What better way to explore a culture than through its cuisine?
After missing out on eating our way through new cities over the last year, “Good Morning America” Food asked chefs from around the globe to bring us into their kitchens and share a taste of their fare from afar.
Use this as your guide to explore a new culture and cuisine in three ways: In your own kitchen with the chef’s advice below; eating at a local restaurant in your neighborhood or city that specializes in these foods; and as a conversation starter once you have the opportunity to safely travel.
Our next destination — Japan — with chefs Atsushi “ATS” Kono and third-generation sushi chef Kunihide “Nakaji” Nakajima.
To start, we are taking a bite out of two century-old Japanese cooking styles that started out as street food and are now on fine dining menus: yakitori and edomae-style sushi.
Both chefs Kono and Nakajima were born, raised and trained in Japan before coming to the U.S. to further hone their craft and honor their heritage through food.
Essential principles, ingredients and flavors of Japanese cuisine
Chef Kono, who was born and raised in Saitama, Japan, told “Good Morning America” he thinks of three essential principles when it comes to how cuisine highlights the beauty Japanese culture.
They include: respect for ingredients and presenting them in the best way possible; cooking without waste; and seasonality and occasion: to be heavily influenced by the seasons — both what ingredients are in season and what dishes compliment the time of year — as well as to consider the occasion or setting.
Much like Kono, chef Nakajima who was born and raised in the Kanda neighborhood of Tokyo as a true “Edokko” — a child who comes from a lineage that spans at least three generations in Edo (Tokyo) — agreed that at its core, authentic “Japanese food is heavily affected by the seasons.”
“As a sushi chef, for example, there are certain ingredients and preparation styles based on which of the seasons we are in at the time,” he explained. “There are many flavors within Japanese cuisine, but for my work, I believe that the freshness and quality of the ingredients matter more than the actual ingredients.”
Flavor profiles and ingredients can vary by region and preparation, but Kono said: “I think the main signature flavor that makes Japanese cuisine is soy sauce. I can’t make good Japanese food without soy sauce — it’s like salt for all other kinds of cuisine.”
Traditional Japanese yakitori
As the executiive chef at Chikarashi Isso a pop-up at the Hotel 50 Bowery in New York City, Kono serves up traditional charcoal grilled skewers with a fine-dining flare that channels his upbringing in Saitama and culinary training to deliver a Kappo-style menu, in which a multi-course meal is left entirely to the chef. Kono presents an eclectic mix of dishes that best reflect his mastery behind the grill.
He said small Amish chickens sourced from local farms in Pennsylvania are the “star ingredient,” amplified by his “tare sauce that creates his signature yakitori flavor. It’s a thick sweet soy sauce — I have my own recipe I’ve been using for years.”
Nakajima has sharpened his unique culinary identity through the Tokyo style of cooking that he said originated in the days when refrigeration was not an option and “involves specific techniques of marinating, curing, broiling and preserving fish with salt and vinegar.”
The chef, whose career began at 18, worked his way through the ranks in Ginza and Shinjuku, before coming to New York in 1997 where he’s worked in an array of exclusive sushi establishments and last spring opened his debut namesake restaurant, Nakaji, fulfilling his father’s lifelong dreams for him.
“Here at Nakaji, we try to preserve these old-style techniques that have been passed down from generations,” he said. His family recipes include ingredients such as cured kohada, a small Japanese fish; anago, saltwater eel; and fresh tako, which is fresh octopus.
“The star of the show is always the fish so it’s important that the added seasoning or cooking method does not mask the original flavor of the fish,” Nakajima said.
Some of the common flavor profiles used in his cooking includes “zest from Ponzu citrus or vinegar citrus,” which he uses for a giant clam sashimi. “Another flavor I use is mustard miso marinade. I marinade firefly squids with miso sesame as an appetizer. Lastly, I braise cooked fish collar — “kama” — with a sweet red bean soy marinade.”
Japan on a plate: Respectful, Refined, Minimalist
“There are so many traditional manners for Japanese cuisine,” Kono said. “For example, how to cut the ingredients, pairing certain ingredients together, how to plate food which tends to be more minimalistic and how to present food to your guest.”
Back in Japan, Kono was influenced by Kyoto-style cuisine, which he said “respects local ingredients and the seasons” and “is known to be more strict in terms of the chef’s manners and presentation.”
Now, in New York, he said he’s “been creating…
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