In the olden days (okay, the 1980s), Japanese food meant sushi. You were cutting-edge if you could pluck nori-lined rice rolls of eel off your plate with your chopsticks.
Leap forward 35 years. It’s ramen. Hot pots. Seaweed salad. Miso paste this. Fermented that. And fish sauce is nothing to frown at.
The kings of umami have found new subjects in Westchester diners and grocery shoppers. Japan’s skill with savory, briny, and sour flavors is earning fewer looks of suspicion and more grins of satisfaction. And long-celebrated condiments with roots in Japanese cuisine, such as ponzu, miso, mirin, yuzu, sesame oil, and plum vinegar are finding homes on restaurant menus and in mainstream American pantries.
Seaweed has the highest density of vitamins and minerals of any vegetable.
Seaweed has followed in kale’s footsteps. Once overlooked for more than its limited uses, now seaweed is glorified for its nutrient-dense profile. You see it in smoothies or spiced and fried into chips. Japanese food has a healthy rep, so it’s no surprise that wellness watchers and on-trend people are latching on to the condiments.
“I’ve always had a thing for lighter cuisine, clean flavors with very high umami, not cream and butter but misos, bean paste, and fermented cheese. I always built my flavors around it,” says Chef Mogan Anthony, co-owner of Village Social Hospitality Group.
His whole life, Anthony’s been incorporating the flavors of Japan, plus other Asian and Southeast Asian countries, including his native Malaysia. Trained in Japan, Singapore, and at three Jean-Georges restaurants in Manhattan, Anthony today tests recipes and runs the restaurant group, which includes Village Social locations in Mount Kisco and Rye, Pubstreet in Pleasantville, and Locali Pizza Bar & Kitchen in New Canaan, Connecticut.
None of the restaurants are Japanese, nor are they Japanese fusion. They have playful tasting menus of shareable bites plus pizza. Still, “all our concepts across the board have Japanese influence to them,” Anthony says.
The Caesar salad at Locali incorporates bonito flakes, made from dried, smoked mullet or tuna, instead of, or in combination with, anchovies. Dehydrated shiitake mushrooms are ground with salt to amp the umami of the vegetable burgers made with quinoa and brown rice at the Village Social locations. Instead of reducing rich veal and beef stock for sauces and soups, Anthony goes for dashi, a traditional Japanese broth made from kombu, a type of seaweed. Instead of a small side salad or friseé with a fatty fish, like salmon, Anthony will add a dab of seaweed seasoned with rice vinegar to balance it out. “It gives a refreshing bite,” he says.
He loves to peel off the skin of his salmon, black bass, halibut, or Japanese snapper and dry it, making it into a fish salt that he then uses to season that fish. “I like the kind of technique where you use every part of the fish,” Anthony says.
Customers at Balducci’s Food Lover’s Market, which has 10 locations, including Scarsdale and Rye Brook, are buying Japanese-style pickles, as well as savory Japanese greens, such as kelp, wakame, dulse, and nori. These customers are part of the world’s growing appetite for seaweed greens, an industry valued at $6.4 billion, according to a 2016 report from the United Nations University in Tokyo.
“We’re seeing an increased desire for authentic, ethnic cuisine as people crave new and international flavors,” says Jason Miller, Balducci’s corporate executive chef. “For example, consumers embraced the ramen-and-noodle-bowl trend, which highlighted Japanese-inspired dishes and ingredients. Now you can find new restaurants popping up regularly around the country, with these distinct flavors and meal options.”
Mirin, a Japanese sweet rice wine, lends mild acidity to a dish.
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Japanese cooking has long been a passion for March Walker, executive chef at Peter Pratt’s Inn in Yorktown Heights. Even though Walker doesn’t use those ingredients on the regular menu, he will for private parties and catered events. He started his cooking career 20 years ago, at Japanese restaurants in Manhattan and Charlottesville, VA. “The Japanese style of pickling has become so ubiquitous in restaurant kitchens that it doesn’t even seem Japanese anymore,” Walker says.
People are making their own miso, and Walker is seeing more varieties of soy sauce, which are traditionally fermented. “For years it was one brand, and it’s like night and day between the factory-made stuff and the fermented kind,” he says. “Fermented foods have become slightly trendy lately, and a lot of the bedrock methods are Japanese. I think people are really into the health of that.”
At Exit 4 Food Hall in Mount Kisco, there’s a tuna pizza with sesame oil and ponzu, a dark-hued, tangy soy sauce brightened with citrus. Those flavors, plus miso, mirin, plum vinegar, seaweed, dried kelp, and nori, are dotted throughout dishes in the food hall. “Some are in our bowls and burritos, while others are used in soups,” says chef and co-owner Isi Albanese.
Wakame is another popular type of seaweed often found in salads and soups, such as miso, udon, and the much-hyped ramen. This winter will be Anthony’s fourth year for his Sunday-night ramen pop-up at one of the Village Social locations. He uses his wife’s family recipe for pork broth and traditional techniques he learned from Masayoshi Takayama, the Michelin three-star chef at NYC’s Masa.
Japanese cuisine has a reputation for clean precision without many of the aggressive flavors for which other Asian cuisines are known. “I just love the subtle balance of Japanese food combinations,” Anthony says.