Japanese cuisine is known for the subtly and depth of flavours with a focus not just on taste but also colour, shape and aroma. The visual presentation of the food is paramount, often designed to reflect nature with the ethos that the more beautiful the food looks, the better it tastes. Japanese chefs seek a balance of salty, sweet and sour flavours with boiled, fried and pickled textures, each dish crafted into an artistic showpiece that establishes the chefs as masters in their craft.
One of the most elaborate forms of Japanese cooking, ‘kaiseki’, is the ancient tradition of multi-courses made from finest seasonal produce available at particular times of year. Revered among aficionados of Japanese fine dining as an art form: dishes are presented with natural leaves, flowers and edible garnishes designed to resemble the seasonal produce they incorporate. A typical multi-course dinner can consists of 8-15 courses including sakizuke, an appetiser similar to the French amuse-bouche; Tsukuri, sashimi and several side dishes setting the season theme; Shiizakana, simmered vegetables with fish, tofu or meat; Wanmori, which is typically a soup; Yakimono, broiled seasonal fish; Gohan, a rice dish and Mizumono, the dessert. In Hong Kong, you can find kaiseki at Kirala Kitchen where dinners are completed with a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, chanoyu, led by Chef Ando, encouraging guests to understand the spirit and culture of the cuisine.
Robatayaki is referred to as the art of grilling and involves skewered meats and vegetables cooked over a piping hot open grill. Head chef at Inakaya, Masakuzu Ushio, describes the important elements of open hearth cooking: “Robatayaki is all about interaction with the guests, the atmosphere, the fresh ingredients and a grill fare of fresh food with the minimalist seasoning to bring out the original flavours of the food. When the guests order, the server will shout the order to the chefs, and the chefs shout back. It is loud but fun. It really brings out a dynamite mood. A great robata chef needs to be cheerful as a lot of times he needs to entertain the guests. It is one of the very traditional ways of cooking in Japan. It is special as it uses very little seasoning, most of the time only salt and pepper to bring out the flavour, but the food is all very tasty. It is indeed an art but I can’t be creative in robata. The techniques were developed for a reason, that’s why I never create my own version; the traditional way is the best. My favourite dish to prepare is the kinki fish. It is a bit hard as you need to make the fish looks like as if it is still alive on the plate. My favourite dish to eat is horsemeat sashimi.”
Andre L’Herminier, Head Chef of Sakesan shares his views and a simple robata recipe: “One of the fundamental elements of robata is having a nice fire bed with red glowing charcoals so that one can sear, roast, flash grill or slow cook almost everything. Robata is one of the oldest ways of cooking and gathering around a fire has become a popular way of enjoying the food. The charcoal really brings out the flavours of beef. We have a mix of bincho oak charcoal to reach high temperatures and beech that makes a flame and adds a nice smokiness to the dish.”
Teppanyaki differs from Robatayaki as the food is stir-fried on a flat, wide iron hotplate. Chef Hasegawa San from Kaika talks teppan: “A teppangrill is different to other grills as it has a more balanced temperature on the food. People like to see teppan chefs cooking in front of them and you need to be very calm and confident with the ability to perform over the teppan. The chefs should be experienced to tell a good ingredient from a bad one, and should be able to do everything over the teppan without any assistance from the kitchen. They should have a good memory for what their guests like to eat. And of course a good teppan needs good ventilation so that the guests won’t get oily after a teppan meal. I mainly use a spatula for everything from cutting and slicing to chopping and frying. I love preparing seafood as I can always can adapt different presentation on seafood dishes.”
Sushi, the most well known of all Japanese cuisines, is all about the simplicity of its presentation. Chef Kimijima Yukio at Sushi Ta-ke is a sushi expert with over 30 years experience and originates from a family that operates one of Japan’s most renowned restaurants, Yoshino Sushi. He slices up sushi’s essentials: “Four elements are needed for great sushi: rice, the best are from Yamagata; soft water; the freshest ingredients and a chef’s skill. A great sushi chef has to be passionate, skillful, polite, patient, experienced, professional and knowledgeable. In Japan, a master sushi chef has at least 20-30 years experience. I think sushi appeals to so many different cultures because it is organic and healthy; it can be made shortly and it is easy to eat. For instance, for a very simple cucumber sushi roll, all you need is fresh cucumber, seaweed, sushi vinegar, rice and wasabi. I love to prepare marinated tuna but my favourite dish to eat is maguro and gizzard."
Many people believe A5 beef is the best but A5 only indicates it has a very good marbling and some people may prefer A4 or A3 with less fat and oil. It is of course a very good quality of meat but sometimes people need to consider their preference when they choose their beef.
It is funny that in Hong Kong people mess the wasabi and the soy sauce together to make a slimy sauce, it is not the way to have your sushi.
In my opinion, if you are having sushi at the sushi bar, it is better to have the sushi by hand instead of using chopsticks. It shows your respect to the sushi chef.