As those of you who follow me on social media know, corwin and I celebrated our 25th anniversary this year by taking an amazing trip to Japan. For our annual gastronomic extravaganza known as “Duck Day” (because corwin has never liked turkey and started a tradition of always having duck back when he was in college and cooking Thanksgiving for himself for the first time), it probably comes as no surprise that this year we drew on the trip to Japan for our inspiration. [See previous duck day posts.]
“Kaiseki” is a complex term that can refer to a way of eating, a cuisine, or a specific kind of high-end restaurant meal in Japan, sort of like how “French” can mean a lot of different things depending on the food context. While in Japan we experienced both the incredible service and perfection at Arashiyama Kitcho (possibly Japan’s best restaurant, and the pinnacle of kaiseki), the amazing traditional vegan food at a Buddhist monastery on Mt. Koya (the roots of kaiseki cuisine), uni torched with in the shell on the streets outside the Tsukiji Fish Market, perfect tea service in a tea house at the center of a lake in the park that had once been the royal duck hunting preserve, and a booze-fueled pub crawl through the izakayas and hidden eating spots of Akabane with a chef friend of a friend. (To name only a few of the amazing meals we ate.)
Here’s the traditional Buddhist meal we were fed at the monastery where we stayed:
(“Temple stays” [“shukubo” in Japanese] are a totally done thing in Japan, by the way. I highly recommend going to Mt. Koya. You can book your monastery stay via the Internet and then purchase the Koya-san World Heritage Train ticket to get there on the Nankai Line from Namba Station south of Osaka, which you can get to from anywhere in Japan by Japan Rail.)
Compare to the extremely fine elegance of Arashiyama Kitcho:
The light towers in the “village” of delicacies shown above are carved of whole daikon.
Anyway. Our goal with this meal was not to try to recreate the elegance of Kitcho or the authenticity of the shojin-ryori cuisine of the monks, but to use some of the courses in a kaiseki meal as a template for creating a meal that brought some of the flavors and experiences we discovered on our trip to our dinner guests. Just like a traditional haute cuisine meal includes certain possible courses, i.e. the amuse, cheese course, fish course, soup course, etc… kaiseki includes such courses as seasonal, lidded food, steamed food, nabe (soup or stew), rice, etc.
The first key to an incredible meal is ingredients. You just can’t do it without the right stuff. Everywhere in Japan we were served real fresh grated wasabi. It’s almost nothing like the powdered kind! Delicious, refreshing, not overly horseradish-y at all. We saw it for sale in the market in Kyoto for about $6 a root. If only they could be had here for that! These were Fedexed from the West Coast:
The other thing we had every day in Japan in some way, shape, or form was yuzu. Yuzu is rare here. I see Meyer lemons and even Buddha’s Hands in Whole Foods regularly, but only once have I ever found fresh yuzu in Massachusetts, at a Japanese grocery that no longer exists. After we’d been traveling for about a week I said to corwin, you know what? I’m not sick of yuzu yet. By the end of the trip, we still weren’t sick of it. (We also never got tired of Japanese food.)
Here’s the menu we handed out to our guests:
Duck Day 2016
kai·se·ki (pr. kīsekē/)
noun, Japanese, from kai (from kaichu ‘kimono pocket’) + seki ‘stone.’
a style of traditional Japanese cuisine in which
a series of very small, intricate dishes are prepared.
with cran-boshi, purple potato puree, and chips of kale and sweet potato
paired with Dove Tail Omori nigori (unfiltered) sake
All ingredients local, including the Dove Tail Sake (Waltham, Mass.), Maine uni, cranberries pickled ume boshi style.
Charcuterie of Duck
with fresh wasabi, house made gari and pickles
Okay so instead of taking “sashimi” literally, we did it as a cold duck charcuterie course, with a cured duck breast, duck sausage, and a duck liver mousse on purple daikon. With miso-pickled eggplant (nasu), cucumbers pickled in sake lees, a daikon pickle, and pickled ginger.
Duck Shumai, Chive Dumpling, with chili garlic sauce
paired with Oorong Chu-Hi (chilled carbonated oolong tea with shochu)
These are not Japanese, of course. Our meals are often Asian fusion and it’s my tradition to usually try to tackle some kind of Chinese wonton or dumpling. As usual I cannot recommend enough Andrea Nguyen’s book ASIAN DUMPLINGS if you want to learn to make them yourself. This was my first time every tackling traditional shu mai (but with ground duck instead of ground pork, zomg delicious) and the crystal green chive dumplings I love at dim sum. (Chinese chives are much bigger and milder than what we usually call chives.)
After steaming, the chive dumplings were then pan fried.
The drink pairing with the dumplings was one of the things we drank A LOT in Japan, which Jiro of the Tsukiji Fish Market restaurant Yonehana introduced us to, the sochu high ball. This is such a popular drink in Japan that one can buy premixed “chu hi” in bottles. But in restaurants an additional fresh shot of shochu is often poured in, or it can be made with just about any carbonated or cold beverage, including iced oolong tea. I suspect a lot of the “oorong cha” we were served was actually hojicha, as it was often a very dark roasted tea that tasted somewhat twiggy. So the perfect tea to make this “chu hi” with was a new tea I just bought at the new MEM TEA tasting room outside Davis Square. “Wood Dragon” is an oolong made almost completely from the twigs, giving it a very hojicha like flavor but with the sweet roundness and richness I associate with a GABA oolong. (MEM sells Wood Dragon online.)
(Above, Jiro in the center with a few bottles of chu-hi. Surrounded by much of the food we ate with him.)
四 Grilled and Lidded Foods
Yakitori Duck and Vegetables, Smoke
paired with Ozeki “Karatamba” sake
For a little bit of dining theater we decided the “lidded food” course was simply teapots placed on the table. Full of smoke. That’s it. Just smoke. I didn’t get a photo or video of it, though.
The Grilled Food course, on the other hand, was yakitori. I did get one of corwin having invented his own multi-grilling yakitori station:
I think he spent three days making the traditional tare sauce/marinade for it.
五 Palate Cleanser
Yuzu Sorbet with Uji Green Tea Soda, optional green tea shochu
One of the themes of the trip was that serendipity (plus enthusiasm for new experiences and flavors) leads to great things. That came through in this dish which we had planned a while back to highlight the yuzu. One of my favorite things to eat in Japan was shaved ice. One day in Kyoto corwin and I got one that was yuzu syrup and one that was “Uji syrup” — Uji being a region known for its green tea. We later learned about the Uji region and its famous tea from a woodcarver we met on the backside of Fushimi Inari Mountain on the other side of a waterfall. No, I’m not making this up. We did not make it to Uji, and I did not manage to buy any Uji green tea while we were in Japan, but I usually have 00+ varieties of tea here at home. Two weeks ago I placed an order to restock some of my favorites from the Aroma Tea Shop in San Francisco (which is one of my favorite tea shops to buy from whether in person or on the Internet). They threw in some samples of lovely teas to tempt me with in the package. One of them was an Uji Gyokuro. SO GOOD. I brewed it and made it into the syrup that flavored the soda that went with the yuzu sorbet, which we served in yuzu rinds, on sesame leaf. Sesame leaf is similar to shiso leaf, but has a milder flavor and they are LARGE. (Eating the sesame leaf was optional. But it went nicely with the yuzu.)
六 Nabe (stew or soup)
Duck Pho, deconstructed
Vietnamese duck leg confit, duck pho broth, with bean sprouts, basil, and cilantro
paired with a cocktail of hot broth and Dove Tail Nakahama Junmai sake
corwin started using the Kenji Lopez-Alt (Serious Eats Food Lab) technique for making pho broth this year, and then thought about adapting it to duck, and doing the confit duck leg as the meat element, and voila. The confit was done sous vide with various Vietnamese spices in the bags (star anise, cinnamon, etc) and then pulled and crisped on the cast iron like you would carnitas. No noodles. Just the intense broth, meat, and traditional pho accompaniments (chili garlic paste, basil, cilantro, bean sprouts).
The “cocktail” was inspired by our drinking and eating trip with Jiro of Yonehana Restaurant which I mentioned earlier. Not only did he introduce us to chu-hi (a cold and refreshing drink), but on one of the stop at an amazing Oden shop, we learned the trick of buying a one-cup sake, drinking half of it, and then going up to the oden (giant soup pot) and for ten yen they will refill your sake cup with hot broth. If you think tequila is good with salt and lime, you’re going to absolutely love sake with salty intense broth like this.
(Told you we met a woodcarver.)
Black rice pudding, green rice arancini with red bean paste, candied yuzu peel
Optional pairing: Kiuchi Yuzu Wine
In Kaiseki the “rice course” is usually a savory course. But we decided to make it the petit dessert before the dessert.
This is a miniature rice pudding with a bruleed sugar crust, about the size of a half dollar. You can see my candying of the yuzu peel in the video near the top of this post.
An abstract representation of the Tokyo skyline on fire
Matcha green tea cake, chocolate ice cream, meringue topping
Here’s the view of Tokyo from our hotel in Asakusa, our room on the 25th floor, that inspired this dessert:
I was too busy trying to get the cake onto the table (and set it on fire) to remember to take a picture of it! But it was built of several blocks of layered green tea cake with chocolate ice cream, of varying heights, covered with a whipped meringue topping, then browned in the oven (a la traditional baked alaska) and then set on (additional) fire at the table.
It came out delicious, by the way.
A big thank you to Scliff who came early and helped prep and cook a couple of courses that we got way behind on, timing-wise. Dumplings in particular! (If it hadn’t taken me two days to make the Baked Godzilla I would have been much further ahead on the dumpling prep, I’m sure.)