When KLM asked me if I wanted to take a Japanese cookery class a couple of weeks ago at Atsuko’s Kitchen in Shoreditch, I jumped at the chance.
My favourite events are the ones where you can roll your sleeves up and get stuck into an activity, preferably before then proceeding to eat and drink the results of that activity. Twelve months ago I did a fantastic class at L’atelier des Chefs where I cooked a Christmas dinner and earlier this year I spent a wonderful evening learning to mix some mindblowing gin cocktails at the London Cocktail Club. Gin and Christmas dinner are already two things I know a lot about however, whereas Japanese food is not.
I could eat my weight in salmon nigiri and tuna sashimi, but being a regular customer at Wasabi hardly means I understand what Japanese cooking is all about. It even occurred to me when I was on the way to the class quite how ignorant I am about Japanese geography and the nuances of the country’s regional culture in general. Fortunately we were there to find out about city of Fukuoka (a city KLM flies to, along with Tokyo and Osaka) and discover some of the culinary delights of the wider Kyushu region.
First we familiarised ourselves with the main flavours and ingredients we’d be working with (while sipping Japanese wine and nibbling on edamame beans), and then we got to work preparing four dishes.
The first was mizutaki nabe, a kind of hotpot with chicken meatballs. In Japanese houses the family often cooks together on a portable stove around the table, throwing everything into the nabe (pot) in the middle when the weather outside is chilly. To make the meatballs, you have to dice the chicken breast up really tiny. As hard as I tried, I was not very good at this — despite wielding a huge knife — but I gave it my best shot anyway. I was better at the next bit, which involved folding in egg, salt, potato starch and chives to bind the meatballs together.
The second meaty dish was buta no kakuni from Nagasaki, which translates as “square simmered”. It consisted of braised cubes of pork belly, which had been cooked in soy, sake and mirin. It was salty and soft and fatty and just melted in the mouth.
The final two dishes were served on the same plate, although one was significantly more exciting than the other in my humble opinion. Let’s face it, hitomoji no guruguru are always going to play second fiddle to suko zushi (that’s spring onion parcels with mustard and pressed sushi rice topped with seafood and omelettey noodle strips, for all the non-Japanese speakers out there).
I got very hands on when it came to the sushi making: pressing the sticky rice down into the tin, arranging the toppings, dividing up portions, shoving handfuls of the leftover sticky rice into my mouth… you know, all the important stuff. We started to run out of time a bit, so I sped through the last of the sushi assembling pretty much solo. Even though it wasn’t super neat, I was pretty proud of my handiwork.
I had a brilliant time at Atsuko’s and I was so grateful for the opportunity to dabble in the kitchen and wise up on Japanese cuisine in general. Here’s a basic version of one of the recipes I’ll definitely be trying again at home.
Mizutaki nabe (serves 4)
Ingredients for the meat balls:
400g chicken thigh fillets minced (has to be very fine, so maybe ask your butcher)
10g finely chopped chives
1 tsp of sea salt
¼ tsp ground black pepper
2 tsp grated ginger
1 tbsp katakuriko (potato starch)
Ingredients for the nabe:
150g firm tofu chopped into eight
½ Chinese cabbage, chopped
2 leeks, chopped
1 carrot, thinly sliced
4 mushrooms with stems removed
1 bunch wild rocket
1 litre of good-quality chicken stock
(If you ever need ingredients for Japanese cooking try the Japan Centre near Piccadilly Circus in London.)
1. Combine all the meatball ingredients together thoroughly in a bowl and set aside.
2. Heat the stock in a big pan and bring to the boil, then turn down to simmer.
3. Use two tablespoons to form the chicken into balls and drop them into the stock.
4. Add the rest of the ingredients and bring to the boil again.
5. Cover and cook until the meatballs are cooked all the way through (be sure to check the biggest one).
I’m ashamed to admit that I was narrow-minded enough to suppose that if I ever went to Japan, I would probably just go to Tokyo, and maybe make it as far as Kyoto and Mount Fuji. This goes against everything my travelling experience has taught me, which is to move off the tourist trail in search of a more unique and insightful experience. Kyushu, for example, has these beautiful sub-tropical paradise islands, as well as hot springs and national parks. I hope if I am ever lucky enough to go to Japan that I get to see, taste and explore the whole range of landscapes, food and cultural delights the country has to offer.