Japan Part Two: A Japanese Cooking Masterclass with Jun Tanaka

After a few days of taste-testing tempura batter and trying to recreate Jun Tanaka’s delicate, spice-laden flavours, I finally managed to write the second part to my Japan post.

Following on from Part One: Japan in Pictures, here’s a blog that I wrote for The Huffington Post on my memories of the Tsujiki fish market combined with some exceptionally good, easy and quick recipes from master chef Jun Tanaka.

2014-02-04-4079156059_56aa6e8102_o.jpgImage: Flickr/Tom Swain

“The average home cook is frightened of Japanese food.

Eating it, yes. Pulling up a stool in front of a slow moving whirlpool of conveyor belt sushi or perching next to the open inferno of a Teppanyaki joint while the chef expertly flicks rice towards the ceiling and makes a squid ring volcano explode, yes, of course. But actually cooking the stuff? That’s where most people leave it to the chefs wielding the meat cleavers, bamboo rolling mats and chopsticks.

It isn’t too difficult to see how Japanese food got its complicated label and it seems to go deeper than just the feng shui balancing act of flavours in the cuisine. Every tourist in Japan will notice that the traditional restaurants aren’t particularly big on variety. In fact, you’re far more likely to find Michelin-starred restaurants that specialise in one singular dish – like udon noodles or tempura vegetables – where the chefs work to elevate that dish to ultimate levels of exquisite faultlessness that you simply wouldn’t get in a multi-focus establishment. There are London equivalents, like Tramshed with chicken or Hawksmoor and steak, but never to the same degree of narrow, immaculate focus.

2014-02-04-4673838729_8e901d3061_b.jpgImage: Flickr/istolethetv

This lack of single focus restaurants puzzles Jun Tanaka, an American-born, British Japanese chef who has featured on just about every cooking television programme going and who, despite starting his career as an apprentice under the incomparable Roux Brothers at Le Gavroche, has stayed firmly anchored to his Japanese food roots.

At a Sainsbury’s master class last week, in between dropping shitake mushrooms into sizzling oil and chopping scarlet chillies in a blur of Japanese steel, Tanaka half confirmed the opening of his latest venture, a French, Mediterranean restaurant in London this year.

230429_634677137502_2108583_nAs the acrid smell of fish sauce slowly filled the room like a rotten mushroom cloud, I was transported back to Tokyo and the cavernous warehouse of the Tsukiji Fish Market. I could practically feel the wet, icy slosh of fishy water as it soaked through my impractical ballet pumps, hear the greasy roar of the chainsaws as they sliced through the silvery, Moby Dick-sized torsos of giant tuna and feel the frigid air against my skin. Everywhere you looked in the market there was a crate of something familiar next to something unrecognisably bizarre: mussels as big as my forearm, burnished octopus tentacles knotted around fat white scallops, spikey urchins, pots of what can only be described as gloop and tiny brown shells filled with something unidentifiable.

2014-02-04-248905_634677072632_4528926_n.jpgImage: Tsujiki Fish Market

A limited number of tourists are admitted in the early morning to the hallowed inner hall of fish auctions – where you can gape at fish heads the size of dogs and watch giant haunches of tuna go for eye-watering amounts of Yen – before being turfed back into the melee of hagglers and fisherman and left ducking and diving amid the flying ice, speeding trucks and dungaree-clad, machete-waving workers.

2014-02-04-230443_634677192392_2031248_n.jpgImage: Tsujiki Fish Market

249452_634676992792_680706_nImage: Tsujiki Fish Market

Outside the warehouse there’s the jōgai-shijō outer marker, a mix of shops and eateries selling kitchen tools, restaurant supplies and, of course, the world’s freshest, simplest and most delicious sushi and seafood, and that was exactly what came to mind when I sampled Tanaka’s bowls of spicy, sour sea bass soup, umami lamb and buttery fleshed salmon with delicately pickled cucumber.

Alongside his obvious French flavours, Tanaka grew up on a diet of simple Japanese cooking and firmly believes that, with the right ingredients and some very fresh fish, anyone can cook up a Japanese feast in minutes.

Tanaka’s Top Tips

  • Don’t use a whisk when making tempura batter as the overworking makes the flour become glutinous, resulting in a heavy batter. Use chopsticks instead and remember that lumps are ok.
  • Try using lager like Japanese Asahi in your batter instead of sparkling water for a fuller flavour and super crispy crust.
  • Add umami, the fifth flavour, to dishes like beef stew with a few slices of anchovy.
  • The next time you make mayonnaise, substitute the Dijon mustard for a blob of wasabi paste for a peppery, spicy flavour.
  • Swap mustard for tamarind paste in your salad dressings for a sharp, sour and fruity note or use it to marinade meats as it’s a natural tenderiser.

Tanaka shared some quick, easy, healthy recipes that took him about ten minutes to knock up, making them perfect for speedy suppers or to pull out at a last minute dinner party. All recipes serve four people comfortably.


Tom Yum Pla (Hot and Sour Seabass Soup)

800ml fresh Chicken Stock
1 tbsp Sainsbury’s Galangal
20g Sainsbury’s Dried Shitake, Oyster and Portobello Mushrooms
1 tbsp Sainsbury’s Tamarind Paste
15g Sainsbury’s Palm sugar
25g Fish Sauce
2 Limes
2 cloves garlic sliced
3 Shallots (Peeled and sliced into quarters)
2 Thai Chilies (cut into pieces)
2 Stalks of Lemon Grass (cut into pieces)
4 Sea Bass Fillets (Each piece cut into 4)
½ bunch Thai Basil
½ bunch Coriander

  1. Soak the dried mushrooms in hot water for 30mins
  2. Pour a little vegetable oil into a saucepan and fry the shallots for 2 mins until golden. Pour in the chicken stock and bring to a simmer.
  3. Add the galangal, mushrooms, palm sugar, Tamarind, fish sauce, chilies, garlic and lemon grass. Simmer for 10mins
  4. Add the juice from 2 limes and the sea bass. Cook for 4 mins then add the basil and coriander
  5. Serve immediately in soup bowls


Tempura of Sea Bream, Shitake and Broccoli with Seaweed Mayonnaise

4 Sea Bream Fillets (Skinned and each fillet cut into 3)
25g Sainsbury’s Dried Shitake Mushroom
½ Broccoli (Broken into florets)
128g by Sainsbury’s Tempura Batter
200ml Lager
2 Woodland Egg yolks
1tsp Wasabi Paste
25ml by Sainsbury’s Rice Vinegar
200ml Vegetable Oil
6g Nori (Dried seaweed)
25ml Mushroom water

  1. Soak the shitake mushrooms in hot water for 30mins
  2. To make the mayonnaise, place the wasabi paste, egg yolks in a bowl and slowly whisk in the vegetable oil. When it starts to thicken, add the rice vinegar and season with salt
  3. Blitz the Nori until it becomes a powder and add to the mayonnaise. Add 25ml of water from the shitake mushrooms
  4. Pre heat a fryer to 180C. Place the tempura mix in a bowl and add the beer and whisk until smooth
  5. Drain the shitake mushroom and dry with kitchen paper. Dip the broccoli, sea bream and mushroom in the batter and deep fry until crisp. Drain on kitchen paper
  6. Serve immediately with the seaweed mayonnaise


Miso Marinated Salmon with Pickled Cucumber

4 x 100g Salmon Fillets
100g Sainsbury’s Miso Paste
50ml Sainsbury’s Mirin
2 tbsp Sainsbury’s Light Soya Sauce
1 tsp Granulated Sugar
½ Cucumber (peeled, deseeded and cut into half moon pieces)
150ml Sainsbury’s Rice Vinegar
1 Red Chili (Chopped)
I small piece Ginger (Chopped)
1 tbsp Dill (Chopped)

  1. Mix the miso paste, sugar, Mirin and soya sauce in a small bowl.
  2. Place the salmon fillets on a plate and coat in the marinade. Cover with cling film and leave for 1 hour or overnight
  3. To pickle the cucumber, place the vinegar, sugar, chili and ginger in a pan and bring to the boil. Take off the heat and add the sliced cucumber. Cover and leave in the fridge overnight
  4. Pre heat the oven to 200C, place the salmon on a baking tray and cook for 5-7 mins. Take the cucumber out of the pickle, and mix with the chopped dill
  5. Serve the salmon with the pickled cucumber and steamed rice


Marinated Rack of Lamb, Red Peppers, Chickpea Pancakes and Thai Basil Pesto

800g Lamb Rack (Trimmed and cut into single bone portions)
100g Natural Greek Yoghurt
1 x Sainsbury’s Umami Paste
4 Red Peppers (Cut in half and deseeded)
1 clove Garlic sliced
Sprig Thyme
Taste the Difference Aged Balsamic vinegar
Olive Oil

Pancake Ingredients
100g Sainsbury’s Gram flour
25ml Olive Oil
1 tsp chopped Rosemary
150ml warm water

Thai Basil Pesto Ingredients
1 x Sainsbury’s Thai Basil Paste
1 bunch Basil
1 clove Garlic
20g Parmesan (grated)
10g Toasted Pine Nuts
100ml Extra Virgin Olive Oil

  1. Mix all the Umami paste and Greek yoghurt in a small bowl and season. Coat the lamb in the marinade and leave overnight in the fridge
  2. Place the peppers in a baking tray skin side down, add the sliced garlic, thyme, season and drizzle with olive oil. Cook in the oven at 225C for 10 mins.
  3. Flip over the peppers and cook for a further 10 mins. Add a splash of balsamic vinegar, then add the peppers into a clean bowl and cling film
  4. To make the pesto, place all the ingredients into a blender and blitz
  5. To make the chickpea pancakes, place the gram flour in a bowl with the chopped rosemary. Pour in the water, olive oil and whisk until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.
  6. To cook, pour a drizzle of olive oil into a non-stick frying pan, add a ladle of the mix or just enough to cover the base of the pan. Cook for 2 mins, flip over and cook for a further 2 mins. Take out and keep warm
  7. Remove the skin of the peppers using a small knife
  8. Wipe the marinade off the lamb with kitchen paper and season.
  9. Pour a little olive oil into a frying pan, add the lamb and cook on a high heat for 2 mins or until golden brown, flip over and place in the oven for 3-4 mins. Take out of the oven, remove the lamb from the pan and leave to rest for 2 mins
  10. To serve, cut the pancakes in quarters, place on a plate with the roast peppers, lamb rack and a spoon of pesto on top”

The original post for the Huffington Post Food section can be found here. All recipes are by Jun Tanaka.

Have you been persuaded to give these recipes a go in your kitchen? I have, and I’ve invited some friends who are well versed in the arts of gastronomic gorging around tomorrow to try them, so there’s no backing out now (gulp).


Part One: Japan in Pictures

I’ve always loved Japan. I used to dream of it after watching too much anime and borrowing my dad’s novels by James Clavell. I would read Gai-jin and Tai-Pan and watch endless episodes of Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z, which in retrospect didn’t help my naive impressions of Japan. I was transported by historical, fictional and cartoon versions of  the country. In my head it was a world of meditation gardens, of white herons and of geishas in many-coloured kimonos.

231026_634676868042_2899311_nEmpty Sake Barrels on Miyajima Island

All the different forms of ‘my Japan’ distorted and intertwined themselves into a seething mass of rights and ritual, tea ceremonies and Yakuza; of hari-kari, seppuku, samurai, ninjas and honour and heritage; of maple trees, unagi, bamboo,  antiquities and ancient history.

250135_634569822562_2888633_nMaple trees in Kyoto

This bewitching country has always been top of my travel wishlist, wedged improbably and inelegantly between Vanuatu and Ushuaia, and, in 2011, I managed to make it there, at the tail end of a long trip with The Boy.

It was everything I had expected, if possible more and, I suppose, in measures it was less. It was shockingly expensive – we struggled to eat reasonably and to pay for the metro tickets after the soft introduction of bargain basement Thailand and Vietnam. It was staggeringly beautiful – the floating torii gate that appeared to me like a living doorway between the earth and heaven in Miyajima will stay burnt into my mind’s eye forever.

246669_634676304172_4420378_nThe Torii at Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima – Heaven’s Gate

Never have I felt more Godzilla-like as I wandered around Shinjuku and was surrounded by pocket-sized, lilly-white lovelies in Oscar-worthy make-up, pristine silk blouses and kitten heels. The business men in their sharply tailored suits and hair so stiff it looked like lego glanced at my dusty boots with politely-concealed distaste as my feet, feeling ashamed of their shabby appearance, tried to hide behind my travel-stained backpack.


Japan was, to be truthful, also in turns a very strange place. Men would read explicit hentai – cartoon porn – on the metro on their daily commute and there were new breeds of bizarre hotel like the Cuddle Café, where patrons would pay by the hour to sleep and be hugged by a stranger.  I wrote a little about the oddities of Japan in a previous post about mental bentos, but, despite the intermittent other-worldliness of Japan, it’s a place I still yearn to return to, if only for the incredible food.

231173_634568949312_7925756_nTempura prawns and green peppers with miso soup, Nara

Last night Jun Tananka, a chef of Japanese heritage, transported me straight back to my 2011 trip with his plates of miso salmon, umami lamb and tempura shitake mushrooms. As I scoffed these delights I reminisced about the similar morsels that I had once eaten at the pop up sushi stands that stood alongside Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo like rows of painted beach huts.

There will be more on that tomorrow, as I try to put Jun Tanaka’s flavours into words, but for now here’s a collection of my Japan in pictures, from down town Tokyo and the deer-filled park in Nara to Osaka’s bright lights, Hiroshima’s prayer cranes, Kyoto’s temples and the bamboo forests of Arashiyama.

225236_634677162452_8005649_nTuna heads in the fish market. My foot is there as a reference to show their terrifying size!

227957_634455516632_671407_nGrannies on the Metro, Tokyo

227216_634456050562_4502138_nThe Glico Man in Dotonbori, Osaka

229061_634568709792_4109798_nSchool children admiring the view in Nara Park

248999_634675371042_7803631_nPaper prayer cranes in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park, each crane has a special significance, which you can read more about here.

225525_634676204372_4079479_nThe torii, Miyajima, off the coast of Hiroshima. Once, not so very long ago, women weren’t allowed on this island and old folk would be shipped off it to die to keep this shrine island pure from death and contamination.


227403_634573320552_1905114_nThe bamboo forests of Arashiyama

225828_634569253702_466575_nTemple gardens of tranquillity, Kyoto

225836_634573205782_8025778_nKinkaku-ji Zen Buddhist temple, Kyoto. The top floors of the temple are coated in gold leaf. It was reportedly the home of retired shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and made a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect after he died in 1408.

229136_634570012182_5810063_nCycling around Sannenzaka’s wooden houses and temples along one of the oldest streets in Kyoto.

I know I’m not alone in my love and fascination for Japan. In fact, Frankie, a wonderful writer and blogger I met last year while dog mushing (which you can read all about here), also  dreams of visiting as you can read in her 2014 travel wish list. I would love to hear from people who have been to Japan and what their favourite places or experiences were.

Fingers crossed, there will, hopefully, be more to come on the food and the fish market in Part Two: Jun Tanaka’s Japanese Feast. 

Extreme Japan: Mental Bento

I was trawling down my Facebook feed yesterday when a post from Tokyo Otaku Mode popped up. I always view their posts with a degree of trepidation – will it be an inappropriately dressed lolita gazing at the camera in an alarming cosplay get up, or will it be a sneak peak at covert Jap-anime culture, a window into geek’s district Akihabara or some intricately-crafted coffee art?

I was in luck, instead of a doe-eyed teenager with impossible breasts staring wistfully in a tutu and a blue wig, I found a round up of the cutest and most creative ‘charaben’ – a more creative form of character bento that would put most people’s packed lunch attempts over here to shame.

These lunch boxes are works of art, with faces and cartoon characters painstakingly recreated using seaweed, coloured rice, wafer-thin omelettes, carved hot dogs and sculpted radishes.

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All images from Tokyo Otaku Mode’s Pinterest.

Back in 2011, the BBC ran an insider report on Japan’s impressive lunch boxes, which you can still watch online here, but lunches seem to have gone beyond industrious mothers preparing them at home to big business, and there’s no way all of these are made ‘just for the kids.’

In fact there are even websites, like justbento.com, that are dedicated to teaching visitors how to make these elaborate bentos, from beginner’s rice balls to expert character masterpieces.

This dedication, control, extreme level of creativity and sheer, wonderful madness typifies Japan to me, or at least the Japan that I experienced when I visited in 2011.

227093_634454977712_2600907_nFor me, Japan was my rabbit hole and I fell helplessly down it. I travelled all over Tokyo, losing Street Fighter battles in the smoke-filled arcades with Japanese teenagers and wandering around the vast, multi-story manga complexes ogling figurines, comics and costumes before leaving for Osaka, the neon-wonderland, the heart-wrenching concrete jungle of Hiroshima and beyond, to Nara and Kyoto.


The following is an extract from an article I wrote expressing my bafflement and enchantment with Japan, the confusion I felt for its paradoxical mixture of rigid structure and customs and recesses of deviancy and its blurred social margins. The original piece can be found here.

227024_634454453762_4983178_n“Travelling around Japan I was in turn amused and shocked by the strangeness on show in every day life, from the sexuality to the food and even the conduct of its people.

I was bowed to by airport staff who nearly scraped their foreheads on the ground in deference, then forcibly rammed onto a train by a ‘pusher’ – a white-gloved gentleman who has the dubious job of ramming as many people as possible onto rush hour trains. I saw a woman harshly reprimand her five-year-old for staring at me on a bus, then was subsequently hunted down by hundreds of Lilliputian school children in pikachu hats toting surveys in Nara Park while their teacher pointed me out, saying something along the lines of: “Quick, get the foreigner!”

You’re greeted by a deafening chorus of: “Youkoso, ohayouuuu gozaimasuuuu” when you enter any shop, a cry that follows you around as every different employee – who genuinely seems in love with their job – walks within a metre of you (and just you wait for the complicated thank you and goodbye song and dance if you buy anything). Then there are the times where human contact is severed completely, like the restaurants where you order your food from a vending machine, which spits out a ticket for you to hand to the chef, cutting out the middle man entirely.

Japan in Five Oddities

1. The Ghibli Museum
227515_634455636392_7618330_nPart exhibition house, part shrine to the legendary animator, artist and director Hayao Miyazaki, who co-founded and created Studio Ghibli and all the wonder it produced from My Neighbor Totoro and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind to the blockbuster hit Spirited Away.

This crazy museum feels like stepping through the looking glass. There are magical mobiles and murals, tiny doors, strange passages, floor to ceiling sketches and a life-size version of the cat bus from Totoro, complete with dust bunnies (although, as I discovered, you can only go in it if you’re a child).

2. Maid Cafes

Image: kalleboo

6624442057_d51e83f8fc_bThese are scattered throughout Japan but mostly found in concentration around the geeky Akihabara district in Tokyo. In these cafés, waitresses dressed in cosplay maid costumes act as servants and treat customers as masters (and mistresses) in a private home. A young lady dressed as a cartoon character simpering, serving tea and calling you master? Sound weird? That’s because it is.

3. Manga Kissa

Can’t afford the sky high accommodation costs at the local hostel? Why not spend the night at a Manga Kissa instead. These glorified libraries come with booths separated by curtains and sometimes walls. You pay by the hour or overnight, get a comfy chair, a computer and unlimited access to the library of comics, films and books to while the night away. Drinks and showers are usually included as well. I tried it and after the sixth neon fizzy drink and hours spent watching poor quality versions of Black Swan and Star Trek I left dazed, confused and quivering from a sugar high at the first light of dawn.

4. The Penis Festival
Every April the festival of Kanamara Matsuri, or ‘The Steel Phallus,’ gets under way in Kawasaki. The object of celebration is recreated in sweet form, in carved vegetables, decorations and a parade.

The Kanamara Matsuri apparently came from local legend surrounding a penis-venerating shrine that was once popular among prostitutes praying for protection from sexually transmitted diseases. There’s also the slightly more disturbing legend of a sharp-toothed demon that hid inside a young woman’s vagina and castrated two men on their wedding nights. The young woman sought help from a blacksmith who made her an iron phallus to break the demon’s teeth, leading to the enshrinement of the item. What? Exactly.

231129_634455017632_7663044_n5. Japan is Weird.com

For more examples of the truly, inexplicably bizarre you should have a look at this website: japanisweird.com, which features – you have been warned – among other things: a japanese KFC Colonel, an intimate relations practice room for teenagers and more adult-sized costumes clearly intended for children than you can shake a Pocky biscuit stick at.”

Hiroshima, Japan

Paper Cranes

In Japan there’s an ancient legend that says magical cranes can live for a thousand years and that anyone who folds one thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish. Some stories say you’ll be given eternal good luck, others that you’ll gain good health or a longer life.

Cranes can be made for peace, for luck and for happiness. In Hiroshima there’s a story about Sadako Sasaki, the 12-year-old school girl who made them for all these things when she contracted leukaemia ten years after America dropped the atomic bomb on her home town in 1945. Sadako tried to make one thousand paper cranes, hoping that she could wish to be well again, but died three months into her project.

School children still make these beautiful, fragile cranes to hang on the monuments in the Peace Memorial Park like these ones I found walking around there in May a few years ago. In September this year her relatives donated one of her tiny, finger-nail sized cranes to the Pearl Harbour visitors’ centre with Sadako’s nephew, Yuji Sasaki, explaining: “We have both been wounded and have suffered painfully. We don’t want the children of the future to go through the same experience.”