Urasawa- Los Angeles

I straighten my dress, rearrange my scarf and examine my coat for lint in the quiet elevator ride up from the parking garage on Two Rodeo Drive in the heart of Beverly Hills.  As the doors open into the dark hallway, I pause to clear my throat and my mind of the day’s insanity before ducking under the white linen noren inscribed with the restaurant’s name.  It is important that I look and feel my best before entering the sacred grounds of this culinary temple called Urasawa.  Chef Hiroyuki Urasawa, dressed in a sharp navy blue kimono, greets me with a waist low bow as I reciprocate with a longer bow, then settle into the seat directly in front of him.  ‘It’s been a long time,’ he says, and to my pleasant look of surprise he quickly follows with ‘has it been 7 years?  How is everything at the hospital, doctor?’  I’m flabbergasted that he remembers me from so long ago, yet at the same time not, for a true professional like him never forgets a customer.  Especially when that customer is somebody who survived his last meal.

7 years ago on my first visit to Urasawa, I had a delicacy that is known for causing a slow miserable death through asphyxiation and paralysis with no antidote or cure.  Through a day long process of cleaning and draining that only a professional like him knows how to do, he stripped the product of its toxins to produce a beautiful fatty morsel of delight, resulting in a life changing, and luckily not a life ending, moment of culinary inspiration. This exquisite delicacy (which I will not name for fear of getting him into trouble) was frightfully delicious, and I felt happy to be alive, in more ways than one.  It’s not often that I trust my life to somebody, but Chef Hiro is an exception in many ways.

Hiro Urasawa is the very embodiment of a Japanese master- devoted to his craft, constantly in pursuit of excellence and perfection to the point of obsession.  Balancing precision and artistry to create the ultimate form of beauty.  Sacrifice to be the best at his discipline, yet incredibly humble, never considering himself at a status more elevated than a student of life and a pupil of his mentor Masa Takayama whom he inherited this restaurant from.  Most of all, it is his thoughtfulness to create the ultimate dining experience for each and every customer.

Such meticulous attention to detail and consideration is visible in his magnificent flower arrangements that reflect the seasons, palpable on the soft cypress counter that is sanded down every day with 3 types of sandpaper, savored in the beer that is served at the perfect temperature down to the millidegree and appreciated in every glance and smile that he casts my way.  With one silent nod, he summons his server to lay a white napkin on the counter upon which to lay my camera, not because he is afraid that my camera will damage the pristine cypress, but because he doesn’t want the cypress to somehow damage my pristine camera.  In the presence of this master, my posture naturally straightens while my eyes and shoulders soften, and I prepare myself for an exceptional kaiseki experience.

Elegance

Horsehair crab from Hokkaido, known as kegani in Japanese, is shredded and tossed with mitsuba leaves and yellow chrysanthemum petals (kikka)Each ribbon of flower petal and green mitsuba leaf is cut to the same size as the shreds of crab meat to create symmetry and balance of flavors, colors and textures in this simple sakizuke appetizer that is elegantly presented in a gold and black lacquer bowl. 

Decadence

Decadence when done poorly is debauchery, but decadence when done tastefully and for the pursuit of excellence and beauty is divinity, like the seared toro wrapped around monkfish liver (ankimo) and myoga ginger, neatly tied in the center with a strip of Kyoto turnip and tressed with a caviar updo.  Little yellow flecks of yuzu rind add a refreshing aroma to the ponzu sauce, and like social débutantes, these aristocratic ocean delights, immaculately groomed, fitted, brushed and powdered, are presented on a brightly shining golden pedestal. 

Beauty

While the Japanese hold an appreciation for beauty in things that are skewed, imperfect or incomplete through the aesthetic values of wabi-sabi, we also strive for creating and maintaining beauty through perfection and symmetry, especially that of nature.  Perfectly round glistening balls of soy marinated ikura salmon roe, each an exact clone of the other, are worthy of stringing into a Mikimoto necklace, its fresh taut membranes succumbing to my bite with audible pops.  What lies underneath these miracles of the sea are succulent shiraebi white shrimp from Toyama prefecture and a pleasantly sweet and creamy edamame tofu.  A 24K gold leaf embellishes this dainty bowl of jewels, and while I hesitate to disturb the perfection of this culinary masterpiece, I indulge with full force, for an empty bowl and a clean spoon, in the end, is the perfection that Hiro is seeking. 

Craft

If water could have feelings and dreams, it would aspire to become the ice block that Hiro personally chisels and sculpts by hand for his sashimi tsukuri.  Perfectly cut in a fanned out pattern of a blossoming flower, the ice block proudly displays the fresh offerings of the evening- buttery uni, tender toro and savory aji with intricately prepared garnishes of carrots, seaweed, chrysanthemum petals and freshly grated wasabi.  The ice dutifully keeps the sashimi at its optimal temperature and doesn’t think twice about being thrown away after one use, for it is exactly that fleeting yet deeply intimate moment with Hiro for which it was born- and it, and I, are both content.

Balance

Hiro makes an interesting version of ‘Wagyu beef tartare’ by simmering the meat for 6 hours in soy sauce, sake and mirin, resulting in an intensely sweet mouthful of what reminds me of tsukudani.  The beef is balanced on a black lacquer spoon with a generous heap of caviar and a garnish of takuan pickled radish for an interplay of sweet and salty flavors, a contrast that is heightened with a concluding bite of pickled red bell pepper on the side.

Artistry

Shark fin chawanmushi arrives warm in a hand-painted Japanese ceramic cup, the luscious collagenous fins layered in gentle loving curves around a gold leaf like a flower bud hiding a secret.  The bonito broth releases an inviting aroma while adding glimmer and shine to the glorious shark fins from Kesennuma.  I slowly slip each fin into my mouth, closing my eyes as I appreciate the texture of the fine gelatinous fibers against my tongue.  Thereafter my archaeological excavation begins as I dig my spoon deeper into the light egg custard to discover and devour embedded shiitake mushrooms, shrimp, ginger, yuba, gingko nuts and ultimately uni, prompting a gasp of delight. 

Devotion

After proudly showing off a hot stone and a plate of marbled kama toro to me, Hiro begins preparing the ishiyaki course behind the counter.  The moment of contact between kama toro and hot stone creates a dynamic sizzle and a magnificent puff of aromatic smoke that perfumes the restaurant.  A white paper screen partially blocks this process from my view, but also protects me from the random splattering of melting tuna fat ricocheting off the stone, a gesture of kindness that I appreciate.  The heat of the smooth flat stone, no doubt chosen as the stone for this task from thousands of others, liquifies the marbled fat into a decadence augmented by ponzu that sinks well into my taste buds. 


Comfort

Kensaki ika, squid from southern Japan, is served as a tempura with a squirt of sudachi and a plate of vivid green matcha salt for dipping.  I forget that the tempura is fresh out of hot oil, and the first scorching bite makes me open and close my mouth like a fish out of water.  Once the heat dissipates, I find my teeth effortlessly biting into a warm thick cut of squid the texture of room temperature butter.  The hint of Japanese citrus and aroma of Japanese green tea bring a sense of familiarity and comfort to me, and along with it the most genuine smile. 

Innovation

Foie gras shabu shabu is a signature Urasawa dish, the additional ingredients constantly alternating to reflect the seasons. A warm simmering pot of water with a dish of thinly sliced goose foie gras, lobster and scallops are placed in front of me.  Before I can even think of moving my hands, a server slides up next to my seat to do the dipping and cooking for me.  ‘Swish, swish’ she goes with the foie gras, its melting fat forming canary yellow droplets of savor that float to the top.  Just shy of its complete melting point, she carefully removes the sliver of foie into the dipping bowl of ponzu, and I relish the union of these two contrasting flavors.  The scallop and lobster, briefly cooked in the foie dashi, also leave me speechless.

Discipline

Hiro’s answer to the traditional gari pickled ginger is a sweet pickle of shinshoga young ginger, thickly cut and pickled in honey, sugar, salt and yuzu.  The rustic pickles cleanse my palate in preparation for the climax of the meal, his nigiri sushi that in its simplicity and bareness demonstrate his true skills and expertise.  His hands are swift and nimble, moving with the precision of a robot, yet executing each maneuver with the tenderness and care of a newborn’s mother.  He starts bold with a fatty cut of toro, then a seared aburi kama toro, the same exquisite cut of collar toro that made its debut on the hot stone.  A silky shima aji that lingers on my palate, followed by a lighter Kumamoto snapper with sprinklings of grated sudachi zest.

My salivary glands release its juices at the mere site of the wooden boxes of sweet Santa Barbara sea urchin, as he carefully spoons them onto the shari sans nori, just the way I like it.  Seki aji at its winter peak of fattiness melts in my mouth, maguro zuke lightly marinated in soy sauce creates an explosion of flavors and kensaki ika from Kyushu dressed with home made seaweed salt delights with a butteriness that is distinctly unlike regular squid.

Slice, squeeze, drape, cradle, pinch and caress Hiro does for each beautifully prepared specimen of fish, and I take a long second to revere the elegant sushi before savoring it with closed eyes and deafened ears, concentrating every sensory nerve in my body on the glorious bite that I am blessed to have.  Chutoro, its perfect balance of meat and fat, ends in a sigh of pleasure while kohada, dainty, fatty and optimally marinated in vinegar makes me wonder why I go anywhere else for sushi.  Shiraebi is juicy and sayori evokes a young rosebud.

Kuro awabi, abalone from Chiba prefecture, has been steamed to exquisite tenderness and served with a gentle brush of concentrated soy, and seki saba is a shining example of why the line caught mackerel from the Seto Inland Sea is considered the best.  Iwashi, winter sardines plumped full of fat, makes me swoon with excitement with its piquant kick of grated ginger on top.  En fin, I find the fluffy sweet tamago to be much lighter than I expect, and it practically floats up to the ceiling as I pick it up with my chopsticks.

Simplicity

The first of 2 desserts is a Japanese hachiya persimmon that stands alone in its perfect state of ripeness.  So ripe, in fact, that the flesh has morphed into a gelatin-like consistency and appearance that almost seems unreal.  It has the sweetness, tenderness and softness of a first kiss and I fully succumb to its innocent allure.

A second dessert of black sesame ice cream with black truffle, red azuki beans and 23K gold leaves holds up to its reputation with grace and poise, so much so that in my utter infatuation my paralyzed hands fail to grab the camera. 

Tradition

This beautiful meal, flowing from course to course like a Mozart symphony, drawing me in with each successive plate into a state of admiration and ultimately bliss, concludes with Chef Hiro preparing a perfect bowl of matcha green tea.  He commands the chasen bamboo whisk with confidence and whisks the liquid into a uniform consistency, the surface a bright green sea of perfectly symmetrical fine bubbles.  I show my respect by carefully rotating the ceramic bowl in both hands and sipping the bitter tea in 3 audible slurps in Japanese tea ceremony tradition.  A long sigh of satisfaction and serenity…we lock eyes…we both smile.  An epic meal. 

Urasawa
218 N Rodeo Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90210

t. 310-247-8939

Random trivia: Did you know that soluble tannins in unripened Hachiya persimmons are what cause that astringent unpleasant furry mouth?

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?

Kiriko- Los Angeles

In a fickle city like Los Angeles where restaurants turn over as quickly as the tides, and chefs shuffle in the blink of an eye, nothing is more valuable than a reliable restaurant where you have a long standing relationship with the staff.  Hype, celebrity status and good PR may fill the tables on opening night, but only quality, character and consistency will keep them coming for years to come.  Consistency, in particular, is a virtue that even the best restaurants in the city fall short of.  How many times have you returned in hopes of reliving the splendor of a certain delicious dish, only to find that it didn’t taste quite as good the second or third time around?  Such disappointments are bound to halt reservations and make that restaurant a thing of the past.

Consistency, quality and most of all respect for the chefs and the respect with which they treat their products, are what has kept me coming back to Kiriko for 12 years since their opening in 1999.  For me Kiriko fulfills my need for いつもの味、いつもの笑顔, which translates to ‘the same flavor, the same smile’, again a tribute to how important consistency is from a diner’s perspective.  I may have cheated on Kiriko a few times over the years to try other sushi restaurants, but I always come back home to Kiriko where I know that I can count on the best food.

Executive chef Ken Namba grew up in Tsukiji, the most famous fish market in the world, while getting inspiration from his parents who run a restaurant there. The sushi here is spectacular, and what I consider to be one of the best in Los Angeles.  At Kiriko you can get it all- traditional dishes are perfectly executed, while modern preparations with a drizzle of truffle oil or a hint of pepper demonstrate his playfulness and creativity.

There is a comfort in being a regular and having your usual chair, your usual spot, the same friendly welcome and the same flawless dishes that become a part of your repertoire.  Red snapper sushi with sprinklings of sea salt and a dash of yuzu rinds is how I always commence my meal, with uni topped with freshly grated wasabi, tender mirugai sashimi, house smoked king salmon, engawa (halibut fin) and seared fatty toro following soon after.  Sushi doesn’t get any better than this even in most places in Japan.

Kiriko has an extensive daily specials menu in both English and Japanese, but many items don’t make it onto the English menu simply because they aren’t translatable.  A winter delicacy called shirako, for one, surely doesn’t sound appetizing in English- cod sperm sac.  Yet Kiriko’s version is elegant, the pearly white sacs of warm milky cream mingling with the tartness of ponzu.

Mekabu salad with okra and grated yamaimo/Japanese yam is also difficult to translate both in concept and in texture.  Mekabu, which are the flowering sprouts of wakame seaweed, have a distinct gooey slimy texture.  At Kiriko these greens get mixed with even slimier companions, sliced okra and grated yamaimo, and spooned over generous chunks of tender tuna.

A traditional Taiwanese dish of century eggs on tofu gets a Kiriko twist when the dark preserved eggs get chopped up and mixed with silken tofu and accented with house made la-yu chili oil.  The preserved duck eggs are also known as 1000 year old eggs, or pitan in Japanese, something that a diner looking for spicy tuna rolls may not necessarily be inclined to order.

Ankimo, or monkfish liver, comes with chopped asatsuki chives, spiced grated daikon radish and the most delightful ponzu gelée.  Jiggly little minced cubes of dark brown gelée, unlike drizzled liquid ponzu, stay put on the succulent slices of savory liver and pack some powerful tartness and concentrated flavor.

Ankimo sautéed with garlic and soy sauce on a recent visit was smokey, buttery and delicious, making the sake flow ever so freely.

Hama hama oysters, when in season, are garnished with a dash of ponzu and a dollop of chili daikon radish to accent the natural brininess of the meaty treasures while Kusshi from British Columbia are best enjoyed with a simple squeeze of citrus.

While Chef Ken, Chef Tomo and Chef Shinji work the front of the house making sushi, sashimi and cold appetizers, Chef Kiyoshi (and sometimes Ken) works wonders in the back kitchen, churning out splendid hot dishes and entrées like crispy deep fried gobo (burdock root) stacked like logs, shrimp stuffed eggplant in daikon radish sauce, soft shell crab tempura and daily specials like kajiki maguro (swordfish) yuan yaki which comes out buttery, tender and divine.

Sushi is the main attraction at Kiriko, but the vegetable platter is not to be missed.  Through the delicately prepared assortment of 5 fresh vegetables that change with the seasons, one can get a taste of traditional Japanese flavors.  Japanese pumpkin amani, sweet and tender like a freshly churned block of butter, spinach and shiitake mushroom ohitashi garnished with shaved bonito flakes, green beans tossed with white sesame dressing in a classic ingen no goma-ae preparation, thinly sliced lotus roots kinpira style and a refreshing salad of mizuna greens and daikon radish in a pickled plum ume vinaigrette are beautiful and delicious.

As if the food isn’t good enough, the desserts at Kiriko are even better.  Everything is made from scratch with the freshest ingredients, like Chef Ken’s tomato gelée, the most dainty cube of delicate fruity savor, bursting with the sweetness and subtle acidity of heirloom tomatoes at its summer peak, served with a drizzle of olive oil and basil ribbons.  I’ve only had the pleasure of having this once, but it left a lasting impression on my palate.

House made ice creams and sorbets are delectable- the green tea ice cream reflects the true bitterness of Japanese matcha, the black sesame ice cream a creamy earthy dark delight, the ginger brown sugar ice cream not skimping on the characteristic medicinal zing of ginger, and the black truffle ice cream, if you’re so lucky to be dining at Kiriko on a day that it’s served, packed full of that unique prized earthiness that we so love.

Unlike certain other sushi restaurants in Los Angeles that scowl at customers who want spicy tuna rolls and California rolls, Kiriko doesn’t discriminate against such diners.  They’re too nice to impose judgement on anybody that walks through their doors.  They will happily make these rolls for you, although you would be missing out on the real delicacies that they’ve flown in from Tsukiji market, like hiramasa, shimaaji, kinmedai, kamasu, kampachi, bincho and tako no sakurani.  Sound unfamiliar to you?  That’s exactly why you have to trust these talented chefs and discover a whole new way to enjoy sushi in the best sushi restaurant in Los Angeles.

Kiriko Sushi

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

Random trivia:  Did you know that according to myth, century eggs were once prepared by soaking eggs in horse urine?   The myth probably comes from the pungent odor of ammonia which is reminiscent of urine.

Wasabi – New Delhi, India

Any Iron Chef fans out there?  I’m not talking about Iron Chef America.

Growing up in Tokyo, I used to love watching the original Iron Chef on television.  Back in the 90′s the show was a huge hit in Japan, where people all over the country tuned in every week to watch a brave newcomer battle one of 7 distinguished Iron Chefs.  The show featured chefs from all types of cuisines- Kenichi Chin who was a master of Chinese cuisine, Rokusaburo Michiba who represented traditional Japanese kaiseki and French chef Hiroyuki Sakai to name a few.  Sadly, the show ended in 1999, only to be replaced by a more westernized version called Iron Chef America that I haven’t been able to embrace.  I saw it coming when I watched in sheer horror as future Iron Chef America Bobby Flay jumped on top of his wooden cutting board with his filthy shoes while pumping his fists like a drunken baboon in a premature victory cry against Morimoto in an original Iron Chef episode.  What a disgrace for any chef to contaminate his sacred wooden cutting board where once living animals and fish are prepared for our nutrition.  And what irony that now both Flay and Morimoto are resident Iron Chefs on the American show.

There are a lot of things that bother me about Iron Chef America.  Chairman Dacascos’ exaggerated acting, for one.  It makes me feel very uncomfortable when I see his adrenaline pumped dilated pupils stare into the screen as his robotic limbs flail about in a mechanically uncoordinated dance.  His animated persona at the beginning of the show gradually wanes with time, and by the end of the meal his presence starts to disappear from the screen as he squeaks his refusal to eat dessert, claiming that he is watching his waistline.  And why do they always put English subtitles for Morimoto, even when he’s speaking English? I only watched 2 episodes of Iron Chef America and I was done.

Although I have a disdain for Iron Chef America and for Morimoto, who probably started off as a humble chef in Japan but has now transformed into an arrogant Americanized celebrity, I applaud him for making it big here in the states.  America is the land of opportunity, but it’s not every day that a foreigner achieves huge success and becomes a household name.   After all, Morimoto is an extremely talented chef whose creations make me drool with excitement.  Morimoto has restaurants in New York, Florida and Philadelphia that are all doing well.  You would think that his next venture would be in London, Paris or even Dubai.  Did you know that he has a restaurant in New Delhi, India?

I went to India a couple of months ago to visit my brother who lives in New Delhi.  Although I was looking forward to spending my first day eating dosas and curries, ironically my very first dining out experience in India was lunch at Morimoto’s restaurant called Wasabi.  I joined my sister in law who was meeting some friends there for lunch.  Wasabi, a contemporary Japanese dining restaurant, opened in 2008 in the lower level of the Taj Mahal Hotel in the center of New Delhi after a successful run of the same restaurant in Mumbai.

The restaurant was small and quaint in size, though grand and a bit clamorous in decor.  Dark red lamps hung over the open grill flanked next to a blood red painting of roses.  I didn’t mind the geometric lines and contemporary furniture so much as the fluorescent purple glow that the ceiling lights cast onto my food.  3 Japanese sushi chefs stood poised behind the sushi counter as they greeted expatriate business men and Indian madams for the lunch service.  I talked to the head sushi chef who told me that their fish was flown in from Tsukiji twice a week.  I also asked him how he found living in New Delhi, and he chuckled nervously as he shook his head from side to side (in a western gesture of ‘no’, not the Indian gesture of ‘yes’).

Our amuse was a pickled lotus root served with kuromame and a garnish of parsley leaf.  I was nervous about eating at a Japanese restaurant in India, but this dish exemplified simple authentic flavors of sweet and sour in a typical manner of understated beauty.

Even the salad was good at Wasabi.  I made a vow not to eat any raw vegetables while traveling through India, but this was obviously an exception.  The simple vinaigrette was refreshing and tart, and the dried bonito shavings were flavorful.

I couldn’t believe that I was eating sushi in New Delhi- and excellent sushi at that.  The sushi lunch set came with 2 types of tamago (egg) which were both soft and spongy, spicy tuna rolls, ikura and an assortment of fresh fish flown in from Tsukiji the day before.  My favorites were the chu-toro (fatty tuna) and hamachi (yellowtail) which tasted as good as anything that I would get in Tokyo, and the salmon, scallop, squid and mackerel were all fantastic.  Although the restaurant is called Wasabi, I didn’t expect freshly grated wasabi to actually be served with my sushi.  I felt like I was in Japan, and the fact that I was in this chaotic city of New Delhi hadn’t quite sunken in.

Our fellow Indian diners weren’t feeling adventurous enough to try raw fish, so they ordered teppan yaki grilled prawns for their lunch set.  The prawns were plump and sweet, and the soy garlic sauce that they were sauteed in was marvelous.  The large and extensive menu offered an array of grilled meats, fish and tempura, and I was impressed with the variety of choices that Wasabi offered.  Even more impressive was the beverage list.  They had a complete and comprehensive sake and tea list that featured fine selections from Japan.  The sake list was divided into categories like junmai daiginjo and honjyozo, and teas like kukicha, sencha, genmaicha and gyokuro filled up a whole page on the menu.

Green tea mousse cake, in a strange glow-in-the-dark color, was fluffy and light.  Its subdued sweetness and delicate flavors reminded me of patisseries in Ginza.

In this city where the residents are predominantly vegetarian and do not drink alcohol, I initially wondered how this restaurant could survive.  The small bar to the left of the entrance, lined with rows of whiskey bottles, practically screamed sin.  However, even at lunchtime on a weekday, the restaurant was bustling with customers and the small private dining room was quickly taken by a group of 6.  Sushi seems like an alien concept to the Indian community, but I saw that there was a high demand for this type of cuisine in New Delhi.  The growing Indian economy and business industry attracts foreigners with a taste for global cuisine, and this is exactly the type of place that they seek for business lunches, fancy dinners and a special dining experience.  I thought it was clever and brave of Morimoto to pinpoint this specific niche in a part of the world that seems the farthest from Tsukiji.

Wasabi

The Taj Mahal Hotel

1, Mansingh Road
New Delhi – 110 011
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Random trivia: Did you know that the lotus root, which has 9-10 holes, is considered to be an auspicious vegetable?  It is believed that through these many holes, one can see through to a positive and prosperous future.  Also, each lotus flower seed cup contains many seeds, which is believed to represent fertility.

Shirako and tarako- cod sperm sac and egg sac

One of my favorite winter delicacies of all times, is this….

Cod sperm sac in ponzu sauce

Cod sperm sac in ponzu sauce

When December comes around, it’s shirako season for me. Time to savor some harvested milt. Harvested what? Milt, sperm sac, fish seminal fluid…you know, ‘that’ part. No, not ‘THAT’ part, but ‘that’ part. It’s called shirako in Japanese, which literally translates to ‘white child(ren)’. Shirako can come from either cod or puffer fish (fugu), but most of the time it will be from cod.

Especially in the winter during high season, when removed in its entirety from the cod fish, shirako looks like a huge piece of melting human brain. It’s soft, squishy, white, hard to get a hold of, and slippery. But when cooked, it becomes slightly more firm around the membranes, and the individual sections blossom into chrysanthemum flower buds.

The most traditional dish is shirako-ponzu, where it is quickly heated through in hot or boiling water, then served in a ponzu sauce with all of the usual condiments of chopped green onions and grated daikon radish. It just melts in your mouth like smooth warm creamy butter. It’s sweet and light, and its taste is very subtle and delicate, with just enough fishiness to know that it is not made from dairy. It can also be sauteed with butter, or in a hot pot. I also enjoy this as a tempura, lightly dipped in salt seasoned with pickled plum (ume-shio).

I love initiating men into this ritual. Of course, I don’t initially tell them what it is, but just have them try it. So far, about 90% of the guys who have tried this said it was delicious, and went for a second or third bite. That’s when I finally reveal the truth. First comes the scowl. Then the wide eyes and dilated pupils. Then the quick look at the sushi chef to get confirmation (to which the chef responds with a smile). Then the quick look at me to get another confirmation (to which I respond with a slow silent nod). Then the quick look down at his pants (not sure what this step is trying to accomplish. Sympathy?) Then the tensing of the shoulder muscles as he cautiously lays down his chopsticks back onto the counter with a nervous laugh. That’s when I put my hand on his shoulder and tell him that everything is going to be okay. And as he stares into the distance looking defeated and puzzled, I quickly finish the dish to its last heavenly bite.

The female equivalent is eaten more commonly, the cod eggs or roe sac called tarako.

Cod roe

Cod roe

Tarako (which means ‘cod child’ in Japanese) can be eaten all year round and is usually salted for preservation. Many times one may see mentaiko, which is salted spicy cod roe sack marinated with red peppers. I personally prefer the purist tarako without the spices. The most common Japanese way of eating it is to slice it and eat it with white rice, while more popular modern versions involve removing all of the eggs from the roe sack and pasting it on buttered toast, or mixing it with pasta garnished with chopped shiso leaves.

Shirako, tarako….male, female……sperm, eggs…..white, red……masculine, feminine……

Ah, l’amour!

Random trivia:  Did you know that there are 5 calories in a teaspoon of semen?

CHU-TORO!

I love chu-toro (medium fatty tuna), especially at Kyubei, one of the most famous and highy revered sushi restaurants in the world. Every time I go home to Tokyo, my family and I go to Kyubei so that I can get my sushi fix. The sushi chefs that apprentice here spend at least 10 years doing prep work in the kitchen before they are even allowed to make and serve sushi at the counter. They are virtually invisible to the customers, and it’s a huge deal when they are finally able to make their debut. But of course, even then they are still considered amateurs and will not be requested by regular customers until they have made the cut.

The best chu-toro I’ve ever had is at Kyubei. It’s good every time, and never disappoints. In fact, this year’s biggest opening tuna auction at the Tsukiji fish market on January 5th was an Oma maguro tuna that sold for approximately $110,000 to Kyubei.

O-toro and Chu-toro at Kyubei

O-toro and Chu-toro at Kyubei

A master at work

A master at work

My love of chu toro goes back many years. 10 years ago I went under general anesthesia for a tonsillectomy at a hospital in Japan.  After the surgery was over, I was taken to the recovery room. According to the anesthesiologist, when I slowly woke up from the anesthesia, I looked at him, pointed my finger up in the air towards him, and ordered “chu-toro mou icchou!” in Japanese, which means ‘one more chu-toro!’ as if at the sushi counter, then closed my eyes and went back to sleep. I have no recollection of this event, but it confirmed my undying love of this cut of tuna.

Chu-toro for me has the perfect balance of fat and meat, and is best eaten as sashimi or sushi. Kama-toro, the fatty tuna from the tuna collar, is also a wonderful delicacy. O-toro is great too, and I love it seared as aburi-toro. Akami, which is the regular red tuna meat, is best eaten as zuke, marinated for a short time in soy sauce then served as sushi. Another great part of the tuna is naka-ochi, which is the red meat attached to the bones that often needs to be scooped off with a spoon.  Naka-ochi is marvelous on a simple bowl of warm white rice with wasabi and soy sauce, or even a garlic soy sauce.  Which part of the tuna is your favorite?

Random trivia: Did you know that lipstick contains fish scales?