For me, the holy grail of Japanese cooking boils down this: The ability to look in the fridge, see what I've got and cook something fabulous with it. I've witnessed this two-step over and over in Japanese homes, watching slack-jawed with admiration as home cooks knocked out great dishes on the spot. This versatility, spontaneity and creativity is what Japanese cooking is all about, on any level. Since I don't have this awesome culinary knowledge wired into my DNA, of course, I've been trying to figure out a way to break it down and explain it in some kind of coherent -- and replicable - fashion (the journalist in me). It's a work in progress...
I thought about all this as I watched my friend and houseguest prepare us dinner last night. He's a young chef who cooked at the incredible Ryugin in Tokyo, where I had the privilege last year of working beside him for a month. We were both hungry, so we checked the fridge. There was precious little inside: a thinly pounded fillet of chicken breast, still frozen, an onion and a half a bunch of asparagus. (Yeah, time to go shopping!) "How about pizza," I mused. My friend just smiled. "I can make something with this," he said, and went to town. Ah yes, that irrepressible Japanese cooking spontaneity in action! I tried to capture what he did as best as possible in the following recipe. Stay tuned as I work out how to explain the underlying ideas behind it. Here's the dish:
1/4 cup mirin
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon sake
1 tablespoon salt
4 stalks of asparagus cut into bite-sized pieces on an angle
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1/2 pound chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces (in our case, after defrosting, of course)
1 small onion, sliced into 6 wedges
Black pepper to taste
Sansho to taste
Add the mirin to a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. When it boils, add the soy sauce and boil for 30 seconds more. Add the sugar and boil until it dissolves, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat. Pour in the sake, and gently mix. Set aside.
In another small saucepan bring water to a boil. Add salt and mix until it dissolves. Add the asparagus and poach until they turn bright green are just cooked through. Taste one to check. Don't overcook. When they're ready, cool the asparagus under cold running water. Set aside.
Add the oil to a skillet and place over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the chicken, cooking and stirring just until the chicken turns golden. Transfer the chicken to a plate. In the same hot skillet, add the onions. Grind some fresh pepper over it. Sautee for 1 to 2 minutes, until the onions soften. Return the chicken to the skillet. Cook for 1 or 2 minutes more, stirring constantly. Add half of the mirin-soy sauce-sugar-sake liquid. Cook, stirring, until the liquid almost completely evaporates. Add the asparagus and the remaining liquid. Cook, stirring, until about 1/2 the liquid remains. Turn off the heat. Sprinkle a little bit of sansho. Serve hot.
NOTES: My friend says you can cook this dish with any vegetable, and use dark meat chicken, too. I would say use 2 or 3 vegetables, but no more than that -- this is Japanese food, not a stir fry. Finally, the sansho, with its intensely citrusy fragrance, adds such a nice dimension to this dish. Amazing how a simple home-cooked meal can have so many layers of flavor going on.