Sunday, August 05, 2007

I think I'm turning Japanese, I really think so

Inspired by the brief visit to Japan earlier this year, we decided we'd do a Japanese themed dinner party last weekend. Japanese ingredients are really easy to find in London, particularly in the Japan Centre in Piccadilly (which even offers a home delivery service), or most of the shops in China Town. Most large supermarkets even stock sushi rice and seaweed sheets these days.

Anyway, Ant and I decided that sushi and sashimi would be the order of the evening. I made a brief detour en route to work a couple of days before the big event, and spoke with the very helpful fishmongers at Applebee's Fish near the delectible Borough Markets. They said they would have sashimi-grade salmon and tuna in stock on Saturday. Apparently it's best to check in advance that they'll have the very freshest of fish the day you need it.

I decided on the Friday afternoon that I wanted to expand the meal to include a few side dishes, and surprised Ant with the er...amended meal plan. Let me just clarify that neither of us had individually or collectively prepared a meal like this. Nothing like a meal with high risk and a high degree of complexity to be served to unsuspecting friends:

- Tuna and salmon sushi, sashimi
- Inside out California rolls and maki rolls
- layered sushi
- shiitake mushrooms simmered in soy
- beans with sesame miso dressing
- edamame beans
- spinach with sesame dressing
- bite-sized pepper steaks
- pickled ginger
- black sesame icecream served wth Pocky sticks
- sake. of course!

On the Friday night, I began early, and started to prepare the black sesame icecream, because it was one of the few things we could do in advance. The smell of toasted sesame seeds filled the kitchen. It sort of smelt like a nutty, coffee smell. I'd never really toasted them before. The recipe I was using (not the link above, but similar), required the mixture to be stirred a couple of times after it had started to freeze so it all remained creamy. It sort of resembled the colour of Cookies & Cream icecream without the really chunky bits. Even in liquid form, it tasted pretty good. I was happy to have one dish on the way!

We set off early on Saturday morning to collect the fresh goodies. Borough Markets was comparatively empty at that time of the day. By 11am, the place is teeming - so it was good to be in and out before the hoards arrived. Applebee's had brought in a huge batch of wild Scottish salmon, smaller and less fatty than farmed salmon, but deliciously fresh and lean. I bought a whole fish, which the fishmonger then gutted and filleted for me - thank god. They know exactly what they're doing, and it looks extremely messy. I'm a wuss when it comes to fish blood and guts. I also bought two chunky tuna steaks. I found a nice chunk of something that looked like rib eye steak for the bite sized pepper steaks, and we bought a heap of vegies for the various salads and side dishes.

We were home by 11am, and literally did not stop cutting, cooking, rolling and arranging food until 7pm.

Japanese food is not at all difficult to make - it's just fiddly and each recipe usually requires a couple of stages of preparation. Sushi rice took the longest time to prepare, because it needs to be washed several times, allowed to sit before it cooks, cooked and then cooled before you can work with it. See my previous post on the joys of sushi rice!

And that really needed to be done first, so that we could use it in the various dishes.

The shiitake mushrooms simmered in soy was an interesting dish. It used dried shiitake mushrooms, dashi (a fishy kinda stock which I'd made from dried seaweed and katsuobushi, which are dried bonito flakes), mirin (a stock, distilled alcohol flavoured seasoning), sake, soy sauce and dark brown sugar. After I'd reconstituted the dried mushrooms in warm water, I pretty much just chucked them into the rest of the mixed ingredients and let them simmer for an hour. It was a shame I only used one packet - they were yummy!

The layered sushi was also an interesting spin on the traditional rolled sushi and/or nigiri sushi pieces. It used a sheet of seaweed on the bottom layer, piled with a layer of rice - flattened, topped with a sheet of smoked salmon, then repeated with another layer of seaweed, rice and smoked salmon and topped with yet another seaweed sheet, to create a 3-coloured, layered sushi. It was also chopped into squares, which breaks with the traditional shape. Each piece was topped with wasabi mayonnaise - a simple mixture of wasabi and Japanese mayonnaise that created a tangy, less vicious version of the infamous nose-rattling wasabi.

The rest of the preparation went pretty much without hitch (well, er, there may have been one or two tense moments, and a couple of sharp intakes of breath...), although it took much longer than we'd anticipated to roll all the rolls and arrange the sushi. We tried to be as pedantic about presentation and layout as the Japanese are.

In anticipation of the party, I had been accumulating a range of little Japanese bowls and plates. Having had the full monty Japanese meal in March, I wanted to attempt to create a Japanese table with pretty little bowls and platters. The Japan Centre has a reasonable selection of crockery, and also useful stuff like disposable chopsticks - yes, unenvironmentally friendly I know, but the pile of washing up was already mountainous....

Funnily enough, when it was all laid out, it didn't look like enough food or effort to have sustained 2 people each working continuously for about 7 hours. We also had miles of fish left over beyond what we actually laid out, and enough sushi rolls to make a substantial lunch and dinner the next day, but hey...better to have too much than not enough.

Our guests eventually arrived, and we got stuck into the food pretty soon after. I was keen for the fish not to sit around for too long! We cracked the sake and began to eat. The fish was delicious - definitely good quality, really fresh, and easy to eat raw. The boys had wasabi ironman championships and we all picked our way through the various tastes, textures and flavours. By all accounts, it was pretty good.

A couple of guests were slightly dubious about the sesame icecream - until they tasted it. Not a drop was left in their bowls, and we did a round of seconds. I had made a double batch of icecream on the basis that it was such a hassle, and on the remote chance it was good, I wanted to be able to serve everyone reasonable amounts of it.

Anyway, the party continued and we ate Japanese for a few meals afterwards. It was a fun night, and definitely worth the effort. Thanks to Ant (for his ever-present patience), Anne, Andrew, Kinga, Darren and Clare for being brave enough to try my untested Japanese experiment.

Here's how it looked before we demolished it.

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