Archive for the ‘Japanese Food’ Category

Can matsutake be grown in Australia?

Probably some some of the most significant food news out of Australia in the last ten years is the successful growing of truffles in the Manjimup area of Western Australia.  They haven’t grown the easy ones, they have gone for the real deal.  And the results are not the dry hard lumps other “new world” projects have resulted in. 

One of the good things about Australia is the size of the place gives us a massive variety of climates, soils and weather systems.  Surely, somewhere, we can grow almost anything.

Which brings me to this:

The price is 30,000 yen - nearly 500 Aussie dollars

The price is 30,000 yen - nearly 500 Aussie dollars

I photographed this punnet at a food market in Kyoto – it is slightly bigger than my fist and costs nearly 500 Aussie dollars – they throw in three little yuzu citruses with it to sweeten the deal.

These matsutake mushrooms are in season in the northern Autumn every year and have an amazing long and warm taste.  They are a key feature of the autumn season kaiseki cuisine.  Here is a pic of a dish I was halfway through while staying at the Benkei Ryokan in Arashiyama, Kyoto:

the beer was nice too...

the beer was nice too...

This is a soup that is made with matsutake when it is in its prime.  As you can see, a bit of fresh yuzu squeezed in really freshens things up and provides the balance in flavours.  This is a premium product and you can’t really make matsutake dishes with a substitute mushroom.

The question is, can Australia succeed where China has failed?  Can we grow a quality matsutake mushroom?


Japanese Mayonnaise Banned in Australia?


I can’t believe I am posting this – I will check the facts and see if it is true.  It can’t be?  Can it?  I hope I can post a retraction!

The owner of a Korean supermarket told me that the Australian government is not allowing imports of Japanese mayonnaise – even though the egg content is heat sterilised.  Surely this can’t be true?

If a truck load of this fell on you, you'd be in trouble!

If a truck load of this fell on you, you'd be in trouble!

There is no substitute for Japanese mayo on the market, so if it will be banned, how are you supposed to adjust your diet?  What?  Do we just stop eating dishes that require Japanese mayo?

Australia is a country that allows rugby, rockfishing, phenomenal binge drinking, prostitution, cage fighting…  and we ban condiments?  What the hell sort of risk management is this?

NEWS – Now I am told that it is only Kewpie brand (the most popular brand) they are harrassing.  Hanamasa and the others have not been targetted yet…

how risky is fugu?


Every now and then you hear a story about the “dreaded pufferfish of Japan.”  Often these stories tell us that eating fugu is dangerous.   I have read a lot of stuff in the papers telling me that fugu (blowfish or pufferfish) is very risky.  People even tell me that “it is only eaten for the thrill”.


There are plenty of restaurants in Japan that sell fugu as their main dish.  There are also lots of places that sell it just as one of many things they sell.  Overall, it is estimated that there are over 80 million serves of the stuff every year in Japan – which sounds like a lot until you remember that there are nearly 130 million people in Japan.

Every year a handful of people get sick and sometimes they die.  Importantly, it has been years since anyone died from eating fugu prepared by someone licensed to serve it in a restaurant (there are licences for nearly everything in Japanese kitchens!).  So, nearly all of the people who get sick do so from eating fugu at home, prepared by someone who doesn’t know what they are doing.

So, if there are 80 million serves per year and it is years since anyone died from eating fugu prepared by a licensed chef…  what does that mean for the “risk”?  Put in perspective, it is said that commercial air trips have about a one in 80 million chance of resulting in death. 

Roughly one in every 9,500 Australians dies on the roads each year, more in the US.

From a numeric point of view, there is not a lot to support the notion that eating fugu is risky.  I am not sure how many people die from choking on steak but it could even be a more prevalent problem.

There are plenty of examples of indefensibly bad risk management in regulating foods.  I will post more on them later.

Maybe fugu is a bit like a rollercoaster?  Maybe it feels risky without actually being all that risky?

are you too scared to fly on a commercial flight?

are you too scared to fly on a commercial flight?

This is a pic of some fugu tempura.  It is not the most usual way of eating it – I find the subtle taste of fugu to be lost in the “fried” taste of the batter.

gintara saikyo yaki


It surprises me that outside Japan, the Japanese food we can get is very unrepresentative of what is eaten in Japan.  It is especially surprising when you see how delicious the real thing is, even to the western palate.  Hopefully, it does not come as a surprise that Japanese people don’t go out in the evening to eat teriyaki chicken (if they ever eat it at all!) or roll sushi. 

There are many great grilled fish (yaki sakana or yakizakana) dishes in Japan.  One of my favourites is “gin tara saikyo yaki”.  Tara means cod, gin means silver (what North Americans call black cod, the Japanese call silver cod), saikyo is a type of very light coloured miso paste that the fish is marinated in and of course, yaki means to grill.

gintara saikyo yaki

gintara saikyo yaki


The dish is a little unusual because the fish is packed into the sweet tasting saikyo miso (usually in a plastic box) and left in the fridge for 2-4 days.  That is unusual because Japanese fish dishes are usually very fresh.  When the time comes to cook the very traditional method is to cook it over sumi (charcoal).  Since that is a pain, the next best thing is a kind of gas grill.  This is a very common cheap home dish or a cheap lunch at a yaki sakana restaurant.  Near my old office in Tokyo I could have a large serve of this dish, with rice, soup, tsukemono (pickle) and a small salad for about $10 Australian or $7 US.  The quality was incredible.

The fish itself has a good spread of fat throughout.  When you push it with your chopsticks, the segments should separate from each other but tend to stay in one piece (making it about the easiest fish to eat with chopsticks!).  Just under the skin is a very juicy, fatty layer.  The flavour is surprisingly sweet, smoky and like nearly all Japanese fish dishes, very salty. 

In Australia, the fish is called Patagonian toothfish and Australians generally haven’t eaten it. 

Some Aussies have eaten this dish in Melbourne at a certain high profile Japanese restaurant.  The place in question has branches is the US, UK and Australia and is part owned by a famous actor. It sells “dumbed down” Japanese food, primarily for customers without a lot of experience in Japanese food.  Some of the reviewers really talk up this dish as a really special one and some of his customers come away thinking that he invented it!  In reality, it is basic, cheap family food eaten in every suburb, every day.  I was not surprised when this group’s restaurant in Japan closed down.  There are so many better places to eat and it is sad that outside Japan people think this restaurant’s weak, adulterated, bland dishes are representative of real Japanese cuisine.

I sometimes make this dish at home.  We can buy the fish but we usually have to buy the saikyo miso from Japan and bring it into Australia ourselves.  Now, if we lived in Singapore, we could buy this miso at the supermarket underneath Takashimaya!

Eating Horse?


I am just trying to put a picture up of some basashi.  Basashi is horsemeat served like sashimi.  It sounds different but it is actually very common in Japan and quite delicious.  A lot, if not most, of izakayas serve basashi.  I suppose over the course of the year they all would serve it at some time because of seasonal changes to the menu. 

Raw horse rump at the top left and horse ham centre right

Raw horse rump at the top left and horse ham centre right


Horse meat is a really important part of European cuisine as well.  In Puglia, for example, horse meat is the main traditional red meat.  Horse meat has its own subtle flavour and can bring an interesting angle to a meal.  Since changes in flavour and texture are so important in Japanese cuisine, it plays a really important role.


I read that Australia processes and exports about 30,000 horses for consumption in Japan.  A bizarre fact is that it is illegal to serve horse in Australia – even though it is a delicious and healthy part of a meal.  Even more bizarrely, no reason is put forward as to why it might be illegal.  It is perfectly healthy and if it wasn’t humane, we wouldn’t be allowed to export it, would we? 


Unexplained, ignorant laws like this are part of why food in places like Australia and the US lags a long way behind Japan, France and Italy.  Gordon Ramsay promoted the eating of horse in the UK and I wish he would do the same in Australia.  I am not advocating that it be made compulsory!  But at least it should be an option for those whoe horizons are a little wider.

about that otoro…


The pic on my first post was of otoro.  I took this pic in one of my favourite sushi spots in Ginza, where I love to take first timers in Japan.  Usually I prefer to take people who profess to dislike sushi.  The look on their face is amazing when they try their first few pieces.  They notice the little things: like how the fish (neta) is cool and how the rice (shari) is slightly warm.  They notice that in a good sushi shop in Japan the wasabi tastes quite different – it is grated several times throughout the night on a small sharkskin grater. This is called nama wasabi (nama means fresh). Before I came to Japan, I was not a big fan of sushi either.

Back to the otoro.  Toro means belly and the “o” means great, as in large.  The most expensive part of the tuna is the belly.  The bright red stuff you normally see is called akami.  Toro is usually divided into otoro and chutoro (chu in this case means middle). 

So why is it so popular?  Texture and flavour are both quite unlike anything else.

The flavour is stronger than other parts of tuna.  The flavour is long and smooth.  The aroma and richness seems to fill you.  I like to crush the piece against my palate and draw in a long deep breath through my nose to savour the aroma.  This is fat of a consistency that seems to melt in your mouth.  Other fish may have fat – but not at this consistency.

Texture in this case is governed by the fat content- that is, the very HIGH fat content.  You can tell from the colour that it is almost like bacon.  The pinkness comes from the fat and the white sections are pure fat – they hold together the pink segments of flesh, not unlike pork belly.  A good sushi chef sometimes manipulates the piece of fish so the firmer pink sections are sticking up a little and the white sections are falling away, giving a slight zig-zag profile down the piece. 



I might make a number of posts about this particular cut of tuna – god knows, I am also going to make several posts about the cheek and head sections of the tuna.