Back in Japan now and just rolled into the lovely city of Nagoya. First order of business: Nagoya Cochin chicken. Cochin is this town's signature variety of jidori, or free-range, heirloom-breed chicken. From what I read while researching my and my pal Tadashi's latest cookbook (handed in the manuscript a week ago -- woohoo!! -- thanks again to all our volunteer recipe testers), chicken played a number of roles in ancient Japan, as cock-a-doodle-doing timekeepers, fighting birds, and spiritual creatures. But their import as food diminished when the emperor banned eating them around the year 700 or so (if I recall correctly - I don't have my notes with me). By the 17th century, though, chicken recipes began appearing in cookbooks -- I mean, how long can long can you resist a juicy drumstick? -- and today, if I got this right, jidori must have at least 50% ancient Japanese chicken in them. There are a number of jidori breeds, but Cochin is about the most famous, and in Nagoya, numerous restaurants focus on just this bird.
To learn more, my friend here in Nagoya took me to a restaurant called Hioki, where the chef, Mr. Hioki, specializes in Cochin. Chef Hioki was kind enough to invite us into his kitchen. As we watched him work, he explained that he buys his chickens every morning from a tiny-scale breeder who slaughters them on the spot, so they're perfectly fresh. (He gets his eggs from another local farmer, who apparently wouldn't sell them to him for months until he was satisfied that Chef Hioko was worthy.) The Cochin bird was bigger by half than a typical American broiler. The color of the raw meat struck me: the leg was deeply ruddy like duck, the breast meat was a pale, almost translucent peach color, and the fat, a bright lemon-yellow. So this is what chicken should look like. As Chef Hioki deftly stripped the meat off the bones, I wondered how he was going to prepare it.
The most fundamental way to enjoy Cochin, the chef explained, is raw. With an ingredient this pristine, this perfect, you can revel in its natural essence, like you would with great fish. Chef Hioki prepared a plate of chicken sashimi with meat from the neck, breast, tenderloin, and leg, adding slices of heart, gizzard, liver and the cockscomb. He served us the sashimi with two condiments alongside, soy sauce and grated ginger for the white meat, and sesame oil and salt for the dark meat. We tasted this incredible chicken; each part had its own singular texture and flavor. The gizzard was crunchy, the liver delicate and tender. The leg meat was fantastic, so rich and chickeny. Besides the sashimi, the chef also served us chicken simmered in sakekasu (the lees of sake), grilled wings with just a little salt (amazing!), grilled skin (amazing!), and tsukune, chicken meat balls (amazing!), which we dipped into luscious raw egg. The chef also treated us to a selection of great sake at his stylish restaurant, including a local brand also called Cochin, which was beautifully wrapped in old newspaper. Wow. If you pass through Nagoya, Hioki is located at 3-20-17 Nishiki, Naka-ku (tel 052-973-3660). Here are some photos: