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High fives for the best kind of Japanese food

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There are five sets of five rules one must consider when attempting to make traditional Japanese food: the five colors (goshiki); the five methods (goho); the five flavors (gomi); the five senses (gokan); and finally the five viewpoints/considerations (gokan no mon), a Buddhist treatise on the proper way of eating and being grateful for food that has been prepared. Elements and variations on these dictums can be seen in all Asian cuisines that have been influenced by Buddhism. Originally codified in China, these axioms were imported, adapted and refined to fit the Japanese sensibility. They swayed the classically minded washoku chef for centuries.

In food, as in life, rules can restrict and limit us or they can guide and free us. Just as most artists determine the boundaries of the frame before setting out to create, when attempting to prepare food according to specific ethnocultural precepts one must also find out and consider the frame that surrounds the raw materials.

Some food preparations seem to evade classification and make it extremely difficult to determine a pattern for the entire cuisine. The classical Japanese ways, however, have made it simple and plain. But that simplicity has layers of variation and combination.

When I decided to train as a Japanese chef, I had a set of objectives and a vision of the food I would create in the future. My first teaching chef — the chef that became my mentoring oyakata — had a different set of objectives and convinced me to set aside my vision. But initially I had a difficult time staying inside the box. I wanted to explore and discover new possibilities. In looking beyond my own reach, I missed the forest for the trees.

It took time, but I eventually realized that channeling that same creative energy within the box — adhering to the five fives — there were vast new worlds to be explored. Worlds that made sense, worlds that had cohesion, worlds that were refined.

One of the five fives that has influenced me most is the rule of the five senses — smell, taste, sound, touch and sight. All foods, obviously, don’t need to satisfy each sense, but in the course of the meal, a balance must be achieved. While smell is a dominant element in most cuisines — and indeed scientists tell us that taste is mostly smell (people who have lost their ability to smell also lose most of their capacity for taste) — washoku gives smell its own separate category.

Rather than permitting the whole dish to reveal itself by its bouquet, conscientious Japanese chefs guide the nose with small aromatics that perfume specific courses. When a dish is served in a lidded vessel, it is almost certain that the chef wants to hit us with a specific aroma the moment the cover is removed.

Aromatics used in washoku generally fall into the category of herbs or spices. Herbs used in washoku include mitsuba (trefoil or Japanese hornwort, similar to chervil), wasabi no na (the leaves of the wasabi root) and kinome (leaves of the sansho tree). Major washoku spices include shoga (ginger), kuchinashi (cape jasmine), karashi (mustard), wasabi, togarashi (small red chili peppers), goma (sesame seeds), yuzu(citron rind) and sansho (Japanese prickly ash or mountain pepper).

Sansho, closely related to the Szechwan peppercorn, is one of the boldest of Japanese spices. Washoku uses the fresh leaves, the dried hull and the brined berries. Dried, the berries are bitter and must be discarded, but the hull that surrounds the seed is highly aromatic and used to season barbecued eel or grilled chicken. The fresh leaves are used as a garnish that imparts a wonderful scent or ground together with miso to make dressed salads. The brined berries are used primarily to season tiny anchovies in a preparation called sansho chirimen jako.

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Iri-zansho

This time of year, the leaves of the sansho tree have become too big to use as the delicate kinome garnish, but the larger leaves — sometimes called oni-zansho — may be used in other ways. Iri-zansho is a delicacy that perfectly complements a good bottle of nihonshu.

Iru is the Japanese verb meaning to roast. In this case, it refers to a dry roasting of leaves that have been steeped in soy sauce. Unfortunately, you will not get the same results from the small kinome leaves bought at the market. Use at least four or five cups of picked leaves for best results. There are no amounts specified, simply adjust as necessary.

sansho leaves
koikuchi shoyu (dark soy sauce)

1) Pick the leaves off of the stems of the sansho. You may include the flowers or the berries if they are on the branch. The leaves shouldn’t need washing.

2) Place the leaves in a bowl and cover with soy sauce. Soak overnight.

3) Drain the leaves and set aside the soy sauce for later use — it is good with sashimi or in simmered dishes.

4) In a pan larger than you think you will need, place the drained leaves and roast over a low flame, stirring constantly with a wooden paddle.

5) When the leaves become fairly dry and the pan’s bottom has become very dark, transfer the leaves to a clean pan and continue roasting. When the leaves are completely dried out, set aside to cool. Store unrefrigerated in a lidded jar. Keeps very well.