Food icon Maggie Beer delivers Japan on a plate in her TV special
Cooking icon starts her adventure in the hustle and bustle of Tokyo then visits rural homestay
“I was in awe of his tradition and the patina of age in his kitchen. I came home and I cooked eel, barbecued it and made a sauce, but it didn’t match his.”
MAGGIE Beer is synonymous with the flavours of Australia, and the Barossa wine-growing region in particular.
But the acclaimed cook has been having a secret love affair with a very different cuisine for the past 20 years, and finally it’s a secret no longer.
The 72-year-old threw herself into a 12-day, whirlwind trip around Japan with a camera crew in tow for the Foxtel special Maggie In Japan.
It’s a full cultural immersion as she goes into the kitchens and homes of Japanese chefs, locals take her to their favourite eateries and Australian ex-pats reveal what they love about living in Japan.
Viewers will discover another side to the Great Australian
Bake Off judge as she gets her hands dirty and even hops on the back of a motorcycle in her pursuit of great food.
“I’ve been to Japan many times and loved every single thing about it,” she tells Weekend.
“This was a gift to be with the locals and be behind the scenes in kitchens and meet the chefs.”
The cooking icon admits while she loves eating Japanese food, she has been hesitant to take on the cuisine herself.
“I’m in awe of the fineness of some of their cuisine,” she says. “There is so much that is accessible to me and everyone else, but there are parts that I wouldn’t even try.”
Maggie starts her adventure in the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, where she meets Kanejiro Kanemoto of Nodaiwa – who has been cooking eel, and just eel, for the past 60 years.
“He had no English and I had no Japanese and yet he had the most beautiful smile because of my excitement about what he was doing,” she says.
“I was in awe of his tradition and the patina of age in his kitchen. I came home and I cooked eel, barbecued it and made a sauce, but it didn’t match his.
“It was still beautiful, but there are other layers that aren’t accessible to me.”
Koji Fukuda – once head chef at Luke Mangan’s Salt and now owner of an Australian-inspired restaurant in Tokyo – also invites Maggie into his home to cook her a traditional week-night dinner.
“He made cold fried chicken and I didn’t believe it could work,” she says. “He also showed me how beautiful a mushi (savoury egg custard) is, and that’s in everyone’s scope. If you make your own broth it’s so simple and beautiful, and you can put almost anything in it. I think that could become a staple (in Australia).”
In Osaka Maggie also learned about traditional sashimi, and how to eat it, from second-generation chef Osamu Ueno. The delicate, carefully handled pieces of raw fish, served over a bowl of ice, look like a work of art.
“You don’t do sashimi unless you know your fish is really fresh,” she says. “From a Japanese store you can get lovely accompaniments. It’s my family’s favourite food. I remember my grandchildren starting on raw sashimi and loving it.”
But the most eye-opening scenes of the TV special come from Maggie’s rural homestay on the Noto Peninsula with Australian chef Ben and his wife Chikako.
“We wanted to go into country Japan, not just be in the city,” Maggie says. “As wonderful as Tokyo is, I wanted to show other sides of Japanese life.”
Feeling right at home in Ben and Chikako’s garden, Maggie discovered the many uses of the yuzu citrus fruit as part of the Japanese art of “mottainai” – meaning nothing goes to waste.
She also delved into the art of fermentation and the importance of the “fifth flavour” umami.
“It’s amazing how it takes three years to get the Ishiri (squid) sauce,” she says.
“Just being there and seeing it happen made me more open to doing fermentation at home. I’m not going to store squid guts for three years. I’ll leave that to Ben and Chikako.”
Maggie then returned home to the Barossa to cook up her own Japanese feast inspired by her travels. She hopes to show viewers how they can incorporate Japanese food into their everyday cooking.
“It’s about seasonality and quality side-by-side; if it’s not in season, it’s not available,” she says.
“There’s this respect for the season that even goes to the point of the plates in a restaurant, the decorations on the wall will match the season. It can be midnight in a beautiful local fish restaurant in Osaka and the person who delivers the fish is just as proud as the chef who uses it for the next course. That to me speaks volumes as to how important food is in Japan.”
Miso and ginger chicken thighs with buckwheat noodles
Ingredients: ◗ 2 x 220g boneless chicken thighs, skin on ◗ 2 bundles (170g) buckwheat noodles ◗ 2 spring onion green tops, finely cut on angle ◗
Marinade: ◗ 4 tbspn miso paste ◗ 60g ginger, peeled and grated ◗ 2 lemons, zested ◗ 4 tbs Maggie Beer Extra Virgin Olive Oil ◗ 2 tbs Maggie Beer Verjuice
Plum paste dressing: ◗ 50g Maggie Beer Plum Paste ◗ 1 tbs soy sauce ◗ 2 tbs Maggie Beer Extra Virgin Olive Oil ◗ 2 tbs Maggie Beer Verjuice
Preheat oven to 200C.
In a food processor, whiz the marinade ingredients until they form a paste. Toss chicken thighs through the paste and refrigerate for 2 hours. Pat dry.
In an oven-proof frypan, seal chicken carefully on skin side then place into the oven in the pan. Bake for 8 minutes, remove from oven and rest for 5 minutes.
Warm dressing ingredients in a pan until plum paste is melted, then allow to cool.
To prepare the buckwheat noodles, cook to pack instructions, then toss with plum paste dressing and an extra dash of olive oil.
To serve, place buckwheat noodles in centre of plate, top with sliced chicken thighs and garnish with spring onion.
Maggie in Japan airs Wednesday, August 2, at 8.30pm on The LifeStyle Channel.
Maggie Beer dresses up in a traditional kimono in a scene from the TV special Maggie in Japan.
Maggie Beer’s miso and ginger chicken thighs with buckwheat noodles.