A Ja­panese ban­quet for old times’ sake

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - Alis­tair Jones

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.

Check­list

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.

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