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Japanese cuisine celebrated at Worlds of Flavor

Chefs from around the world share trends and techniques

Chef David Chang lamented the fact that good katsuobushi was so hard to come by in the United States.

The rock-hard smoked and dried skipjack tuna is shaved into fine flakes and used, along with kombu seaweed, to make dashi, the mother broth of Japanese cuisine.

Many gallons of dashi were made last weekend at The Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone Campus in St. Helena, Calif., where the 13th annual Worlds of Flavor conference focused on the cuisine of Japan.

Worlds of Flavor kicks off in Napa Valley
• Read Bret Thorn's observations from the Worlds of Flavor conference on his blog.

No doubt many of the 39 chefs visiting from Japan to present at the annual conference brought their own katsuobushi with them, but some of the participating American chefs disclosed their strategies for sneaking it into the country during visits to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Chang, instead, made his own. Sort of.

Chang, the chef-owner of New York’s much lauded Momofuku restaurants and Ma Pêche, steams pork tenderloin for an hour, and then he smokes it for six hours. Next he packs it in rice for three days so it can dry out and develop a flavorful mold.

“The idea came from koji mold which is used to make sake,” Chang told the conference attendees, referring to a mold that’s cultivated on rice and is necessary for the fermentation of Japan’s national alcoholic beverage.

Finally, he lets the pork sit for six months. “What you get is something that’s totally petrified,” and quite similar to katsuobushi, he said.

Chang showed the audience how he grated his invention, and used it instead of the dried skipjack to make dashi.

Dashi was of course just one aspect of Japan’s culinary heritage that was explored during the umami-packed, three-day conference.

Attendees saw how udon, the thick, chewy noodles of western Japan, was traditionally made by stomping on the dough. Yoshihiro Maeda, chef of the 269-unit chain Hanamaru Udon, explained that the stompers’ bodyweight was used to develop the gluten in the dough.

Attendees also watched soba expert Yoshinori Horii, the eighth-generation chef of Sarashina Horii restaurant in Tokyo, mix the dough for buckwheat noodles, and then roll them into a circle, transform the circle into a square by manipulating it onto a rolling pin at different angles, and then slice it into noodle strands 1.5 millimeters thick.

Anthropologist Theodore Bestor discussed the phenomenon of the legendary Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, and White House pastry chef Bill Yosses showed how the Japanese visual esthetic influenced his desserts.

Sushi and sashimi were explored at length, of course, and in one of the breakout sessions Yousuke Imada, chef-owner of Kyubey, a restaurant in Tokyo that specializes in raw fish, implored attendees not to dip pristine pieces of fish, dabbed with fresh wasabi, into soy sauce — a common misstep in sushi bars.

He also explained that, although fish made into sushi should be cold, the rice should be warm — the same temperature as the human body.

American participants in the conference took liberties with Japanese tradition, including Takashi Yagihashi, the chef-owner of Takashi in Chicago, who added ground duck to dashi and used a coffee siphon to infuse the broth with the Southeast Asian aromatic herbs lemon grass and kaffir lime leaf.

Tim Cushman of O Ya in Boston made fried-oyster sushi, dipping Kumamotos in buttermilk, and then coating them in flour, Parmesan cheese and garlic before frying them and putting them and a dab of wasabi on circular disks of sushi rice wrapped in nori seaweed.

He topped that with an aïoli flavored with the Japanese citrus-pepper condiment yuzu-kosho.

Douglas Keane, the chef of Cyrus in nearby Healdsburg, Calif., imparted what he called an “earthy” quality to dashi by flavoring it with leeks, garlic, turnips and the shavings of matsutake mushrooms.

He also spiked the broth with sake and its sweeter cousin, mirin, arguing that adding acid to a dish intensified its umami — the agreeable protein taste that dashi brings to Japanese cuisine.
He admitted that his approach was “not necessarily accepted” by the Japanese.

Former Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl, who raised eyebrows in 1993 as The New York Times’ restaurant critic by giving three stars to Honmura An, a soba noodle restaurant, in her first-ever review for the paper, traced the history of Japanese food in America.

She credited kaiseki, the elaborate, seasonal-ingredient-focused meals derived from the Japanese tea ceremony, as being the inspiration for both French degustations and American tasting menus. She also said it wasn’t a coincidence that the current popularity in the United State of street food from around the world emerged at the same time as the first American generation to be raised on sushi came of age.

She said the next hurdle in the Japanese revolution in America was texture.

She pointed out that slippery Japanese delicacies like natto, a type of fermented soybean, and nagaimo, a Japanese tuber with a seemingly inexhaustible capacity to exude slime, remained unappreciated by most Americans.

She said that when the average American could enjoy nagaimo as much as she did, the Japanese revolution would be complete.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].

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