Explorative spirit is the secret to Japanese cuisine

Japanese cuisine requires craftsmanship and an explorative spirit to truly capture the soul of its cooking, said Japanese chef Takeshi Kikuchi.
Explorative spirit is the secret to Japanese cuisine
Ti Gong

Chef Takeshi Kikuchi demonstrates how to make sukiyaki, using Japan's traditional Kikkoman soy sauce, sugar and mirin to add favor.

Japanese cuisine is usually labelled healthy and exquisite for its ingredient selection and friendly cooking methods. But it requires craftsmanship and an explorative spirit to truly capture the soul of its cooking, said Japanese chef Takeshi Kikuchi.

Kikuchi, currently the Head Chef of Michelin-starred Tokyo Shiba Tofuya Ukai, made his maiden trip to Shanghai this week, during which he gave a culinary class for 30 Japanese restaurant cooks and managers.

In preparation, he spent time in Shanghai’s markets seeking out ingredients ahead of his first class.

“There is a wide choice of mushroom in Shanghai’s markets, but for certain fish and meat needed in Japanese cuisine, one has to spend time searching or have the material imported,” said Kikuchi, who has spent 32 years studying his nation’s cuisine. “It requires patience and an explorative spirit from a chef to find suitable local material when making Japanese cuisine in a foreign country. I had working experience in Guangzhou and Kaohsiung of Taiwan. It took me about a year to discover a particular species of cucumber and eggplant which suited my cuisines.”

Kikuchi said Japanese cuisine is considered healthy not only because of its material combination, but also because of the restrained use of flavoring and sauce. To demonstrate his theory, Kikuchi decided to show his Shanghai students how to make sukiyaki, a popular Japanese dish served with sliced beef and variety of vegetables, including Chinese cabbage, shiitake, tofu, Chinese onion, konjac noodle and glebionis coronaria.

Unlike some restaurants, where sukiyaki is served in the form of hotpot with all materials boiled, Kikuchi cooked it a more traditional way by frying the beef and vegetable in a pan, during which he favored the materials with his prepared sauce — a mixture of Japan’s traditional Kikkoman soy sauce, sugar and mirin.

Explorative spirit is the secret to Japanese cuisine
Ti Gong

Unlike some restaurants, where sukiyaki is served in the form of hotpot with all materials boiled, Kikuchi cooked it a more traditional way by frying the beef and vegetable in a pan first.

“A good chef can find a way to awaken the hidden delicacy of original material by using suitable sauce,” said Kikuchi. “Simple sauce can sometimes create magic. Next time, try use soy sauce instead of salt when frying fish, which takes away the fishy smell and adds new favor into the fish.”

When sukiyaki is served in Japan, diners are used to dip the fried beef into stirred raw egg.

“If some Chinese diners are not used to raw egg, it can be replaced by mashed Chinese yam, which creates a similar feel. This is another example of cookery innovation and localization,” said Kikuchi.

“Different chefs have different approaches when making Japanese cuisine. But the ultimate goal is to find the right combination of ingredients and showcase the material’s original flavor in a harmonious way.”

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