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Japan Revealed

Posted: June 8, 2010

Two months ago in March I was asked by my company to go to Sendai city in Miyagi region, north of Japan. The reason was to help with the grand opening of our new Leading Hotel of The World Onsen Resort & Spa "Chikusenso" situated in the tiny village of Mt. Zao 1 hours drive from Sendai.

I knew this was going to be an exciting and eye-opening experience, and I just couldn’t wait.

The resort has a sophisticated open-air bath where the hot spring comes straight from a fountainhead. Stylish Japanese interior design which features a superb and gorgeous view of the mountain winter scene. The whole scenery was basically set before I moved into an almost “clinically” Japanese kitchen.

I am over the top with excitement because it was spring. Spring is the season of new life, the beginning of a New Year in the lunar calendar. Flavourful wild vegetables peek out from the mountain soil, spring fave beans and blossoms of the Japanese new onions shine in the morning sun, and the sakura season begins and perfumes the air with their splendid fragrance. But in the back of my mind was one thing that matters most and this was the new season of bamboo shoot, the king of spring vegetables, and I knew it was the only chance to taste the purest spring delicacy, known as asabori "morning dug".

The Japanese chef, Hirota san and I began hunting in the early morning around the remote local vegetable shops for small size shoots. The early spring morning was chilly and I could feel it on my skin. The chef looked up to the sky and said “the weather conditions affect significantly the growth of the shoots, and the harvest lasts just one month”, as I am only going to stay two weeks in Japan, I knew this was now or never. He continued "as soon as the bamboo shoots are dug out they begin to oxidize, discolour, turn bitter and decline in taste". I understood quickly we must return to the kitchen as soon as we got the shoots. It is truly a race against time to preserve the pure “newborn” taste. We got our shoots and sped back to the kitchen as fast we could.

To stop them getting even bitter, we boiled with rice bran and dried chili peppers, but also to remove the already built-up bitterness. The Chef baked them in 180 c oven for ten minutes and brushed then lightly with soy sauce and finished on a charcoal grill for a further five minutes. Once it is cooked he quickly sliced in half lengthwise and cut crosswise into bite-size pieces. My stomach was simply rumbling since returning to the kitchen and I couldn’t wait to put this spring delicacy into my mouth.

We quickly indulged the freshly grilled bamboo shoots while piping hot. The taste was just expected, virgin clean with a sweet delicate flavour an indescribable texture. It was a treat which we rewarded ourselves with after a chilled morning of searching. Later on that day, the bamboo shoot rice cooked in a clay pot and bamboo shoot sashimi served with kinomi was created and added to the evening menu.

One of Sendai’s delicacies is gyutan or grilled beef tongue. Thinly sliced beef tongue is marinated in salt for three days and the charcoal broiled. In fact Sendai beef is a must try, if you are ever in the area. It comes from top quality Waqyu graded A5 by the Japan Meat Grading Association. Wagyu in Japan is graded into five classes, from A1 to A5 (with A5 being the best). Sendai beef is one of only three brands of beef which is attached to the A5 grade.

In order to keep its original flavour and bring out the best in the Sendai beef, I used an A5 tenderloin and steamed it in 58 c for 15 minutes. Before serving I charcoal broiled the beef and served with a black truffle sauce and mountain vegetables.

The chef and I went further to Shiogama fish market, about 25 minutes from Sendai city. It’s here the biggest volume of raw tuna lands. I saw live botan shrimp, seabass, red sea bream, and sea snails, live abalone, live baby flounder, you just name it, horse hair crab and sea scallop from the northern sea of Hokkaido are also to be found. Just one look you will know how fresh it is. So you simply can’t go wrong with sushi in Sendai and I just wanted it all.

Back in the kitchen I saw chef demonstrate the art of sashimi. The cutting techniques are essential and you must use a high-quality blade. He angled the knife against the fish and draws the blade toward himself, using the weight of the knife and the entire length of the blade to make the cut. The cut must be thick and short with sharp edges and glossy surfaces. The intention is to achieve a crunchy and chewy texture in the mouth. The live botan shrimps and spiny lobster was blanched for a few seconds and refreshed in ice water, this cleans and firms the meat. Since they are still raw, the sweet, natural flavour really shines through; it just needs a pinch of good sea salt and a few drops of sudachi or lime.

I tried Hirota san’s crab miso and grilled king crab so sweet that you just don’t need any seasoning or sauce. His turtle rice with scrambled egg and red miso soup – who cares? The taste was unforgettable and to die for, not to mention about his baby Ayu, a small delicious freshwater fish, which was grilled "live" over charcoal fire in front of me with sea salt until golden brown, was so crispy, tender and aromatic that you can eat the entire fish (head, tail and bones).

After many long days work in the kitchen, Hirota san and I headed off to the local Barbary duck farm where we had a delicious duck Shabu-Shabu with plenty of warm sake. The owner explained to me that there are very few Barbary farms remaining in the region today. People simply have been giving them up because of the constant increases in raw material and the new generation doesn’t want the hard work, "times have changed" he finished sadly with a dry voice. Already, fully affected by the sake, I couldn’t help but be impressed and blown away by the hard work, the attention to detail in this country. With red faces, we bow and thanked the humbled couple and disappeared into the cold night.

Thank you.

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