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Akasaka Cooking School (or, how I became the new Iron Chef)

JAPAN | Wednesday, 17 March 2010 | Views [1458]

As the bureaucrats, politicians and dignitaries of Akasaka were darting in and out of exclusive restaurants for quick and very expensive power lunches, I was diving head first into my latest culinary challenge - the Japanese cooking class.  I've never been what anyone would call a whiz in the kitchen (I generally tend to create more mess than edible food) so I was a little nervous when I discovered that my Intrepid Travel "Flavours of Tokyo" tour would involve a few cooking class kitchen encounters.

My first class took place in the busy business district of Akasaka, at the The Akasaka Cooking School (Akasaka Mitsuke).  Walking into the second floor classroom I found a very clean and organised looking kitchen (something that is quite foreign to me in itself) with a group of Japanese women sitting around one of the benches shelling peas. One of these women introduced herself to me as Ms. Yanagawa, my teacher for the day.  In perfectly accented English, she showed me around the tiny school before walking me through the recipe sheet and the counter-full of raw ingredients we would use to create our Japanese feast.

Fist, we made a basic soup stock using kelp and dried fish flakes - this was to be the base of a Miso soup with tofu and leek.  I managed to complete this dish without major disaster and began to relax a little into the kitchen-groove. I then tackled the slightly more difficult 'Kidney beans with sesame dressing' - more difficult in that it involved a knife, a mortar and pestle and more than 4 ingredients, but again, the dish was completed with out an issue.  I was already surprised at how easy cooking was proving to be, and began to wonder if, perhaps, Rokusaburo Michiba (Japans most successful ‘Iron Chef’) was in the market for a new apprentice... just a thought. 

We made desert next to allow it time to cool.  Ms. Yanagawa had pre-made a sweet red-bean paste (it needs to sit overnight) to which I was to add rice flour dumplings.  I'd attempted to make these a few times when I lived in Korea, so I pretty much knew what I was doing... or rather I knew how not to make them – usually I’m left with a gooey mess rather than delicious, springy dumplings.   This time, however, I got the consistency just right (they need to be 'as hard as an earlobe') and they tasted great... it was just their shape that left a lot to be desired– they looked like they’d been made by a 3 year old.  Ms Yanagawa called them "sort of cute" and "nicely unique"... which was nice of her, because they were neither of these things.

The next two dishes involved the cooking of meat - something that would normally stir up a little internal panic in me, however, after my success on the first three dishes (I’m going on taste not appearance here), coupled with the knowledge that Ms. Yanagawa would not let me go too far astray, I tackled my Chicken Yakitori and Fish Teriyaki with confidence and, hey-presto, I managed to not stuff it up!  Maybe Chef Michiba needs more of a co-chef than an apprentice.... 

Despite my newfound kitchen confidence, the next dish left me quaking in fear.  It may sound like the easiest dish on the menu, but is also the easiest to ruin.  Yes people, I'm talking about cooking white rice.... without a rice cooker (insert scary music here).  This is something I have tried to master for years and always, without fail, every single bloody time, I manage to destroy it.  Too soft, too hard, too dry, too gluggy... seriously how can this simple grain be so difficult to cook?   Ms. Yanagawa admits that even she finds rice a challenge, but assured me that if we watched the timer closely our rice would be perfect.  So, for the next 27 minutes and 43 seconds precisely, I kept a diligent eye on said timer, adjusting the heat when it was required of me and covering and uncovering the pot as the recipe called for.  And do you know what?  I've never seen such perfect rice in my life! 

What a great day. Not only did I manage to cook an edible meal from scratch, but it was deeeeelicious.  Thank you Ms. Yanagawa!

Move over Michiba, there's a new kid in town.

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