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Fearless foodies? Let them eat dirt

by Robbie Swinnerton

Soil, dirt, mud … Call it what you like, the not-so-secret special ingredient at some of Japan’s high-end restaurants has a distinctly earthy quality. And over the last couple of months, it’s been getting substantial media attention, both at home and abroad.

For that, we can thank veteran chef Toshio Tanabe. He is so keen on serving soil as part of his haute cuisine that he’s begun putting it in everything. His new tsuchi ryōri (“earth cuisine”) menu includes as many as six courses. From the appetizer, perhaps a mud and potato potage with black truffle, right through to his dirt ice cream for dessert, all incorporate earth — real earth from the ground.

Is it a joke or some kind of macho challenge? After all, the name of his restaurant, Ne Quittez Pas, is French for “Don’t Leave.” Not at all: The soil is a mulch of coffee grounds and palm-fiber peat painstakingly prepared to render it safe and sanitary. Although the muddy color remains, there are no off-flavors or aromas left at the end to spoil your appetite.

This is certainly not the first time the word “earth” has ever appeared on a menu. Back in 1992, French maestro Michel Bras debuted his signature Gargouillou salad together with “dirt” made from brioche crumbs and black olives. Since then innovators such as Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck, Britain), René Redzepi (Noma, Denmark) and David Kinch (Manresa, United States) have all developed their own edible vegetable beds.

Tokyo chefs have followed suit, including Zaiyu Hasegawa, restlessly creative owner-chef of Den (in Tokyo’s Jinbocho) and Masafumi Hidaka at Cucina Tredici Aprile (Nishi-Azabu). But in these cases, the soil is made by cooking down food ingredients to form a dark, umami-rich loam — not by rooting around in their kitchen gardens.

The prime instigator for bringing actual earth to the dining table has been acclaimed left-field chef Yoshihiro Narisawa, whose eponymous restaurant in Minami-Aoyama won top spot in the inaugural Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, held in Singapore in February.

Narisawa says the idea came to him as a flash of inspiration while visiting an organic farm in the hills of Nagano Prefecture one winter. Although the land was bare, to him it appeared to be bursting with vitality.

“Great vegetables only grow in great soil,” he said in a recent email interview. “I wanted to tell people about this amazing earth that the farmer had developed, which was the source of such wonderful produce. So I decided to try cooking it.”

Since 2001, Soup of the Soil has become one of Narisawa’s signature dishes, made by chopping up burdock root, pan-frying it with the earth, then simmering and straining the resulting mix. The clear surface liquid is heated, without any further salt or seasoning. It is the true taste of terroir, with a mineral-rich character all its own.

The last word, though, has to go to Hasegawa. Never one to shy away from experimentation, he too has played with the idea. But that’s as far as he’s prepared to take it. “The bottom line is: I only want to serve food that tastes good,” he says. “And eating earth is never going to be delicious.”

Ne Quittez Pas: (03) 3442-2382; Den: (03) 3222-3978; Cucina Tredici Aprile: (03) 3486-6310;  Narisawa: (03) 5785-0799.