Masu – travel to Japan in your own kitchen, with Auckland chef Nic Watt »

Fresh, contemporary, accessible Japanese food for the home cook

By Robyn Lewis
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<i>Masu</i> by Nic Watt

Masu by Nic Watt

 

Have you ever wanted to visit Japan? Do you love Japanese style and food? Or have you been, and want to recreate some of the flavours and ambience at home, without having to do a master’s in Japanese cooking? Then Masu is for you.

Masu the book is named after Masu the Auckland restaurant. Two decades in the making, it’s a distillation of 23 years of culinary experience by Australian-born chef Nic Watt, in Japan, London and more recently in New Zealand, where he was invited to head the kitchen at the world-renowned Haku Lodge, before realising his dream of his own restaurant. (He also opened Madame Hanoi in Adelaide in 2015, to excellent reviews.)

Masu is named after the square wooden box once used to measure rice, now used for serving sake on special occasions. It symbolises abundance, prosperity and goodwill, and “giving more than people expect” – the philosophy behind Watt’s restaurant, and also his book. The book is a visual feast, and those who appreciate Japanese culture will delight in the attention to detail. It’s like taking a holiday to Japan just opening the covers. The photography by Babiche Martens is simply gorgeous, and the books’ square format (reflecting the masu box?) is the perfect showcase.

Of the many countries I have visited, Japan is the most ‘foreign’ I have experienced – despite being technologically advanced, there are many areas where Western culture has not permeated. And despite a considerable number of French restaurants, one of these areas is Japanese food.

Japanophile Jane Lawson says in her book on Kyoto Zenbu Zen that – unlike Australia, where we happily adopt and incorporate thousands of foreign influences into our cuisine – very few Japanese people cook Western food at home. She also found many restaurants hidden from foreigners, where their culinary culture is preserved behind the scenes. (You can go only on invitation, and then, only if they think you are capable of appreciating the finesse of their preparation and presentation.)

So, how to get a window into this other world? And better still, experience it at home? Sure, there are sushi restaurants in almost every country now, displaying varying degrees of competence, quality and authenticity, but there is so much more to Japanese food than raw fish and rice, or even sashimi and teppanyaki.

Masu sensibly starts with the basis of the Japanese pantry; some of these ingredients like wasabi, mirin and pickled ginger will already be familiar. There are 19 in total, and while you won't need them all to start on the recipes in this book, get ready for some Japanese shopping for bonito flakes, dried kombu (a type of seaweed used for stocks), miso paste and a few others, plus some sake to wash it all down (or wine; Watt is not fussy about food and drink matching, but wants you to enjoy the experience).

Next are the tools required, and I must confess that I still own very few of the 21 listed here – I don’t think I’ll ever own three Japanese sashimi knives (I prepared sashimi recently with a suitable sharp, long-bladed carving knife), or need an ice pick. But bamboo mats are essential for sushi, and various other hand-made tools you can build up over time if you get into it.

The pages on dining etiquette are essential however, because like the tea ceremony, there is certain protocol to follow to avoid looking like a barbarian or causing unintentional offence, especially when dining with Japanese hosts.

That done, it’s onto some sample menus: ‘Summer fast and fun’; ‘Gatherings and dinner parties’, and a ‘Date night to impress’ (and believe me, anyone would be if served this elegant feast!) However I’d suggest starting with a few dishes first than trying to pull off five at once, especially if making your own stock and have never cooked sushi rice.

The recipes begin with a section called ‘Seared, cured and raw’ – unsurprisingly, mostly the sushi and sashimi with which we are familiar. Ah but how simplicity can deceive! These dishes are all about the preparation and exquisite presentation, as the photos testify, and if I were a beginner I might skip over to ‘Salads and sharing’ , ‘Soup, rise and noodles’ or ‘Family meals’ where the approachable elements of the book really shine.

That said, Watt gives us a recipe for Seared Tuna Tataki and Grapefruit Escabeshe which can be largely made in advance: just add seared tuna (ditto the Beef Tataki with Ginger Ponzu and Garlic Chips). Helpfully too the sashimi section shows the main cuts of tuna, and also how to make sashimi from salmon, snapper, trevally and prawns.

‘Let’s get rolling’ could be a fun activity with the kids, if you don’t mind the results looking less than perfect – I’m sure the sushi will taste just as delicious, especially the Wild Prawn Bo Zushi which graces the book’s cover.

Watt tells us that his Spicy Tuna Ura Maki Roll appears a lot harder to make than it is; it looks delicious. If you like less rice, and eating with your hands, try making Temaki Cones from toasted nori sheets – here he uses Salmon and Avocado, but they can be made with almost any filling.

‘Salads and sharing’ starts with Home-made Kimchi Chilli Cabbage, to get your tastebuds talking, and Nic’s Cucumber Chilli Pickle which no-one will believe is as simple as it is, taking only 15 minutes.

Ditto his Iceberg Salad with Roasted Onion and Apple Soy Dressing; his executive chef Darren Johnson’s Spinach Salad with Maple Soy Dressing is another tasty winner.

There’s a homage to NZ whitebait in the Sushi Omelette; a Spider Slider for hipsters (made with crab and brioches coloured with squid ink); Octopus Carpaccio; Soft-shell Crab and Avocado Taco, plus other tacos made with wheat gyoza wrappers, which sound easy and delicious.

Beautiful presentation turns the underrated fish gurnard into a work of art, cured in grapefruit and served on buckwheat rice (you’ll need to learn to cook sushi rice to perfection for many of these recipes – thankfully, the method is demonstrated on p 206) and for summer, the Silken Tofu and Watermelon Gazpacho looks and sounds divine.

I also like the idea of cooking salmon on a hot stone (pre-heated in the oven), and bringing it to the table to impress, but an ovenproof dish will work just as well.

Despite the beautiful presentation and exquisite photos, Nic Watt is not about fussiness, overlaying the New Zealand love of laid-back casual fun onto traditional Japanese to create good food that’s also for relaxing entertaining or dining at home. He wants your food experience to be memorable, not intimidating.

And so to ‘Soup, Rice and Noodles’, the mainstay of many Japanese meals, especially during the daytime and while travelling (railway stations have stalls serving their specialities).

Watts uses a coffee plunger to make his White Miso Soup with Cloudy Bay Clams – what a great idea! There are several other soups, an easy-sounding Unagi (freshwater eel) Donburi which he assures us is an excellent and filling lunch dish; home-made Great Tea and Buckwheat Noodles, even noodle dishes made with packet noodles. All this can be done at home, as it is in Japan.

‘From the fryer’ covers tempura, fish fingers (he uses flounder) and West Coast Whitebait Fritters, and ‘Cooking with charcoal’ has more fish, plus a variety of grilled vegetable dishes. The Roast Salmon with Grapefuit Miso cooked in an oven on a cedar plank has been served at the best restaurants in London and Huka Lodge in New Zealand, and is also sure to impress.

There are even some Peruvian influences from Watt’s travels – and apparently Peru has a thriving Japanese community – heading into some meat dishes, including a child-pleaser Chicken Yakatori skewers, which of course are great with beer or sake too, as are the Barbecued Chicken Wings.

Family meals get a mention with Okonomiyaki Savoury Prawn Pancakes – instant Japanese food at its best – and Lamb Leg Roasted with Masu Hot Pepper Spices, which Watt makes with a Korean pepper paste.

The recipes end with several desserts: standouts include a Chocolate and Green Tea Pudding roasted in a traditional masu cedar box (or you can use ramekins); Honeycomb and Passionfruit Chawan Mushi (a very soft baked custard, more often savoury); Drunken Pineapple (roasted) and his Green Tea, Banana and Hazelnut take on the old classic, Crème Brulée. And I can't wait until summer to try his Frozen Summer Berries with White Chocolate and Passionfruit, which is one of his favourite crowd pleasers and so easy.

To make things even more approachable the book ends with a section on Base Recipes (and methods) and lastly with a few cocktails, and drinks made from shochu, a 24% spirit often made from rice which Watt infuses with fruit – have one of these before you start for a relaxed time in the kitchen and with your friends.

Overall this book is a winner for me – I can taste the authentic Japan without going back there (much as I would love to!) and can’t wait to try these at home. Even my relatively fussy daughter will be saying gochiso-sama deshita (“that was a feast”) after one of these meals, and despite appearances, a lot of these dishes could be prepared by a teenager or relative novice in the kitchen.

And the fresh, local New Zealand produce shines through, just as it does at Masu in Auckland. I can’t wait to go there too!

 

Masu by Nic Watt is published by Allen & Unwin (Auckland, NZ, Nov 2015; hc, 240pp) and retails in Australia for RRP A$49.99

Masu can be purchased online via Booko here »

Or in ebook form here »

 

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October 10th, 2016
 
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