Kazuo Yamanaka, owner of Chinese restaurant Kogetsu in Tokyo's Ikenohata district, began his training as a cook at Shisen Hanten in Roppongi, which he joined after studying Chinese history in university.
The Japanese executive chef of the restaurant trained under Kenmin Chen, the late master chef of Chinese cuisine. It was a busy place that offered set menus for lunch and banquet dishes at night.
No one taught him a thing in the kitchen. His task in the first year was washing dishes. He would sample the leftover seasonings and memorize the range of flavors. In his second year, he washed the pots, following the movements of the grand chef who wielded the pots next to him. "You cannot get close to cooking if you just do what you are told to do. I had a genuine desire to learn the trade quickly," said the 59-year-old chef.
Yamanaka was allowed to hold the kitchen knife in his third year. Soon after, he was told to cook meals for staff members.
"If I served a dish with chili sauce, the grand chef would eat it and give me advice. When I think back, I was receiving lessons from him."
After a full three years, he was told to "work on the hot pots starting tomorrow." To be able to offer dishes you had seasoned means you are on your own as a cook. When he began to stand in front of the stove every day, Yamanaka became aware of the finer aspects of cooking.
"Why do we use this ingredient? Why choose this heat level? I was able to cook, but I wasn’t sure of the purpose," he said.
He began to study cooking procedures that would become his life's work.
On his days off, he frequented specialized bookshops in Tokyo's Kanda-Jimbocho area in search of cookbooks from China.
"Back in the 1980s in China, there was a move to create cooking-related faculties at universities and hand down cooking methods in texts. So the timing was good for my studies."
The names of the dishes are a combination of the characters for the ingredients and cooking method. But, depending on the character used, "simmered dishes" could range from dishes simmered in light soup to those in which a thick soup is used.
Yamanaka tried to unravel the mystery of dishes by thinking about what the characters stood for. Although one character generally stands for stir-frying over high heat, it is also used in dishes cooked over low heat. He consulted documents and decided that the key was to draw out the aroma.
This week he introduces "pork filet stir-fried with coriander." The dish offers a refreshing sour-spicy flavor accentuated with pepper. Diners are meant to enjoy the tender pork filet and the highly aromatic coriander.
200 grams pork filet
1 bunch coriander (kosai)
10 cm green onion (naganegi)
1 clove garlic
1 tsp Chinese black vinegar (or Japanese black vinegar if unavailable)
2 Tbsp soup (chicken broth and others)
Finely slice pork filet. Mix 1.5 Tbsp each of katakuriko starch and water. Mix thoroughly with meat.
Tear leaves off coriander and set aside. Cut stems into 3-cm pieces. Cut green onion into fine strips 3 cm long. Finely slice garlic. In a small bowl, mix Chinese black vinegar, 1/4 tsp salt, a generous amount of pepper, soup, a small amount of MSG (umami seasoning) and 1 Tbsp sesame oil.
Cook meat briefly in oil by first heating the oil in a pot to 160 degrees. Add pork slices and loosen with chopsticks. When the surface color changes, remove and drain oil. This procedure, called "abura-doshi" (run through oil), allows the ingredients to be cooked evenly and helps to make the meat tender.
Pour a bit of oil in a pot, stir-fry green onion, garlic and coriander stems briefly. Add pork filet and mixed seasonings and stir-fry. Serve and top with coriander leaves.
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From The Asahi Shimbun’s Watashi no Ryori column