Ratatouille may be hallowed in France, a barometer for how "classically trained" a chef is, but in Tokyo it's been given an overhaul. Instead of a hearty stew, Chef Yoshiaki Takazawa's now-famous ratatouille amuse bouche is at once a bright mosaic of color, a burst of flavor that recalls the sleepy towns and iconic flavors of Provence, and a study in how nothing can (or should be) sacred.
Ratatouille has its share of jealous imitators and distant cousins: Spanish samfaina and tombets are essentially the same stew, and Filipino pakbet is a mash of Asian vegetables, bitter melon, and chile peppers. Takazawa's version is not so much a deconstruction as it is an attempt to cram the entirety of Provence into a single bite, and to achieve this feat he uses another well worn French technique, the terrine.
Takazawa's version, which has been on his menu since he opened in 2005, might be a re-thinking of the classic, but he sticks pretty close to the book. He cooks each component separately and according to its nature (Larousse Gastronomique purists, you may nod approvingly now), and he marinates several of the elements overnight.
But even as it strives to be comprehensively, hyper-Provençal, his ratatouille has some clear Japanese DNA. Takazawa doesn't use any eggplant in his dish (although history buffs might note that the earliest incarnations of the French ragout didn't either). He also sautés his vegetables using rice and hazelnut oils instead of olive, and gives Japanese peasants a shout-out by pickling daikon with kombu and beer yeast.
In a sense, that makes the ratatouille an archetypal Takazawa dish. The restaurant is famous for both its diminutive size (there are only three tables) and its interesting blend of French and Japanese techniques. But in recent years dishes have migrated more toward the chef's home country influences. Explains Takazawa (translated via his wife, Akiko): "Normally such a terrine is much bigger, but I wanted to make it smaller to let the eater enjoy each vegetable in one bite."
The ratatouille has become one of Takazawa's signature dishes, and the chef says he expects it to remain there "forever." And if it represents Takazawa, it's also a microcosm of Tokyo's culinary approach. "I think chefs in Tokyo are innovating plenty," the chef says. "They go abroad and learn the world's cuisine, and then coax it into [their] style," or, in Takazawa's case, the miniscule proportions of an amuse bouche.
Ratatouille Terrine Technique:
1. Slice each of the vegetables into ¼-inch batons. Blanch carrots, asparagus, kidney beans, and baby corn; sauté squash, zucchini, mushrooms, and potatoes; marinate peppers; and pickle daikon.
2. Separately, boil red cabbage in apple cider vinegar and marinate overnight.
3. Line a small terrine mold with red cabbage. Fill the mold with the other vegetables, arranging them to form a colorful mosaic.
4. To assemble, heat tomato juice with gelatin to form a gelée. Pour some of the tomato gelée over the terrine, press, and refrigerate.