Tasting Japanese delicacies at Kiriko- Los Angeles

Flamingo tongues and peacock breasts were once highly prized dishes in ancient Rome, praised for their exotic and rare quality and served at extravagant banquets for royalty.  If that sounds weird to you, think of what people all over the world are eating today or were eating until recently: bird’s nest soup and shark fin in China, ant larvae in Mexico, fried tarantulas in Cambodia, casu marzu (live maggot cheese) in Sardinia, puffin hearts in Iceland, and little birds in France called ortolan drowned in Armagnac and eaten whole, crunchy bones and all, many of which are now illegal (and you thought that foie gras, caviar and truffles were haute!).

Japan also joins that list with poisonous puffer fish, horse sashimi and whale meat, all of which I have had and are delicious.  Of the many unique foods that Japan is known for, there are 3 that are considered to be the 三大珍味, or the ‘three delicacies’- uni (sea urchin), karasumi (bottarga or mullet roe) and konowata (sea cucumber intestines).

I love all three delicacies, and often bring karasumi and konowata back from my annual trips to Japan.  Both usually hold up in the fridge for a couple of weeks at most, so I make a beeline for Kiriko, my favorite restaurant in Los Angeles where I only entrust head chef Ken Namba to prepare my prized products.  Kiriko is my special go-to restaurant in Los Angeles for its delicious food, amazing service and consistency of high quality dishes.  For the last 12 years this has been my culinary haven and Chef Namba, who grew up in Tsukiji, understands exactly what to do with these delicacies.

Konowata, sea cucumber intestines, come in a small glass jar.  Amber colored with a slimy consistency resembling snot and an intense saline pungency that some may characterize as putrid, these lovely aquatic treats are incredibly difficult to make. Only a small amount of intestines can be extracted per sea cucumber, and a small jar worth the equivalent of 50 intestines can fetch a high price, especially the longer the intestines.  Chef Namba chopped up the konowata and tossed them with cubed yamaimo (Japanese mountain yams) for added gooey and slimy texture.  Julienned fresh wasabi with a mild kick mellowed out the brininess of the intestines to compose a well balanced appetizer that went extremely well with chilled Hakkaisan.

Baby baigai, also called ivory shells or babylonia spirata, are sea snails that at Kiriko, were stewed in a soy sauce and sugar broth for a nibitashi dish.  Toothpicks were used to wiggle its flesh out of its corkscrew shell and eat whole, a process which can be technically challenging, tedious, and ‘high work- low yield’ as my friend Josh mourned, although each small bite of these slippery little critters were worth it.

Another jarred delicacy that I recently brought back from Japan was shuto, made with pickled entrails (mostly stomach) of skipjack tuna (katsuo).  The pink entrails are brined for 6 months in sake, honey and mirin and have a characteristic salty and musty flavor that sake drinkers love.  In fact, shuto 酒盗 literally means ’to steal sake’, as its unique saltiness and taste make one want to drink more sake.  The one I brought was a low sodium version although still quite intense in fishiness; it was prepared with grated daikon radish, squid sashimi, yuzu kosho and a sprinkling of chopped scallions.

Sea cucumber ovaries, which are called konoko or kuchiko in Japanese, are even more of a rare delicacy than the intestines because only a minute amount can be extracted per animal.  A dried version called hoshiko that I brought to Chef Namba was simply heated for a few seconds over an open flame and torn into bite sized pieces.  These small pieces are meant to be chewed slowly for as long as possible to extract its intense brininess and release its ocean aromas all throughout the palate.

A wet version of sea cucumber ovaries sold in a jar that I recently brought back from Japan had a beautiful bright saffron hue and a more delicate and sweet flavor compared to the dried version.  These were beautifully draped over pickled cucumbers at Kiriko, a delectable preparation of balanced flavors and wonderful aromas that perfectly complemented a light floral sake.

Chef Namba served the wet sea cucumber ovaries with uni gohan, a comforting bowl of warm rice infused with the rich buttery flavors of sea urchin.

Karasumi, made from salted and dried mullet roe, is well known by Italians as bottarga where it makes frequent appearances in pasta dishes.  The Japanese version is moist and meaty, for we like to slice it thin and eat it straight, while I find the Italian version to be more salty, flat, dry and brittle, making it ideal for grating. It is easy to find these prized delicacies in select markets and department stores, although they are very expensive.  Such delicious ocean treasures are best enjoyed with a glass of cold sake and a little magic from Chef Namba, like the sliced daikon radish and mizuna salad tossed with generous karasumi crumbles, bursting with crisp textures and refreshing flavors.

On another plate Chef Namba coated warm tender satoimo (Japanese taro) with grated karasumi, a simple and delicious preparation served alongside slices of toasted karasumi.

Earlier this year I brought back freshly made karasumi from Kyubei sushi in Ginza, Tokyo, a soft and tender mound of orange colored heaven that took them 10 days to make through a painstaking process of repeated drying, sake soaking, pressing and salt curing.  Homemade karasumi, especially from a renowned restaurant like Kyubei, is distinctly different from store bought types- fresh, evenly moist all throughout with no brittle dryness, outer membrane still fully intact and easily peelable, and every single egg in the roe sac glistening, perfectly round and ready to pop inside your mouth.

In one preparation, Chef Namba grated the karasumi over a warm bowl of hakusai (napa cabbage) braised in garlic, dashi and anchovies.  The warmth of the broth softened the mullet roe shavings ever so gently, releasing its appetizing aromas with every stir of my chopsticks.

The karasumi mochi sandwich toasted to a nice sear and drizzled with soy sauce was simple yet satisfying and comforting.  Warm gooey rice cakes as soft as down feather pillows, gently encasing the thick slices of salty savory fish roe- this was something that would make for a decadent yet delicious late night snack.

I loved all of Chef Namba’s innovative creations, but with something so precious and perfect, sometimes you don’t need to do anything at all.  Homemade Kyubei karasumi was, in the end, best enjoyed slightly toasted and mostly raw, simply sliced and paired with a good bottle of Japan’s finest sake.  Simple is best, with such supreme delicacies as this.

Tasting dinners like these are unlikely to happen even in Japan, where these ocean delicacies are not easily accessible, not mainstream and not even widely appreciated.  Many people scowl at the mere thought of sea cucumber intestines and ovaries, and understandably so, sticking instead to more familiar and easily recognizable foods.  Is it the rarity that makes these items so special?  Absolutely.  But in my case I salivate at the first hint of brininess that hits my nose and permeates my palate, for I truly love how they taste.  I cannot wait for my next trip to Japan when I can secure more delicacies to bring back to Kiriko.  Will you be joining me for the next tasting?

Kiriko sushi

11301 West Olympic Blvd # 102
Los Angeles, CA 90064
(310) 478-7769

Random trivia: Did you know that the digestive enzymes in konowata (sea cucumber intestines) break down its own proteins, producing amino acids like glutamic acid which create its umami flavor?

Shigeyoshi 重よし- Tokyo, Japan

Takeshita-dori

Harajuku, a bustling district in the lively city of Tokyo, is the epicenter of cultural juxtapositions where the rich elite collide with eclectic punk fashionistas.  Where Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Christian Dior proudly line the grand shopping boulevard of Omotesando, which sees no paucity of young and old shoppers who are driven by their greed for expensive designer clothes.  Just behind omotesando is the famous Takeshita-dori, the narrow street just yards away which attracts grade school teenagers for cheap casual wear and knick knacks.   Omotesando literally means ‘the front road to the shrine’ in Japanese, and was originally constructed as the main path that led visitors to the grand Meiji shrine just behind Harajuku station.  It’s almost easy to forget that a peaceful and sacred shrine stands proudly at the periphery of this busy shopping district where people are consumed with superficiality.  In addition, the Jingu Bridge, which connects the Harajuku area to the shrine, has become the mecca for cosplay youngsters who don’t hold back in their lavish goth and lolita costumes, acting as a hub for unique and outrageous street fashion.  Do you recall Gwen Stefani giving a shout out to the Harajuku girls?  This is what she was talking about.  If you’re visiting Tokyo for the first time, a visit to Harajuku is a must- you can get a taste for many dimensions of the Japanese culture in a matter of an hour.

A stone’s throw away from the dynamic streets of Harajuku, on the 1st floor of an apartment building right on Omotesando Avenue, is a quiet unassuming restaurant with a wooden sliding door entrance.  In this peaceful haven lies Shigeyoshi, my favorite restaurant in the world.  Shigeyoshi is run by Chef Kenzo Sato, who at the tender young age of 27, opened this restaurant in 1971.  He trained at Taimeshirou in Nagoya, and named his restaurant Shigeyoshi after his mentor.  I have been coming here every year for the past 6 years or so, and it has quickly made its way into a very special place in my heart.  I go back to Tokyo every year over the Christmas and New Year holidays to visit my family, and a trip to Kyubei and Shigeyoshi are the activities which I look forward to the most.  I was proud and ecstatic to learn that Shigeyoshi was recently awarded 2 Michelin stars- these are 2 very well deserved stars, for I know first hand that the food, service and ambiance are exceptional.

The space is a comfortable size, fitting 3 tables and 12 seats at the pristine wooden counter.  There are 2 private rooms upstairs as well, but the golden seat is at the counter toward the right, in front of Chef Sato and the stovetop.  What I love about Shigeyoshi is that despite its Michelin status and its revered reputation in the culinary world, it always feels like I’m hanging out with Chef Sato in his own home.  It’s as if I dropped by his house on a weekend for a casual friendly chat as I sit on the bar stool and have him whip something up in the kitchen for me.  Especially now that he knows my likes and dislikes and even saves my favorite dish for me, I feel comfortable being with him and being in that space.  I almost forget that I’m in one of the best restaurants in Japan, as the place is warm, relaxed and serene.

There’s something to be said about this classic Japanese style of counter dining which is common in sushi restaurants.  When chef and diner are face to face, it naturally creates open dialogue and wonderful conversation.  For the diner, there is nothing more fascinating and wondrous as seeing your food be prepared right in front of you with artistic mastery and care.  For the chef, there is nothing more gratifying and humbling than watching the diner savor every bite of your creation with joy and contentment.  At Shigeyoshi, it’s always an honor and such a treasure to chat with Chef Sato and his trusted crew of 5 chefs as they prepare a meal of a lifetime. Especially with Sato, who has a great personality and calm demeanor, I never run out of interesting topics to talk about.

Chef Sato started our incredible tasting menu with an amuse bouche assortment of 黒豆 kuromame braised black beans with sprinkled gold powder, 唐墨 karasumi bottarga slice and 平目のこぶ締め hirame no kobujime kelp-infused fluke sushi.  It was such a treat to be able to commence my meal with the rich and salty flavors of bottarga.

Fresh raw oysters were quickly and skillfully shucked by Chef Sato and served with a garnish of chopped onions and his version of cocktail sauce.  We had 的矢 Matoya oysters from the Mie prefecture which claim to be 無菌 mukin or sterile and bacteria-free.  It was the first time that I had ever even heard of such a concept, and was very intrigued.  History has it that shortly after World War II, American soldiers and personnel at the American bases in Japan refused to eat oysters in Japan because they were thought to be contaminated and of bad quality.  This criticism angered and fueled scientist Tadao Sato’s quest to create safe bacteria-free oysters.  He eventually patented a process in which oysters are bred in sea water that has been sterilized by UV radiation.  These bivalves had a clean and sweet flavor with a crisp cucumber finish.

Next we had tempura of 白魚 shirauo white fish and 蕗の薹 fuki no tou.  I had a tough time researching the English translation for fuki no tou, but I finally found it: Japanese butterbur scape, or butterbur flower stalk.  They look like round plump flower buds with a light green color and a brown center.  Fuki no tou are one of the first wild mountain vegetables to sprout through the layers of melting snow as winter turns to spring.  The slight bitterness of these vegetables is addictive, and it is most popular as tempura although it can also be prepared in braised dishes and miso soup.  The warm crispy tempura was surprisingly light with very little oiliness.

Chef Sato knows my eclectic taste in food, and he was proud to present me with this assortment of Japanese delicacies.  You know when Bugs Bunny’s eyes turn into big red hearts that pop out of their sockets when he sees the sexy Lola Bunny walking by?  Well, that’s what my eyes were doing when I saw this orgasmic smorgasbord of lovely delights.  Top left was a mixture of ずわい蟹のミソと子の塩辛 salt marinated Zuwai crab digestive innards and ovaries with an intense caviar-like flavor.  This was my favorite.  Top middle was sliced sea cucumbers in a ponzu sauce garnished with yuzu zest.  I love the unique textures of fresh sea cucumbers- the outer layer is soft like a fresh mango, and the center layers are more firm, at times even crunchy.

Top right was a small serving of extremely sweet Hokkaido sea urchin which was so fresh that it had a marvelous plump texture.  Bottom right was a piece of コハダ kohada or shad that had been marinated in and mixed with おから okara, which is the dry crumbly soy by-product of tofu.  Shad, due to its fishy taste that spoils easily, is normally marinated in heavy vinegar and salt, so it was a pleasant surprise to enjoy this fish in a light and delicate preparation.  Bottom left was tofu no moromizuke 豆腐のもろみ漬け, tofu marinated in a moromi shoyu that was specially made for Chef Sato by a soy sauce maker in Hiroshima.  Moromi is the fermented mash of soybeans, whole wheat, salt and water from which soy sauce is eventually made.  Tofu was simply marinated in this special moromi for 30 minutes, which rendered it soft and creamy like cheese.  Simply amazing.

スッポンスープ Suppon soup- this is a Shigeyoshi standard in the winter season, and I always look forward to having this cup of snapping turtle soup that warms my entire body down to my very tippy toes.  It’s a common tradition to eat turtle in Japan, especially in the winter time, as it is said to have great medicinal and nutritional powers and is best enjoyed in a hot pot nabe dish.  Shigeyoshi’s soup tastes like refined beef consommé, except with a slightly thicker consistency that barely leaves a silky gelatinous veil on the tongue.

Turtle is high in collagen and can practically make any woman look 5 years younger overnight with its ability to plump up wrinkled skin.  It is also said to enhance virility and sexual stamina in men, especially when drinking its fresh blood.  I’ve tried fresh suppon turtle blood before, many years ago in my early 20′s.  The warm bright red blood was served in a shot glass mixed with sake.  It didn’t taste like anything other than the sake, but I remember feeling flushed and hot all over for a couple of hours, and wondering if that was what menopause was going to feel like.

Next was a fantastic dish of 平目 hirame flounder sashimi from Naruto city, served with a side garnish of flounder liver.  Both the regular meat and the エンガワ engawa, which is the meat from the dorsal fin, were fatty and succulent with a delicate satiny texture.

We had 2 different types of grilled fish, of which my favorite was the マナガツオの西京焼 managatsuo no saikyo-yaki,  Silver pomfret marinated in saikyo miso.  The pomfret fish, which is similar to butterfish in consistency, hailed from Naruto city in Tokushima prefecture where the previous flounder was also from.  I loved the buttery and rich texture of the fish coupled with the sweetness and lingering aroma of the white miso marinade.  Chef Sato told me that he marinates the fish in the saikyo miso marinade for anywhere from 1 to 2 days depending on the quality of the fish, and never more than that to prevent the miso from overpowering the inherent flavors of the fish.

The other grilled fish hailed from Takeoka of Chiba prefecture, a fatty and delicate piece of line-caught 甘鯛 amadai tilefish that was simply seasoned with sea salt. It was interesting that both fish dishes were plated with a small piece of pickled chorogi 長老木 which is a Japanese artichoke, aka Chinese artichoke, aka Crosnes du Japon.  These tiny bumpy vegetables are not artichokes like their name suggests, but actually a member of the mint family.  I love learning about new foods.

越前ガニ Echizen crab was at their peak during the winter season, and we enjoyed the incredible sweetness of the moist and juicy meat along with a small but tantalizing serving of its green innards.

The next dish exemplified the concept of understated beauty in Japanese art and cuisine.  A simmered 煮物 nimono dish of Kyoto turnips with fuki butterbur stems was prepared simply in a flavored broth and garnished with grated ginger.  The flavors and the presentation were both simple, yet in its simplicity and nakedness, it was beautiful.  These winter treasures were prepared to a perfect consistency in the way that would most respect its purity and essence.  The dish was warm, comforting and peaceful.

And finally, the dish that I had been waiting for.  This is my favorite dish at Shigeyoshi, and I have this every year.  河豚の唐揚げ deep fried fugu puffer fish is sure to convert even the most hardcore fried chicken fan.  Most of the pieces served this particular evening were from the fish’s head, and I thoroughly enjoyed nibbling on the moist tender meat that fell right off the bones and the big fat gelatinous lips.  This is the kind of dish that makes you so engrossed in the food that all conversation comes to a halt.  For those precious few minutes, it’s just me and the fugu, and nothing else matters.  I can honestly say that this is one of my most favorite dishes in the world.

We had some special pickled vegetables before our final rice course.  The 沢庵 takuan pickled daikon radish on the right was made at Shigeyoshi, but the 奈良漬け narazuke, pickled white melon, was made by one of my dining companion’s sisters.

At Shigeyoshi, you can choose any one of many rice dishes to end the meal.  Choices include rice with deep fried oysters kakifurai カキフライwhich I ordered.  Lovely.

Another option is rice with toro, or fatty tuna.  Scrumptious.

The kakiagedon, mixed vegetable tempura over rice, is a classic rice dish.  Delectable. Other choices include oyakodon chicken and eggs over rice, gyudon braised beef over rice, and really if there’s anything that you want, Chef Sato and crew will make it for you.

A warm and nourishing bowl of しじみ汁 shijimi jiru clam miso soup rounded out the savory portion of our incredible meal.

Delicious seasonal domestic fruits were sweet like honey and refreshing on my palate.

A traditional Japanese dessert of ぜんざい zenzai, a warm bowl of red azuki beans with mochi, was served in beautiful red lacquerware.

As if this extravagant meal wasn’t special enough, Chef Sato gifted me with a signed copy of the Shigeyoshi book that is no longer in circulation.  This beautiful book, which features Shigeyoshi’s seasonal specialties like turtle soup, doesn’t have many recipes but rather highlights the story behind each dish.  It talks about Chef Sato’s inspirations, memorable anecdotes and stories about the artisans who produce the high quality ingredients that are used in the dishes.  I especially love the essays that Chef Sato writes about certain regular customers with whom he has established a long lasting friendship, and their favorite dishes at Shigeyoshi.  It’s an amazing and touching book about the intention and the human spirit behind this wonderful restaurant.

As Chef Sato shed his chef’s jacket and joined us at the counter for an after dinner beer,  I got an even more personal look into the soul of this magnificent chef.  His gentle eyes, so full of life, lit up with each new conversation topic as his engaging exchanges revealed his genuine curiosity for life.  His calm yet uplifting sense of humor is one that I can only imagine comes from years of hardships and adversity.  It is impossible for this marvelous chef to not affect your spirit, for his vitality is infectious.  I mean, look at that smile.  If you could only have one meal in Japan, have it at Shigeyoshi.  Go with an empty stomach, and let the beauty of the chef, the restaurant and the food permeate your heart.

Shigeyoshi 重よし

6-35-3 Corp Olympia 1st floor

Jingumae, Shibuya-ku Tokyo

Tel 03-3400-4044

Random trivia:  Fugu, or puffer fish, is notorious for containing lethal amounts of the poison tetrodotoxin in its liver.  The poison acts as a paralytic and kills its victims in a slow and agonizing death from asphyxiation as it paralyzes the respiratory muscles.  To date, there is no antidote.  For this reason, only specially licensed chefs can prepare this potentially deadly fish.  A chef must undergo a 3 year apprenticeship before being allowed to take the licensing exam.  The examination process consists of a written test and a practical portion where the chef must prepare the fish and eat it.  The passing rate is only 35%, and some of the failed challenges result in death.

Bottarga / Karasumi

One of my all time favorite tasty delicacies is bottarga, or karasumi in Japanese.  It’s very popular and well known around the Mediterranean and in Japan, but few Americans know about it.  Bottarga is silver mullet roe, cured in its original sac form with sea salt, then dried, waxed and vacuum sealed for preservation.   The wax coating prevents further drying and exposure to light.  Although it’s been called the poor man’s caviar, it’s highly prized and just as expensive! Each package comes with 2 roe sacs, and in Japan a good quality bottarga can cost as much as $200-300.  Taiwanese versions are less expensive, so many Japanese tourists who visit Taiwan come back with a suitcase full of bottarga.

Here are 2 packages that I got from Japan:

IMG_5233

IMG_5235These are both high quality Japanese bottarga.  Notice how one is long and flat, and the other is short and plump.  They differ not only in shape and size, but also how dry/moist they are depending on how much they are salt cured.

Bottarga is very popular in Italy, where they usually grate the roe into a simple olive oil pasta dish.  Last month I took the long flat bottarga over to my trusted Italian chef friend Giuseppe’s house to have him cook up a feast.  In preparing the bottarga, the outer skin and wax layer need to be carefully removed first.

IMG_5248Giuseppe, as expected, made the most delicious bottarga pasta dish with spaghetti, olive oil, parsley and cherry tomatoes.  It paired nicely with a bottle of Louis Jadot Pouilly- Fuissé.   Bottarga has a deep salty ocean flavor with a nutty finish that is more delicate and refined than anchovies, and more mellow and rounded than caviar.

Giuseppe's fabulous bottarga pasta

Giuseppe's fabulous bottarga pasta

By the end of the evening, this white plate was completely clean.  The dish was so delicious, that we scraped up every last bit of roe possible with our fingers.  Bottarga has such a unique deep robust flavor that it is best enjoyed plain and simple without too many other interfering flavors.

Enoteca Drago in Beverly Hills offers a similar bottarga pasta dish, though it was not as delicious as Giuseppe’s.  Italian bottarga also tends to be overdried and rock hard, whereas Asian bottarga is more moist and flavorful.

Enoteca Drago's bottarga dish

Enoteca Drago's bottarga dish

Last year I had the unique opportunity to get my hands on freshly cured bottarga/karasumi from the renowned Kyubei sushi restaurant in Ginza, Tokyo.  The sushi chef at Kyubei told me that they prepared the bottarga through a 10 step salt curing process over 10 days.  It’s a painstakingly long and laborious process to prepare these roe sacs, but it’s very well worth it.  Wow….this was the best bottarga I had ever tasted in my life.  It was extremely moist and soft, almost juicy, and I could really taste the true essence of the mullet roe.  Deep and briny but with a sweet kumquat-like lingering flavor that sent an intense aroma through the back of my palate up to my nose.

I brought this prized piece of heaven back to Los Angeles with me, and took it to the one person who I knew could do it justice.  Sushi chef Ken at Kiriko.  When he took a bite of the bottarga, he too cried out in joy and couldn’t stop shouting “ume~!!”, which means ‘OMG delicious!’ in Japanese.

He first prepared it in the traditional Japanese way: simply sliced and eaten straight up, and also sandwiched between thinly sliced daikon radish.  The fresh crispy bitter daikon complements the salty intense bottarga flavor very well.  I love bottarga so much, I prefer eating it straight.

IMG_5042

Next he grated the bottarga over fresh seared squid.  A wonderful collaboration of ocean flavors!  Again, this dish worked because the bottarga was paired with food that has a lot of texture without a strong overpowering flavor.

IMG_5047Finally, Ken made a simple and delicious bottarga pasta dish.  He grated the bottarga into a chilled tomato sauce with capellini pasta, and garnished it with shiso leaf ribbons.  This was an amazingly refreshing dish!  I loved the concept of having a chilled pasta with only the sweetness and acidity of fresh tomatoes to accentuate the bottarga flavor.  I don’t think the Kyubei sushi chefs who made this bottarga only a week before, ever imagined their bottarga being used like this.  So innovative yet simple and delicious!  I loved it.

IMG_5048 If you’ve never tried bottarga/karasumi, you MUST!  It will open your eyes and taste buds to a whole new world.  Thought caviar was good?  Well, honestly, I think bottarga has more flavor and depth.  Eat it straight, grate it into pasta, shave it onto buttered toast, mix it into mashed potatoes, or slice it over scrambled eggs.  However you eat it, you will not be disappointed.

Random trivia:  Chinmi (珍味)literally translates to  ‘rare taste’, though it means ‘delicacy’, in Japanese.  The 3 famous chinmi/delicacies of Japan (日本の三大珍味)are uni (sea urchin), karasumi (bottarga), and konowata (sea cucumber guts).  The 3 famous chinmi/delicacies of the world(世界の三大珍味)are said to be caviar, foie gras and truffles. Yum to all 6!!