Hiroko Shimbo and Chikara Sono
by Ishita Rapino
DeGustibus had a Japanese twist this week with the dynamic duo of Hiroko Shimbo (author of Hiroko’s American Kitchen) and Chikara Sono (Chef of Kyo Ya – New York Times 3-star restaurant). They offered a mini kaiseki menu that combined seasonal dishes from Kyo Ya and easily created Japanese small plates from Hiroko’s cookbook. Overall, I felt this class expanded my stomach and my brain – we learned so much about the history of Japanese cooking which has clearly been an influence on modern day cuisine.
Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese dinner of small plates served in a progression. Likely, this is the inspiration for modern Chef tasting menus. The number one rule of kaiseki is that order is the most important (the whole class knows this now since Chef Hiroko quizzed us on it later in the class – she truly has a wealth of knowledge and was a great teacher). My husband joined me for the class and kept telling me to take notes – I felt like I was back in grad school because there was so much to learn, but it paid off because I do feel like there is a lot of information that will be interesting for the blog (hope you readers feel so too)!
On to the menu – a 6-course treat (7 if you count the delicious sweet and savory nut mix we were given at the start of the class):
The first course was Sumiso glazed baby back ribs. We learned the art of using 3 items (not 4, which is a bad omen). I was surprised this would be the first course of the meal, but it was such a small portion that it was not overly heavy or rich.
The next course was a Sasamaki-zushi (sushi rice with cured salmon in a bamboo leaf). Literally, this was a present to each guest – it was a stunning presentation!
But like most presents that are beautifully wrapped, you eventually have a craving to just rip it open to get to the goodies inside!
The sushi was perfectly balanced – the rice had a great acidity from the rice vinegar and pickled ginger to match the smoky cured fish. The pickled radish on the side was shaped like a chrysanthemum flower to represent the fall/winter season. We were not sure if we should eat the radish, but with the hidden pepper inside, it added a nice crunch and heat to the sushi.
Random Fact: Chef Chikara Sono was a mechanic for Toyota in Japan and worked part-time in a sushi restaurant. Now he runs the kitchen of a 3-star restaurant in Manhattan. And he was such a cool guy – my husband commented that he wants to hang out with him and when I told Chef Chikara this, he loved it and invited him to hang out one day! Don’t you love stories like that?
Back to the food. Chef Chikara spent some time butchering the fish. If you read my blog from Chef Mike Price, you’ll know I’m a convert. This was really fascinating because we were eating the fish basically raw. A great tip for prepping fish – let fish sit with salt at room temperature in a plastic wrap for 30 minutes to get rid of the odor – it’s a critical step and most people in the room were not aware of this! Then rinse the fish with water to remove the salt, dry with a paper towel, and prepare according to your recipe.
The next course from Chef Chikara was a Miso Black Cod, which is a popular dish amongst many high-end Japanese restaurants. To quote the review in the NYTimes, “No matter how many times you’ve had this dish, the version here can still make you shake your head in amazement.” Looking back at my notes, I literally wrote “WOW WOW WOW” – what an explosion of flavor. The fish literally melted in your mouth. I really wanted more, but I think that’s the beauty of kaiseki – the portions are small enough that you really appreciate every morsel.
Chef Hiroko was back on the stage, preparing her next course of sake braised short ribs with winter vegetables. I’m so glad my husband was with me because he has missed the short ribs I’ve been indulging in without him. We were in for a treat with the amazing knowledge that Chef Hiroko imparted on us that really came together in the dish. Japanese cooking focuses on five elements which often drive the cooking techniques and colors in each dish: wood, fire, metal, water, and soil. The meat in this dish was so tender with a beautiful, sweet broth – I love sweet and savory dishes and this had a great balance. The kale provided a nice bitter crunch. The one thing that came up over and over again in each course was the attention to detail - the kale on this dish was stacked into a small square and the meat was precisely cut for eating with a chopstick. I literally drank the broth when I finished the dish (I kept it classy by using my spoon, which meant I couldn’t get the last few drops). I wasn’t alone though – everyone was commenting that the broth needs to be bottled and sold!
The last savory course was chorizo and shrimp rice – a Japanese twist on paella. This dish did come together as a fusion dish – it was lighter than most paella dishes, but still had the bold flavors of the chorizo, shrimp, and saffron. Surprisingly, it reminded me of a dish my mom always makes for me called kitchari, which is Indian comfort food.
The final course was Mineoka-Tofu with Strawberry sauce. A weird thing happened to me yesterday – I was day-dreaming and craving this dish all day, but I could not remember where I ate it. It was bothering me to the point that I had restless sleep and kept dreaming about the texture and flavors and I still could not remember where it came from, and I felt so sad about it. Then I started uploading my pictures today and saw the image, and I was so happy and relieved! That is how hauntingly good this dessert is. It tasted and had the texture of a marriage between tofu and cheesecake, but also like nothing I could describe. You could taste the sesame paste in each bite and the strawberry added a touch of sweet. I can’t give this dish the credit it deserves – please just go to Kyo Ya and try it, because it was amazing.
Overall, I was really impressed with how intricate, delicate, and bold each dish was. It was so fun to get to experience the various techniques of Japanese cooking and progression of a kaiseki. I was equally impressed with Chef Hiroko and Chef Chikara – I was shocked that neither had taught at DG and they had never worked together in this way. The class felt so seamless and the transitions between the chefs were so natural. When I interviewed them after the class, they were so fun with each other and played off each others’ answers and comments. Their advice for trying Japanese cooking in your own home seemed simple – you need basic Japanese staples in your kitchen, including miso, sake, mirin, and soy sauce. You can make stocks and sauces and use these to cook various dishes. Their advice to home chefs was to just be adventurous, use common sense, and enjoy the experience. It’s important not to think too hard and be willing to change and adapt. The most important thing was to add love to your dishes and it will always taste good – how sweet! I really enjoyed both of them and I know they both had a great time teaching the class!
One last thing I wanted to mention was that at the end of the night, I met a young man named Mike who also writes a great food blog (Foodie Finders NYC). I was so happy to see that we had a lot of the same insights and thoughts about the class. You can learn even more about Japanese kaiseki from reading Michael’s blog here.