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(Not Yet) Cooking Off the Cuff: Gearing Up for Fermentation

Just 36 hours ago, Jackie and I got back from three and a half weeks in Hong Kong and Japan, full of new and renewed taste memories that will surely influence what we cook and eat at home.
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Just 36 hours ago, Jackie and I got back from three and a half weeks in Hong Kong and Japan, full of new and renewed taste memories that will surely influence what we cook and eat at home. Our first few meals, however, will be old non-Asian standbys: There'll be no seaweed-infused broths for a little while as we reestablish our dining routine.

But once we settle in to our former habits, there are several things I'll want to explore in the kitchen. These include really good tofu along the lines of what we ate on our trip: not just perfect in its variety of textures, but tasting clearly of beans. I'm not confident that I'll find this in a store, so I may have to experiment with making it from scratch - not an impossible thing to do. Another ingredient is iburi-gakko, a thin variety of daikon radish that's been pickled, then smoked - I'm sure I'll find some in one of New York's Japanese grocery stores.

I'll also be tinkering with my rice cookery: Rice almost invariably comes as the final savory course in a fancy Japanese meal, and on this trip we had some delicious variants, including a couple featuring fresh early-spring bamboo shoots (for which I imagine I'll substitute corn later in the summer) and one in which ultra-thin slices of beef were laid on top of the rice for its final minutes of cooking, then broken up into shreds and stirred in with the rice paddle before serving: the whole dish had a marked beefy aroma and flavor (from the fat in good part) but without the use of meat broth. This was at Jimbocho Den, a "modern kaiseki" restaurant that I recommend with enthusiasm.

One specific dish I might make in a modified form is from the Michelin-three-star restaurant Lung King Heen in the Four Seasons hotel, Hong Kong: an elegant take on soy-cooked pork knuckles. These had even more flavor than the kind you'd eat in a low dive and were cooked with uncommon care - and were nearly boneless, apart from one bone in each tender, gelatinous piece to remind you of what you were eating.

High on my list is not a food but a process: fermentation - done both at home and by professionals. In Tokyo, we had a couple of very good walking tours organized by American expatriate Carl Kay of Tokyo Way, which offers both group tours and the kind of individualized itineraries we followed. After the first, we were taken to the extraordinary restaurant Shiojiri Jozojo (1-45-13 Tomigaya, Shibuya Ku; +81 3 6407 2362), whose engaging chef, Nobuaki Fushiki, has written a number of cookbooks - in Japanese - focusing on fermentation and is a well known exponent of its techniques. Apart from making all his own fermented sauces and pastes, such as soy sauce, just about everything Mr. Fushiki serves has been modified by enzymatic action to some degree, even seafood for sashimi - which most of us think of as needing to be fresh out of the water. Flavors and textures are changed and intensified, but everything remains true to its nature: After a few days of controlled fermentation, raw shrimp retained their dense, almost sticky texture, but were even tastier and more tender than when fresh - not at all weird.

The whole meal was fascinating and delicious (with naturally-produced sakes chosen by Mr. Fushiki and by one of our dining companions, sake expert Sébastien Lemoine). Apart from bread-baking and one or two forays into sauerkraut and pickle making, I'm new to fermentation. That meal was a call to action, however, and I've just bought a copy of Sandor Katz's book The Art of Fermentation to try to get a handle on the process.

In the meantime, however, I've opened a can of San Marzano tomatoes and put them on to cook down into a sauce. Because our first home-cooked meal has to be pasta, doesn't it?

Gearing Up For Fermentation