December 26, 2012

A Non-Traditionalist Japanese Chef does New Year's

Tojo's Great Pacific Roll

 Blog posts have a life of their own. You write them, forget about them, and then a day, week, a year later, there's a response. The process can be like sending out a message in a bottle, having it circumnavigate the globe and return to your shore with an answer.  Last New Year,  I  blogged about this article on Japanese osechi ryori,  which I wrote for Edible Manhattan.

I happened to be in Vancouver at the time, so I wondered where I might be able to find osechi in that Pacific city, home to lots of Japanese ex-pats and with great access to both freshly caught seafood and Japanese ingredients.

Then just recently, my bottle returned when I received this comment from Hopstepka, who I assume is a Vancouver blogger: "Just found your query. The best osechi ryori we've found is sold by Seto Sushi in Richmond. After that, there's Fujiya."

Thanks, Hopstepka! Seto's menu includes the delicious-sounding matsutake dobin mushi (translated as mushroom tea pot soup with seasonal pine mushroom) and an intriguing BBQ tako cake (BBQ octopus fish cake).

I got to wondering what my favorite sushi chef in Vancouver, Hidekazu Tojo, does to ring in the New Year at his eponymous West Broadway restaurant. Although he trained in a traditional Osaka ryotei, or high-end Japanese restaurant, Tojo says "I never really liked osechi. Everything is too salty, because the idea was that you put the food in a box that would last three or four days so you wouldn't have to cook during the holiday.
More of Tojo's sushi, fresh, fresh, fresh.

"Today, young people don't like overly salty cooking, and the people who come here are very health-oriented, they don't like foods that are to sweet, salty, or deep-fried. So I cook 'new traditional food.'"

For New Year's Tojo makes his usual omakase, or chef's choice menu, a series of small plates that progress from a sunomono, or vinegared vegetables, on to various steamed, fried and seared dishes as well as raw fish and sushi plates. He includes "new wave rolls" like his Pacific Northwest Roll of dungeness crab, avocado, scallop and fish roe, or his Northern Light Roll of wild prawn tempura, avocado and seasonal fruit rolled in a cucumber crepe.

During New Year's week, the chef will highlight traditional Japanese foods, where he updates osechi ingredients such as lotus root and black bean. He might lightly saute the lotus, and simmer the black beans in a less sugary-sweet syrup than the traditional style.

From the omakase menu, BC salmon with Asian vegetables, western-style sauce.

Referring to the somewhat westernized sauces and preparations that have crept into his food over 40 years in Vancouver, Tojo adds, "Even in Japan now, European, Chinese, Japanese food, all of it's mixed." In Canada, he believes, "The best way is to little by little introduce traditional Japanese foods."

Some osechi traditions die hard, though. Even an avowed healthy modernist like Tojo adheres to some of the symbolism that is an essential part of osechi. The colors red and white, he notes, are most important, symbolizing respect for ancestors, good health, and purity. They'll be represented on his plates in the form of the traditional kohaku namasu, a red and white vinegared daikon and carrot salad.  He'll also serve red shrimp, and a little bit of white dried fish.

So the traditional New Year's feast will be present at Tojo's, but in small bits and bites, slipped in between plates of some of the most pristine raw fish preparations you'll find on the West Coast.

Sounds great. The only problem: I won't be in Vancouver for this year's celebration.