DIANE DE BEER
If a Japanese ambassador brings his own chef (and, as a bonus, the chef’s wife who is also his assistant in the kitchen), you can know there’s something interesting happening both in the kitchen and at the table. We have been privileged (myself and chef/wine connoisseur Hennie Fisher) to be part of these Japanese dinner adventures a few times:
Because Ambassador Norio Maruyama arrived in this country almost at the same time as Covid19, he has had to keep his wits about him when trying to fulfil his mandate. Sometimes there was nothing to do because lockdown prohibited all gatherings, but with the lifting of restrictions, he came up with the idea of hosting small dinner parties rather than large gatherings.
This, of course, especially for those of us not part of the diplomatic scene, was a perfect solution and one that worked brilliantly. Sometimes at the large ambassadorial events, the diplomatic corps gather for dinner talk and other guests are left dangling somewhat.
Yet with these small dinners, not only can the food be more splashy, but – especially, as in this instance, when your host is both a foodie and a wine lover (one with excellent knowledge of local wine, to our excitement) – the dinner can also turn into a huge learning as well as extravagant sensual experience.
From the first dinner (which I wrote, about in previous posting), we knew that not only did we discover new delights when presented with their amazing cuisine, but – especially we also lost our heart to the host and his chefs, Jun Suzuki and his wife Mutsumi.
Returning recently for a dinner, we both felt that because the chef was aware of our admiration for his food, he could relax and be more comfortable in what he presented us with. We are the kind of diners who like being surprised and discovering different levels of a cuisine we are getting to know. And with the excellent wine pairings, as well as detailed descriptions of each dish, it’s my favourite kind of meal. I’m getting nourishment of both the soul and senses – narrative and nurturing. What more could one possibly ask for?
And here some wine notes from wine connoisseur Hennie Fisher, who accompanied me on these dinners:
Often, people who love food also feverishly investigate and research beverages to enjoy along with their food. This includes wine, but also other drinks. In fact, the art of pairing food and wine seems to be an increasingly popular pastime. Ambassador Murayama, who loves wine, of course came to the right country to indulge his interest. One seldom visits someone’s house to be presented with wines from your own country that you know nothing about. You may not previously have drunk that exact wine, but at least, because you have close interaction with wine as an agri-product in South Africa, you generally know either the producer, farm, or estate where the wine originated. On different occasions, Ambassador Murayama brought out the big guns, local as well as international – one example is a sake from Ichinokura.
The ambassador was especially proud of a white wine made here in South Africa, by Stark Conde ‘Round Mountain’ Sauvignon Blanc, because the Japanese symbol for round mountain is the same as his surname, Maruyama. On another visit, we were served a barrel-selected Roussanne 2013 from Ken Forrester, which was probably one of the most exciting wines I ever had the pleasure to drink. A Storm Pinot Noir 2018 was also sublime. On yet another occasion we had a
Testalonga El Bandito Cortez, an orange wine by Elementis, followed by a Taaibosch 2018 Crescendo, and we ended the meal with some serious Japanese whiskies such as Hibiki Suntory, a 21-year-old whisky. We will miss the ambassador’s fine palate when he moves on to his next posting.
As on a previous occasion, we again started off with One Bite of Happiness, a title I love, and it’s exactly what you get. As pretty as a picture, the deep-fried tofu with yuzu was exquisite. This was followed by a Tataki of tuna which simply means the method (pounding in this instance) of preparation served on a dashi foam. You can’t fault the Japanese on fish – and that’s no exaggeration. Next was their delightfully inventive gooseberry salad, taking the place of the more traditional palate cleanser.
Duck yakatori style was the main and this was presented with great flair, to the guests’ absolute joy. And this being our first duck experience à la Japanese, it was quite splendid – and it had to be, not to disappoint after such a theatrical entrance.
Sweets started with an Amarula ice cream with the citrussy mikan and finally a work of art in the form of three sweet things: walnut, mochi (rice cake) and yokan (red bean paste).
Our appreciation was complete and we loved the way they paid homage to the host country with ingredients like the gooseberries and the Amarula.
For the second time in almost a month, we attended a Taste of Japan held annually at Wood and Fire in Brooklyn, as the guests of Ambassador Maruyama. This time Jun and Mutsumi stepped into the kitchen of the restaurant and with the help of yet another of my favourite chefs, Zane Figueiredo, produced an extraordinary tasting menu which was the perfect infusion of Japanese cuisine to satisfy both the novice and those of us who feel we have been introduced to their food by those who know and love it best.
The welcome snack of edamame beans with schichimi togarashi (a red pepper spice) is a staple on Japanese tables, familiar here but less frequently served. It’s a pity because it has that moreish quality which makes it difficult to stop and it’s healthy!
Okonomiyaki, another Japanese favourite and quite yummy, is a savoury pancake (almost pizza-like) and this was flavoured with green cabbage, beansprouts, kewpie (mayo), ginger, nori and otafuku sauce (close to our Wocestershire).
Noodles was next on the list with prawn served with a shiitake broth, assorted veggies and shiso (a mint herb) followed by a delicate arrangement of sashimi, including salmon, sea bass, and with a nod to the South Africans, Springbok carpaccio all with a dash of different Japanese condiments which just take it to another level.
Yakitori (either chicken or green beans with spring onion) was the last appetiser before the mains consisting of Katsu Curry, which included a choice of pork, chicken or aubergine with fukujinzuke (Japanese pickles) and short grain rice.
Most of the servings were small and with healthy food inherently part of Japanese cuisine, it was again a broad introduction to many Japanese ingredients and flavours in a meal that was delicately balanced and, as always, finished with a flourish of mochi and ice cream!
Soudai na (Magnifique)!