Japan’s food artisans: in pursuit of perfection

The secret to Japanese food is specialising in one thing and doing it perfectly. Forever. In an excerpt from his new volume Rice, Noodle, Fish, Matt Goulding profiles four masters of their trade

There are a dozen factors that make Japanese food so special ingredient obsession, technological precision, thousands of years of meticulous refinement but chief among them is one simple conception: specialisation. In the west, where miso-braised short ribs share menus with white truffle pizza and sea bass ceviche, restaurants cast massive nets to try to catch as many fish as possible but, in Japan, the secret to success is selecting one thing and doing it truly fucking well. Forever.

The concept of shokunin , an artisan profoundly and singularly dedicated to their craft, is at the core of Japanese culture. Japans most famous shokunin these days is Jiro Ono, immortalised in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, but you will encounter his level of relentless focus across the entire food industry. Behind closed doors. Down dark alleyways. Concealing in every corner of this country. The 80 -year-old tempura man who has spent six decades discovering the subtle changes yielded by temperature and motion. The 12 th-generation unagi sage who utilizes metal skewers like an acupuncturist uses needles, teasing the muscles of wild eel into new territories. The young man who has grown old at his fathers side, measuring his age in kitchen lessons. Any moment now, it will be his turn to be the master and, when he is, hell know exactly what to do.

Japan is the land of a million shokunin, dedicated artisans who bless this country with their quiet quest of perfect. Here are four I encountered during the year I spent researching my book, Rice, Noodle, Fish.

Tokyo

Ichiro Sekiguchi of Caf de lAmbre

Ichiro
Photograph: Michael Magers

This sound engineer from Tokyo was serving in the second world war where reference is learned that coffee beans purchased by Germans were being stored under the suburbs of the city. When the war objective, he went into the coffee business, use what he could of the beans left to languish as the Axis powers gratified defeat. By the time he opened Caf de lAmbre in the Ginza district in 1948, he was brewing five-year-old beans from Sumatra. What was born out of necessity turned into a groundbreaking technique. The coffee had a rich, full taste, like good wine.

Today, LAmbre offers a wide selection of global vintages: 93 Brazil, 76 Mexico and, the oldest, a Colombian bean from 1954. At 101 years old, Ichiro still shows up to work every day to toast his ancient beans on a roaster he helped to design himself decades back. The classic kissaten ( traditional Japanese coffee shop ), the old beans, and the man himself stand as a stubborn reprimand to the wave of chain coffee outlets, convenience store and vending machine that sprang up during Japans boom years and today make up the vast majority of the coffee market.

I settle onto a stool at the long countertop and opt a cup of Cuban coffee from 1974. A middle-aged barista in a striped turtleneck expends 10 minutes dribbling hot water in concentric circles through a vintage Japanese sock filter. The coffee is like nothing Ive savor before, with a round, vegetal quality and only the faintest hint of acidity.

It is not Tokyos finest cup of coffee. But Ichiro trades in something more than technological accuracy he offers a savour of the past, a reminder theres another way to do things.

On my way out, Ichiro is sitting in his office, hands on his knees, a picture of him as a younger man hanging on the wall over his shoulder. He looks worried. My renders are down, he tells me. I used to have five tons of coffee ageing in my storage, but now Im down to less than a ton. The spirit of a shokunin: a 101 -year-old man worried about inventory.

Whats your secret, Ichiro-san? I ask.

Coffee, of course. I drink at least five beakers a day.
8-10-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku,
h6. dion.ne.jp /~ lambre

Kyoto

Shunichi Matsuno of Tempura Matsu

Shunichi
Shunichi Matsuno and his son and Toshio. Photo: Michael Magers

The taxi pulls up at a freestanding two-storey wooden building that looks like someones riverside mansion. As we step inside, I realise that its actually a restaurant but it doesnt look like any of the kaiseki ( traditional dinner) places Ive eaten in before: small and creaky with a handful of tables and a long counter more an izakaya than a sanctuary for quiet reflection. I watch two sets of chopsticks, two sake glasses, and two stalks of bamboo set at the bar. We take a seat and Shunichi and his son Toshio join two other cooks behind the counter. Packed inside the bamboo is a sorbet made from shiso , a herb with a flavor between mint and basil. My companion devotes a nod and the procession begins.

We start with a next-generation miso soup: Kyotos famous sweet white miso whisked with a dashi ( broth) made from lobster shells, with big chunks of tender claw meat and wilted spinach bobbing on the soups surface.

The son takes a cube of top-flight wagyu beef off the grill, charred on the outside, rare in the centre and swaddles it in green onions and a scoop of melted ocean urchin a surf and turf to objective all others.

Crab
Crab miso served at Matsu. Photo: Michael Magers Photography

The father lays down a gorgeous ceramic plate with a lyric painted on its surface. From the 16 th century, he tells us, then goes about constructing the dish with his son, piece by piece. First a chunk of tilefish wrap around a grilled matsutake mushroom stem. Then a thick triangle of grilled mushroom cap, plus another grilled stem, topped with mushroom miso. A pickled ginger shoot, a few tender soybeans, and the crowning touch, the tilefish scalp, separated from its body and fried into a rippled wave of crunch.

The rice course arrived at the a small bamboo steamer. The young cook works quickly. He slices curtains of tuna belly from a massive, fat-streaked block, dips it briefly in house-made soy sauce, then lays it on the rice. Over the top, he spoons a sauce of seaweed and crushed sesame seeds just as the tuna fat begins to melt into the grains below.

A round of tempura comes next: a harvest moon of creamy pumpkin, a golden nugget of blowfish capped with a translucent daikon sauce and, finally, a soft, custardy chunk of salmon liver, intensely fatty with a bitter edge, a flavour Ive never savoured before.

The last savoury course be coming back a large ice block engraved into the shape of a bowl. Inside, theres a nest of soba noodles tinted green with pulverized matcha , floating in a dashi charged with citrus and topped with a false quail egg, the white fashioned from grated daikon. The cooks cheer as I lift the block to my lips.

It happens fast, 10 courses in just over an hour so quickly theres no time for talking or processing everything they serve us but, by the time we emerge from the restaurant, I know Ive only feed one of the great dinners of my life.
21 -2 6 Umezu Onawaba-cho, Ukyo-ku, lunch 32, dinner 65

Fukuoka

Hideki Irie of Mengekijo Genei

Hideki
Photograph: Matt Goulding

The use of monosodium glutamate causes heated debate in the ramen community. In some kitchens, bathtubs of MSG sit like salt and pepper, spooned into each bowl before being passed across the counter. But many young, modern ramen chefs are on a mission to find maximum flavor without MSG.

This became Iries obsession. He started out by learning to brew his own soy sauce. Almost all chefs buy soy in the store, but the product is lousy. If I developed my own soy , nobody could copy my recipe. The resulting potion took a year to master and costs 22,600( 140) a litre to make but, Irie tells, it is well worth the money.

Joel Robuchon wanted to buy it from me, and I told him no, he says, speaking of the Frenchman dubbed by Michelin guidebooks the greatest chef of the century.

I dont want Robuchon copying my ramen.

With the super soy calibrated, he set about tinkering with different combinations of umami-rich products until he found the perfect mix for his tare ( dipping sauce ): kelp, shitakes, bonito, oysters, sardines, mackerel, dried scallops, and dried abalone.

After listening to him talking here his top-secret tare, his homemade soy sauce, his years expended analyzing MSG, you get the sense that the 800( 5) he charges for a bowl may represent one of the greatest bargains in the entire food world.

A
Hidekis ramen, one of the greatest bargains in the entire food world. Photograph: Matt Goulding

Irie serves me three ramens, including a bowl made with a rich dashi and head-on shrimp, and another studded with spicy ground pork and wilted spinach and lashed with chilli oil. Both are exceptionally delicious, sophisticated creations, but its his interpretation of tonkotsu that leaves me mumbling softly to myself. The noodles are firm and chewy, the roast pork is striped with soft deposits of warm fat, and the toppings white curls of shredded spring onion, chewy strips of bamboo, a perfect square of toasted seaweed are skilfully applied. The combining of tare, the culmination of years of careful tinkering, and broth, made from whole pig heads and knots of ginger, defies the laws of tonkotsu: a soup with the savoury, meaty intensity of a broth made from a thousand swine thats light enough to leave you wanting more. And more. And more.

I have no doubt that I construct the best bowl of ramen in Japan, Irie tells. Opposing words, to be sure, but the man may have a point.
2-16-3 Yakuin, Chuo-ku

Hokkaido

Tatsuru Rai of Raku-ichi

Tatsuru
Photograph: Michael Magers

Tatsuru Rai built Raku-ichi himself, fashioning a 12 -seat bar into a quiet viewing area for the performance that unfolds in the kitchen. He attains every order of soba by hand, working in small batches so that by the time youve eaten, youll have witnessed the extraordinary transformation of grain and water into noodle. It takes him eight minutes from start to finish, a process so intimate that you blush every time he looks up from his run area.

He starts with 100% local buckwheat a grain stubborn enough that most soba masters cut their dough with wheat flour to make it easier to work with. Once the water is added and the dough shaped into a smooth, seamless ball, he works it with a wooden dowel, use his forearms and his palms to induce the mass thinner and thinner. With each pass of the dowel, he pats the dough with his right hand, a quick, seamless motion that acts as a metronome for the elaborated rolled process. The thud of the dowel, the slap of the hand, the rustle of the buckwheat against the board: it starts soft, grows louder and faster, like the building of a great jazz performance. He rolls, slaps, rotates, rolls, slaps, rotates, rolls, slaps, rotates over and over until the crude circle is shaped into a sharp rectangle. With a 12 -inch soba blade and a wooden board to guide him, he transforms the rectangle into thousands of dark brown strands. No squandered motion , no foreigner movements , not a scrap of dough lost to inexactitude or impatience.

Nobody talks, as if too much breath might violate the magical bond of buckwheat and water.

The soba comes two ways: seiro , afloat in a dark, hot dashi spiked with slice of duck breast; or kake , cold and naked, to be dipped into a concentrated version of that same broth. Even if its freeze outside and youve lost all sensation in your toes, eat these noodles cold, so the elegant chew and earthy savour of the buckwheat is uncompromised by the hot of the dashi.

The process is everything, Tatsuru says, in what could be a four-word definition of Japan.

The young man next to me, a spiky-haired pop starring from Sapporo, shakes his head in agreement. Once you eat here, its hard to go back, he tells, in what could be a nine-word definition of Hokkaido.

This is an edited extract from Rice Noodle Fish by Matt Goulding, with a foreword by Anthony Bourdain, published on 24 March by Hardie Grant volumes at 16.99. To order a copy for 12.99, including UK p& p, visit bookshop.theguardian.com. Matt Goulding is co-founder of the travel blog roadsandkingdoms.com

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