Sunday, November 07, 2010

Takashi’s dashi

November 6

“Look, I have goose bumps,” Suvir Saran told me.

It was true. He had goose bumps.

Suvir, Indian chef extraordinaire, chairman for Asian culinary studies at The Culinary Institute of America, and just a puppydog of a sweet guy, had just finished telling Takashi Yagihashi how awesome he was for figuratively staring his Japanese compatriots down.

Takashi, you see, had — on stage, in front of everybody at the Worlds of Flavor conference — added ground duck to dashi and then used a coffee siphon to infuse it with lemon grass and kaffir lime leaf.

It seemed to me like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Indeed, I'd seen a coffee siphon — you might have seen these things, especially if you were drinking coffee in a hotel in Bangkok in the mid-’90s as they were all over that city at the time; they look like glass, high-tech percolators — used to infuse similar herbs into lobster stock at David Burke Town House in New York last year.

But Suvir told me that Japanese chefs would have regarded such acts as desecration of sacred dashi — the broth made by steeping kombu seaweed and then skipjack flakes (often called bonito flakes, but I’m told it’s really skipjack) in hot water. Dashi is the Great Mother Broth of Japanese cuisine, the source of much of the umami that makes their food so delicious.

For the record, and I wish this were the last time I’d have to write this but I know it's not, umami is basically just the flavor of protein. That’s it. It can be enhanced by exposing more of the bits of protein that trigger the umami receptors in our mouths — the amino acid glutamate along with certain nucleotides and other assorted protein components — but that’s all it is. It's one of our five tastes, along with sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness. It’s not some mystical quality from the mysterious Orient. It’s just a taste. If you want to know what it tastes like, put some powdered MSG on your tongue.

If I’d taken a shot of shochu every time someone on stage said “umami” during the conference I’m pretty sure I would have died from alcohol poisoning.

Anyway, Takashi — who is the chef-owner of his eponymous restaurant in Chicago, although he’s probably better known for his work as executive chef of Tribute in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, Mich. — souped up his dashi and served it around sashimi of geoduck clam that he garnished with sliced lotus root that sandwiched a shrimp mousseline and then was dipped in cornstarch and sautéed. Also in the dish was shiso leaf and two pieces of daikon, and the picture of it that accompanies this blog entry was sent to me from the smart phone of Will Dunbar, food & beverage director for the River Rock Casino in Geyserville, Calif., who had the presence of mind to take the picture.

In his notes, Will declared the dish to be “ridiculous,” but that, I soon learned, is the word he uses for foods that are unexpected, extraordinary and brilliant.

But Suvir was sure that the 39 chefs visiting from Japan would have found Takashi’s dish to be ridiculous in the more usual sense of the word and were possibly ridiculing it at that moment, while we were enjoying the day’s buffet lunch and congratulating Takashi, who gave us fist bumps and wandered off.

Then Suvir showed me his goose bumps.


Suvir Saran said...

Bret - I hope I did not offend those from the marvelously gifted and talented group of 39 from Japan that also found Takashi's dish as being wonderful.

Have a couple of Japanese chef friends that find it very uneasy to add new flavors/ingredients into their already magical cooking. Often hiding foreign ingredients/flavors or spices from other Japanese, so that they can enjoy the dish even before they dismiss it just because of a foreign addition.

But certainly there are exceptions to each silly generalization.

Chef Takashi is brave, proud of his life and its experiences and of what he creates. It was that and his bold manner that gave me goose bumps and now I am blushing that you wasted so much ink on my reaction. Thanks!

I learned so much in my travels through Japan and even more at the CIA these last few days. The Japanese can give us so much and inspire us endlessly. It was an awe inspiring spectacle to be part of and I am humbled that I found my way into the crowd of people savoring, feting and learning from the masters these last days.

Thanks for your posts and thanks for keeping the conference alive at your blog.

Bret Thorn said...

Suvir, I'm no expert on Japanese culture, but I've often been surprised by the flexibility of what appears on the surface to be such a rigid culture.

Of course one of the keys to Japan's success is its people's ability to incorporate foreign influences into their own culture. They seem to be able to maintain a strong sense of tradition while also embracing change.

A few years ago I was in Niigata for a sake festival, and I asked the head of that prefecture's sushi restaurant association about the younger generation's taste in fish.

He said it was markedly different from that of generations before it. Given Japan's reputation for veneration of elders and respect for tradition, I expected him to launch into an attack on kids doing, well, whatever he was about to say that kids do these days. But instead he extolled their sophistication, and expressed appreciation of their willingness to forego the traditional shoyu-based dipping sauce and instead use lemon and a little salt for milder fish, which allowed them to appreciate the flavor of the fish better.

But still, duck, lemon grass and kaffir lime leaf in dashi — I’m sure our 39 Japanese visitors had mixed opinions about it.

I'd be curious to know what they thought of David Chang’s creation of pork katsuobushi.

ttv said...

How nice recipe. Love that food aye/...