Japanese cuisine is so varied that to even fit the basics into one post would be a gargantuan task. So I will restrict myself to what I tried as part of the new Bento Box introduced by Monsoon at The Park Bangalore. The Bento Box is ahem…a box (sheepish grin), that holds a single portion meal of rice, cooked fish or meat along with pickled vegetables. It is the Japanese version of our lunch dabbas, albeit carefully prepared and presented (as is with everything Japanese)!
The Japanese have created an art form, even with something as simple as a lunch box. Bento’s can range from the simple arrangement of food to the more complex ‘Kyraben’ where the items are arranged to look like popular Japanese cartoon figures or ‘Oekakiben’ where the food is arranged to form a picture. The Bento boxes itself can range from beautiful black lacquered boxes, shiny metal boxes to the more modest and convenient disposable microwave boxes. Japanese homemakers spend a considerable amount of time making Bento’s for their kids and they even have competitions to judge the most beautiful Bento. (I shudder to imagine how much time that must take up everyday – especially with our harried schedules and workloads!)
I opted for the non-veg Bento and we started the meal with a Miso Soup. This is essentially a clear broth (Dashi – stock made with dried kelp, sardines, tuna or shitake mushrooms) spiked with Miso paste (generally fermented soy bean paste) topped off with your choice of ingredients. Here it was seaweed and bean curd. Now miso is an acquired taste (fermented things generally are – think stinky but also think Beer J). I personally love the salty, smokey, tangy taste of miso. It is also known for the Umami it packs – essentially a flavor punch or as people like to call it ‘The sixth taste’. This is supposed to heighten all other tastes.
The Bento Box arrived – a beautiful black lacquered box complete with a bright red lid. Red and Black can be such a striking combination! And then I opened it and smiled. Everything looked so fresh and pleasing to the eye. Our Bento box came lined with banana leaves and I’m not sure that is traditional, but it sure made the food stand out! Here is a quick lowdown on each of the elements.
I tried the Sashimi first because I didn’t want the delicate flavors to be marred by other cooked/ sauced offerings in the box. Many people use Sushi and Sashimi interchangeably but there is a world of difference between the two. Sashimi refers to any preparation of raw fish. The fish needs to be absolutely fresh and slicing the fish itself is an art complementary to the serving of sashimi. The raw fish is then placed over a bed of garnishes – in this case, slivers of daikon or asian radish. You are served wasabi and soy sauce on the side along with pink pickled ginger. The Wasabi not only adds some heat to the fish, but is also believed to be useful in killing harmful bacteria and parasites that could be present in raw seafood. The Sake Sashimi here was a Salmon sashimi and I am happy to say it was absolutely fresh. The slices could have been a tad thinner, but that’s just a small gripe. Now, I’m no Japanese food expert so I can’t resolve the debate of whether to mix the wasabi with the soy or just dab the wasabi to the ends of the chopstick while savoring the sashimi. You can try both methods and tell me which one works for you!
I got back to eating the Bento now and tried the Kani Salad. This was a crabstick salad dressed with Japanese mayo and sesame oil. It also came highlighted with small orange fish roe which gave it crunch and texture. I also sensed a certain spice hitting my palate and was told that was ‘Shichimi Togarashi’ – and then my day took a most interesting turn. I loved the tangy, spicey, crunchy and slightly chaat like taste of this and was definitely intrigued to know if this was Japanese or just something that is added to make it appeal to the Indian palate which desires spice!
The chef told me that it was THE Japanese seasoning and was an amalagamation of seven different spices. Togarashi means red chilli pepper (or chilli powder) and when this is combined with ground schezuan pepper (sansho), ginger, black and white sesame seed, hemp seed and roasted orange peel and finally seaweed (nori) – it results in Shichimi Togarashi. This bento was special in that it had a separate compartment for the seasoning and the chef explained that most Indians requested for it to spice up their meal. Blasphemy to the Japanese I’m sure, but atleast the spice is still Japanese! (I went and picked up a bottle of the shichimi togarashi from Godrej Nature’s Basket soon after – I intend to use it on Green Mango slices. Sue me! :P)
Tempura is something that everyone has a palate for – it’s deep fried! The trick with the Japanese deep fry is the extremely light batter that they use. The batter is made just a few minutes before the actual frying to ensure the gluten is not activated in the flour and the batter remains light but not chewy. We had the Ebi Tempura or the Prawn Tempura. Three large, perfectly golden fried beauties – if only they had been a little light handed with the salt, it would have been perfect.
The Tori Teriyaki or Chicken in teriyaki sauce is a crowd favourite – most pan-asian restaurants make it a point to feature this on their menu. The technique involves yaki or basting the broiled meat with a marinade of soy, mirin and sugar resulting in teri or a glaze. Of course the Americans have reduced any dish with the teriyaki marinade as Teriyaki.