Cultural cooking found in translation
Rick Stein & the Japanese Ambassador 7.30pm, LifeStyle Food
A COUPLE of summers ago seafood guru Rick Stein attempted to serve the freshest sushi imaginable, using mackerel straight off the line while on a small boat off the Cornish coast.
While the exercise, recorded for his television series Food Heroes , delighted Stein, it caused consternation in the refined lounge room of the Japanese ambassador to Britain, Yoshiji Nogami.
Word of the ambassador’s disapproval reaches the celebrated fish chef through a mutual friend and he is invited to the official residence. While he may know how to cook a Dover sole, he is told in no uncertain terms he knows nothing of sushi or sashimi, especially when it comes to mackerel.
He clearly needs instruction, and so a quite beguiling TV show is born. The Padstow fish cook is set the task of cooking a banquet of Japanese food for the ambassador ‘‘ the Stein way’’, and an eight- day five- star visit to Japan is arranged.
The ever affable Stein, with his passion for all things piscine, finds himself rather lost in the world of Lost in Translation , where ritual, custom and supreme politeness are the order of every day. And the delivery of many business cards in the shortest possible time.
But it is the high quality of the fish in the street cafes and stalls that truly impresses him, easily disposing of the vaguely revolting sea slugs. He is, after all, the leader of an international TV seafood cult.
Terrific scenes follow of his visit to Tokyo’s Tsujiki markets, one of the world’s largest, ‘‘ a Disneyland of seafood’’, huge glistening tuna laid out like warheads. Men stand astride the fish, hacking at them like Samurai warriors practising their swordcraft.
Stein eats at hole- in- the- wall cafes across the markets, captivated by the theatricality of the sushi masters and of their knives, revered as almost religious instruments. ‘‘ This is the bee’s knees,’’ Stein exclaims, devouring the squid, bream and tuna fresh from the market, served artfully with wasabi and vinegar rice.
Awed, but never lost for words, he discovers Japanese is a philosophical cuisine, its apparent simplicity belying centuries of culture.
Then, after several near heart attacks, he prepares his eight- course banquet at the Japanese embassy, trespassing on the kitchen of two highly accomplished resident chefs.
One skilfully removes the skin of marinated sardines for the starter, cutting delicate diamond designs.
‘‘ This humble little fish is starting to resemble a very expensive watch strap,’’ says the obviously delighted Stein.
This is the sort of thing he does so well, highlighting the cultural values of food and cooking, with a travel writer’s gift for narrative, an occasional literary reference or dryly observed aside thrown in for garnish.
Learning Japanese: Rick Stein and Yoshiji Nogami