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Japanese cuisine: As fresh as it gets

Japanese food has never been far from the limelight, but while local fervour for this cuisine is undeniable, not everyone is as clued in on the cuisine’s intricacies. And here’s where chefs like Shigeru Shiraishi come in.

Japanese food has never been far from the limelight, but while local fervour for this cuisine is undeniable, not everyone is as clued in on the cuisine’s intricacies. And here’s where chefs like Shigeru Shiraishi come in.

The head chef of Takumi Restaurant Singapore is taking part in the Oishii Japan 2013 exhibition. The event, which will be held from Oct 17 to 19, is under the annual Celebrate Japanese Cuisine and Culture campaign by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Forestry. Chef Shiraishi will hold a demonstration on one of the simplest, yet sometimes misunderstood, aspect of Japanese food: The art of “freshness”.

Eating fresh food is a national obsession with the Japanese. But freshness, he explained, begins with using seasonal ingredients. Even sake is brewed seasonally. “That is our lifestyle; we appreciate seasonal produce and their natural origins,” he said.

One of his signature dishes, the “zenzai moriawase”, is essentially a showcase of bite-sized appetisers — that could include sesame tofu and roasted duck — made with some of the season’s best.

Freshness also refers to how quickly the food is prepared and consumed, an aspect not easily overlooked in Japanese cookery. Speaking to TODAY at the launch of the campaign, Shiraishi said: “Our concept focuses on picking up the (natural) taste of the ingredients, which is why we do not use a lot of (heavy) sauces. We never used to add heavy tasting ingredients or flavouring like butter and milk.”

But times have changed, and the use of cream and butter has grown more common. However, it doesn’t negate the taste of the natural flavours of the ingredients. And to do that, chef Shiraishi declared, they need to be fresh.

In line with this poetically poised outlook, the well-travelled chef added that a Japanese meal is a balanced experience. “We don’t have a main course, we have a starter then maybe a soup and the flavours get stronger as the meal progresses.”

Q: Many see fresh seafood as simply fish pulled out of a tank, slaughtered and served raw.

A: Yes, that is also fresh.

Q: But top sushi restaurants also age a lot of their fish, for better flavour and texture.

A: That’s a new way. Some people are into ageing tuna. Cultures change, as might consumers’ taste.

Q: What other Japanese dishes besides sushi and sashimi best showcase freshness?

A: Tempura. It’s a similar concept to sushi. It’s a simple way of cooking — sushi pairs ingredients with rice, tempura features select ingredients and flour.

Q: What about in a more complex dish? Can you taste freshness in a broth or soup?

A: Yes, you can taste it. It’s hard to explain. In Japanese culture, we grow up on Japanese food, and we are able to tell if the ingredients used are fresh.

Q: How can you tell if the fish served is freshly caught?

A: It’s easier to explain how a fish is old — it has a fishy taste. The taste of the fish oils would have changed, so it’s easier to recognise fish that is not fresh.

Q: And you can taste this difference even in cooked fish?

A: It’s the same, because fish oil, after a few days, changes to amino acid. So the more amino acid you can taste, the less fresh the fish is; it has begun ageing.

Q: Can you give us three tips on how to work with raw fish?

A: Remove the scales, the slimy parts and the blood (to keep the fish fresh longer).

Q: What unique techniques do chefs use to maintain freshness?

A: Shinkei nuki (in which a thin wire or large needle is inserted into the fish’s head) is a method of paralysing or immobilising the fish to preserve the quality or freshness. You can cut of the head and tail but there’s a high chance blood still gets into the meat (giving it a fishy taste) if we don’t perform this. I know it sounds like mad science! The fish can’t move but its heart is still beating. This keeps the fish still; the blood is then drained (before serving).

Q: And what about beef?

A: Beef needs ageing, which makes it more tender and flavourful. Fresh meat just tastes like blood.

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