Published in Khaleej Times WKND magazine ( May 8, 2915)
Japan: The Sushi Way of Life While exploring the epicurean delights of Kyoto, Priyanka Pradhan samples the flavors of home-styled cooking.
For someone not too fond of Japanese food (or cooking, for that matter), the idea of a day at a culinary workshop in Kyoto seemed daunting. In fact, the idea of surviving a week in Japan with only sushi, sashimi and sukiyaki for company was overwhelming. I might’ve even made a few furtive trips to McDonald’s in dire times. However, after three hours in a Japanese culinary workshop, I found myself declaring, “I’ll never say never again.” My classmates were a diverse lot — an American who previously studied in Japan and came with highly skilled chopsticks manoeuvres; an American couple in their 60s, who were backpacking through Japan on bicycles; and a Chinese couple on their honeymoon.
Once our motley crew was briefed on the day’s menu, which was mainly dashimaki tamago (breakfast egg roll), sushi and tempura, a few kimono-styled aprons called samue were handed out to us. At best, we felt like a part of an undercover samurai convention, posing as excited MasterChef contestants. “The most important ingredient in Japanese cooking is the dashi or stock, which forms the base for almost every dish in our cuisine,” the instructor, a soft-spoken Japanese woman explained. “This first step will determine how your meal will shape up, so let’s be as precise in our portions and sharp in our judgment as possible.”
Dashi can be prepared from scratch by using katsuobushi — shavings of a type of dried fish called ‘bonito’ (which looks and feels like a hard chunk of wood) — kombu, which is dried seaweed (or kelp) and shiitake mushrooms. Once the concoction is boiled with water and strained, the first clear stock (the superior Ichiban dashi) is ready to use. The same batch of ingredients can be used to strain the stock again for an inferior, but equally useful second stock (niban dashi). It may be difficult to source bonito outside Japan, but one can look for instant dashi pellets or generic ‘sea stock’ in supermarkets to prepare the dashi. First up in the day’s menu was the dashimaki tamago, which looked very simple, but turned out to be an expertly prepared egg roll. In fact, in Japan, it is said that one judges the quality of a restaurant by sampling the dashimaki tamago made there.
After whisking the egg and pouring it into a pan, the fried egg is neatly rolled up on one side of the pan, while another layer of the egg mixture is poured into the same pan. To stack the two rolls together over a live stove, using giant cooking chopsticks is nothing less than a feat but after a few misadventures, we just about managed to pull it off. Let’s just say if we really were TV show contestants, we would’ve been yelled at a lot.
Our chopsticks ninja classmate stirred the rice while the honeymooners hovered over him frantically, using giant fans to cool the mixture. Then the chopping began — mushrooms, cucumber, rolled egg and crab sticks made for a colorful ensemble for our grand sushi rolls. A sheet of seaweed was then placed on a maiku or bamboo rolling mat and the dashi-soaked rice was thinly spread on top. The chopped ingredients were horizontally placed on exactly one-third of the sheet and the bamboo mat was used to grip and roll the sushi into a tight cylinder.
The maiku was then carefully removed and a wet knife was used to cut the roll neatly. Well, almost neatly.
And finally it was time for the tempura, which was much simpler than sushi. Shrimp, chopped pumpkin and maitake mushrooms were simply covered in flour batter and dipped into heated (180°C) deep-frying oil. “Ah, like regular American chicken nuggets!” said one of my classmates. “Oh, like the Indian bhajias!” I chimed in. After very many Instagram posts, we had finally prepared our own bento boxes! Fruits of labour are always sweet, and I found ours to be savoury yet delectable all the same, even for someone who was never a fan of Japanese food. On my flight back to Dubai, even as the in-flight menu offered a variety of dishes to choose from, I opted for my traditional Japanese Kaiseki tray. Clearly, my McDonald’s days were far behind me. After all, the one thing I took away from this experience is to, ‘never say never’ when it comes to food!
Where to find it: Cooking Sun Japanese Cooking School Funayo-cho 679, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto, JAPAN Bookings via ‘Beans Travel Japan’ Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.beans-kyoto.jp Phone: +81-75-253-1001 Stay in Kyoto: Mitsui Garden Hotel Kyoto Shijo www.gardenhotels.co.jp/eng/kyoto-shijo How to get there: Emirates flies daily and direct from Dubai-Osaka. Business Class return fare starts AED 14,765 Economy Class return fare starts AED 4,725 www.emirates.com Kyoto is 1.5 hours from Kansai International Airport, Osaka, by limousine bus or 45 minutes by train (Hankyu Railway).
Taste of Kyoto: Three new Japanese dishes to try:
Okonomiyaki: The name of the dish is derived from the Japanese word meaning “whatever you want” and yaki, which means grilled. The dish comes under the teppenyaki style of cooking and is served sizzling, on a hotplate. Okonomiyaki is often referred to as Japanese pizza or as ‘Osaka soul food’.
The Kaiseki meal: A traditional Japanese multicourse meal, which draws from ancient Japanese cuisine dating as far back as the 9th century. The kaiseki meal includes only fresh and seasonal ingredients and may comprise of up to five courses and 15 dishes, served in small portions. A typical kaiseki meal is expensive and can start from 10,000 Yen per person (Dh300) to upwards of 40,000 Yen per person (Dh1,200).