Becky introduced me and I gave my simple explanation of what my idea is about, we began. By this time, the crowd was super skeptical and rather upset. As a result when the first course was served, no one uttered a word or even a sound. Second course, a little murmur was heard in the dinning room. People were looking at each-other as if to say “do you taste what I’m tasting?” Third course, an explosion of complimentary adjectives! After the sixth course was all mopped up, all the winemakers got up and sang a burgundian harvest song in our honor! I had to hold back my tears…

Because of the overwhelming response, we did the same event for few years in a row after that. Always inviting different wine makers. Then the word spread and our team was invited to Japan to do the same event for Berry Brothers & Rudd, a prominent wine merchant from London, we even did a gig at the James Beard House as well. The funny thing is one day in NYC, I was having a dinner at a restaurant and the proprietor spotted the wine I was having and started to tell me about this “Old Chef in Washington DC who started the pairing of burgundy wine and Japanese cuisine, I had to tell him that the person in question is not old!

Daisuke Utagawa

Some fish, even if they are to be served raw like for Sushi or Sashimi, can benefit from aging. “What, aging fish?!” That’s what I thought when I first started as an apprentice sushi cook. Like everyone, I thought all the fish are best eaten right out of the water, fresher it is, the tastier. Turns out that is not true…

Madai for instance, is best around the third day from the catch. A large Tuna (we are talking about 200lb and bigger) is most delicious after about a week or 10 days from the catch. I am not suggesting leaving the fish laying about for days after the catch, and of course one must properly treat the fish right out of the water in order to age them.

Lets take Hirame for example, one of the lightest and most delicate tasting fish. A typical routine for chefs in Japan is to go to the fish market every morning and choose the fish according to the quality and price. The fish at the market are all caught the night before, and have been killed swiftly and bled properly on the boat right after the catch. One can easily tell that by the clearness of the eyes, stiffness of the fish and the condition of its skin. Once the Hirame is brought back to the kitchen, they are cleaned before aging. The degree of cleaning depends on the chefs’ preference. Some only clean the gut and de-scale them. Some will de-bone. Once cleaned, they are normally kept in fridge for 3 days before showing up in the Terashi (Sushi display case) for customers. In three days Hirame will be much “sweeter” and have more umami. Most respected sushi restaurants will not even serve Hirame caught the same day even if they run out of the aged ones.

With tuna, the aging process takes even longer. When tuna is well aged, the meat becomes very tender and fragile, this is the reason many chefs use Takohiki, a special thin blade knife to cut aged tuna for sushi or sashimi. A dab of fresh wasabi on the aged tuna with a bit of Shoyu (soy sauce) on the corner and you have a most satisfying complex savory fish swimming in a flower garden (fresh wasabi that is) in your palate.

The proprietor of one of my favorite fish restaurant Le Tiboulen de Maire in Marseille France goes even further. He instructs the fishermen where to fish –as he knows the local water very well- and even how to catch the fish. All his fish are line caught, no nets. He says when fish are caught by net, there are other fish in the net and some fish eat one another resulting in fish with full stomachs. He prefers his fish to have empty stomachs because when he ages his fish, he leaves the fish intact without even cleaning the inside. He tells me that he will not even let the fish touch fresh water or ice. Just right out of sea water, properly killed and bled, and kept in the fridge for 2 to 3 days before grilling. The result is amazingly flavorful grilled St. Pierre, and one can even eat the grilled liver after 3 days! That liver of Grilled St. Pierre alone is worth the trip to France.

On the other hand, not all fish should be aged. Generally speaking, shellfish and small sized high oil content fish such as Iwashi and Aji are best when it’s super fresh. A squid is actually clear as a crystal right out of the sea. Transparent squid like that are so sweet and crunchy as sashimi, but within 20 minutes the flesh will become milky in color and start loosing its flavor and texture. Uni right out of its shell is much sweeter and delicate then the ones we normally see in the boxes. Fresh Aji Tataki with ginger and green onion is to die for. And some Japanese fishermen will de-bone fresh caught sardines by hand, chop them up and mix them with miso, ginger, and green onions, then place the mix over hot steamed rice and make Iwashi Tataki Donburi!!! I’ve had the same dish, but on land, and it was by far the best sardine dish I’ve had in my life. I can only imagine how it will taste on the fishing boat…

Daisuke Utagawa

Madai = Red Seabream

Hirame = Large-tooth flounder or Left eyed fluke.

St Pierre = John Dory

Iwashi = Sardine

Iwashi Tataki = roughly de-boned and chopped Sardine tossed with fresh graded ginger and chopped green onion.

Aji = Horse Mackerel

Uni = Sea Urchin

 

Le Tiboulen de Maire

Chemin des Goudes – 13008 Marseille

Phone +33 4 91 25 26 30