When the nice folks at DK emailed to ask me if I might be interested in a copy of Morimoto's first cookbook, barely a breath passed before I said yes, yes, YES! Although I was a little skeptical.
It probably has something to do with his larger-than-life persona on Iron Chef (the only thing worth watching on the Food Network, by the way*), but I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Certainly not this cogent, awe-inspiring and lovely work of art. As a matter of fact, I carried it everywhere I went for the 36 hours after I received it in the mail. Although I was too greedy to let the chefs at work look at it.
The book begins with a bit of a sushi and sashimi tutorial, complete with stunning pictures of vast sushi presentations and detailed instructions - along with lots and lots of pictures - on preparing one's own sashimi. There are even directions to prepare your own salmon roe. These instructions will probably even offer an eductation for experienced chefs - especially Western chefs, who filet their fish in an entirely different manner than Japanes chefs. There are instructions for preparing octopus, curing fish, and cutting sushi grass. One of most striking series of pictures in the beginning of the book is Morimoto preparing vegetables. For those of you who think the only way to cut veggies is into sticks by the slice, turn, slice method, think again. As a matter of fact, spend some time at a sushi counter in hopes that you can see a chef practicing the art of Katsuramuki - slicing veggies into continuous, paper-thin sheets. The chef trims the ends of the vegetable - say a daikon radish - and peels it, and then cuts the daikon by sliding it over the length of the knife. Properly done, the daikon will end up in one long sheet - as tall as the chef! These sheets can then be folded and cut into perfectly sized toothpicks, such as the sort which end up going into sushi rolls. It's pretty amazing.
There is an interesting piece on the perfection of preparing and flavoring of sushi rice, and the insult the sushi chef takes when someone willy-nilly blends wasabi into their soy sauce and then dunks the rice in.
One section of interest is on nori, the seaweed wrapper which I think is misunderstood by lots of Western sushi eaters, myself included. It was a few months ago that Husband and I realized we really enjoyed the nori at our favorite Japanese restaurant - it really had snap and bite. When we mentioned to the chef that he had the best nori, he just laughed and said "not the best, just the most expensive." Morimoto mentions that he reserves the use of his best nori for those sitting at the sushi counter, because the snap of the nori will disappear by the time the wrap reaches the table. It's something you just have to experience to believe, and it won't do any good for me to tell you about it, because you really have to become a good regular at a sushi counter to taste it for yourself.
There is an essay on plating, something which is very important in Japanese cuisine, and is inspiring in itself. The food styling and the photography are stunning. It's one of those times when you just want to pack up your camera and stop taking pictures of food.
Perhaps one of the most interesting essays and photographs is a picture of Morimoto's knives, which are well-worn, well-treated and well-loved. So much so that the handles and blades are wearing thin. There's a great quote on the subject of lovely knives "...a great knife does not make a great chef. Some chefs buy fine, expensive knives just because they look cool, but they can't use them correctly...Yes, you need a sharp knife, but a sharp arm - and eye - are more important." It reminded me of a certain chef I know who has a giant box of fancy knives - some even pearl handled - which sit in an office in his restaurant, unused except for display purposes. It makes me laugh every time.
Although there are some difficult recipes in this book, many of them are within reach of a home cook with some experience. I think restaurant work would also help, because Morimoto is a restaurant chef, and the book assumes some familiarity with techniques and sources which would make perfect sense to someone in the restaurant business, but might not (yet) be second nature to the home cook. A few of the recipes are fantasticly conceived Western interpretations of traditional Japanese dishes (foie gras chawanmushi, yes, please), some are pure, exacting Japanese, such as homemade tofu, and some are comfort food - curry pan (curry filled yeast buns which are fried to golden perfection).
There is a prevailing theme of the samurai in the book, a rather natural comparison favored by sushi chefs, it would seem (most high-quality Japanese knife companies started out as sword makers, for example), there is a photo essay at the beginning in which Morimoto demonstrates the traditional dressing of the Samurai, a uniform which follows him into the kitchen. Fans of Japanese cuising might realize that Morimoto isn't strictly a Japanese chef - a "criticism" he deals with on a few occasions in the book. But the thing I love about the book is that it takes the exacting standards, the level of perfection, the simplicity and the beauty of Japanese cuisine and combines it with an entire globe's influences. There are several non-traditional sashimi recipes - sashimi with buffalo mozzarella, anyone? I don't typically go for "fusion," but most of the recipes in this book make perfect sense. I think you can see by all of my bookmarks how much I plan to revisit in this cookbook. I will, of course, keep you posted as I try out a few of the recipes.
The book contains a few of my favorite qualities in a cookbook: namely, the fantastic photography (by Quentin Bacon). There is also a lot of copy by the author; I am very happy when the history of the recipe is explained, or a tip or trick is offered up. I love an education, and the book finishes up with a nice essay on sake, something which I am still learning about (very slowly - I'm still stuck on one brand of sake, Kira). The book goes beyond cuisine; I really learned a lot about presentation just by looking at the pictures, and it is always good when a book so motivates you that you have to decide between spending time with it or putting it down in favor of running to the kitchen right now.
*the exception to the food Network rule is Jeni's on Unwrapped, Monday at 9pm. Please don't take offense if you're a Food Network fan. I just can't watch it anymore. We'll discuss why when I finally publish my review of Heat.