This week I saw a program on television that showcased shin-washoku, or “new Japanese cuisine,” as the latest restaurant trend. The show visited several eateries where the chef/owners had gone abroad, mostly to America, to work in Japanese restaurants and since come back to Japan with a new twist on their native cuisine. Interestingly, what really makes these new places stand out from their traditional Japanese restaurant competitors is not the food. Sure, there are an avocado or two thrown into the mix for color, but the real difference is in the presentation, the service and the price.

Nanban-zuke (see recipe below)

One chain restaurant called An, with 23 locations in Kansai, serves up traditional atmosphere — tatami-mat zashiki rooms — but some of the courses come out on big, white, round Western plates and the price is less Tokyo and more Des Moines. The reporter described two more of the restaurants visited as having a cafe feel — casual tables and chairs and a Western-style open kitchen — and a ryotei taste — delicate, refined food that costs a pretty penny.

The food these establishments serve in all cases would be considered, by Western standards, straightforward Japanese cuisine, but for a Japanese gourmand there would be too much California sticking out of the edges to hide. Just the simple act of rolling a maki-zushi roll inside-out transports the meal out of the homeland and into the New World. Serve the roll with a little wasabi mayonnaise playfully squirted on the plate and, well . . .

The first “new Japanese” foods weren’t dishes brought back by Japanese going abroad, but were recipes brought to Japan by foreigners and subsequently assimilated into the everyday Japanese food vernacular. Tempura — most likely from the Portuguese word for temple, indicating the religious tendency to eat fried fish on Fridays or temple days — and sushi — whose early ancestor funa-zushi undoubtedly has Korean roots — are the best examples of this phenomenon.

Many other lesser-known dishes have been adapted and absorbed over many years and are now served up in every home. There is little doubt that what is right now being lauded as new in Japanese cuisine will soon be old and familiar and eaten with as much enthusiasm as a bowl of hot Korean-by-way-of-China ramen.

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Nanban-zuke is a tart, refreshing antidote to the dog days of summer. The word nanban literally means “southern barbarian,” a reference to the early Portuguese and Dutch sailors, traders and missionaries in Japan. Richard Hosking, in his dictionary of Japanese food, draws the parallel between escabeche and nanban-zuke. To make escabeche — a dish found today in Spain, Portugal and many of the former colonially ruled territories — you fry and then pickle fish with onions and hot chili peppers, a perfect way for seafaring men to preserve some of their catch under sail.

This simple Japanese version of escabeche is now considered a traditional dish — codified washoku. Aji (horse mackerel) is most commonly used in making nanban-zuke, but just about any fish will do. I occasionally prepare a boned chicken thigh this way for a delicious change. You can use any kind of vinegar, but standard Japanese rice vinegar, less acidic than most Western vinegars, works best with this recipe.

1 large aji cleaned, filleted and boned
4 tablespoons katakuriko (potato starch) or cornstarch
1 cup (180 cc) water
1/2 cup mirin
1/2 cup koikuchi shoyu (dark soy sauce)
1/2 cup sake
1/2 cup vinegar
1 large white onion, julienne
1 medium carrot, julienne
2 small dried red chili peppers, stemmed and seeded

1) Cut each fillet in half, score the skin and dust with starch before deep-frying in medium-hot oil (160-180 C). Cook thoroughly and remove to a bowl or container large enough to hold all of the pickling liquid and vegetables.

2) Combine julienne of onion and carrot and chili peppers in a saucepan with all of the pickling liquid. Bring to a boil then remove from heat. Onions and carrots will still be al dente.

3) Pour hot liquid and vegetables over aji, and let cool at room temperature.

4) When cool, store in refrigerator; keeps several weeks. Best eaten cold with hot rice, miso soup, etc. Serves four.

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