In the last few years I’ve discovered that I have a taste for sake. I’ve learned the basics about how it’s made and the different types available, but haven’t sampled enough to get a handle on my preferences. There’s a very distinctive taste that most sakes have in common, despite their many differences and it’s a taste I like very much. But having one or two sakes in isolation once every few months serves only to let me choose my favourite between the two – such tastings are too few and far between for me to build up a coherent library of taste memories in my head, and thereby gain more confidence on choosing well in the future. One of the outstanding items on my Food & Drink To Do list is to immerse myself more fully in the world of sake and work out which styles, regions and even producers I love the most.

The Chisou restaurant group have been running a Sake Club for about a year now, a regular evening of tutored tastings with matched Japanese snacks provided. I’ve been meaning to attend since they launched, but have singularly failed.

What finally spurred me to action was actually a deviation from the norm – a special umeshu tasting.

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The tastings are held in a private room – in Chisou Knightsbridge this was the upstairs dining room – properly separated from regular diners. We shared a table with a couple who were also first timers to the Sake Club, Gareth and Nirvana, and had a lot of fun talking about food and drink, life in London and visiting Japan.

Chisou’s Marketing Manager Mark McCafferty hosted the evening and started by giving us an introduction to umeshu, though a printed crib sheet was also provided for each guest. He introduced each of the six drinks, and the snacks that were served with them, sharing tasting tips and notes throughout.

Although umeshu is usually described in English as plum wine, the ume fruit is not actually a plum; although nicknames include both Chinese Plum and Japanese Apricot, it’s a distinct species within the Prunus genus (which also includes plums and apricots); if a comparison is still needed, the ume is a stone fruit that is closer to the apricot than to the plum.

Why did Chisou decide to hold an umeshu night as part of their Sake Club series? Because umeshu is traditionally made using surplus sake or shōchū – a distilled spirit made from a variety of different carbohydrates – or to use up batches which have not turned out quite as planned. That said, as it’s popularity has increased, many breweries make umeshu as part of their standard product range, and some use high grade sake or shōchū and top quality ume fruit to do so.

The method is very straightforward and will be familiar to those who’ve made sloe gin or other fruit-based spirits – strawberry vodka, anyone? Whole ume fruit are steeped in alcohol – the longer the period, the more the fruit breaks down and its flavour leaches into the alcohol. Some umeshu is left to mature for years, allowing the almond-flavour of the stone to become more pronounced.

In many cases, additional sugar is added to the umeshu, to create a sweeter liqueur. Many households make their own umeshu when the ume fruit is in season, as it’s a very simple drink to make.

The whole fruits are often left in the umeshu – both in home made and commercial versions – and served alongside the drink. Take care, as the stone is still inside!

The welcome drink, as everyone settled in and we waited for a few late arrivals, was a Kir-style cocktail of prosecco and Hannari Kyo umeshu. With this we enjoyed orange-salted edamame beans and wasabi peas.

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Next, an Ozeki umeshu on the rocks served with a generous plate of pork scratchings with individual bowls of an umami-explosion shiitake mayonnaise. In Japan, the highest quality of fruit is often very expensive, and Mark explained that this particular brewery use top quality ume for their umeshu. For Pete, this was “reminiscent of a sherry” and Nirvana liked the “aftertaste of almond”. I loved this umeshu, one of my favourites of the evening.

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Third was a cloudy version – Morikawa umeshumade with a ginjo sake (using highly polished rice), so quite unusual. For me, this tasted stronger than the previous one, but in fact it was a slightly lower ABV – I think this may simply have been because more bitterness was evident in the taste. Mark suggested we should “warm it up like a mulled wine, to make the most of it’s spiciness”. Gareth particularly enjoyed the “mouthfeel” of this umeshu. Pete thought it would an amazing match with a cheese – a perfect replacement for port.

With this came a small skewer of smoked duck with apple cider, miso and fresh ginger, served theatrically beneath a smoke-filled dome. I could have eaten an entire plate of these, instead of just one!

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I was surprised how much I liked the fourth option, as I couldn’t imagine the combination on first reading the menu. The Tomio Uji Gyokuro umeshu combines traditional shade-grown green tea with umeshu to add a rich umami note to the finished product. Oxidisation means the drink is amber rather than green, but the meaty and medicinal notes are evidence of the presence of green tea.

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Next was a cocktail combining Hannari Kyo umeshu with Yamagata Masamune sake, lime juice and angostura bitters. I found this a too bitter and dry for my tastes, so asked if I could taste the Hannari Kyo umeshu on its own, as we’d only tried it with mixers thus far. It’s a lovely umeshu but couldn’t compete with the Ozeki umeshu or the Tomio Uji Gyokuro umeshu for me.

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Last, we were served a cup of good quality vanilla ice cream with warm Morikawa umeshu to pour over the top, affogato-style. As you’d imagine, the sweet and sour notes of the fruit liqueur really work well with cold vanilla ice cream, making it what Nirvana called “a very grown up ice cream”. As Mark commented, “warm it up and it really comes alive”.

Pete and I decided to stay on and order a few dishes from the food menu to soak up the alcohol before heading home, umeshu-happy.

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agedashi tofu, gyoza, pork with kimchi, chicken karaage

After such a great evening, we are keen to attend more Sake Club events. Umeshu night was very well priced at £40 per person and was a great learning experience, a fun social evening and very delicious. If you book Sake Club, do take care that you go the right location. The club is alternately held at different branches of the restaurant and it’s not uncommon for regulars to go to the wrong one, resulting in a mad dash across town.

Kavey Eats attended the Umeshu tasting as guests of Chisou Knightsbridge. The additional dishes pictured at the end were on our own tab.

 

Tombo, Japanese for dragonfly, is a small deli and cafe in South Kensington, just a minute’s walk from the tube station. It offers a small menu of modern Japanese food and quality tea. I’m a particular fan of it’s Japanese desserts, which often feature ingredients such as azuki (red bean paste), matcha and sesame.

On my latest visit, I tried the Tombo Afternoon Tea; served from 3 to 5pm, this is a lovely variation on traditional sandwiches, scones and cakes.

The standard afternoon tea (£12.90 per person) includes your choice from Tombo’s selection of teas, or for £19.90 you can upgrade to sparkling sake instead. I went for genmaicha which Tombo unusually combine with matcha. My friend chose peppermint tea, as she was looking for a non-caffeinated option. The teas were excellent and hot water is provided for top ups, automatically – a nice touch.

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For the savoury course, we enjoyed temari sushi (salmon and prawn) and maki sushi rolls (salmon and french beans). Having checked it was possibly before our visit, my friend requested that all seafood items were switched for vegetarian/ chicken ones, she is currently on a restricted diet. I would ask Tombo to take more care with requests such as this – one of the sushi rolls served on the non-seafood plate contained salmon. That aside, in terms of quality and flavour, the sushi was very enjoyable.

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On the lower layer of the slate food stands came a selection of desserts. On my visit these included azuki doriyaki (filled pancake), matcha cream doriyaki, matcha gateau, azuki gateau, a pink macaron and a chocolate. My friend wasn’t as keen on the azuki doriyaki or matcha gateau – she preferred the other desserts in the selection. My favourites were the matcha gateau and the macaron.

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Both of us really enjoyed Tombo’s afternoon tea – the sushi alternative to sandwiches is a really novel and welcome approach and the price very reasonable for the quality of food and drink.

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Press images courtesy of Tombo Deli & Cafe

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Tombo Deli & Cafe. Thanks also for the two additional images of cafe exterior and afternoon tea stand.

Feb 212015
 

I love udon noodles! There’s something utterly compelling to me about these thick, white and slightly chewy Japanese noodles that other noodles just don’t match, though I’m a fan of pasta in pretty much all its forms. Recently launched restaurant Den describe themselves as udon evangelists’’ and their menu is suitably udon-heavy.

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In King’s Cross, but quite a walk from the station, I suspect the location will most appeal to those who live or work in the area. For me, it’s actually quicker to travel a few extra stops into Central London, where most places are nearer to the nearest tube station – particularly appealing with it’s dark and cold or wet. The restaurant sits in a former pub, and the conversion is stark and modern, attractive though a little bare, perhaps.

The sleek communal tables will no doubt enable more diners to share the space when busy, but bench seating isn’t particularly comfortable. Then again, Den seems a short visit pit stop rather than a settle-in-for-the-evening kind of restaurant.

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I visited on a really, really, really cold day so immediately asked which teas are available to warm myself up.

I enjoy a range of Japanese teas so I was a little disappointed that only a single option is available – Japanese green tea (£2). I’d have liked to choose from genmaicha, sencha/ gyokuro, houjicha and so on. Although the glass is very pretty, serving a very hot drink in such a thin glass makes it difficult to pick up until it’s cooled down a fair bit (unless you have asbesthos hands, which I sadly do not possess); I’d rather drink it when it’s hotter. And the glass doesn’t insulate its contents well so the tea is quickly too cool to enjoy. A ceramic cup would be better.

We (and other) guests were served a complimentary snack of deep-fried udon noodles, labelled as udon pretzels on the menu. These, as anyone who’s deep fried spaghetti can attest – what? it’s good! – were delicious.

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Red wine stewed pork belly (£6) was my friend’s favourite tsumami (small plate). It’s long-braised and full of flavour. I liked it a lot, though oddly the meat wasn’t as tender as I expected, given that the fat had certainly become melt-in-the-mouth soft.

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My favourite tsumami was seasonal vegetables in sesame sauce (£4.50) which, on the day of our visit, included beetroot, mange tout and green beans. These were an excellent combination of flavours and textures and the dressing, though not visually attractive, was delicious.

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Crispy mackerel (£6) was sadly not crispy at all, not even a little bit. Soggy and slightly mushy, this dish was left uneaten on the table.

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At this point, we had sufficiently warmed up that we were ready for a drink. Director, Cristoforo Santini (formerly at Matsuri St James) suggested the Nigori crème de sake (£5). Oh, this was marvellous, we both loved it! Unlike the more common clear sakes I’m used to, this one is unfiltered and thicker in texture. It’s also a touch sweeter, still with that wonderful distinctive sake flavour.

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When it comes to the main affair, the focus is – of course – on udon. The menu divides into hot noodles in hot soup, hot noodles without soup and cold noodles with dipping sauce. For many of the hot soups, diners have a choice between black and white broth (with vegetarian versions also available). The non-vegetarian broths are both dashi – an infusion of katsuobushi (bonito flakes) and konbu (seaweed) with either a little soy (white broth) or a bigger dose of dark soy added. The vegetarian versions replace katsuobushi with mushrooms for the infusion. For some of the dishes, only a white broth is recommended, to better balance with the chosen toppings.

We shared salmon miso and chinese cabbage (£9), which was full of beautifully made udon noodles, soft salmon, cabbage still with a little crunch and lots of mizuna leaves (aka Japanese mustard).

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Our other choice was a bowl of den Carbonara (£8), hot udon noodles topped with egg, katuobushi and nori. I couldn’t really detect the egg (I assumed it would be beaten and tossed through the noodles) but the simple flavours of katuobushi and nori worked well, with an added sprinkle of shichimi powder. And of course, this dish is a great way to really showcase the udon noodles, made in house.

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Diners can also order from a short selection of donburi (rice bowls topped with various items) and there are also extra condiments, or toppings, available including crispy tempura batter (£0.5), natto (£1.5) and ume (£2). I didn’t spot the natto, but would definitely order it next time – the pungent sticky fermented soy beans pack such a punch of flavour.

There are no sweet options, not even a cleansing yuzu sorbet or matcha ice cream – the stalwart endgame of so many UK Japanese restaurants, and that’s a little disappointing. We are offered a fresh fruit plate (not listed on the menu) but decline. Perhaps a future iteration of the menu will introduce some dishes for the sweet toothed?

If you’re a fan of udon noodles, Den is a great place to enjoy them, though the location may prove off-putting to some – certainly it makes me less likely to drop by regularly, during the winter months.

Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Den Udon.

Den on Urbanspoon
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Pete and really loved yakiniku dining during our two visits to Japan; I have written previously about our yakiniku experiences, along with the history of yakiniku.  Considered a Korean import, the Japanese version is no longer an exact copycat of its Korean inspiration, not least in the range of meat cuts and marinades and the selection of side dishes. While there are plenty of restaurants offering Korean BBQ in London, Kintan may well be the first yakiniku restaurant, as it claims.

Brought to London by a company that is successful across Japan as well as in Hong Kong and Jakarta, Kintan boasts a prime location on High Holborn, and was doing brisk business on the January weekday we visited for lunch.

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The interior is very attractive, simple but with beautiful details. I particularly loved the various tiles used on different walls around the deceptively spacious interior, and also the beautiful wooden booths, tables and area dividers. There are touches of tradition in the sake barrels and smiling Asahi maneki-neko (beckoning cat) but it’s essentially a modern style.

We were invited to try the Premium dinner menu, £44.50 per person. There are other dinner options at lower and higher price points, plus some very reasonable lunch deals (£8 to £18 for yakiniku, less for non-grill options) to appeal to the office workers in the area.

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We started with a sparkling sake, a brand that’s stocked by quite a few Japanese restaurants here. It has the distinctive flavour of sake but is lighter in alcohol, sweeter and with bubbles. A friend called it the babycham of the sake world, a spot on analogy!

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First to be served were the Kintan salad and edamame beans with salt. The beans were… well, edamame beans. The salad was delightful, light crunch from raw shredded cabbage, mixed salad leaves, cherry tomato and hard boiled egg all dressed in a light but richly flavoured mayo.

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Hot oil seared salmon was super, with blanched ginger matchsticks and a light sesame oil citrus dressing.

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Tuna tartar volcano was a highlight – a light tuna mayo with spring onions, chives and caviar on a crunchy deep-fried block of rice that was both crispy and chewy and a gentle kick of heat too. A real winner!

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There were seven dishes listed under “Mains” for the Premium dinner menu. We were served only five, though I didn’t realise until we’d left (when I took another look at the photo I took of the menu). On one hand, we certainly had plenty to eat, and enjoyed everything we were served; but on the other, a failure to deliver two out of seven dishes seems quite an oversight and one I’d be crosser about had I not been invited as a guest.

A fourth plate of (skirt) beef may not have been a big deal but the lack of halloumi, when I remembered it, was such a shame – I adore barbecued halloumi!

Most guests will look at the menu to order but can hardly be expected to memorise dishes, so it’s important for restaurants to serve all that is ordered (and charged for).

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Unlike the yakiniku restaurants we tried in Japan, at Kintan the grill is recessed below table level but that’s a good safety feature and we liked it. It did have the clever Japanese smokeless extraction system that whips away smoke before it rises above grill level, meaning you shouldn’t walk out smelling like a bonfire!

Be warned, the grill radiates a phenomenal amount of heat and you’ll certainly feel hot sitting around it. Perfect for winter but probably less appealing in the heat of summer.

What really surprised us was how long it took for the grill to heat up enough to cook our meat. Even after the elements started glowing red, it took much longer than expected to get even the hint of a sizzle when we placed a slice of beef onto the grill.

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Once it finally got to temperature, everything was good with the world. We loved the three different meats that were served – salt and pepper fillet, premium rib eye and premium kalbi short rib, the latter two in different sticky marinades, the fillet with an accompanying yuzu ponzu dipping sauce. There were also two delicious dipping sauces on the table.

The prawns were tasty too but the scallops were pitiful. I wondered, from the waiter’s instructions to make sure we cooked them very thoroughly for at least two minutes on each side, whether they’d been frozen and then defrosted but he assured me not. From the texture and lack of taste of the scallops, I remain unconvinced. A pity, when the beef was so enjoyable.

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Our miso soup came near the end, as we’d requested when asked earlier on in the meal. It’s listed as a starter, but more commonly enjoyed at the end of a meal in Japan, and I prefer it that way.

Also delivered quite late, when we’d nearly finished the meat and seafood, were garlic fried noodles. Also listed as a starter, I’d have preferred these to come out at the same time as the proteins were served. They were very tasty, but I must give you Pete’s description which sounds odd but is exactly right – they tasted just like garlic bread! And yet were chewy, like udon noodles! So strange, but rather good, regardless. I wondered if they were made in house, but our waiter thought not; he said that the company is quite a large one and most of their sauces and many ingredients are supplied by the chain.

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Mochi ice creams to finish were lovely. The salted caramel was Pete’s favourite but too sweet for me; I loved the matcha and sesame flavours.

At £90 for two, plus drinks and service, this is not a cheap dinner, somewhat at odds with the situation in Japan where we found yakiniku prices if not quite low budget, certainly very affordable. Some of that will be down to the central London (Holborn) location, but I suspect it’s also a case of charging what people will pay for an unfamiliar experience.

We had a good meal (albeit missing two dishes on our set menu) but I can’t help comparing the price to several Korean BBQ dinners we’ve enjoyed at our local Yijo restaurant in Central Finchley; we’ve been hard-pressed to spend more than £25 a head there and eaten at least as much as we did at Kintan. Of course, Yijo and Kintan are not exactly like for like – while the grill meats are very similar the non-grill dishes at Yijo are firmly Korean with lots of kimchi, pickles and spice; at Kintan it’s more of a modern Japanese mix.

If you’ve not tried yakiniku, this is a a good place to try and the lunch deals seem to offer a great value option.

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Kintan restaurant.

Kintan on Urbanspoon

 

Created by a driven, food-loving first-time restaurateur along with head chef Kyoichi Kai (formerly of Zuma), Kouzu is the latest high quality Japanese restaurant to open in Victoria. Once a neighbourhood not much associated with fine dining, the area seems finally to be coming into its own, with lots of on-going investment and building projects creating ever more commercial space for businesses and restaurants alike.

The team behind Kouzu share a dream of creating a restaurant of which they can be proud, one that uses the best ingredients to create delicious Japanese food in a luxurious but relaxed setting. The menu is, in the main part, traditional but the occasional fusion tweak reveals Kai’s classic French cuisine background.

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Images courtesy of Kouzu restaurant

Just a few steps from Victoria Station, Kouzu is housed in a beautiful 1850s period mansion; the enormous door looking out onto busy Grosvenor Gardens gives way to a small double-height lobby dominated by a fabulous modern art chandelier. One of the staff tells me that the design is based on the pupal cases of butterfly larvae, butterflies being the (understated) motif of the restaurant. Downstairs houses the bar and a restaurant space (as well as a private dining room). Upstairs is an extensive mezzanine floor where the omakase sushi bar and additional restaurant seating are located.

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We make two visits to Kouzu in December and January, the better to sample their extensive menu. On our first we sit downstairs, on the second, we visit the sushi bar.

New Stream Sashimi is one of the less traditional sections of the menu, bringing together Japanese and European influences in all six dishes.

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As soon as Yellowtail with Truffle Dressing (£15) is served to the table, the heady scents of truffle fill the air. On the palate, the shiso, myoga, ginger and spring onion hit the tastebuds first, and for a moment I’m disappointed. However the truffle flavour asserts itself a few moments later, and leaves a deliciously earthy aftertaste.

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Salmon with Yuzu Soy Dressing (£11) is a punchy dish of salmon dressed in yuzu, soy, ginger, garlic, sesame seeds and a ravigote sauce (the latter a classic French vinaigrette with shallots, capers and herbs). For me, the dressing has been applied a little too long before serving, resulting in the salmon being “cooked” by the acid and slightly too pappy in texture, but the flavours are super.

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Beef Fillet Tataki (£17.50) is beautifully cooked over charcoal and sliced, and served with what is described as an oriental sauce and julienne salad. The sauce is sharp and the little salad heavy in shisho, which I love. That said, although tataki simply refers to seared and sliced meat, I can’t help but wish for a sesame-based sauce, which I (no doubt unfairly) associate with the dish.

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For the price, I expect the Foie-Gras and Spinach with Teriyaki Wasabi (£12) to be far less generous. Instead, I’m delighted with the generous lobe of perfectly cooked liver served with wilted spinach, a light fruit coulis and a wasabi and teriyaki sauce. The combination of flavours is superb, with the bold umami of the teriyaki and mustardy heat of the wasabi complementing rather than overpowering the foie-gras.

Small Dishes and Salads offer a range of little sides that can accompany orders from any other section of the menu; likewise the short and sweet Vegetables section – the two could easily be amalgamated.

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There’s not much that can be said about Edamame (£4.50), served with a sprinkle of sea salt as we read the menu and decide what to order. I’d love to see a little inventiveness here, with a couple of options such as a spice and salt blend or even a sticky chilli sauce.

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I have to order Agedashi Tofu (£6.50), one of my staple orders when I go out for Japanese food. Kouzu’s version is another fusion dish, the blocks of fried tofu sitting not in the normal soy and dashi broth but in a glutinous vegetable and fish stock sauce. Whilst I like the sauce well enough, what I’m less keen on is how it smothers the tofu blocks, resulting in a lack of the crisp surface I usually enjoy against the pillowy interior.

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The Portobello Mushroom with Garlic Butter (£6.50) is firmly in the European camp, indeed I’m unable to detect any Japanese influences at all. Whilst the meaty mushroom, herby garlic butter and thick, glossy Madeira sauce are tasty, I find this dish a little at odds with the rest of the menu.

Items From The Charcoal Grill cover the widest price range, from £12 to a whopping £85 (though that is for 200 grams of high grade wagyu rib).

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I absolutely adore the Lamb Chops with Spicy Miso Paste (£12), which are served medium rare, with a selection of grilled vegetables. Lamb meat and fat are both delicious, the miso really works well here. The vegetables are all individually cooked to just the right level of crunch, full of fresh garden flavour and a simply foil to the main.

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Yakitori chicken (£12) is offered shio or tare – the first is served with smoked sea-salt, the second basted in a special soy sauce. I’m expecting it to come in sticks, as that’s how I’ve usually enjoyed it but here the tender pieces of chicken thigh are simply piled on the plate alongside grilled spring onions, peppers and chinese cabbage.

Tempura has a menu section of its own.

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We ask for a mix of the various different vegetables, each available to order separately. Batter is super light and crisp, just as it should be, and each vegetable is perfectly cooked inside.

The Specials section might be mistaken for main dishes, based on the prices, but as they’re not significantly larger than many of the previous dishes, I’d be wary of ordering a traditional two or three course meal and expecting to be satiated.

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Roasted Black Cod (£28) is almost a given on high end Japanese restaurant menus these days. Marinated in miso, it’s perfectly cooked – the signature soft and silky texture that is a trademark of this species of fish is shown off nicely. The white miso sauce is a thing of beauty, and I like the orange and fennel salad, to cut through the richness and lighten the dish.

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Duck Breast with Sansho (£25) is described as being served with a Japanese pepper sauce. However, this is another of the dishes that strikes us as more French than Japanese, with that classic, glossy sauce. The duck is superbly tender and beautifully cooked, as are the vegetables served alongside.

Lastly there is the extensive From The Sushi Bar selection including sashimi, nigiri sushi, sushi rolls and a few more nibbles.

For these we dine at the sushi bar, served by our personal sushi chef, Voy. He is happy to talk to us about the ingredients and I enjoy watching him as he works.

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We run through the fish and seafood we would like to enjoy before Voy starts creating our nigiri sushi, moving from lighter white fish to stronger and fattier ones.

After forming the rice (in a small sized block, just as I requested), all the fish are painted in nikiri, a thin sweet of soy, dashi and mirin, before being grilled with a blowtorch, topped with a garnish and served to individual dishes on the counter.

First is yellowtail (£6 each) with pickled jalapeños and a tiny dribble of truffle oil.

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Next is scallop (£5 each), painted with nikiri and blowtorched, topped with a cherry tomato and ume plum compte and thinly sliced fresh shisho leaf. The shape of those blow torched browned cracks is the cause of much hilarity on my instagram feed!

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Third is salmon (£4.50 each), painted with nikiri and blowtorched, topped with avocado and some minute slivers of katsuobushi.

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For nigiri sushi four, we have a split. I have ikura gunkan nigiri (£4, so named as the shape of the nori wrapper suggests a warship) filled with juicy salmon roe.

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Pete has instead chutoro (£7 each, medium fatty tuna), painted with nikiri and blowtorched, topped with a puree of sundried tomatoes, chopped chives and a couple of bright yellow kiku (edible chrysanthemum) petals.

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Next, Otoro (8.50 each, the fattiest tuna), painted with nikiri and blowtorched, topped with daikon, Japanese mustard cress and a tiny dusting of ichimi togarashi (chilli powder). The balance of rice, fish and garnish is excellent in all the pieces we have, but particularly so in this one, for me.

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We finish our initial selection of with a spicy tuna roll (£8 for six pieces) includes tuna, tobiko (fish roe), crab “miso” (the brown goo from inside a crab), avocado, spicy mayo, cucumber and probably a few more I’ve missed! Again, this has a great balance of flavours and textures.

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Voy asks us if there are any  we’d like to have again, or any new ones we’d like to try.

We pick the salmon and the chutoro to have again, plus I ask if tamago is available.

Voy rings the changes by changing the garnishes second time around, thus the salmon, once painted with nikiri, blowtorched and topped with daikon is finished with ikura and shiso leaves.

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Chutoro is served with the same garnishes as previously, at my request.

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We finish with fat slices of nori-wrapped tamago (£3.50 each), astonishingly light and fluffy. It lacks the tree-bark layers of the traditional cooking method but however it’s made, it’s fabulous.

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At the end, desserts.

On our first visit we are too full, but accept a plate of mini macarons served with our tea. Flavours are super but texture of shell enormously inconsistent.

The next time we finish with a scoop each of sorbet, mine a puckeringly sharp yuzu and Pete’s an unexpectedly creamy chilli cacao. Both are super smooth and served with a stick of light crumbly biscuit.

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Both of us agree that although Kouzu is not a budget dining option, the majority of the dishes are really excellent value for their quality; this is a restaurant we are very keen to return to, albeit most likely for special occasions. My top tip would be to skip the specials, which will quickly ramp up your bill, and select a feast from the new sashimi, grill, small dishes and vegetables sections which are very reasonable. For sushi lovers, an omakase visit to the sushi bar is certainly recommended, our deluxe sushi selection above came to exactly £97 (without drinks, desserts and service).

Service, incidentally, is helpful and friendly without being obsequious or overfamiliar and location is excellent for public transport.

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Kouzu restaurant.
Kouzu on Urbanspoon

 

I left the decision of where to eat on my birthday till a few days before. Twitter friends kindly helped me create a shortlist of fabulous options but in the end I remembered my longstanding desire to visit Scott Hallsworth’s Kurobuta Izakaya to try his small plate menu of inventive, modern Japanese food.

True to the nature of an izakaya (most commonly loosely translated as a pub), Kurobuta (which itself is the name for prized black pig breeds in Japan) is a casual environment with a relaxed and friendly vibe and friendly service.

The food is a step above casual, however; it shows enormous attention to detail, creative flavour and texture combinations, beautiful presentations and an appealingly wide range of choices.

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Fresh ginger-ade was punchy and balanced. My sake choice matched the menu description exactly and was light and delicate.

Guided by the cheerful Sam, we initially chose 6 dishes between two of us, adding one more savoury and a dessert to our meal later.

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Baby Shrimp Tempura with Spicy Mayo and Warm Ponzu Dipping Sauces (£10)

Superb quality prawns in a perfectly crisp batter – albeit a thicker one that I’d usually describe as tempura – these were served hot out of the fryer, with a simple spiced mayonnaise and thin ribbons of onion. Pete usually refuses to eat prawns but was persuaded by the unusually soft texture. An excellent start!

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Miso Grilled Baby Chicken with Spicy Lemon Garlic Sauce (£12)

Moist pieces of chicken. A good balance between sweet sticky marinade and a little acidity from the lemony sauce.

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Roasted Scallop with Yuzu Truffle Egg sauce and Yuzu Tobiko (£12)

A lovely combination of tastes and textures; large plum scallops, very fresh and cooked just right, with a beautifully rich sauce – essentially a Hollandaise made with yuzu in place of lemon; garnishes carefully chosen to add more complexity of texture.

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Beer Grilled Beef Fillet with Wasabi Salsa (£17)

This was the most expensive dish we ordered; I would probably have hesitated had it not been a celebratory occasion. But I’m so glad we did – a generous pile of very tender and perfectly cooked beef with enoki mushrooms and a real kick to the sauce and salsa.

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Nasu Dengaku; Sticky Miso Grilled Aubergine with Candied Walnuts (£8.50)

I adore nasu dengaku and this rendition didn’t disappoint. I missed the added texture of the skin, though that was cleverly replaced with the sweet, sticky, crunchy candied walnuts atop each cube of aubergine. The flesh was beautifully cooked to bring out the natural flavour, and enhanced by a beautiful miso marinade.

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Spicy Tuna Maki Rolled in Tempura Crunchies (£8.50)

There was nothing wrong with this dish; I enjoyed it well enough and particularly liked the subtle added crunch of the tempura batter stuck to the surfaces. But it was far more ordinary than everything else we ordered, and was the one dish I wouldn’t order again.

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Japanese Mushrooms Grilled on Hoba Leaf with Gorgonzola, Miso and Pinenuts (£9.75)

If you’re an umami addict, this dish cannot be beaten. The combination of mushrooms, miso, creamy melted blue cheese and pinenuts was a revelation and I have been dreaming about this one dish more than any other, in the week since we visited. Magical!

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Spiced kombu compressed pineapple, coconut & lemongrass sorbet, caramel, lemon sponge, crumble (£8.50)

A new dessert on the menu, designed by Filip Gemzell, Kurobuta’s executive pastry chef, this is another highly unusual but beautifully balanced dish with lots of flavours and textures to explore. Gemzell kindly gave me additional information about the amazing pineapple – he compresses it in kombu, green chilli, red pepper, lemongrass, Szechuan pepper, vanilla, salt and sugar. About the other wow element on the plate, the coconut and lemon grass sorbet, he was more cagey but it’s such a light, refreshing and delightful combination, I’m going to have a go at recreating it myself. And yes, that’s a birthday candle they snuck on for me too!

The key word that pervades the entire menu is ’balance’ of elements, flavours, textures. Ingredients are consistently high quality, the menu is imaginative, each dish is exciting to eye and palate and service is friendly, smooth and focused on ensuring that all customers enjoy a wonderful meal.

Kurobuta on Urbanspoon

Kurobuta is one of six Japanese restaurants participating in Japanese Journey, an experience organised by Suntory Whisky and the 2014 London Restaurant Festival, whereby diners make their way between the six restaurants and enjoy a Suntory whisky highball and a dish or selection plate at each. Pete and I were invited to preview half the journey at Sticks n Sushi, Shoryu and Chisou Mayfair. Check out photos from our evening on my Instagram page.

 

I said a couple of years ago that 2012 was the year of ramen. That was prompted by the opening of four fabulous ramenya in London, each one selling a vastly more exciting (and generally, more authentic) offering than the Wagamama-style facsimile that was prevalent at the time. Since then, the enthusiasm for real ramen has continued to grow unabated – some of the four brands I mentioned in 2012 have launched new outlets; we’ve also seen the opening of United Ramen (which I tried last year during their pop-up phase and went to more recently when they launched their permanent location in Islington) and Ramen Sasuke (which I’m visiting soon). Old hand Ramen Seto (formerly of Oriental City) has moved into a new home near Camden Lock. The famous Ippudo chain is opening in London very soon too.

My latest ramen splurping was at another new kid on the block, Kanada-Ya, which opened without fanfare on the 2nd of this month, directly across the street from Ippudo’s soon-to-open shop. Located on St Giles High Street, steps away from Tottenham Court Road tube station (and the hub of several bus routes), Kanada-Ya brings to London a successful Japanese ramenya founded in Kyushu by Kanada Kazuhiro just 5 years ago. The London store is their third store, with their second being in Hong Kong – a very international expansion from the start!

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With the protocol-chain hailing from Yukuhashi in Fukuoka Prefecture, it is no surprise that Kanada-Ya offers tonkotsu (pork bone broth) ramen, in the Hakata or Fukuoka style.

Indeed, the menu is very short and simple with just three variations on ramen – all featuring the same base broth, so no options for vegetarians – plus a short list of extras and an even shorter list of onigiri (stuffed rice balls).

I’m surprised not to see gyoza as in Japan, the little dumplings were offered by all the ramenya we visited, but mollified when a member of staff confirms that their Japanese branch does indeed sell gyoza and they hope to do so here too, going forward. The challenge for the gyoza is that, like their ramen broth and noodles (more of which in a moment), they make not only the gyoza filling but the wrappers too by hand and want to make sure they can do justice to their own standards before adding to the menu here in London.

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Pete orders the Moyashi Ramen (£11) which features Kanada-Ya’s 18 hour pork broth, chashu pork belly, wood ear fungus, nori, spring onion and blanched beansprouts. And noodles, of course!

The pork broth is really rather good. Regularly skimmed as it cooks, it’s rich in flavour but light in texture. Tonkotsu is a difficult style to get right; I find some lighter broths too insipid but others with richer flavour so oily as to leave an unpleasant oil slick on your lips. Kanada-Ya achieves a great balance.

The noodles are absolutely excellent! Kanada-Ya make them on site using a specialist machine imported from Japan, that uses a special flour enriched with protein and alkaline salts. They offer the noodles cooked soft, regular, hard or extra hard; both of us find regular to be spot on. I reckon the texture of these noodles is the best I’ve tried in London ramenya so far.

Best of all are the Hanjuku eggs (which you need to order as an extra item). These blow any other ramen eggs I’ve tried out of the tonkotsu! They’re truly magnificent!

Chasu pork belly looks like it might be dry but actually proves to be soft and tasty, though not the best I’ve had.

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I order the Chashu Men (£12.50), which comes with a much larger portion of pork but collar instead of belly. It’s still soft and tastes good but I miss the fat. What I’d really like is the option of this much pork but belly rather than collar. Other than that, the only difference from the Moyashi is no blanched beansprouts.

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Curious about another of the extras, we order a portion of Black Garlic Sauce for £1. It has a lovely charred roast garlic flavour; rather than mix it into our broths, we dip occasional bites of food into it.

That includes the salmon onigiri we order. It’s odd to see these rice balls on the menu, as I’ve not encountered them in ramenya before, though of course they’re a popular snack across Japan. Perhaps they’re an easier option to produce while gyoza are not available? Our sake salmon-filled ones (£3 for 1, £4 or 2) are decent but the salmon inside is a little dull. The ume pickled plum (£2.50 for 1, £3.50 for 2) ones might be worth a try.

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On the drinks front, there are soft drinks only including the regular soft drinks and water, plus hot and cold tea, calpis and Japanese lemonade.

At the moment, they don’t list any desserts but offered us a taste of the ice cream mochi they hope to add to the menu soon. To my delight, these are Little Moons ice cream mochi, a brand I first encountered last year courtesy of United Ramen and they are very tasty indeed. We try the yuzu ice cream mochi (served with popping candy) and the matcha ones. Both excellent.

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With just 24 covers at traditional counter seating, Kanada-Ya is set to be a popular choice for the growing hoard of London’s noodle-splurping ramen lovers.

 

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Kanada-Ya.
Kanada-Ya on Urbanspoon

 

I recently started a new job in Victoria, an area jam-packed with mediocre chain restaurants and coffee shops. When I asked food friends for recommendations, Uni was a name that popped up more than once, with its salmon tacos singled out for particular praise. Taco shells filled with salmon tartare isn’t a dish I’ve ever come across before, so of course, I was intrigued.

It turns out that although Uni takes its name from the Japanese for sea urchin, it’s not a straight Japanese restaurant. Rather, it describes itself as offering Nikkei cuisine, a fusion of Japanese and Peruvian food. Japanese food is enormously popular in parts of South America; indeed Brazil is home to the largest population of people of Japanese descent outside of Japan and Peru the second largest. My only reference for the term Nikkei was the Tokyo stock index but I’ve now learned that it’s also a term for American Japanese.

In the main part, the menu is more Japanese than Peruvian, which is not a big surprise when you learn that head chef Rolando Ongcoy once worked at Nobu. The advantage of Ongcoy’s fusion background is an openness to innovate, resulting in some welcome twists on Japanese classics.

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Images courtesy of Uni restaurant

Located on a quiet residential street steps away from Victoria station, Uni is a strange place. The front door opens onto a mid-floor landing part way up a terrifyingly transparent staircase; up leads to white leather stools around a marble counter which comes across like an over-monied art student’s wet dream – I can’t say I’m a fan; downstairs is thankfully much more understated, with soft brown fabrics and no lurid art. There are a lot of covers squeezed into a very tiny space – our corner table was tucked beneath the staircase itself, though I’ll admit it didn’t feel particularly claustrophobic.

The downside downstairs is the tight size of the tables – with small personal plates, water and a drink each on the table, it was a struggle to find space for one dish let alone two or three.

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The drinks list has more of a Peruvian influence with Pisco Sours available, as well as a coconut-based Chilli Mojito. As someone who genuinely adores Midori (melon liqueur) I couldn’t resist the Midoroska (£9.50) which was a simple but delicious and refreshing combination of vodka, midori, sugar & lime. Pete had a Sapporo beer (£4.50).

As well as the cocktails list (alcoholic and non-) there is a small range of sake (including a sweeter sparkling option) and red, white, rosé and sparkling wine. For beer drinkers, there are just two – Asahi Super Dry and Sapporo. The whisky list reveals a big missed opportunity – not a single Japanese whisky is listed!

As we read the rest of the menu, we had some edamame (£4) with sea salt flakes to start.

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Of course, we ordered the salmon tacos (£6) as one of our selection of starters. Described as salmon tartare, cucumber, tomato, masago and creamy miso, I understood on first bite why these garnered such praise from fellow visitors – the crunch of the delicate taco shell is an excellent textural balance to the soft fish inside. I don’t think I’d had masago (caplin fish roe) before but, as part of a mixed mouthful, I didn’t detect a difference from ikura (salmon roe).

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Although I knew the Japanese words of a number of individual seaweeds such as kombu, wakame, arame and hijiki I wasn’t familiar with kaiso, which is the word for seaweed.

I don’t know which types this kaiso seaweed salad with goma dressing (£6) contained but, once again, the balance of tastes and textures was spot on. I love Japanese sesame dressings and could eat this salad every day.

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Peruvian tiraditos are somewhat like (seafood) carpaccio, ceviche and sashimi but not the same as any of them. I’d say the cut of the fish is a little thicker than carpaccio, a little thinner than sashimi and the spicy dressing is not the same as that used to cure ceviche (for which the fish is more commonly chopped rather than sliced too).

We chose the yellowtail tiraditos (£15.50) and found the small plate of fish superbly fresh and beautifully dressed (with kizami wasabi, yuzu & fresh mint). But at over £2.50 per slice of fish, it was steeply priced.

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I really enjoyed the tempura rock shrimp (£15) that our waiter Nachos encouraged us to try, particularly dipped into the creamy spicy sauce. Again, pricy but a decent portion and very sweet, tasty shrimp.

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I’m more of a fan of sashimi (3 pieces per order) than sushi (2 pieces per order) but I like that all the toppings are available either way.

We decided on an order of ibodai (butterfish £6) and toro (fatty tuna £9.50), as these are always part of my sashimi tray when I buy freshly cut sashimi to eat at home from my local Atari-ya shop. Again, the superb quality of fish was impressive.

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The highlight of the meal for me was uni in the shell (£9); I’ve never encountered such fresh, sweet uni in London! The beautiful presentation was just icing on the cake (or should I say ice in the bowl?) against the smooth, creamy treat of the sea urchin roe.

If you’re a fan of uni, you should visit for this one dish, let alone the rest.

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Unagi (eel) is another Japanese classic I love, not least for the traditional sticky sweet sauce it’s commonly glazed with. The unagi maki (£6) with nori and cucumber was excellent.

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Although friends raved about Uni’s wagyu steak, the wagyu tataki (£23) was the most disappointing dish of the meal for me. Served with ponzu, truffle oil & crispy garlic, I felt that the citrus notes in the ponzu sauce completely overpowered the flavours of the beef as well as the truffle oil, which I was unable to detect. Texture-wise, the beef wasn’t remotely as marbled as the (low and medium) grade wagyu I had in Japan; that beef was so rich with fat that it melted on the tongue just like fatty tuna. The garlic crisps were delightful but overall, I wouldn’t recommend this dish.

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For dessert, we shared the mochi moriawase (£6), an attractively presented plate of 4 different mochi – black sesame, yuzu, strawberry cheesecake and chocolate. All were delicious, and we couldn’t agree on a favourite.

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I finished with a pot of genmaicha (£3.50), served in beautiful tea pot and cup.

This was a wonderful meal, no doubt about it. We enjoyed nearly everything and really loved several of the dishes.

Certainly Uni is a little pricy, but the uncompromisingly excellent quality ingredients go a fair way to justifying that. We were greedy – not to mention keen to sample all the sections of the menu – and you certainly don’t need to order quite as much as we did, but if you do, the food above comes to £53 per person, with drinks and service on top of that. Take out just a couple of items, such as the traditos and the edamame and it’s already down to £43 a head (food bill) and still a generous feast.

Work is always busy but I’m keen to slip out one lunch time and try Uni’s bento box offering and of course, I doubt I’ll be able to resist a return visit for that uni soon!

 

Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Uni restaurant.

Square Meal

 

Traditionally, the key ingredients in the Japanese dish shira-ae are white – white tofu, white miso and white sesame seeds; shiro means white in Japanese and the ae suffix denotes a vegetable dish with dressing. What’s unusual from my European perspective is the low amount of liquid ingredients in the dressing; the silken tofu provides both additional moisture and the body of the sauce.

This can be also used with other greens such as spinach or seaweed, or your own selection of vegetables.

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Here’s the recipe. To learn more about the ingredients, keep reading.

Saya Ingen Shira-ae | Green Beans with a Tofu, Miso & Sesame Dressing

Serves 2-3 as a side dish

Ingredients
300 grams green beans (French beans)
100 grams silken tofu (pressed tofu is not suitable for this recipe)
50 grams lightly toasted white sesame seeds
2 teaspoons miso paste *
2 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons mirin (rice wine)

* Shira-ae traditionally uses white miso paste, the mildest and sweetest miso. I prefer the saltier and more pungent flavour of red miso, so it’s the type I most commonly have in the fridge. Red miso gives my shira-ae dressing a darker colour than it would have if I used white miso.

Note: I have used Clearspring organic tofu, a long life firm silken tofu made with organic soy beans, spring water from Mount Fuji and nigari, a naturally occurring mineral rich coagulant derived from sea water. See below for my tofu lowdown.

Method

  • Prepare and cook the green beans as you like them. My preference is that they have a little crunch left in them.
  • Once cooked, drain and tip into a bowl of cold water to stop them cooking further.
  • In the meantime, grind the sesame seeds using a mortar and pestle, food processor or spice grinder.

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  • Mix the ground sesame seeds with the miso paste, sugar, mirin and tofu. Silken tofu is so soft and moist it will easily break up and combine with the other ingredients.

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  • Drain the beans well and mix with the dressing.

Tofu, Miso and Sesame Seeds

Tofu

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Tofu is made by coagulating soy milk (itself made by soaking, grinding and heating soy beans and water) and straining the resulting curd. Originating in China about 2000 years ago, the technique spread to Korea and then Japan in the 8th century, coinciding with the spread of Buddhism – tofu is an important source of protein in a Buddhist vegetarian diet.

Incidentally, if you ever wondered about the English-language name, it’s taken directly from the Japanese, which is itself taken from the Chinese dòufu. Dòufu translates as “bean” “curdled”, giving us the name that is more prevalent in the United States – bean curd.

The variety of tofu available in East Asia is amazing!

Broadly speaking, tofu products divide into fresh and processed.

Fresh tofu comes in many different textures, the result of a range of different coagulants used to make it as well as differing production techniques.

Silken tofu is the softest kind and, because it’s not curdled, strained or pressed after coagulation, it has a really high moisture content. You can find both soft and firm silken tofu, but both are far softer and wetter than pressed tofu.

Firm tofu does retain a fair amount of moisture, but not as much as silken tofu. Its surface often retains the pattern of the muslin or mould used to strain and press it. The firmest tofu is pressed rigorously and has an almost rubbery texture, a little like paneer or halloumi.

There are also a number of processed tofu products included fermented, pickled and dried tofu. These include stinky tofu, which smells much like a very ripe soft European cheese. Just like cheese, it tastes far better than it smells!

Dried tofu is very light, does not need to be refrigerated and is usually rehydrated before use. There are many shapes and textures available.

Another type is frozen tofu. Large ice crystals, which form on freezing, leave cavities when the tofu is defrosted, creating a spongy texture. This type of tofu is often sold cubed and freeze dried.

Tofu can also be deep fried, usually after being cut into cubes or triangles, or into thinner pieces to create pouches for inari-zushi. Obviously, the firmer and drier types of tofu are better for frying.

These days, tofu is readily available in the UK, though you won’t find the sheer variety available in Asia!

It is often associated in the West with a vegetarian or vegan diet, with detractors dismissing it as bland and unappetising. Personally, I love the stuff. Yes, the flavour is subtle but it’s a very versatile ingredient. It’s also very healthy as it’s high in protein but relatively low in calories and fat. Depending on the coagulating agent used, it can also be high in calcium and magnesium.

Miso

Miso is made by fermenting soybeans, and sometimes additional grains such as rice or barley, with a fungus known in Japanese as kōjikin. The resulting paste is used as a seasoning throughout Japanese cooking. There are many, many different varieties available in Japan, often broadly divided by their colour. White is the mildest and sweetest. Red, aged for longer, is stronger and saltier and darkens with age through red into brown.

Sesame seeds

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Sesame seed is oldest known oilseed crop, with archeological evidence suggesting it was already being cultivated 3500 years ago. Sesame seeds have a very high oil content and the oil itself is very stable with a long shelf life, making it easy to store in hot climates. Once the oil has been extracted from the seeds, the protein-rich remaining meal can be used as animal feed.

Most wild species are native to sub-Saharan Africa, where the genus originated, but the cultivated type, Sesame Indicum, originated in India. A hardy, drought-tolerant crop, sesame is now grown in tropical regions around the world with Burma, India and China the biggest producers (in 2010).

Of course, the seeds are popular in seed form too; they feature in many cuisines around the world, far too many dishes to list here.

Pale straw-coloured “white” seeds are the most common, but black varieties can be very striking, especially when combined with the white. I loved the jin doy spheres I enjoyed at A Wong a few months ago.

I love this tidbit from Wiki’s page on sesame seeds: “Upon ripening, sesame fruit capsules split, releasing the seeds with a pop. It has been suggested that this is root of the phrase “Open Sesame” in the historic fable of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves in One Thousand and One Nights. The opening of the capsule releases the treasure of sesame seeds.”

Suribachi & Surikogi

One of my favourite purchases from our last visit to Japan was a beautiful suribachi (grinding bowl) and surikogi (wooden grinder). This very Japanese mortar and pestle is perfect for grinding sesame seeds, which are quickly pulverised against the ridged inner surface of the bowl.

Did you know that Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi was named for this humble kitchen tool?

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This dish is such a quick and easy one to make and is both healthy and utterly delicious. I hope you enjoy it and do please leave me a comment to let me know what you think!

Kavey Eats received product samples courtesy of Clearspring.

Jun 232014
 

Yuzu makes a fabulous sorbet, one I am seldom able to resist if I see it on a menu.

But when I was given a jar of Korean Yuzu Tea to try by Sous Chef I decided to use it in a simple yuzu ice cream instead.

Yuzu is an Asian citrus that originated in China (though be aware that in China, yòuzi refers to pomelo) but it’s particularly popular in Korea and Japan. The tart flavour is reminiscent of mandarin, grapefruit and lime and has a delightfully floral note to it.

The Japanese make extensive use of the fruit – yuzu juice is an integral ingredient in ponzu, a classic dipping sauce; yuzu koshu is a fiery condiment made from yuzu zest, chilli and salt; and the citrus is also a popular flavouring for both sweet and savoury dishes. The aromatic oils in the skins are so fragrant that the Japanese have even invented the yuzu buro (yuzu bath) – whole or halved fruit floating in a steaming hot bath; this is on my list for my next Japan visit!

In Korea a hot drink known as yuzacha (yuzu tea) is a popular cold remedy. This is actually a marmalade-like preserve, made by cooking the fruit and rind of the fruit in sugar and honey – a generous spoonful of which is stirred into hot water to make the “tea”.

Indeed, I’d happily have Sous Chef’s Korean Yuzu Tea on toast or stirred into natural yoghurt for breakfast!

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To keep things quick and simple on a busy weekend, I used my go-to no-churn ice cream base – double cream and condensed milk – and stirred in lots of Korean Yuzu Tea once the base was whipped.

This turned out to be one of the most delicious ice creams I’ve made! Taste, texture and even the bursts of colour from the peel – everything was spot on. I don’t think the tub will last long!

Quick & Easy Yuzu Ice Cream

Ingredients
300 ml double cream
150 ml condensed milk
5-6 tablespoons Korean yuzacha 

Note: You can adapt this recipe to make many different flavours of ice cream – just substitute your favourite fruit jam, jelly or marmalade.

Method

  • Whisk the cream until it is thick but still a little floppy.

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  • Add the condensed milk and whisk again until it holds its shape.

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  • Gently stir in the yuzacha or your chosen fruit jam.

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  • Transfer into a freezer container and freeze overnight.

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This is my entry for the June #BSFIC challenge.

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 As I won’t be available to post the round up this weekend, I’m extending the deadline for entries to June 30th, emails to be received by 1st July.

Kavey Eats received a sample of Korean Yuzu Tea from souschef.co.uk.

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