Cooking with Atsushi

Cooking with Atsushi


For the past two weeks, I've had a visitor from Japan stay over at my apartment here in New York, a terrific guy named Atsushi Nakahigashi. All of 22-years-old, he's already an accomplished professional bass fisherman (see his blog and his sponsor's site (in Japanese)) -- and an accomplished chef. Since the age of 14 or so, Atsushi's been working at his father's legendary restaurant in Kyoto, Sojiki Nakahigashi. His dad, Mr. Hisao Nakahigashi, is one of my absolute culinary heroes, a wonderful man who I've had the privilege to get to know and write about. Atsushi's his dad's talented protégé, and since he was here in New York... I put him to work in my kitchen! Actually, Atsushi, wise, thoughtful and mature way, way beyond his years, graciously offered to teach me a few things about Japanese cooking. It's been a seminal couple of weeks.

In the posts that follow, I'll do my best to describe the dishes Atsushi taught me cooking together. Besides techniques, Atsushi also explained underlying ideas behind his dishes. At the restaurant, Mr. Nakahigashi's seasonal cuisine centers on inland Kyoto's local ingredients -- humble heirloom vegetables, freshwater fish, game and wild greens. He taps the ancient, almost forgotten roots of Japanese cuisine to bring out the simple, beautiful, natural flavors of these ingredients. Atsushi applied these notions to the cooking we did together, too, and discussed his thinking as we went along, which I will also share in my posts.

(By the way, if you're interested to see what Mr. Nakahigashi's dishes look like, click on this Japanese-language food blog. The author dines at the restaurant every month, and dutifully (and artfully) photographs and describes the dishes he experiences.)

I have to say, watching Atsushi buy -- more like, intimately engage with -- ingredients at the farmers market was an education. When he bought whole fish, he closely inspected every fish available, feeling the firmness of the body, opening the gills to check how bright red and fresh they were, looking over the condition of the fish. When he bought vegetables, he checked out each one, feeling them for freshness, buying just the amount he needed.

Watching him at work in the kitchen was also instructive. He handled ingredients and equipment, especially knives, gently, and with great care and respect. He was always cleaning, automatically -- wiping down his knifes, wiping down his cutting board. Habits to learn from...

I hope you try the techniques that follow. I didn't structure the dishes as precise recipes; rather, the posts are guidelines to cook with -- they're a starting point. You gotta feel Japanese cooking. Watching Atsushi in action drove this home. Like any serious chef, he constantly tasted, smelled and touched as he cooked. Only you can determine if a dish has a good balance between salty and sweet, if you can sense the umami, if something has enough miso or shoyu. Try to eat as much good Japanese as possible to sensitize your palate to as many reference flavors as possible.

I'd be grateful if you could let me know in the comments how the dishes turn out. Did they work? Any questions? Should I follow up with Atsushi about something? Happy to ask him anything you'd like.

Finally, an unrelated bit of news: Please check out the current, August-September issue of Saveur for my story on the traditional miso makers of Fuchu, Hiroshima Prefecture. "The Art of Miso" appears on page 23.

List of Atsushi's dishes:

  1. Konbu Dashi Soup with Clams
  2. Three Leaf and Radish Pickles
  3. Konbu-Kasuobushi Dashi & Silken Tofu Miso Soup
  4. Turnips, Carrots and Okra Simmered in Dashi
  5. Salt-Cured Bonito Sashimi
  6. Flounder Poached in Sake and Salt
  7. Grilled Kyoto-style Eggplant
  8. Grilled Shishito Peppers
  9. Seabass Simmered in Sake and Soy Sauce
  10. Konbu Dashi Soup with Egg and Scallion
  11. Konbu Dashi Miso Soup with Snow Peas
  12. Simmered Japanese Eggplant
  13. Dashi-infused Japanese Cucumbers
  14. Grilled Kyoto-style peppers with tomato puree
  15. Iriko Dashi & Daikon Miso Soup

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