Adam Liaw’s recent Japanese journey revealed
an incredibly diverse culinary landscape that
seamlessly blends the past with the present.
Published Selector Spring 2013
When Selector last caught up with Adam Liaw he’d just launched his first cookbook, Two Asian Kitchens, after winning the second series of MasterChef Australia. Since then, he’s taken to the small screen again as one of three hosts of SBS TV’s Destination Flavour. Such is his popularity, Adam has gone out on his own with an offshoot of the series, Destination Flavour Japan.
Adam’s love of Japanese food took hold when he spent seven years working in Tokyo. But while he describes the city as, “the world’s best food destination”, he recognises that it’s just a part of the Japanese food scene.
For the series, Adam travelled the length of the country to portray a complete picture of Japanese food.
“We’ve looked into everything from the very top Michelin-starred places to street food, fishermen, farmers and home cooks”, he explains. “Japanese food is so much more varied than sushi and tempura and although we’ve looked at a lot of the traditional things, we’ve also spent a lot of time on food in modern Japan.”
In terms of the contemporary take on Japanese food, Adam adds, “One of the really strong themes that came out while we were travelling was just how many of the people we met who were actively trying to preserve their culture through food, while still accepting new things.
Japanese cuisine has a fascinating ability to seemingly adopt the best parts of external influence and incorporate it into Japanese food in a way that just works.”
This is not a modern phenomenon though; foreign influence on Japanese food goes back centuries, Adam explains, “Even tempura was introduced to Japan by the Portuguese around 500 years ago.”
Travelling through Japan, Adam was also taken with the huge regional diversity in the food, with mere kilometres often separating very different local delicacies.
“It’s not just individual ingredients or dishes, the whole style of cooking and flavour profiles change from prefecture to prefecture”, he says. “There are huge differences in big city cuisines too. Tokyo cuisine is nothing like Osakan, and neither is similar to Kyoto. Nagasaki, Nagoya, Fukuoka and Hiroshima all have their distinct cuisines as well. Everywhere you go in Japan there’s something new to discover.”
The common link
That’s not to say you can’t identify key ingredients in the cuisine, it’s the usage that makes all the difference.
“Aside from the produce itself, there’s a great commonality in many aspects of Japanese food in the seasonings: Dashi broth made from kombu and katsuobushi, sake, mirin and soy sauce. Miso is really popular too”, Adam explains. “It’s all a part of a philosophy of enhancing the natural flavour of the produce. Even though a lot of dishes might share sake, mirin, soy sauce and sugar as common ingredients, they don’t overpower with their own flavour and so applied in varying proportions to a variety of produce, create a huge variety of clean and distinct flavours.”
When it comes to what to drink with Japanese food, obviously sake and shochu are the local drinks of choice. However, Adam says, the local wine scene is taking off. “The domestically grown Japanese Muscat Bailey-A grape is an interesting one to try. I particularly like the Japanese wines from Yamanashi prefecture.”
While the Tasting Panel has matched a red with Adam’s wagyu recipe, his take on the ideal wine match is very different. “One of my guilty and possibly odd pleasures is a strong and acidic Champagne or Sparkling wine with wagyu beef. The oiliness of the wagyu can sometimes be a bit too much for a tannic red, and I find it actually works really well with Aussie Sparkling wines.”
Adam talks food
“The oiliness of wagyu means that it’s not very well suited to rich Western sauces or butters,” says Adam. “Keeping things lighter with wasabi and tosa joyu is a great match. Tosa joyu is a sauce that’s often served with sashimi as a dipping sauce, but it also works fantastically with grilled slices of wagyu. It has a base of soy sauce but has a great balance of flavours to it.
“The tofu hamburger is something that really illustrates how the Japanese take foreign influence and make it their own. With a Western-style hamburger served in a bun, most of us would prefer a firmer, meatier patty to contrast against the soft bun. A Japanese hamburger is served with rice and so incorporating tofu into the mix makes it really light and fluffy (in Japanese ‘fuwa-fuwa’), which matches perfectly with the texture of the rice. The lightly citrus ponzu sauce and the grated daikon lighten the dish again, so this is a perfect accompaniment to rice.
“The Okinawan black sugar doughnuts (sataa andagi) are a really simple sweet that I love. Okinawa is a fascinating place to visit food-wise because it has so many different influences. The name of one of their main dishes ‘goya champuru’ actually comes from Java because they traded with Okinawa thousands of years ago.
There’s strong Chinese and South East Asian influences and even more recent American influences (including Spam!). In among all of this I wanted to show one of the more traditional Okinawan dishes so these doughnuts use the distinct black sugar that’s made from the local sugar cane. It’s rich and molassesy and has a really complex flavour. You could substitute soft brown sugar instead and you’ll still get a tasty doughnut, but Okinawan black sugar is available from Japanese grocers.”