A Japanese banquet for old times’ sake
CHOPPING boards are whizzing past my ears on the way to the sink, piles of neatly folded tea towels are being flapped open and oversized chopsticks seem to swoop like giant cranes into bubbling saucepans.
That’s the peripheral view as I concentrate on halving cucumbers, removing the seeds with a V-shaped furrow and making fine slices barely 1mm thick with a carbon-steel knife so sharp I could easily lop off the end of one of my fingers.
There are eight of us prepping for lunch at Kei’s Kitchen, a Japanese cooking class run by Tokyo-born Kei Fukui at her home in leafy West Chatswood on Sydney’s north shore. Kei has been teaching Japanese cooking in Australia for 25 years and is assisted by her daughter Masako, who has organised our bookings and keeps up a wry commentary to move things along as Kei remains gracious and calm.
Today’s project is an autumn menu of kaiseki cuisine, the formal banquet style of Japanese food that hit its stride in the 19th century at sake parties in teahouses where geishas served warlords and wealthy merchants. Each artistically arranged dish should be a surprise, a sensory experience and a seasonal celebration.
Among our autumn treats are bonsai potatoes, little brown speckled things about the size of large peas grown by a friend of Kei in a field at The Channon near Byron Bay in northern NSW. At first glance they could be lopsided eggs from a tiny bird. When cooked they have a soft, almost powdery texture and a flavour that is unmistakably concentrated spud. We dot them, like threepences in great-grandma’s Christmas pudding, throughout the steamed rice with black sesame seeds that will complete our seven courses.
But first comes the stock. Dashi is one of the essentials of Japanese food and simple to make. Kei has soaked kombu (seaweed) overnight in cold water, which she removes when we arrive. She brings the water to the boil, turns off the heat and adds three generous handfuls of bonito flakes. When the flakes have sunk to the bottom, the liquid is strained through cheesecloth to produce a clear stock with a sublime smoky aftertaste. Kei advises us to store bonito flakes in the freezer.
For the appetiser, two of our team slice the tops off fresh oranges, remove the flesh and refill the cases with shredded smoked trout that has been briefly marinated with white onion, fresh lemon, grapeseed oil and usukuchi soy sauce, which is a lighter colour than regular soy sauce. It has a higher salt content and gives flavour without colouration.
I have 10 red bowls to fill with seasonal broth: first a good dollop of blue swimmer crab meat that we’ve mixed with whipped egg-white and steamed lightly, then shimeji mushrooms and watercress, both parboiled separately and refreshed, and finally the dashi, perked up with a little usukuchi soy.
The order of the day is fine knife work, much rinsing and refreshing, a lightly handled seasoning palette of soy, sugar, mirin, sake and salt, a base medium of dashi, and a method of assembling individually prepared components just before serving.
The emphasis is on quality ingredients and flavour combinations, such as the simmered dish of duck with fig and snow peas, or the freshly roasted sesame seeds I grind using a mortar and pestle to make a dressing for the salad of steamed chicken, cucumber and shitake. Our knife skills are tested as we try to remove the skin from raw snapper for the sashimi (pull and shake the fish skin under a knife held flat). My efforts don’t really pass muster but the sashimi is in the fukiyose style: the snapper, raw tuna and cooked prawns are cut into forgiving chunks and mixed with mustard cress, black fungus and finely shredded daikon. A garnish of little leaf shapes, cookie-cut from paper-thin slices of carrot and pumpkin, completes the autumn effect. A ball of finely grated wasabi on the side is the genuine article and a sensation.
We leave until last the scallops, arranged on shells, dressed with a mixture of egg mayonnaise, white miso and dashi, browned under the griller and served with a wedge of fresh lime.
There are no geisha to bring out the dishes in procession, so we place everything on the table and eat as we choose. A fine Chinese oolong tea complements a terrific meal.
Specialist ingredients and readymade sauces can be bought from Kei’s Kitchen online deli. The next kaiseki class is the winter menu, July 12 and 13, $120. Classes in tenshin (Japanese-style tapas) run on June 14 and 15, $95. More: www.keiskitchen.com.au.