Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Simply Ming: On The Road In Japan

"The worst cuisine is bad fusion."
--Chef Ming Tsai

Last month, I visited Chef Tsai's restaurant Blue Gingerlocated in Wellesley, to attend a special preview event showcasing the new Simply Ming "On the Road: Japan" series, part of Season 11 of this popular PBS show, shown locally on WGBH. The event, An Evening Celebrating the Food and Culture of Japan, was hosted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries of Japan (MAFF), which also sent Chef Tsai to Japan to explore its diverse and fascinating food and beverage industry. This was a fun, interesting and informative event with plenty of delicious Sake and food. It also was a strong motivation to watch the new Simply Ming episodes.

During his whirlwind tour of Japan, Chef Tsai visited the prefectures of Osaka, Hyogo, Nara, Nagoya, and Tokyo. His visits spanned from how specific food items are produced, such as miso and Sake, to how foods are sold, such as seafood at the Tsukiji Market. In addition, he got to learn how Japanese cuisine is prepared, cooking with some of the top chefs of Japan. When Chef Tsai spoke about his wonderful experiences in Japan, his passion was infectious.

Those experiences have been recorded in six episodes, three of which have already aired. The first episode, Michiba & Seafoodwas all about seafood, including a visit to Tsukiji Market. Chef Tsai also had the opportunity to cook with Japan’s first Iron Chef, Rokusaburo Michiba. Though Chef Tsai rarely gets nervous, he felt nervous while cooking with this culinary legend. The second episode, Wakiya & Ramenis all about ramen, including a visit to the Instant Ramen Museum in Osaka. Chef Tsai cooked with another Iron Chef, Chef Yuji Wakiya, using the famed Kobe Beef A5 in his own dish. The third episode, Street Foods in Japanis self explanatory, as Chef Tsai checked out the diversity available, from yakitori to takoyaki. The final three episodes will start airing next month: February 15, February 22 and March 1. Set your DVR accordingly.

Over the course of the evening, servers came by with seven different dishes, each compelling and satisfying. Above, you can see the Foie Gras Shumai, in a sauternes-shallot broth. Other dishes included the Smashed Shrimp Dumpling, with a citrus-truffle vinaigrette, Sake-Miso Marinated Sablefish, with vegetarian soba noodle sushi, wasabi oil, and soy-lime syrup, and Thai Style Chawan Mushi, with lobster and mushrooms. I didn't have a single complaint about any of these dishes, and would definitely order any of them if I saw them on a menu. The Chawan Mushi was one of the best I have ever tasted and every dish burst with flavor. One commonality with all these dishes was the taste of umami, which made them especially delicious paired with Sake (and I'll be posting about the Sakes tomorrow).

Two of the dishes are presented in the On the Road series, including the Miso-Sake "Coq au Vin" and New Style Buri Sashimi with Hot Curry Oil. In the Coq au Vin, the Sake and miso were both sourced from producers in Nara and Nagoya. This dish was a burst of umami, with such a rich and flavorful broth and tender chicken. The Buri, also known as yellow tail, was sourced from Japanese waters at the height of the season. Such fresh and silky smooth fish, complemented by the spice of the oil and hints of sweetness. It may seem to be a relatively simple dish but it possessed a complex melange of flavors.

Though Chef Tsai didn't really explore dessert options while he was in Japan, he did prepare a dessert for us. The Toasted Sesame Pear Tea Cake, with miso-caramel and sweet cream, was an excellent way to end the evening, presenting a balanced sweet with a nice combination of textures. I had sufficient room to eat two of these tea cakes.

In the later part of the evening, Chef Tsai spoke a bit about his recent experiences in Japan, as well as discussed some of his cooking philosophy. He ended his discussion by taking numerous questions from the attendees. With the amount of questions from the audience, Chef Tsai could have probably spoken for about four hours. Chef Tsai is insightful, charismatic and humorous, and certainly enthralled the attendees with his tales of the culinary world in Japan.

As he began, he explained that Japanese cuisine is one of his favorites in the entire world, noting that the "food is so pristine," and that included their Sake as well. The purity of Japanese cuisine is an important aspect, and that desire for purity permeates much of their culture too. The freshness and quality of their ingredients is an essential component, and they understand that if you possess such a high quality ingredient, little needs to be done to prepare it. It largely can stand on its own, bringing a wealth of flavor. In addition, when referring to an exquisite Sake, the Japanese may state that it is "as easy to drink as water," referring to the purity of that Sake.

Chef Tsai waxed longingly about his recent experiences in Japan, reveling in all the wonderful things he had to eat, from sublime Kobe 85, which he equated to "eating a nugget of fat lined with meat" to a Wakiya ramen with crab and an intriguing soy cream. He spoke reverently about the famous chefs he visited, being allowed to cook beside them. As we watched some clips from the new shows, it was evident this is going to be a fascinating view into Japan cuisine. Chef Tsai even was surprised in Japan when he stopped at a truck stop and found it contained a large and well stocked food market, with an assortment of fantastic ingredients. You probably won't find something like that in any truck stop in the U.S. Instead, you are more likely to find Slim Jims and Doritos.

Besides relating his Japanese experiences, Chef Tsai also talked more generally about Japanese cuisine, and the challenges in bringing it to the U.S. When Chef Tsai first learned how to make sushi rice, he wasn't allowed into the sushi preparation area for the first three months. He had to earn the respect before being able to enter that area. Another very Japanese concept. I started this post with a quote from Chef Tsai about bad fusion, and he went into greater detail about this thought, tying it into the greater issue of respect.

Like Chef Tsai, many chefs now prepare an East/West cuisine, though it might be known by other terms, such as New French or New Spanish. Despite those other terms, the basic idea is the added use of Eastern ingredients to more traditional Western dishes. Chefs now have a ready availability to a deluge of ingredients from all over the world. That is a fantastic opportunity but can also be a trap, especially if you do not truly understand those ingredients.

Chef Tsai believes you need to respect those ingredients, and that requires learning about them, understanding how they are used in their native land. He feels you need to "earn the right to blend," and not just toss ingredients together when you really don't understand their origins. Any chef can mix numerous exotic ingredients together on a plate, but that doesn't mean the dish will work or taste good. Careful preparation requires knowledge and experience.

He also added that "more is not better" and that simpler dishes are usually better. You can tire a palate with too many complex dishes with lots of ingredients. That is why many Japanese dishes lean more toward simplicity, yet still do not lack for flavor. The key is often using the best ingredients, letting them largely stand on their own. For example, sushi is often a simple dish, and its quality depends in large part on the freshness of the ingredients, such as the seafood. Chef Tsai noted that "we create dishes to make a better dish not a different dish." That concept should govern chefs when designing a new dish.

If you can travel to a place like Japan to learn about their ingredients and cooking styles, that would obviously be the most educational. For example, in Osaka, there are about 120 different types of restaurants! Such amazing specialization. However, the Internet is an invaluable tool now for researching ingredients and cuisines if you are unable to travel to the source. Or, you could also seek out a chef in the U.S. who is conversant in the cuisine. Chef Tsai noted that New York City has a number of great, authentic Japanese restaurants.

I recommend that you check out the Simply Ming "On the Road: Japan" series, and learn more about the fascinating world of Japanese cuisine. And I also recommend that you check out Chef Ming Tsais's two restaurants, Blue Ginger and Blue Dragon. And hopefully chefs and cooks will take heed to, and seek more knowledge about exotic ingredients before using them in their kitchens.

Blue Ginger on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

Bianca @ Confessions of a Chocoholic said...

I'm going to Japan tomorrow and this has me even more excited!