I have just been reading a piece in the Telegraph today about Heston Blumenthal's 'new' menu.
First of all, a little detour: Good grief this was a sloppy, lazy piece of writing. I was so annoyed that I even broke my cardinal rule about commenting on other journalists' pieces and posted a comment complaining. Jasper Gerard was invited into Blumenthal's lab, into the heart of the innovative process of one of the greatest chefs on the planet, and the best he can come up with is to wheel out all the hoary old clichés about Willy Wonka (which he spells 'Wonker') and Lewis Carrol (which he spells 'Carol'). He also proudly introduces us to several 'new' dishes, which have been around for at least a year. Blumenthal even made a TV show about some of them which I think aired at Christmas. Sorry, rant over. Wait a minute! Oh my god, I am actually turning into a Telegraph reader myself!.
Where was I? Oh, yes, he also revisits all the old complaints about molecular gastronomy, but I have to say that I love molecular cuisine and I don’t care who knows it. So there.
I know even Heston and Ferran Adria have tried to distance themselves from the term but ever since Hervé This and Nicholas Kurti came up with the concept of Molecular Gastronomy in the early ‘70s, it has been a useful shorthand for the use of scientific techniques and industrial equipment to make magically transformative cuisine.
Semantics aside, I adore this kind of restaurant food, when it's done properly at least. When I eat out, I don't necessarily want to be comforted or filled up, I usually want to eat something I wouldn't or couldn't make at home. I want a bit of theatre, to be amused and surprised - in a pleasant way. Texture and taste remain the priority, of course, but if there is a story to be told then all the better.
Why do I like the foams and gels, smoke and mirrors, dry ice and deconstructivism? First of all, it’s against God, which has to be a good thing. I am so tired of hearing the same old ‘local, seasonal, simple’ mantra churned out by average chefs who believe it gives them some kind of instant kudos. ‘Local, seasonal, simple’, is a great and valid food philosophy, of course, but it’s no more or less valid or noble than the kind of food served at Mugaritz, El Bulli, Alinea, or an astonishing place I have been to a couple of times in Tokyo, the Molecular Tapas Bar.
(I think this was a deconstructed miso soup, with tofu)
Run by an American-Japanese chef, Jeff Ramsey, it is on the umpteenth floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, overlooking all of central Tokyo. But Ramsey’s a confident chap and, so, has his six-eight counter-seated guests turn their back on the dazzling view to focus instead on his dazzling food.
(This is Ramsey making carrot caviar)
I had a blast - so much so that I arranged for both my parents-in-law to visit, and for me to take Lissen one night when we were staying at the Mandarin Oriental (they have a great baby sitting service - our kids were disappointed when we returned to the room).
(Deconstructed ramen noodles).
Incidentally, you might remember Ramsey’s name from a plagiarism scandal a few years back when he was said to have replicated a dish from - I think it was - WD50 in New York. I asked him about the incident and he said it was pretty much all a misunderstanding. Personally, I don't think copying a dish from someone else's restaurant is a crime, what is really amiss is not crediting the chef who originally devised it. Of course, if we are talking about classic dishes, like Coq au Vin or creme brulée it's a different matter, but so much of molecular cuisine is highly innovative and envelope pushing that you really have got to name the inventor. This, I think, is where Ramsey tripped up.
(This was salmon roe with passion fruit, to be gulped down in one go).
(That little red thing is a miracle fruit, which grows wild in Africa and is cultivated in Holland. It turned that plate of citrus fruit super-sweet.)
He was also mortified when I pointed out that shooting the bill at your guests from one of those toy guns with a banner reading 'bang' - which he had done when I'd eaten at the MTB the night before - was something they did at El Bulli. Maybe he's just one of those people who subliminally picks stuff up and genuinely believes it is his idea... which reminds me, have I told you about a new type of bread I've been working on? Okay, so, right, you buy it, in bags, already sliced...
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).
My goodness, it’s good.
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.
About which, more in another post.
That is a joke, I hasten to add. In truth I turned into a complete jelly upon being introduced to the maestro of El Bulli and I think the photo perfectly captures my pitiful, gurning food geek meltdown.
So overawed was I that I didn’t even ask for a reservation (damn! I bet no one has thought of that before either).
This was at last month’s Tokyo Taste - a gathering of pretty much the greatest chefs in the world: Heston Blumenthal (a few days before his hygiene crisis), Adrià, Joël Robuchon, Grant Achatz - who I guess is now up in that stratosphere - Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz, Pierre Gagnaire, Williem Ledeuil (a personal hero) and Juan Mari Arzak. The only glaring absentees, I suppose, were Alain Ducasse and Thomas Keller, but as the event had a distinctive ‘molecular’ bent, perhaps that wasn’t so strange. Then again, Nobu was there demonstrating his, these days, rather dated Californication of Japanese food (along with the nowfamiliar anecdotes about trying to persuade Americans to eat raw fish).
I’ve been lucky enough to eat at a few of the assembled chefs’ restaurants - and in the case of Robuchon, even work in his kitchen (as described in my last book, Doing Without Delia,which is just out in paperback - oh go on, you know you want to...) - but one of the Japanese chefs’ demos particularly whetted my appetite. I had to go and try his food.
This was Tokyo-based Yoshihiro Narisawawho offers his take on haute cuisine and has a Michelin star or two. One of his signiature dishes was a hunk of rare Japanese beef, rolled in ashes from leeks that had been cooked to, essentially, charcoal. The meat looked astonishing, like a lump of granite. (Sorry about the shit photo - taken on my phone)
He also demonstrated how to extract the essential flavour of soil using - I think - a piece of equipment from the perfume industry (an essential element of a top restaurant kitchen’s arsenal these days, apparently). He used the resulting oil as a flavour for soil soup. (Again, another phone pic).
Now, my past experiences of the taste of soil - tentative tastes of mud pies made as a toddler; unfortunate face-first dives at school playing football on a muddy playing field; a dodgy walnut, and so on - didn’t have particularly appetising associations. But I was intrigued, after all, they had given the guy stars and Adria and Blumenthal both ate there during their stay in Tokyo.
So, I toddled down to Aoyama, a posh shopping district of Tokyo close to Harajuku - an area I knew really well because my family and I had spent some time living there in 2007 while I was researching my next book, Sushi and Beyond - What the Japanese Know About Food.
And, you know what? The soup was sublime. It genuinely did taste of soil, but in a good way - if you can imagine. There were also hints of chestnut, mushroom and truffle. Man, it was good. I had the beef/lump of coal, which was superb too, despite being rolled in what was, essentially, ash.
Actually, aside from Blumenthal - who put on a great show, with lots of dry ice, a demo of his Sounds of the Sea dish, which diners eat while listening to sounds of the sea on iPods, and a free gift of ‘new born baby’-flavoured wavers and frankincense breath freshener hidden under the audience’s seats - it was the Japanese chefs, such as Kunio Tokuoka, from the legendary Kyoto and Tokyo kaiseki restaurants, Kitcho, who really knocked me out.
Another was Seiji Yamamoto, who explained how he was determined to find out how best to prepare pike conger eel (hamo, in Japanese). It’s a popular fish in Japan, but a real bugger to prepare as it is full of thousands of tiny bones. Chefs are specially trained - and use a special knife - to chop small portions of the fish something ridiculous like 30 cuts per centimetre - in order to render the bones edible.
So, he took an eel to a hospital for a CT scan, to better understand its bone structure and then, after some more research, completely revised the centuries-old method of preparing it, changing the angle at which he cut the bones. It sounds absurdly nerdy, and it’s the kind of thing that gets non-food obsessives all eye-rolly and brings out the ‘oh for goodness sakes, it’s only food’ heretics out in force, but it’s also deeply admirable as far as I am concerned and epitomises the thoroughgoing, meticulous approach of Japanese chefs, and the Japanese, towards food.