A Taste of Japan: Japanese Exports to Import into Your Kitchen

by Heather Sperling
Heather Sperling
March 2009

After Ferran Adrià’s first visit to Japan in 2002, dashi, yuzu, wasabi, and shiso became regulars in the el Bulli kitchen. But beyond the tangible influence of the trip, Adrià says a philosophical shift occurred, almost without him realizing it. Last month in Tokyo, the el BulliM chef—always a passionate speaker—spoke extra fervently about the creative inspiration he’s drawn from Japan, calling it “a revelation, a drink from the fountain of youth.”

A trip to the kaiseki motherland is necessary to fully soak up the aesthetic, philosophy, and ceremonial aspects of Japanese dining that Adrià found so inspirational. Fortunately for those laboring long hours in the kitchen—perhaps that trip to East Asia will happen next year—there are an increasing number of culinary exports making their way out of Japan. Here are a few things that you can get in your kitchen—beyond dashi, yuzu, wasabi, and shiso—to keep you inspired while you save up for the trip.

Ayu Fish Sauce A swig of your standard Japanese or Southeast Asian fish sauce tends to trigger the gag reflex. Though it adds profoundly savory notes to soups and sauces, taken straight up it’s unabashedly stinky—a full-flavor assault on the palate, and not necessarily in a good way.

Not so with this ayu fish sauce. Ayu, Japanese “sweet fish,” are small, seasonal fish from Southern Japan that are prized for their flesh, which has a sweet, mild flavor and smells of melons. Maruhara & Co., a producer of high-end soy sauce, recently joined forces with a local ayu fish farm and began converting broken fish, unsuitable for shipping, into a remarkable fish sauce.

Photo by Heather Sperling

The result is smooth and rich, not unlike sesame oil in consistency and color. Traditional Japanese fish sauce is made of whole squid or sardines; it’s clear that this is the stuff of a finer, milder creature.

A few drops adds a savory depth to a dish; if the straight stuff is too overwhelming, there is a diluted version (with a thinner texture and lighter flavor), and an excellent soy sauce-ayu fish sauce blend that is deeper and richer than your regular soy. The soy- fish sauce blend also has a “what grows together, goes together” synergy to it, as the ingredients (both the beans and the fish) are all grown and harvested in the Oita prefecture.

The diluted fish sauce and the soy-fish blend were created to market to western audiences (Pascal Barbot uses them in his kitchen at L’Astrance in Paris); while delicious, it’s the full-strength fish sauce that really stands out.

The newest batch of ayu fish sauce will be ready in April. It’s currently available in the United States by request and special shipment. Direct inquiries to: info@soysauce.co.jp.

Sudachi Yuzu and sudachi are Japanese cuisine’s version of lemon and lime. In the past few years, yuzu has become a relatively familiar flavor to western palates, while sudachi (a small, green-hued citrus fruit whose flavor has been described as yuzu plus cumin) remains mostly unknown. In Japan, sudachi halves (which are slightly larger than key limes, but just as vibrant) are served as a garnish for fish, and the juice is incorporated into sauces. The juice is available in the US at the occasional Japanese market, and through Japanese purveyors like International Marine Products.

Obulato The best translation for obulato is “medical wafer.” The thin, transparent disks are made of potato starch and dissolve upon contact with water, and are used in Japan (and occasionally in the west) to ease the swallowing of medicine. They’ve also made an appearance in cuisine: at Mibu in Tokyo, a sheet of softened obulato lay across a hollow, poached yuzu peel with toasted soybeans resting inside. It has recently become the toy of a few Spanish chefs: Adrià uses it as a base for canapes, and at Madrid Fusion, Dani Garcia (of Calima in southern Spain) layered it with baby shrimp and deep fried it to create a modern tortilla de camarones. Obulato can be found at Japanese markets that have pharmacy sections (like Mitsuwa, which has eight locations across the country), or could be obtained by special request through most purveyors of Japanese goods.

Dried Shiitake Mushrooms Fresh shiitakes are familiar modern American menu fare, but the über-savory potential of dried shiitakes is as of yet untapped. The dried mushrooms are historic. They’ve been used in Japanese cuisine for over 1,500 years. Along with seaweed, they form the base of a vegetarian dashi that’s used in Buddhist and macrobiotic cuisines, and they add a savory, almost smoky richness to a number of other Japanese soups and stews. Dried shiitake mushrooms can be recognized by their dense, thick flesh and natural cross-hatch of grooves on their caps. Log-grown shiitakes are the cream of the Japanese crop, grown over the course of two years in thick forests without pesticides or additives. All Japanese log-grown dried shiitakes are marked with a special symbol—a red mushroom surrounded by a red circle. (Many of the dried shiitakes available at Japanese markets and even through importers, like New York Mutual Trading Company are actually Chinese.)

Photo by Heather Sperling

Konjac/Konyakku Konjac is a natural hydrocolloid that comes from a starchy plant often referred to as a yam—even though it bears no official relation to the yam family. In Japanese cuisine, konyakku often takes the form of a firm-textured, mottled brown-grey gelatin that appears in stews, soups, and even sushi box lunches. The flour is also used as a broth-thickener, with great success.

On a recent trip to Japan, dashi thickened with konjac was served at three different restaurants in three different composed dishes, and in each, the added texture and richness in the broth added a surprisingly pleasant element to the dish. Konjac has a viscosity of about ten times that of cornstarch—a little goes a long way. It has little reaction to cold liquids, but will thicken heated liquids quickly. Never add directly to hot liquids; dilute it in cool water first (like cornstarch) before incorporating. Konyakku flour is available at Japanese grocery stores.