Several weeks ago when the National Restaurant Association was holding its annual international show my friend Kimiyo Naka, who lives in Chicago, asked me to stop by the Japan Pavilion where 19 companies from that country were presenting a range of both modern and traditional Japanese foods and beverages. On hand were several Chicago restaurateurs, including Bill Kim and Takashi Yagihashi, both of whom are awarding winning chefs and cookbook authors. The National Restaurant Association show is immense, taking up several floors at McCormick’s Place in Chicago and is packed with vendors showcasing products and food, chefs doing cooking demonstrations and the latest in food technologies and equipment.
My experience with Japanese food is limited, so stopping by the Japan Pavilion, presented by the Japan External Trade Organization, was very much a learning experience. When Kimiyo and I tasted samples of Wagyu Beef, a top quality, highly marbled meat produced by four Japanese breeds of beef cattle and took sips of sake, we discovered how these foods are helping Japan's rural areas in their revitalization efforts. Some farmers and producers are creating their own brands and exporting — or working on exporting them — to other countries including the United States.
We tasted sakes including brown rice sake and one made with shiraume, or white flower plums and looked at the different varieties of rice typically used to make sake, which is a fermented rice drink that is typically served warm. We also talked to a member of the Yonezawa family founders of Akashi Sake Brewery in 1886, a small artisanal sake producer based in Akashi, a fishing town in the Hyogo district in Western Japan, which is the traditional sake brewing capital of country and is known for having the best sake rice and pure water.
When the company started all those years ago more than a century ago, Akashi was a small village but since has grown into a booming metropolis. It’s known for the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge — the world’s longest suspension bridge — as well as the quality of the fish that are caught in the waters off its coast. The water also is a predominant feature in the taste of the sake, as are Japanese cedar wood lids used to cover the storage tanks where the Akashi sake is aged. Akashi sake is made in small batches by Toji Kimio Yonezewa. Note: I learned later that toji was not his first name but means brewmaster or chief executive of production.
I also spent time talking to Bill Kim, author of "Korean BBQ: How to Kung-Fu Your Grill in Seven Sauces," who I had interviewed before and Takashi Yagihashi, who came to the U.S. from Japan when he was 16, started cooking because he need milk money, won the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Midwest and is the owner of Slurping Turtle in downtown Chicago (there’s another one in Ann Arbor, Michigan) and TABO Sushi & Noodles at Macy’s State Street in Chicago.
One of the things we talked about is karaage which is Japanese fried chicken. I’ve included his recipe for the dish. Don’t get put off with the title ingredient of duck fat (if you’re like me, you don’t have a ready supply of it in your refrigerator) because you can substitute vegetable oil instead.
Slurping Turtle’s Duck-Fat-Fried Chicken Karaage
4 chicken thigh quarters (thigh and drumstick)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and grated
1 tsp. fresh grated ginger
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup mirin or sweet sake
2 tsp. sesame oil
Salt and pepper
6 cups duck fat (or vegetable oil), enough to fill a pan 3 inches deep
1 cup potato starch
DIRECTIONS: Using a sharp knife, separate the thighs from the drumstick by cutting between the joint. Cut the thigh in half lengthwise along the bone. Using a heavy cleaver, chop the piece with the bone in half, resulting in three similar-sized pieces. Then, cut the drumstick in half through the bone. When you’re done with all four thigh quarters, you should have 20 pieces of chicken when done. Alternatively, debone the thigh pieces with skin intact, and cut into two-inch pieces. Place the chicken in a shallow pan and set aside.
For the marinade, combine garlic, ginger, soy sauce, mirin, sesame oil, and a few grinds of black pepper in a bowl and mix. Pour marinade over chicken and coat well using your hands. There should be just enough marinade to coat the chicken. Cover and refrigerate at least 20 minutes or up to two hours.
Line a shallow tray with paper towels and set aside. Heat six cups duck fat (or vegetable oil) in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat until the oil reaches 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Place 1 cup potato starch in a large bowl and gently toss each piece of chicken until lightly coated. Carefully lower half the chicken pieces into the hot oil. Cook the chicken until it is nicely browned and begins to rise to the surface, 9 to 11 minutes. Once the chicken is cooked through, remove it from the oil using tongs and place onto paper towel-lined tray. Toss with a pinch of kosher salt while still hot. Repeat with second batch.
Serve immediately with lemon wedges and Japanese mayonnaise.
When finished deep-frying the chicken, season with salt, then sprinkle with soy-chili oil vinaigrette.
Soy-chili oil vinaigrette
1/2 cup Japanese soy sauce
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1/4 cup rice vinegar
2 teaspoons hot chili oil
2 teaspoons sugar
Combine all ingredients and stir until sugar is dissolved.
Chef Takashi’s Stir-Fry Udon Noodles
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 pound large shrimp, shelled and deveined
1/4 pound skinless, boneless chicken breast, thinly sliced
2 1/2 cups chopped Napa cabbage
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 carrot, thinly sliced on the bias
7 ounces enoki mushrooms
4 ounces oyster mushrooms
1/4 cup dried wood ear mushrooms, soaked in warm water for 10 minutes and drained
1/2 cup chicken stock
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
18 ounces frozen precooked udon noodles, thawed
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Chopped scallions, for garnish
DIRECTIONS: In a skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the vegetable oil. Add the shrimp and stir-fry over moderately high heat until curled, 2 minutes; transfer to a plate. Add 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil to the skillet. Add the chicken and stir-fry until white throughout, 3 minutes; transfer to the plate with the shrimp.
Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil to the skillet. Add the cabbage, onion, carrot and the mushrooms and stir-fry for 4 minutes. Add the stock, soy sauce, sesame oil, shrimp and chicken; remove from the heat.
Meanwhile, cook the udon in a pot of boiling salted water for 1 minute. Drain and add to the skillet. Stir-fry over high heat until heated through. Season with salt and pepper, garnish with scallions and serve.