Hello to anyone dropping in by way of the second piece on my and my family's recent Indian odyssey in the travel section of the Sunday Times.
Thought I'd use this opportunity to shamelessly plug my forthcoming appearance at the Asia House Literary Festival next month.
Fresh from my even more forthcoming trip to Tokyo (next week - woo-hoo!) I’m going to be divulging some of the great secrets of Japanese cuisine, talking about the current trends there, and looking at the weird and wonderful techniques and ingredients.
Here’s the blurb:
Michael Booth - Sushi & Beyond What the Japanese Know About Cooking with Erica Wagner of The Times
Tuesday 18 May, 2010 6:45 PM - 7:45 PM Location: Asia House, 63 New Cavendish St, London W1G 7LP,
Asia House Festival of Asian Literature
The Japanese go to surprising lengths and expense to eat the finest, most delectable, and downright freakiest food imaginable. Their creativity and ingenuity, not to mention courage in the face of dishes such as cod sperm, whale penis and octopus ice cream, is only now beginning to be fully appreciated in the sushi-saturated West. In Sushi & Beyond, travel and food writer Michael Booth takes a fascinating and funny journey through this extraordinary, food obsessed country.
Tickets £10, Concessions £6 Asia House Friends £5
For booking please call 020 7307 5454
Online booking closes 24hrs before all events. Bookings are neither refundable nor transferable.
Back to dashi, its multifarious uses and manifold munificence...
So you’ve gently, slowly heated your konbu then kept it at 60 degrees C for an hour before removing the seaweed form the water; you’ve steeped your katsuobushi flakes in the hot liquid, and strained. You are left with a delicately golden liquid with a light, tangy aroma of the sea and... something else, something indefinably delicious, something not quite fishy, not quite meaty: umami.
You are now ready to create the most delicious miso soup you have ever tasted. You’d be surprised how many of even the poshest and most expensive Japanese restaurants use MSG-packed soup powders to make their miso soup and, though these taste perfectly okay and MSG is a wonderful thing (oh yes, next time someone at a party starts bleating that MSG gives them ‘headaches’ and ‘makes people’s brains melt’, tell them they are talking tripe and that they should buy my new book, Sushi and Beyond, which explains all about it, and also buy my other books, which have nothing to do with Japanese food, but are really great and will give them lots of better stuff to talk about at parties), they are mere shadows of the lip-smacking, other worldly deliciousness that is a proper miso soup made from scratch from primary ingredients. You’re excited, I can tell.
Here’s how you do it:
Gently warm your dashi again. Never, ever boil dashi. If you do, you risk that scene at the end of the first Indiana Jones film when the Nazis open the Ark of the Covenant and great swoopy smoke-ghosts envelop you in their evil, face-melting grasp. Or... your kitchen will just smell funny for a bit and your dashi might taste a bit bitter.
If you like, you could also add some dried shiitake mushrooms at this point and wait a few moments as they rehydrate in the warm liquid. Trust me, they really add something special to the flavour of the soup. How so?
Now the science bit (extracted from Sushi and Beyond. Professor Ikeda is the man who discovered umami in 1908, by the way):
“Umami has been identified in over forty compounds, but is most strongly present in glutamate and certain ribonucleotides, chief among them inosinate and guanylate. No, me neither, but the most important thing to know as far as Japanese food is concerned is that the Japanese are the world masters at maximising the umami in their cooking. This is best exemplified by one dish: miso soup. As Professor Ikeda discovered, konbu has more glutamate than any other foodstuff on earth, while katsuobushi, the other main base ingredient of the dashi, or ‘stock’ used to make miso soup (along with water), is one of the richest natural sources of inosinates. Meanwhile, shiitake mushrooms happen to be extremely rich in guanylate, and are often added to miso as well. That’s quite an umami triple whammy as it is, but the combination of these three ingredients generates far more umami flavour than the mere sum of its parts. When the glutamate of konbu meets the inosinic acid in katsuobushi and the guanylate of shiitake, the umami profile is multiplied by a factor of eight times. Apparently it drives one’s left lateral orbifrontal cortex doolally.
Hope you got that. There will be a quiz later.
Next, plop a couple of table spoons of miso paste into a bowl (miso paste is an inherently ‘ploppy’ substance, and we just have to forgive it for that, and move on). I use a common-or-garden light brown paste, but there’s no law that says you can’t experiment with the full and bewildering range of miso pastes made throughout Japan.
Add a couple of ladle-fuls of the dashi to the miso paste, and mix well with a fork. This is called tempering: it ensures that the paste will mix properly with the rest of the dashi when you add the miso-dashi mixture into the main pot of dashi (if you add the paste straight to the dashi, then a good deal of it will remain floating around in large, unappetising miso-bergs. And, as much as I worship at the fragrant altar of miso paste, no one wants an unexpected mouthful in the middle of lunch. It’s a bit pooey, to be honest.)
Again, not to be a bore, but do not let your miso soup boil, as you will kill off all the wonderful enzymes and bacteria that live in miso paste and are so very good for you.
What happens next depends on your personal taste and the type of miso paste you have used. Personally, I add a wee dash of mirin (a kind of sweet sake, used only for cooking), and a splash of soy sauce. This is probably sacriligious, but I also add a squeeze or two of lemon juice as well - there are few savoury things that don’t benefit from a bit of citrus.
You now have your basic miso soup, and very delicious it will be too.
For my lunch today (and most days, these days), I added some dried wakame seaweed to the soup, then poured it into a bowl over some soba noodles (soba noodles, made with buckwheat flour, are more minerally virtuous than those made with wheat flour, but you can use any noodles); and sprinkled over some freshly toasted sesame seeds (as with all nuts and seeds, toasting them releases their oils and flavour), and nicely spicy shichimi (Japanese seven spice mix).
I promised to tell you how to make the perfect ichiban dashi - the basic Japanese ‘stock’ made from dried konbu seaweed, katsuobushi flakes and water.
(I may wear funny hats and stuff, but I am not so eccentric as to drink dashi from a martini glass - it was the best thing I had to display it in, okay?)
The classic method is to let a post card-sized piece of konbu sit, covered in a pan of water overnight. In fact, on the sacred mountain of Koya-san, the monks there would simply remove the konbu from the water and use this as their stock.
If that’s a little too Zen for your, the more conventional way is to bring it slowly to the boil over half an hour or so. Just before the water boils, remove the konbu (it should be soft enough that your fingernail leaves a mark when you press it), chuck in a handful of katsuobushi flakes (sorry not to be specific about quantities - use the Force to decide) and, if necessary a cup of water to calm the imminent boil. Leave the flakes to infuse for a few minutes, then strain through a fine sieve/chinois. You can reuse the konbu and katsuobushi to make a slightly less refined, but perfectly tasty second dashi - niban dashi - by simmering them in fresh water for an hour or two. The Japanese use this for soups.
During my time in Japan I was shown this method by several chefs, including one who subsequently went on to get himself a Michelin star, so we can safely assume this is a reliable and trusted method.
But I was also lucky enough to eat at the fabled kaiseki restaurant, Kikunoi, in Kyoto (there is also a branch in Tokyo, but the Kyoto one is the original). It was an astonishing experience. A landmark in my life as an eater.
(October Hassan - salted ayu fish entrails with trout roe, grilled chestnut, hamo roe mousse, ginkgo sweet potato, gingko nuts and green tea noodles which look exactly like pine needles)
(this is a walnut tofu sakizuke course, made with toasted ground walnuts, ground white sesame seeds and dashi thickened with kuzu, with Delaware grapes and wasabi jelly, topped with shiso buds. Stunning flavour of toasted nuts with fresh, creamy tofu, and zingy wasabi and dashi).
(Before: Ayu fish, blurry 'cos they is jumpin').
(After: that'll learn 'em).
(Duck, roasted, then steamed, then steeped in soy stock. Surprisingly chewy, but flavourful)
I was even luckier the next day to be shown around by, and interview, Kikunoi’s head chef and third generation owner Yoshihiro Murata, a friendly relaxed guy, someone who knows his place in history is assured (not least by his stunning book, Kaiseki, with forewords by Ferran Adrià and Nobu Matsuhisa).
(Murata showing me round his kitchen)
Murata-san has worked with local university researchers to find out the optimum method for making dashi by extracting the maximum umami flavour from the ingredients.
Firstly, Murata said, you need soft water, like the water they have from the mountains that surround Kyoto (the city is famous for its water which is why its sake, tofu and fu are so renowned throughout Japan). If your water is too hard, it won’t extract the best flavour from the dashi ingredients. (Of course, I could explain to you the complicated chemical theory behind this... possibly... if I had done better than grade 4 CSE in chemistry. Let’s just say it’s to do with PH values, and draw a discrete veil over it, shall we?).
Anyway, when Murata does cooking demonstrations abroad, he takes his own water with him (as do a few of the top Japanese chefs).
At home, I use filtered water, and pretend that this is just as good. I have no idea if this is true. If you are even more of a food ponce than me, you might a) really reconsider the direction your life is going, I know I have, many times, and b) go and check out the labels on various bottled mineral waters. Volvic might well be good, I suspect.
Secondly, Murata’s researchers discovered that glutamic acid - the chief source of the umami flavour in dashi - can’t be extracted from the konbu and katsuobushi at temperatures over 80 degrees C, and in fact, 60 degrees C is the optimum temperature. He says you should keep the konbu in the water for one hour at this temperature, remove it, raise the temperature to 80 degrees, remove from the heat, and add the katsuobushi flakes. Leave them to infuse for just a minute, then drain without pressuing.
Personally, I don’t have the patience for this, and I can never resist pressing the last drops of liquid out of any stock ingredients even though I know it's wrong, but, as a result, my dashi can sometimes have a bitter aftertaste which makes my nose wrinkle and has me cursing my impatience. But then I turn the dashi into miso soup, and forget all about it.
That is my loss, of course, as a well made dashi is an utterly sublime concoction - tangy, fresh, exhilerating and tasting only mildly and deliciously of the sea.
Of course, there are countless other types of dashi, which use various other dried fish (sardines, mackerel etc), mushrooms, animal bones, vegetables and so on, but it would take a lifetime’s research to document them, and I have to sort out my accounts and water the garden and stuff, so that’s not going to happen here today.
You can use dashi as it is, as a soup. Thicken it. Turn it into a jelly. Add it to batter. Use it to make various sauces (ponzu made with fresh dashi is a revelation compared to the - already fab - bottled stuff), or of course turn it into miso soup.