Handling foreign cultures can be difficult yet rewarding, and the same applies in the world of cooking.
Kazuo Yamanaka, proprietor of Kogetsu, a Chinese restaurant in Tokyo's Ikenohata, reflected on the past, saying: "I wonder how deeply I have understood Chinese cuisine. I have kept asking myself this."
If Japanese cuisine can be summed up as expressing the aesthetic of subtraction that values simplicity, Chinese cuisine is about addition. The more sumptuous a dish, the more complex the ingredients and cooking procedures.
There was a time when Yamanaka was worried that this characteristic would diminish the innate strength and flavor of the ingredients.
He said he was able to free himself from this concern when he reached his 40s. He understood that the Doctrine of the Mean set forth by Confucianism could also be applied to cooking. Although this concept is often mistaken to suggest an innocuous mean value, it is an active stance to strike a balance after learning everything there is between both ends of things.
Ingredients from the sea and mountain are used in a dish, while all "five flavors" encompassing sweet, spicy, sour and more are added and harmonized.
"In Chinese cuisine, the ingredients complement each other to create a flavor on a different level. My knowledge and experience have become linked, and I can now offer my unique style," said Yamanaka.
One of the pillars of his style is "shoku-yojo," or "health through food." To help customers build up physical strength and get in shape through meals, he uses a wide range of ingredients, from in-season vegetables to rarities such as bear’s paw.
"The bear paw dish reflects people’s wish to make the strong power of the bear their own through eating. We broaden the range of ingredients to infinity and seek ways to turn them into tasty fare. This zeal lies at the root of 'health through food.’"
A project to compile an encyclopedia listing the hundreds of ingredients and their effects on health, which he has studiously researched, is also under way.
As an accessible example of "health thorough food," Yamanaka introduces lotus root stuffed with sticky rice simmered in sweet sauce.
The lotus root and dates are considered to nourish and increase blood volume. They are also said to prevent the skin from drying.
The unique smell and texture of the lotus root go well with the tender sticky rice. Although it takes a while to cook, take the time to enjoy this prized dessert.INGREDIENTS (Serves four)
1 to 2 sections lotus root
1/2 "go" (one "go" is around 180 ml) sticky rice (mochigome)
8 dried dates (hoshi-natsume)
Some wolfberries (kuko-no-mi)
200 grams sugar
Rinse sticky rice and drain in sieve.
Peel lotus root and thinly slice off both ends of sections. Stuff rice into holes of lotus root. Place cut-off ends as lids and secure by sticking in toothpicks.
Place lotus root in pot with dried dates, 1.5 liters water and sugar. Place on heat and bring to a boil. Turn heat lower and simmer for 2 to 3 hours until lotus root turns tender with a certain texture. Add wolfberries and bring to a boil again. Remove from stove and cool.
Cut lotus root into 1-cm-thick rounds. Serve with dates, wolfberries and pour sauce on top.
Dried dates and wolfberries can be purchased at the Chinese-ingredient section of large supermarkets and department stores as well as stores dealing in dried fruits or confectionery ingredients. They are eaten as is with tea or in the case of dates, decocted and drank as tea.
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From The Asahi Shimbun’s Watashi no Ryori column