For Melbourne-based Japanese chef Kantaro Okada, the base of a dish is of the utmost importance: “In the ochazuke, the broth, the dashi, is probably the most important – not the garnish, not the grilled fish. .
“I have the impression that in a lot of dishes the main ingredient is quite important, but for us I think that what surrounds it and the basis [is more important] … By perfecting this or striving to do it, we are convinced that it doesn’t matter what happens above.
At his cafe, 279, on Victoria Street in West Melbourne, that means paying special attention to the ingredients most commonly used in his musubi, also known as onigiri: rice balls with various fillings or fillings, shaped into triangles and often wrapped around. in a piece of nori. Okada took great care in selecting the types of nori and rice used, as well as the rice cooker.
“We went through, for example, 10 rice cookers to find the right one,” he says.
The 279 also offers a number of osozai (cold side dishes) and desserts, but the musubi remains the focal point.
“A lot of Japanese stores are very specialized,” Okada explains. “I think all the hotel and food stores in Japan specialize in something and try to perfect it.”
Okada’s demanding approach shines through in his recipe for ochazuke, a rice dish topped with hot dashi. It only requires one milliliter of usukuchi soy sauce (saltier but lighter in color than regular soy sauce) per serving. When measuring such small quantities, Okada uses a high precision scale for more accuracy.
He also marinates his salmon in shio koji overnight. The fish undergoes an almost invisible transformation; his umami qualities are overloaded and he somehow tastes more like himself. It is thanks to the enzymes of the koji, a kind of fermented rice: the proteins of the fish are broken down into their constituent amino acids, which we perceive as umami.
While a precise method results in precisely balanced flavors, the dish is otherwise simple; smoked bonito flakes and herbaceous sencha make for a light but deeply flavorful broth. It’s also perfect for using leftover rice, and the topping can be customized to suit what’s in your fridge – snapper or any type of white fish works well, while other popular toppings include them. seaweed and pickles such as umeboshi.
The concept for the 279 arose out of Okada’s desire for the musubi he ate in Japan, which were hard to find in Australia. “We made it at home and I thought I could eat it every day. So it was as if the store had been built for myself!
Okada and his wife, Hitoe, made the menu for the 279 ensemble, with Hitoe testing the musubi toppings and fillings while Okada worked on selecting and testing the rice and nori varieties.
“Every weekend we were experimenting and trying new musubi, new onigiri, different ingredients, until at one point we were like, ‘I think we could actually offer this to customers. “”
Kantaro Okada’s ochazuke
Preperation 10 minutes
to cook 20-25 minutes
For the salmon
1 salmon fillet (about 120g), skin on
15 g (about 2 teaspoons) of shio koji (optional)
For the dashi broth
720 ml of water
28g of katsuobushi (bonito flakes)
4 g (about 2 teaspoons) sencha leaves
2 ml (barely ½ teaspoon) of usukuchi soy sauce
tsp of salt
240 g (just 1⅓ cup) short grain rice, cooked
2 tablespoons of tenkasu (tempura bits)
shio kombu (seasoned salted kelp, sold cut into thin strips)
6cm piece (50g) takuan (marinated daikon radish), minced
Pat the salmon fillet dry with a paper towel. Coat the salmon evenly with the shio koji and place in a covered container, then refrigerate overnight.
The next morning, take the salmon fillet out of the refrigerator and preheat the oven grill on high power. Using your hands or a paper towel, wipe off as much shio koji as possible; you can even give it a gentle, quick rinse with cold water. (Shio koji burns easily, so remove as much as possible.)
Place the salmon fillet skin side down in a small dish or baking sheet. On a rack about 6 inches from the grill heating element, broil for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the top of the salmon is lightly charred.
While the salmon cooks, bring 720 ml of water to a boil. Add the katsuobushi and the tea leaves, then immediately turn off the heat. Allow the mixture to steep for two minutes before straining to remove solids. Add soy sauce and salt; taste and rectify with a little additional salt if necessary.
Once your salmon is cooked, remove it from the grill and separate the fish from the skin, then discard the skin. Use a fork or chopsticks to gently crumble the fish into small pieces.
Divide the rice in half. Wet your hands, then shape each 120g portion of rice, cupping your hands to form rounded triangular “balls” about 3cm thick. Alternatively, use a smaller bowl to shape the rice. Place each rice ball in a bowl.
Divide the crumbled salmon between the two bowls, placing it on the rice ball. Garnish each bowl with a generous pinch of shio kombu threads. Divide the broth between the bowls and add a tablespoon of tempura pieces to each. Serve with wasabi and takuan on the side; wasabi can be added to ochazuke to taste, while takuan can be enjoyed on the side.
Shio koji, katsuobushi, usukuchi soy sauce, tenkasu, takuan, and shio kombu can all be found in specialty Japanese grocery stores.