Most people have some kind of obsession – some good, others not so much. For Shuichiro Kawaguchi it has always been food. He loves to cook and with the results, he hopes to charm – or simply get you to smile. DIANE DE BEER who has tasted his extravagant cooking, discovers his latest passion – butternut. He shares his thoughts on what he regards as a remarkable ingredient with which to experiment:
When Shuichiro Kawaguchi (Minister-Counsellor and Deputy Head of Mission at the Japanese Embassy) talks about food, it always makes you smile.
Such is his passion, one that was cultivated by his mother from an early age, that his stories and his obsession – the best kind – have that effect. In fact, he says he is motivated to cook for others because it puts a smile on their face. And he certainly does that – in conversation or with his cuisine.
He was raised in a family where food played a key role. His love of cooking was encouraged by his mother while his father loved tasty food. Once he got married, his passion for cooking became even stronger because as his family grew, he always had an audience and they kept smiling.
Not only is he an extraordinary cook, but in Africa, Japanese cuisine (perhaps sushi aside) is not that familiar and as he cooks with a French and Japanese flair combined, the results are quite stunning.
Speaking to him recently about his latest mission, it didn’t take long before I was completely hooked. This time his fancy is butternut. “I was motivated by a Japanese friend during a Facebook conversation when they insisted butternut didn’t taste good.” That’s his explanation and he is sticking to that.
He wanted to prove that she was wrong, and he knew with the specific qualities of butternut – sweet, creamy and rich – he had more than enough to work with.
It’s not that butternuts aren’t cultivated in Japan, but they’re not as good as what he has found here and they’re very expensive. He can talk with authority, because for the past year starting on July 24 last year, he has invented a new recipe with butternut as the star, daily, and has up to now, collected more than 230 recipes.
He has taken inspiration from others, but when he works from a recipe, and that’s not often, he makes it his own.
And when you ask him about the length of time this fancy is going to last, he smiles and says, as long as it takes.
He reminded me of Faust’s pact with the devil and says that he will go up to 800 or the perfect tasting dish, whichever comes first. Only then will he consider publishing a book of butternut recipes and turn his food flavours in a different direction.
He and his wife have five children, two whom are currently with them in Tshwane, and he concedes that they might be bored with butternut, but he hasn’t quite achieved the brilliance he is hoping will conclude this project.
It started with the ubiquitous butternut soup and his version persuaded him to keep going. “I started really liking the taste and was determined to prove my point,” he explains.
All his experiments have detailed recipes as well as pictures of the process concluding with the finished dish. The quality is fine dining and his family don’t have much to complain about. Few of us would argue if this is the quality of food placed in front of us – even if all of it has butternut at its centre.
Talk to him about the diversity of the dishes and he shows a picture of butternut cookies and talks about pickled butternut which has a sweet and sour taste. Every dish is given a name like (the Munch) Scream or Flower World, Self-Portrait or Sunset in Pretoria, the names as imaginative as the project.
He has also after the number of recipes cooked, become the authority on butternut. He buys in bulk at his local greengrocer because it’s so much cheaper and prefers a young squash because it is less sweet and the texture much more flexible. The more mature the butternut, the sweeter the flesh and the more fragile, which is also useful for specific recipes.
You can even eat it fresh, he says. What he does is slice it very thinly and then dips it into salt. He also likes baking it whole, almost char-grilling at a high temperature, which results in deliciously soft butternut which he eats simply with olive oil and white balsamic vinegar. Because it’s not a vegetable with a strong taste, salt should be used sparingly, but that also means that it adapts easily to different taste experiments.
He has no problems inventing new recipes because his years of cooking have provided a great memory bank on which to draw and he does grocery shopping on an almost daily basis which further invigorates his imagination.
On previous postings, when he was in Tanzania, he had his own television cooking programme and in Finland he cooked for a Finnish/Japanese society to further expose them to Japanese cuisine and extend his own cooking experiences.
Having been a guest at an eight-course dining extravaganza at his home, it is evident that this is his life’s mission. “It’s like a music concert,” says the Minister who is also an accomplished violinist, “only, I entertain with food.”
If you want to try one of Kawaguchi recipes, here’s a simple but delicious sample:
Almond Butternut Cake:
1 Cup Butternut puree
Almond flour 200g
Wheat Flour 150g
A few drops of Almond essence