The Australian | 28th April 2015
A new wave of Japanese food is trending at a restaurant near you, and it has little or nothing to do with raw fish.
Australian chefs increasingly take their cues from the Land of the Rising Sun, incorporating elements from kaiseki to street food into their menu. Pop-up venues and casual eateries specialising in a single facet of Japanese cuisine are on the rise.
Here’s a survival guide to new Japanese food terms.
Robata: In modern terms it is used to describe a style of charcoal grill. Ross Lusted at Sydney’s high-end the Bridge Room was one of the first chefs in Australia to introduce a robata in his restaurant kitchen. In Japan, robata cooking had much humbler origins, however.
Yakitori: Translates as grilled chicken. It’s basically street food in Japan and yakitori-ya are popping up in all major cities here in Australia. If you prefer your yakitori in more elegant surrounds, try the bar menu at Sepia in Sydney.
Binchotan: A type of dense charcoal made from ubame oak (Quercus phillyraeoides) mainly in the Tosa and Wakayama regions of Japan. The long steady burning qualities and amazing flavour make binchotan the most sought-after coal in Japan and beyond. Caveat emptor; the term binchotan is used quite loosely in Australia and because of the rarity and high cost of genuine binchotan it is very rarely used in restaurants.
Negi-ma: Skewers of grilled chicken alternating with spring onion or leek.
Butabara: Pork belly. In terms of a yakitori-ya this will be grilled over charcoal with the best places serving rare breed. Chaco bar in Darlinghurst, Sydney, is the place to try it.
Tsukune: Chicken meatballs that may be simmered but generally grilled. They also may have some chopped cartilage for extra crunch. Matt Abergel, of Hong Kong’s Yardbird, served a smashing version at Northern Light during the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival earlier this year.
Tare: Basically sauce and in terms of yakitori it is made from shoyu (soy sauce), mirin, sugar and — as a Japanese chef will typically respond if you ask — “a couple more things that I can’t tell you because it is from a family recipe dating back to the Edo period”.
Kappo Ryori: An intimate style of cuisine with a single chef or chef and assistant cooking behind a counter and serving directly to the customer. Kappo-style restaurants may follow the deep-seated rules of kaiseki or take a more modern approach. Two local versions to try would be the aptly named Kappo in Melbourne or Raita Noda in Surry Hills, Sydney.
Kaiseki: A multi-course meal that follows a set structure. It has its origins as simple food to accompany the tea ceremony and has evolved into a complex meal to showcase the skills of the chef combined with the best ingredients of the season.
Konro: A style of barbecue used extensively in sidewalk restaurants in Japan. The best konro is made from keisodo, a fossilised material prized for its insulation.
Dashi: This chestnut is popping up on menu descriptions from Bondi to Bayswater. True dashi is a stock made from kelp, dried bonito and sometimes dried mushroom or sardines. It is subtle yet rich in umami and is known as the cornerstone of Japanese cuisine.
Umami: A word used far too often by those who understand it the least. In a nutshell umami is considered the most desirable of the five tastes to the Japanese palate. What is umami? Take a little vegemite, fish sauce or rich veal jus and rub it on the roof of your mouth with your tongue. After you wash away the salt and sweetness there is a lingering savoury character that begs you for another mouthful — this is umami.
Chawanmushi: A savoury potted custard that is served warm. It may contain simple ingredients such as snapper and ginkgo or an exotic combination of foie gras and sea urchin.
Omakase: An expression meaning you will leave the evening’s menu selection to the chef. Unlike degustation where a menu is presented, the chef may vary the selection from customer to customer. A skilled chef will vary the menu so just the right amount of food is served and those with a smaller appetite may find themselves with smaller dishes.
Kombucha: A type of fermented tea full of probiotics. The functional drinks market in Japan is thriving and it is about to hit our shores. Already, a few cool places such as Kitchen by Mike in Rosebery are the go-to place for your morning kombucha or fermented beetroot drink to start the day.
Ika no Shiokara: OK, so it’s never been put on an Australian menu but it’s a favourite with sake drinkers in Japan. Thin strips of raw squid are tossed through fermented squid guts to create a perfect marriage with dry sake.
Sake cheat sheet
Australia has been swept by a tsunami of sake and its affinity to food has seen it popping up on fine wine lists across the country. If you don’t speak sake we’ve created a cheat sheet for your next date with nihonshu.
SMV: Also known as nihonshudo, a very useful number that can indicate dryness. Higher numbers tend to be dryer and numbers in the negative tend to be sweeter.
Junmai: A term referring to sake brewed from rice, koji, yeast and water without the addition of distilled alcohol. The term junmai can be combined with the terms ginjo or daiginjo. If the designation is just junmai it will most likely be a richer, fuller style of sake — many of which are excellent served warm.
Honjozo: Made from rice milled until 70 per cent or less remaining and contains the addition of a little distilled alcohol. Generally light smooth and easy drinking.
Ginjo/Junmai Ginjo: Made from rice milled until 60 per cent or less remains and considered premium sake. Ginjo grade sake varies from light and fragrant to richer more wine like styles.
Daiginjo/Junmai Daiginjo: Made from rice milled until 50 per cent or less remains and considered super premium sake. Daiginjo can be soft, elegant and refined or overt and fruit driven. Can also be quite expensive.
Karakuchi:A common term used to describe dry style of sake. It’s also the easiest sake kanji to remember.
Yamahai: Both a verb and describes a brewing method that creates a funkier, gamier style of sake.
Junmai v Non-Junmai: At the premium end of the sake world distilled alcohol is added in small amounts to create lighter and sometimes less cloying styles. Don’t fall into the misunderstanding that junmai sake is an any way superior to non-junmai, otherwise you may miss out on trying something delicious.
Leigh Hudson is the founder of Australia first Japanese knife store Chef’s Armoury and retailer of fine sake through sakeshop.com.au.