New Delhi: Ever wondered why the sashimi or carpaccio at one restaurant tasted better than the others? Or why one wasibi ambushed your sinuses and another just passed off as some harmless chutney! Yes, the quality of ingredients is crucial. But a seasoned chef will also tell you how the “cut” is equally important to make the cut. It is this unique ballet in the kitchen involving the quality of produce, the tools used, the skills of a chef and the technique that is so essential to carve out the best dishes.
At some of the best Japanese restaurants in India’s national capital, be it MEGU at the Leela Palace, Wasabi by Morimoto at The Taj Mahal Hotel or The Sakura at The Metropolitan Hotel, the way fish, meat and vegetables are cut and sliced is a crucial element of any dish. For that, apart from the skills of the chef, the knives and kitchen equipment are also critical – and they don’t come cheap either.
“Each knife costs around Rs.50,000. They need to be cared almost by the hour,” says Yutaka Saito, head chef at MEGU, speaking about his set of handmade Masamoto knives, which he treasures like his own children.
Keisuke Uno, Chef de Cuisine at The Claridges, at Surajkund on the outskirts of New Delhi, uses his extensive skills and equipment to create a broad selection of Japanese dishes at the multi-cuisine restaurant, Oasis.
Legend has it that when the Sakimaru Takobiki knife was made for famous Japanese Chef Masaharu Morimoto, it was the longest knife ever made of that type for sashimi.
A great knife alone does not make a great chef, says Morimoto. “Yes, you need a sharp knife. But a sharp arm – and sharp eye – is also very important.”
There is other kitchen equipment that also goes a long way in defining what is the best. For example, the Sharkskin grater – called same-gawa – is crucial for the fresh wasabi root. Traditionally, this fresh green rhizome is grated just before serving.
Wasabi is harvested over a period of three-four years. It, however, has this property of losing its flavour and distinct pungency within 15 minutes of being cooked. It is essential to grate it into a fine paste to reveal its full flavour and powerful pungency.
Sharkskin is coated with tiny bumps which provide the ideal roughness to give the wasabi the proper texture and to coax out its distinctive spicy taste. If the wasabi is chopped, sliced or shredded, its flavours remains understated.
There is more to Japanese kitchen equipment than the Sakimaru Takobiki knife and Sharkskin grater.
The Mori-bashi, or steel chopsticks, are made especially for plating dishes. Their handles are made from tortoise shells. Similarly, high quality Japanese knife handles are made from deer antlers. And the one-piece sharpening stones are sourced from the mountains of Kyoto.
The long, elegant-looking knives of various lengths used for slicing fish for sushi and sashimi long are called Yanagi-ba. They are unbelievably sharp razors and produce clean and precise cuts. Care has to be taken not to rupture the cells of the fish, which can ruin its texture and taste. The blades of Yanagi-ba are usually a foot long!
A meticulously crafted dish in a creative and enticing manner also uses techniques to capture the delicate aromas and flavours. Sumibi Aburiyaki, a traditional grilling technique, uses Binchotan – the highest grade of charcoal known for its purifying properties and high carbon content.
At Rs.6,000 a kg, Binchotan charcoal can be activated by placing it in high temperatures. It also has an equally rapid cooling process, which allows the food to be cooked without leaving it scorched or charred.
Manufactured in Japan and made from Ubamegashi, a premium variety of oak, Binchotan is virtually smokeless and reaches up to 1,000 degrees Celsius without producing flames. The lightly grilled Aburi Yaki preparations at MEGU with chicken, lamb, vegetables and shrimp use Binchotan.
Another traditional style of cooking is Ishiyaki – an ancient Japanese method that uses heated stones to cook seafood, meat and vegetables. For the best of Ishiyaki cuisine, lava stones from Mt. Fuji are used instead of charcoal.
Wasabi at the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi has popularised this style of cooking technique thanks to Chefs like Vikramjit Roy, who oversees Wasabi by Morimoto.
The next time you visit a Japanese restaurant, be assured: There is more to that tasty cuisine than good ingredients alone. There is also skill, tradition, the techniques and of course those knives, which you certainly can’t refer to as commonplace.
By Suvendu Banerjee (Source: IANS)