FLAIR AND PLAYFULNESS CREATE CUISINE PERFECTION TO CELEBRATE JAPANESE CULTURE

PICTURES: HENNIE FISHER

When the Japanese Ambassador invites you to lunch and there’s no specific directive, you pay attention. DIANE DE BEER gives you some table talk:

Perfectly placed Japanese sweetness.

As my dealing with the Japanese have been mainly about their beautiful country, where I lost a piece of my heart, and their magnificent cuisine, which I still know very little about but am learning step by step, I was excited.

Instinct told me I should take along my chef friend Hennie Fisher, who shares my obsession with all things food and Japanese – and he takes fantastic pictures.

I was right, and delighted when Ambassador Norio Maruyama received us and we discovered we were the only guests on the day. That meant personal attention and  ̶  we suspected  ̶  a spectacular meal.

We had no idea. I hadn’t met the ambassador before so I didn’t know that he had a specific interest in food, and is also a marvellous storyteller. He told us that he had only arrived a year before Covid and when the pandemic hit these shores, he had to come up with innovative plans.

Dining companions Hennie Fisher, Ambassador Norio Maruyama and Diane de Beer.

He is in the fortunate position of having a fantastic chef, and his wife as his assistant, in his employ. When he was leaving for South Africa, a friend of his suggested he check out a young chef who was in the process of opening his own restaurant in Tokyo. Maruyama persuaded Jun Suzuki and his wife Mutsumi to accompany him to South Africa, and after a few hours in the ambassador’s company, I know his powers of persuasion are impressive.

What he decided was instead of trying to host large functions in these hectic times, he would invite small parties to dine at his home in Waterkloof. He happens to have magnificent views and of course, the secret ingredient, a chef and his partner who are willing and able to play. How clever of him to allow these young ones to experiment with their country’s cuisine with such spectacular results.

Cold brewed green tea.

Maruyama explains that because of their relatively new emperor (since 2019), the current theme of the country is beautiful harmony. And as ambassadors do, he has decided with these meals to incorporate it in a way that honours both Japan and South Africa – hence the harmony between the different cuisines.

What that means is that while there is a strong Japanese influence and theme running through the menu, it is combined with food flavours and dishes we’re familiar with. This was a tasting menu with the added flourish of a green tea pairing. A silky smooth Sake, and a couple of South African wines, also with a particular story, were included.

Even my wine connoisseur had not hear of the Stark-Condé winery and the first wine offered, Round Mountain (a sauvignon blanc) is actually the translation of Ambassador Maruyama’s surname. “The owner’s grandmother was Japanese and the wine was named in honour of her surname!”. This was followed by their rich cabarnet sauvignon, which was as impressive, but the focus of the day was the green teas, which were all cold brewed, a method which originated in Japan.

Just like the superior sake we were served as an aperitif, we have all had our own versions of green tea, but nothing to compare with what the Japanese themselves serve you. Each one is carefully selected to go with each particular tasting. It added to the overall taste as well as intrigue of the masterful menu.

I can’t think of many things I enjoy more than being served the food of a particular country by someone who is a specialist and then to have an expert explain everything you’re savouring from beginning to end. That’s soul food for me and the best way to get to know a particular country’s cuisine!

They started us off with something they named One Bite Happiness of which there were two sample tastes. The first was the Reiwa Monaka, a rice wafer that appears cheekily more like a French macaron filled with duck rillettes and topped with a Japanese spice called kuroschichimi. Paired with a one-bite Kobucha, a green tea beverage using dried seaweed and coagulated with a seaweed-based ingredient. In different fashion, both captured the essence of Japan in the fine detail and the delicate taste.

This was followed by something more familiar, or so we thought, but the Salmon mi-cuit, Yuzu (Japanese citrus best described as tart and fragrant) flavoured, is an extremely slow- and low-cooked salmon. It was melt-in-the-mouth.

This was followed by a green salad with Hoozuki  ̶  Cape gooseberrie, which the ambassador explained, are regarded as a fruit in South Africa, and a vegetable back home in Japan. The compromise in the salad was perfect and pretty.

The meat of choice was a beef fillet with Kyoto miso (soy bean paste) with the meat thoroughly cooked first, then roasted topped with miso and roasted again together with leeks. Stone-milled sansho (a citrusy Japanese pepper) is sprinkled carefully as a final touch. It had a spectacularly robust Japanese flavour because of the flavouring.

To complete the main tasting, there was a Japanese-style pasta combined with fermented tuna and seasoned with Ume (Japanese plum), dried fish flakes and finished off with nori, all sparingly and subtly done and served in a spectacular dish. It’s all about the flavours, which make this Italian staple their own.

A Yamogi chiffon cake with Anko.

The sweet piece de resistance is a Yamogi (Japanese herb) chiffon cake accompanied by Anko (sweet bean paste). Light and airy as they are traditionally, yet in colour and taste, quite unique. The sensational tasting concluded as it started with two small bites in perfect harmony with a walnut mochi (tapioca) and a matcha coated cashew nut, so perfectly served as if offered to a fairy queen.

It was simply extraordinary and just the most exquisite meal to have in a mid-week breakaway lunch. And apart from the food, the plating and the presentation was  breathtaking.

Meeting the kitchen artists, dressed in kitchen couture perfectly suited for what I imagine a Japanese kitchen would need, was wonderful. We didn’t expect them to be quite so young, but in reflection, I thought the meal showcased exactly that.

The stylish couple Chef Jun Suzuki and his wife Mutsumi

The thing about young creatives in any artistic endeavour is that they show respect for what has come before and they honour it, but they also play around to reinvent in a manner that shows their personality and reflects the times – and that’s what keeps us interested.