Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Going Nanbananas

By: Mr Robot

We owe Tim Anderson a number of apologies, not least:

  1. Unexpectedly colliding with him at MiMi Aye's book launch and exclaiming, much as 007 might, "Erk - Famous Masterchef Man!" He wisely ran away
  2. A glitch in Mrs Robot's operating system that gave her a horrific plaguey cough throughout his recent event at Toppings Books
  3. Leaving said event early due to plaguey coughing (see 2) thereby missing the opportunity both to get his scribble on our copy of his new book, Nanban, and to apologise in person

We're very very sorry.

Notwithstanding Mrs R's death-rattle, we had a really good evening. We're both completely ignorant of Japanese food (beyond a waft of sushi - she's a fan, I'm a bit meh) so had no idea what to expect. Though the subtitle - Japanese Soul Food - sounded promising.

Well I'm very glad we went. Anderson is a very good speaker - perhaps a benefit of all that Masterchef screen time - and his delivery came with aplomb, wit and passion. His enthusiasm for Japanese food is immediately engaging and I'd defy anyone to sit through 10 minutes without itching to have a go.

Not only that, he served up a couple of real treats too, in the form of home-(or shop-)made Dashi, and Onsen eggs: both hours in the making so we owe both him and Toppings our thanks just for the time and bother involved.

You will never find a more precisely cooked egg in a bookshop
Onsen eggs in particular need such long and precise cooking that I'm never going to make them at home without investing in (at least) a more reliable oven. For a broth of dried kelp and tuna, the Dashi turned out to be surprisingly subtle and delicate (we both fear fishy fish) and combined with the unique texture of the eggs was a fascinating taster. I don't know how many more events he's doing but if you get the chance to go, I'd urge you to.

It made me keen to get home and start playing. So I did.

A couple of times Anderson mentioned tempura as a good starting point for beginners, so naturally I ruled that out - oh ego, what would I be without you? - and instead opted for a slightly more ambitious 2-day project of pork.

As an easy entry point, ramen probably isn't. But having already set my heart on it, I read the recipe in detail and discovered that if you're going to (try to) do it properly there's a lot of work involved. A lot.

A large part of that is boiling up pig bones for a day or two, which didn't faze me since I'll often have a stock pot on the go for a week or more. But that along with the eggs (also pickled for a day or two) and sundry other elements made it clear this wasn't a quick job.

So while all that was under way, I opted for some quick sticky snacks.

There are a few options in the book so I picked a piggy trinity of pork belly on sticks (marinaded in mirin), scallops wrapped in bacon (marinaded in sake - unknown out here in the boonies so used mirin again) and vegetables wrapped in bacon (I had courgettes), all griddled on the, er, griddle.

Pig! Onna stick!

Save for a little seasoning that's all there was to it, and very tasty they were too. The mirin seemed to bring out sweetness in everything it touched, so I imagine sake would've made an interesting balancing note. If we ever find some I'll let you know. That said the mirin, scallop and bacon combo was outstanding.

For a snacky supper on a sunny evening you can do a lot worse that this stuff on sticks.

12 hours in, still going strong
Of course that was just a quick toe-dabble before, next day, plunging into the deep end that is Hakata-style Ramen.

My pig bones boiled for roughly 12 hours before I was happy with the soupy porkness, and tossed in the fennel, mushrooms, onion, garlic and ginger to boil for a couple more hours. I found these fresh elements took the intensity down significantly - I think I overdid the veg and would tone it back (or measure!) in future.

Egg pickling in tea? Just try it
That said it's telling that neither the book nor the food puts me off experimenting, even with so little knowledge.

Anyway, that broth had been bubbling away for 10 hours before bedtime intervened, and was resumed the next day.

In that time I'd also set the eggs (slavishly boiled for 6 minutes 20 seconds as per instruction, and I've never had one more perfect) to pickling overnight, and made Chasu - pork belly braised in cola - also to chill and press overnight.

I'd also mixed up some black mayu: garlic blackened in oil and blitzed with black sesame seeds and sesame oil. A most necessary dressing, apparently.

So by day two it was a mere matter of 4 more hours boiling before seasoning the broth. Now, there are two whole pages of the book devoted to how to season your broth so this is no small matter.

Black Mayu
As Anderson says, it's what makes the difference between pretty good and "slurp-down-every-last-drop good". But of course this bit only comes down to your own judgment and in the end I played relatively safe with salt, Dashi and white pepper. Might have a play with Miso next time.

Finally, finally, you get to assemble cooked noodles, the broth itself, some cabbage blanched in the broth, the pork reheated in same, the black mayu, some pickled ginger from a jar (wrong sort but all I had), spring onion and sesame seeds.

It is, it has to be said, a lot of effort for a bowl of noodles. But what a bowl of noodles.

The result is something insanely rich and complex, and the broth - after all that boiling - coats your mouth with the best savoury goo. In fact the broth was about as rich and nearly as thick as soft-boiled egg yolk. So add to that actual soft-boiled egg yolk along with braised pork - rich doesn't begin to cover it. On the other hand you've the acidity of the pickled parts (ooer) and then there's fresh cabbage, and then there's sesame...

I'd made some clear mistakes. Not only had the veg weakened the broth, but I'd been heavy-handed with the dashi so too much fish for me, rather than background umami - a forgivable mistake for a first-timer I think. The mayu was a bit strong for me too (I seem very sensitive to sesame flavour for some reason) though Mrs Robot really liked it. But this is something to learn from, and I can already imagine the benefits.

Still a lot of work for a bowl of noodles? But surely the error is the implication that a bowl of noodles should be merely disposable, easy food, as if a 98p packet of Maggi or a tub of Golden Wonder's finest Chicken & Mushroom is all there is to it.

Is it much work for a meal that leaves you aching to the ribs? Desperate for more? Slurping dribbles off your chin? For a revelation?

No more than you'd expect.

All images (c) PP Gettins
(except the first one which Mrs Robot took)

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