There’s an air of sophisticated mystery surrounding Japanese food that is unlike that of any other national cuisine. Think ‘Japanese’ and the mind conjures images of nimble-fingered sushi masters, velvet-like slithers of fresh fish and snowy pillows of rice. The delicate tastes and dainty aesthetics of the cuisine are reflected by the venues in which it is served, often designer restaurants with clientele straight from a Calvin Klein casting call. Perhaps because of all these things, sushi and sashimi have become the dish of choice for Dubai’s self-proclaimed sophisticates.
But really, the beauty of Japanese food lies with its artful simplicity – fresh, often raw, ingredients served in unassuming, humble portions. So why is it limited to some of the most shimmering, sleek and expensive restaurants in Dubai? Let’s pose this question another way – when did you last consider preparing Japanese for yourself at home? Exactly.
Keen to dispel the myth that Japanese food is a luxury of the rich and beautiful, we visited Chef Hugh Gardiner at Okku at the Monarch Hotel. Granted, Okku is one of Dubai’s most upmarket restaurants, but at its helm is a man who started his artful trade in his mother’s street-side restaurant in Hawaii at the age of 16. Since then, Chef Hugh has travelled the world – via Hawaii, California, Korea, Japan, New York, Vegas and a tour of some of Europe’s culinary capitals – and now resides in Dubai, where he has worked at Okku for the past three years. ‘I love it here,’ he says. ‘But there’s still a lot of work to be done.’ Despite Okku’s status as one of the city’s top restaurants, it’s nice to see Hugh isn’t sitting on his laurels. ‘I want to start using more organic food,’ he explains wistfully. ‘But at the moment, the price is just too high. No, I’d say it’s unfair.’
While it takes years for a sushi master to learn his trade, Chef Hugh agrees that some of the best Japanese dishes are simple to make. His sentiment is supported by his casual attitude as he saunters into the kitchen and announces he’s going to show me how to make three simple dishes.
First: tempura. We don’t know why, but we’re expecting more pomp and ceremony; instead we’re confronted with thinly sliced vegetables (sweet potatoes, red and yellow bell peppers, aubergines and mushrooms), and a bowl of creamy-white batter. While many chefs have their own secret recipes for tempura, Chef Hugh says all that’s needed is iced water, flour and an egg. One of his chefs plucks the vegetables from their bowl, coats them in the batter and gently immerses them in bubbling trans-fat-free oil. The most difficult thing (if you can call it that) about making tempura is maintaining the heat of the oil, which should be about 160°C and can be measured with an oil thermometer (available at most supermarkets) or by placing an upright chopstick in the middle of the pan. If the bubbles rise slowly, the oil is too cool; if they rise quickly, it’s too hot; if they rise as a steady stream, it’s just right. After four minutes, the golden tempura vegetables are on a plate and ready to be eaten. It’s that easy.
Next up are the edamame, which sum up the appeal of Japanese food – simple and delicious. Two minutes in boiling water, drained, then coated in powdered salt – fish stock ground with sea salt. The result is a snack/starter/finger food that’s so moreish.
Two Japanese dishes in less than 10 minutes is not bad going – and encouraging for even the laziest chefs. The final instalment of this whistle-stop introduction to Japanese food is maki sushi rolls. Admittedly, the preparation is a little more intricate than tempura or edamame, but fairly simple nonetheless. We ask Chef Hugh if there are any dos and don’ts of maki making. He’s as casual as ever: ‘Nothing really – I guess it’s just practice and… spread the rice over the seaweed evenly. And try not to press the rice too hard onto the seaweed, or you’ll crush it.’
The rice sticks together – and to the seaweed – thanks to the rice vinegar (75ml of vinegar to one cup of rice). Once the rice is laid evenly over the seaweed, Hugh flips it over and starts applying the ingredients – avocado and steamed crab. ‘The great thing about rolls is that you can put anything in them,’ says Hugh. ‘You can have a lot of fun.’ On tasting the rolls, however, fresh avocado and crab suit us just fine.
50ml rice vinegaar
Nori (dried sushi seaweed)
1 Mix the salt, sugar, and vinegar, then heat in a pan and remove before the mixture reaches boiling point.
2 Place the vinegar in a mixing bowl, then place the mixing bowl in another bowl of iced water to allow it to cool.
3 Prepare your preferred type of rice. For every cup of rice, add 20ml of the rice vinegar to taste. Mix the rice and vinegar briefly in a non-reactive bowl (for no more than two minutes) and let it sit, covered with cling film.
4 Add a handful of sushi rice (150g) to half a sheet of nori. Spread evenly so the entire surface is covered with rice.
5 Turn over the nori and rice, and add your chosen ingredients in the centre.
6 Roll from the bottom edge of seaweed, covering the ingredients, and wrapping them towards the top edge of seaweed.
7 Press with a sushi-rolling mat (wrapped in cling film to prevent rice sticking to the mat). Cut into six or eight slices and serve with wasabi and soy sauce.
Sliced vegetables, including carrot, aubergine, baby corn, bell peppers, shiitake mushroom, sweet potato. There is no real restriction on the overall size of the vegetables, but try to limit the thickness of the slices to no more than 3-4cm.
1 cup iced water
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 Whisk together the egg and iced water , then incorporate the flour using chopsticks. A lumpy consistency is ideal for tempura batter.
2 Immerse the vegetable slices in the batter mixture until each is generously coated.
3 Heat a pan of oil to 180°C, then drop in the veg. Fry for four minutes until batter is crisp.
Tempura dipping sauce
½ cup dashi (made from dashi stock powder, or a light fish stock)
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup mirin (sweet cooking sake) or corn syrup
Combine the ingredients, bring to the boil and remove from heat. Serve hot with grated ginger.
Edamame with sea salt
175g edamame beans (can be bought frozen at grocery stores)
1 There’s no need to defrost frozen beans – just pop them straight into boiling water. Boil for at least two minutes, depending on your preference (a longer cooking time will mean softer beans). You can also cook the beans in vegetable stock for a more intense flavour.
2 Sprinkle with sea salt to taste. Chef Hugh suggests trying different types of salt.
Where to buy
Deans Fujiya Chef Hugh’s recommendation for top Japanese produce offers everything from fresh wasabi and fruit to a huge range of dried and frozen Japanese foodstuffs. We’d advise paying a visit and browsing the aisles to pick up some culinary inspiration.
4th Street, near Lamcy Plaza, Oud Metha, www.deanstrading.com (04 337 0401)