Learning More About Japenese Ingredients
Since starting at Manresa a couple months ago I have had more experience with Japanese ingredients than I have my previous 25 years of being alive. Growing up in Idaho, there was not a lot of diversity in ethnic foods. It’s improved since I was younger, but the Bay Area is a whole new world to me.
I think I’ve alluded to it in previous posts, but the food at Manresa has influences from all over. The usual culprits are there, with traditional French and Spanish. But what I love is the amount of influence Japanese cuisine has had on the menu. Many of the ingredients and techniques come from Japan — sashimi-style fish, the use of seaweeds and kelp, and the extreme attention to detail.
So I’ve been exposed to ingredients and techniques I’ve never seen before. Part of that is the Japanese influence, the other part is that three Michelin stars is a whole other world. Here’s what I’ve learned about some of the Japanese ingredients that I’ve found to be the most fascinating—with some help from the chefs (and a little bit from the internet).
Like corn starch, it’s a thickening agent. Unlike cornstarch (and many other popular starches) it’s not mass produced and highly processed. It’s generally done in smaller batches and using small-scale artisan processes. As for its properties, it works as a thickener much more efficiently than others. I’ve only used it a little, but making a slurry of this and cornstarch side by side, you can immediately tell the difference. The kudzu is much denser. It also comes out more translucent and has a neutral flavor. I also just discovered that you can make a kudzu, water and sugar mixture and dehydrate it to make a thin, translucent chip. This chip is neutral in flavor and you can use as a vehicle for things like oils. The renowned Ferran Adria used it for olive oils at El Bulli. Definitely on my next experiment list.
Shio koji is a seasoning liquid that is used in a lot of Japanese cuisine. It is made by fermenting koji (more on that in a second) with water and salt. The resulting liquid is rich in umami and salty and delicious. We use it a lot in different things at the restaurant and it’s got a unique tang to it. Yum. The base for making shio koji is rice koji. Koji is a starter culture that is used in so many of our favorite Japanese ingredients, like soy sauce, miring and miso. A special fermentation culture called Aspergillus oryzae is added to cooked rice, soy beans or other grains (such as a mixture of soy beans and wheat in the soy sauce process) and left to ferment for an extended period of time. Once finished, you have the rice koji to be used for all sorts of things, including shio koji.
Agar agar is used to make gels. Unlike gelatin (which comes from animals), agar agar is derived from algae. It acts similarly to gelatin in that it will make liquids into semi-solids, but it produces a softer gel and it solidifies and a cooler temperature, making it more stable.
Katsuobushi (or bonito flakes) is bonito or slapjack tuna that has been cooked, smoked and fermented. It’s usually sold as shavings that are used to make dashi, a traditional stock that’s most famously known in miso soup and ramen. At Manresa, we make a bonito stock. Konbu (a giant kelp that’s used a lot in Japanese cooking and the other traditional ingredient to dashi) is soaked in filtered water overnight then strained and brought to a simmer. The bonito flakes are added and stirred in. The saucier at Manresa walked me through the process the other day and it’s fascinating. The bonito flakes are steeped in simmering water until they release their flavor and it becomes an umami-rich stock. This stock is used as a base for a ton of other sauces on the menu.
Anybody else remember the School House Rock episode with the “Great American Melting Pot”? As a kid, I remember that always being a point of pride. We have so many different people from all over the world living so close to each other. How could “American food” not be heavily influenced by all these different cultures and traditions? I can’t tell you how many American-style gastropubs I’ve gone into that have some form of a bahn mi sandwich or street taco on the menu. That’s what’s so exciting to me about becoming a chef. Food is such a universal language. I love connecting with people through what they eat and cook. Why and how they cook certain things gives you such a glimpse into their way of thinking. Working with the chefs at Manresa has really exemplified how a chef’s style can be so unique, influenced by all sorts of traditions and yet coming together in a cohesive expression. It’s extremely inspirational and it makes me excited to continue finding my culinary voice.