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Japanese Tastes, From Shun To Umami
by Fred Ferretti

The gustatory attractions of Tokyo are many, and, if you find a special cook who is committed to the Japanese sensory concept of shun, then your enjoyment will be even more intense. Shun, quite simply, defines the precise season, the precise moment during the year when particular foods are at the peak of their tastes. The month I was in Japan, shun meant the best in bamboo shoots, beans, rainbow trout, clams, cucumbers, peaches, and such saltwater fish as mackerel. Shun to a serious cook, is not myth; and, to ensure shun, restaurants and chefs send representatives, or itamae-san, to markets to buy only the freshest of produce, the vegetable that is just reaching the apogee of its taste, the fruit that is at its sweetest, the fish that is still glossy and clear-eyed and twitching.

So it was I went at dawn one morning to the Tsukiji Market, put on a pair of thigh-high wading boots, and entered the premises with a gentleman named Yoshiaki Inokuma, who told me to call him Inokuma-san. I was to be, for the morning, he said, an itamae-san, looking through acres of newly received vegetables, sitting in on the market's daily food auctions, poring through what must be the largest fresh fish market extant.

The proper name for the Tsukiji Market is the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market. It sprawls along the shore of the Sumida River, and parades of fishing boats and barges of all sizes unload ceaselessly onto its receiving docks. The shore-bound way into the market is a long, wide street lined with tiny sushi and tempura houses and with Chinese dumpling restaurants, food well loved, I am told, by Japanese fishmongers and seafood handlers. We walk past wholesale shops selling dried bonito and cod, fresh gingerroot, horseradish, and broad beans, and then all at once we are in the cavernous market, through which pass, Inokuma-san tells me, seventy thousand people each day, of whom more than fifty thousand are buyers.

We pass hand trucks piled high with open cases of turnips, onions, lettuces, California lemons, Hawaiian papayas, bean sprouts, peppers, strawberries, leeks, and asparagus. Crossing another wide street, we find ourselves in what I am here particularly to see, the fish market. It is a roofed building, easily several football fields long, with a giant computerized sign in front of it informing much of surrounding Tokyo, I suspect, that in the last three days the market handled 3,422 tons, 3,160 tons, and 3,690 tons respectively of fish. According to Inokuma-san, almost 900,000 tons of fish come through Tsukiji each year.

Smelt, snapper, yellowtail, and salmon are flipping about in boxes and large holding vats, and small tuna are stacked like so many fireplace logs. But large tuna, truly massive fish, several hundred pounds each and frozen, are being cut with carpenter band saws into long rectangles, which will in turn be cut into squares for the sashimi outlets of Tokyo.

There are open stands piled with conch and clams, abalone and prawns, blowfish and soft-shelled turtles; other stands filled with sea cucumbers, squid, periwinkles, razor clams, and conger eels. There are oysters from Hiroshima, hairy crabs from Northern Ireland, king crabs form Alaska, and dozens of species of shrimp, all of them live. It is a wonderful market to walk through, and later, as I sit with Inokumasan in a tiny restaurant outside it sipping strong, thick, pasty green tea and eating udon noodles in fish broth, I think about what I might have bought as an itamae-san.

That night I know. As I eat, in a wonderfully raucous restaurant called Inakaya, located in the Akasaka section of Tokyo, plates of grilled skewered peppers, leeks, eggplant, and okra; shrimp; kurumaebi from the Inland Sea; pieces of the flat-headed fish called megochi; and scallops and lotus roots, I know.

"Be sure you wear the apron. It can be, as you say in America, messy," said Eiko Egami, making certain I had all of my ingredients at hand: shelled and deveined shrimp, dogtooth violet starch, bean jelly sticks, sweet potatoes, soy sauce, sake, and chrysanthemum petals.

It was late morning at the Ecole de Cuisine Egami, the kitchen-classroom of the small, modern block of a house on a street called Sanaicho in the Shinjuku section of Tokyo. Eiko Egami, a tiny, smiling woman who prefers that you call her Eiko, or more respectfully, Eiko-san, is Japan's answer to Julia Child and Chef Tell as a television cooking teacher. Every week she is on the little screen teaching millions of Japanese how to chop, cook, carve, arrange, and serve everything from sushi to mushi. And she had consented to teach me, in one easy lesson, how to make ebi no kikka age, which translated are "chrysanthemum fried shrimp," on the condition that I prepare the food and cook it in the Japanese manner.

Under her guidance, using a bamboo-handled thin knife, I cut up sweet potatoes into tiny cubes and put them into cold water. "It rids them of their harshness," said Eiko-san. Then I dropped them into boiling water and added a bit of salt and sugar. "Are they soft yet?" Eiko-san asked, and when I nodded she had me drain them and put them into a bamboo basket to "swish off the water." Next I washed the raw shrimp, dropped them into a mortar with the dogtooth violet starch, mashed the mixture together, dropped in the cubed potatoes, and mashed everything again. I rolled the mass into small balls, pressed tiny lengths of cut-up bean jelly sticks into their surfaces, and deep-fried them, a few at a time.

As they were frying, Eiko-san had me mix the sake and soy sauce in a tiny heated pot and then pour it off into a small dish. The chrysanthemum petals were arranged in a circular fashion on a platter, and the fried shrimp balls were placed in the center. Voilá! Ebi no kikka age.

Was this a traditional Japanese dish? "The chrysanthemums are from Japan. The creation is mine," said Eiko-san, adding that the cooking techniques employed had indeed been Japanese.

Eiko-san has been teaching cooking for many years, first in Kyoto, then in Tokyo, and from the look of her she will, I expect, do most things her way, the Eiko way. Her daughter, Kanai-san, who now assists her, was sent by her mother to Cordon Bleu in Paris to study French cookery and to Hong Kong for Chinese cooking. "We wish ourselves to be current with all cuisines," said Eiko-san.

Oh, and what did she think of jalapeños?

"I achieve the same effect with wasabi," she replied with a broad smile. "Hot!"

It remains a challenge to keep abreast of the food changes in Japan, so frequently do they occur. Just when I was beginning to accustom myself to dried kelp crumbled into my miso soup, along comes Seiichi Ohmura, a chef who, it might be concluded, is at least four parts goldsmith, and who has set up about redefining Japan's upmarket eating experience. Some two hours outside Tokyo, chef Ohmura has the pilgrims queuing up at his small restaurant by offering soba noodles coated with twenty-two-karat gold leaf; soup with square flecks of gold leaf floating among the scallions; and sushi rolled with gold leaf.

And as if this were not enough of a gastronomic shock, now a gaggle of Japanese food philosophers tells us that in all of our food lies the toothsome umami. Yes, umami, which is, we are informed, a basic taste, only lately defined and first discovered by a Tokyo university professor who, at an afternoon broth break, sensed it in a bowl of bean-curd and kelp soup. Umami, it is said, consists of glutamate in vegetables; inosinate in fish and meat; and guanylate in mushrooms. When the correct combination of these substances occurs on the plate, we have culinary ecstasy. The researchers also tell us that monosodium glutamate just happens to be a natural result of this chemical flavor medley, and thus we ought to be thankful for it as an enhancer of flavor.

Uh huh. I say we ought to beware of agendas, and I for one would rather drop in for some of Ohmura-san's golden noodles, without MSG, thank you.

Table For Two

I was quite confident as I came downstairs the other afternoon, for while my wife had been testing some other new recipes for rice I had been catching up on my culinary reading and had uncovered a few arcane items with which I knew I could successfully ambush her. My wife tends generally to be ahead of me when it comes to the latest in gastronomic intelligence. But I had hidden my food readings under a sofa pillow until I could scud through them when she was not around, and I was sure I had found a few things about which she would be uninformed.

"Would you like to try this rice with chicken and fresh tomatoes?" my wife asked. "It's from Hainan. I've cooked the long grain in chicken stock."

"In a minute," I replied. "I have some new food things to tell you about first."

"Again?"

"No, no. This time there really are some great things that the food world is doing that you ought to take some interest in," I said.

"You just ended with a preposition," my wife said.

"Stop that!"

"Sorry."

"Okay. Anyway, there is this new pea protein that can be put in white bread dough"

"And it will coerce white bread into having the same high-fiber content as whole-grain bread, correct?" my wife finished.

"How did you know about that?" I asked.

"I knew. I know. Next I expect you'll be telling me about those new low-cholesterol eggs, won't you? Or the next new cuisine yet to be discovered that the silly people are calling 'neoclassic American?' Or that ridiculous all-salmon diet? I'll bet you've even read that book of recipes for dogs, and we don't even have a dog!"

I kept nodding. My wife had mentioned virtually every subject I was going to bring up. Then she stopped. Aha! I thought. "You forgot one," I said.

"You mean that coffee all those people on television say tastes 'rich,' whatever that is?" my wife asked. "Or antacids that are delicious?"

"No," I replied. "Not those."

"What then?"

"Fat Points," I replied.

"Fat Points?" my wife asked. "What on earth are Fat Points?"

I had her.

"Let me tell you what Fat Points are. Fat Points are indications of the fat in your diet. One Fat Point is equal to one gram of fat, so if you count your grams of fat you will have your Fat Points. The fewer Fat Points the better, obviously," I said. "And you can regulate the intake of fat into your system by counting Fat Points. For example, a tablespoon of butter has twelve Fat Points, but a quarter cup of bamboo shoots has no Fat Points."

"But I don't spread bamboo shoots on my toast," my wife said.

"Please! A cup of granola has thirty-three Fat Points, but a cup of cornflakes has no Fat Points. A chicken sandwich has forty-three Fat Points, a double cheeseburger as thirty-five, but in three cups of plain popcorn there is only one Fat Point."

"I see what you're leading up to," my wife said. "What we're going to do from here on in is count your Fat Points, is that it?"

"Well."

"I'm sorry. I simply haven't time to count your Fat Points. How many, let's guess, do you think are in this rice with chicken and tomatoes?"

"Let me see," I said, taking out my Fat Point list. "Seven ounces of skinless chicken breast is about eight Fat Points," I read, "and a half cup of rice is one Fat Point. Cooked tomatoes have no Fat Points. Nor do raw onions." But all of these, in my wife's recipe, had either been cooked in stock or browned in oil. "I guess I don't know how many Fat Points there are in there," I said.

"Of course you don't," my wife said. "Now sit down and eat. We'll count later."

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