The Japanese have a fantastic restaurant concept – I call it “conveyer belt cuisine”. If you’ve ever visited any airport worth it’s salt in the past decade or so, you’ll know exactly what I mean. The concept was first popularised by the Yo Sushi! chain and features little colour-coded plastic plates of sushi portions moving on a revolving serf-service conveyor belt allowing diners to pick and mix to their hearts content. All of this whilst the chefs (or, kitchen ninjas) work tirelessly away in the open air kicthen right in front of their noses. This is not only restricted to sushi, either; in most outlets there will be other dishes like Chicken Katsu Curry, Salmon Firecracker Rice and Yakisoba noodles.
For me, Japanese food is a triumph of texture, flavour, inventiveness, elegance and skill. The composition of sushi itself is a case in point: consisting of thin, papery layers of dried nori seaweed, expertly rolled into little packages containing warm sushi rice, sesame seeds, sweet vinegar, with fillings ranging from avocado, tofu, salmon and cucumber, all rounded off with a dab of wasabi paste (Japanese horseradish) and a squeeze of soy sauce. The wasabi can often be nose-stingingly hot, even stronger than the hottest English mustard, so it often takes some getting used to.
I got me thinking about the food culture of this fascinating country and how it is often overshadowed by the predominance of Chinese and Indian cuisine in the UK. Nowadays, thanks to the likes of Yo Sushi! and the seemingly insatiable appetite among the Great British Public for packaged sushi, this exciting and eclectic cuisine is starting to show it’s influence on a much wider scale.
I watched an excellent documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) by David Gelb about an 85-year-old sushi master and owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a Michelin three-star restaurant, on his continuing quest to perfect the art of sushi. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Japanese culture.
Overall, the Japanese diet is a healthy one, which revolves largely around rice and green tea.
Noodles are another dish that the Japanese carry off with aplomb – I really enjoy bouncy Udon (thick noodles) or Ramen (thin) dishes with bean sprouts, spring onions and helpings of vegetables, brought together in a sticky, cloying, satisfying sauce. I recently visited Tonkotsu restaurant in Soho with my fiancee. The menu itself was minimalist, bordering on Spartan; three meat-based noodle based broths and one broth without meat. There was a pork belly broth slow cooked in a sea salt-based stock (cooked very slowly at 13 hours on a gentle simmer resulting in a rich and heavy broth). This came with thick and unctuous Udon noodles (the other type are Ramen, the thinner sort) which absorbed the broth.
The meal was utterly delicious. All aboard the sushi train? Count me in!
Lets not forget other great innovations include tempura, which is basically a batter made from cornflour and ice cold sparkling water, which clings to vegetables and prawns, before having them dep fried in hot oil for a crispy finish.
A caveat before beginning: the secret is not to over-mix the batter, or let it stand. Also, keep the batter ice-cold and the oil hot; and don’t fry too many vegetable pieces at once as they will stick together.
For the batter
- 150g cornflour
- 150g plain flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp fine sea salt
- 200ml ice cold sparkling water
For the vegetables
- 55g mangetout
- 55g red or yellow peppers, sliced
- 55g baby carrots, peeled and slice
- 55g long-stem brocolli
Step 1: How to make your own tempura batter
Mix together the dry batter ingredients in a small bowl.
Using a whisk mix these ingredients together with the sparking water, but don’t over beat. It doesn’t matter about a few lumps. Use immediately.
Step 2: Cooking the vegetables
Pre heat the oven to 150C / gas mark 3
Cover a baking tray with sheets of kitchen paper or grease proof paper.
Start to heat a deep-fat frying pan or large wok a third full of flavourless oil and have a frying basket or slotted spoon to hand.
When the oil reaches 190C dip some of the prepared veg briefly into the batter, shake off any excess, then lower straight into the hot oil. Don’t crowd the frying basket.
Fry for about 2 mins until light golden and crisp, then drain on kitchen paper.
Repeat with the remaining vegetables in batches, dipping into the batter just before you fry them and remember to let the oil heat back up to temperature between each batch.
Keep the tempura warm in the oven (they are best served immediately on a warm plate with the sauce alongside for dipping.)