For me, discovering Japanese food was like being a reasonably good painter who suddenly finds a whole school of artists whose work is breathtaking. I had never looked beyond sushi when I won a haiku competition, the prize for which was a meal in a Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant in London. Going to Umu was like unlocking a secret. First, I literally couldn’t find the way in. There didn’t appear to be a door, though I knew I had the right address. I had to stand on the other side of the street and watch to see how other diners entered. One eventually came along, waved his hand over a sunken panel and the door opened. It was prophetic.
Umu is expensive but not glitzy. It is serene. The Japanese food experts I was with did the ordering… and it was a revelation. Each dish, served on plates and bowls of various textures, had a kind of quiet perfection, a completeness. There were expensive ‘wow’ dishes such as wagyu beef (which redefines the term ‘melting’) and a trembling custard of crab and ginger, but the dish I adored was the most simple: dashi, Japanese stock, with tofu that the chef had made himself. The tofu was like silk; the dashi like a liquid that had washed over seashells. As this meal went on, I became more and more happy. The best thing I get from my time in the kitchen is a gentle joy that things work, that dishes balance, come out harmoniously. But my cooking has big flavours and bright colours. Here was food that was quiet, that you approached in a micro eating style – you homed in on each texture, each colour – the tingle of a shiso leaf, the heat of a dab of wasabi. Appropriately, it was like eating a series of haiku.
You might think this was because I was in a Michelin-starred restaurant but, some months later, I dined with – and took cooking instruction from – a Japanese food photographer called Yuki Sugiura. It was a drab day, filled with pewter-coloured drizzle. Yuki is not quiet and Zen-like – she is warm and excitable – yet her flat had the same peace as the restaurant. There was a big jug of rosehips on the table and the place was uncluttered. I sat down to another meal where texture, colour, taste and balance were key. There was freshly made dashi, an octopus salad with rice vinegar, carrots with a black sesame paste that Yuki had energetically pounded in a suribachi (a Japanese mortar), crunchy sweet-pickled lotus root, a wooden drum of warm rice. The incredible thing, though, was the cooked chrysanthemums. They are a much-loved seasonal treat in Japan, so I sat on a rainy day in south London at a table redolent with the flavours, textures and colours of a Japanese autumn.
There are only a few Japanese dishes in my latest book, A Change of Appetite, and they have been changed to suit my kitchen – but I urge you to try more. In its use of vegetables and fish it’s a very healthy cuisine. And there is something in Japanese cooking that you can apply in your kitchen no matter what you’re making; it’s a particular psychological approach to food. There is an intense appreciation of detail. One of the tenets of Japanese cooking is to try to have balance across a meal. The ideal is to have five colours within one meal. Texture is vital and that doesn’t just come from the foods themselves, but from the way they are cooked. Again, the Japanese ideal is to include five different cooking methods in one meal, so you might have griddled, poached, steamed, braised and fried food all at once. I’m not suggesting you specifically do this, of course, but that you think about the various components of a meal, bearing in mind a contrasting variety of colours and textures.
There are also considerations of setting and attitude. I read about these in Washoku, a fascinating cookbook by Elizabeth Andoh, an American who went to live in Japan. Two rather elevated phrases, coined by Sen no Rikyū, the sixteenth century philosopher credited with refining the world of tea and the food served at the tea ceremony, sounded worth considering in all cooking. The first is ichi go, ichi é (one moment, one meeting) which is about creating pleasure at one particular meal, a fleeting but special experience of shared cooking and eating. The other, which rings even truer to me, is wabi sabi (charm of the ordinary), which is about the wonder of turning humble foodstuffs into simple but lovely meals (something that makes me happy on a daily basis).
All this is the antithesis of the worst Western eating where, starving and mindless, you sink your teeth hungrily into a fast food burger. I’m not saying we should all become Zen about food or try to apply Japanese culinary principles, but once you start cooking with more vegetables, leaves and grains there is a spirit in Japanese cooking – the attention to colour and texture – that makes you produce better food, and makes you eat it in a more mindful way. Eating is not just about sating appetite but about appreciating, with all your senses, what is put before you, and honouring the ingredients with which it is made. I know this sounds a little bit Californian for we no-nonsense and rather cynical Brits, but there is more to cooking and eating than ingredients and skill; there is an attitude that can make everything you serve, and everything you put in your mouth, taste better. And when you approach food this way, you eat less of it and you appreciate it more.
Now, if I could tap a little Japanese gong near your ear and give you a plateful of autumn chrysanthemums, I would.
14 – 16 Bruton Place
Tel: +44 (0)20 7499 8881
Thanks to Rob Whitrow for the photos.