BOOK REVIEW; Less is More: an Iron Chef Impresses in Surprising Ways
By Joy Hui Lin
Riding the tide of celebrity cookbooks, Masaharu Morimoto’s cookbook, self entitled, “Morimoto, The New Art of Japanese Cooking,” (DK, $40.00) concentrates more on the famed Iron Chef’s reflected glory and than teaching the art of Japanese cooking.
The stern but exuberant Japanese born Morimoto indulges his every whim describing in great detail, accompanied by extensive modern and clean photography, techniques of classic Japanese food preparation to writing in earnest versions of his own favorite dishes.
Mr. Morimoto chooses an interesting subject in Japanese fusion. Japanese food which has been given five star treatment in the US., is wildly popular, yet few attempt to recreate Japanese restaurant food in the home. This book capitalizes on Japanese cuisine’s tendency to favor seafood with fresh and distinct flavors while Mr. Morimoto uses ingredients that range from the extravagant (lobsters and caviar) to the humble (rice and gyoza skins).
With the insistence of a passionate chef, Mr. Morimoto expounds on a number of areas of his expertise in Japanese food. He schools his American audience with strict edicts to not “dunk your sushi rice-first into soy sauce” and “Eat the pickled ginger between bites of sushi.” His entreaty to use quality ingredients is mentioned often through his descriptions which then seeps the book in no small amount of arrogance.
The cookbook begins with a rigorous review of techniques from preparing octopus to how to cut and create fancy bamboo leaves. The elaboration of such complicated techniques does, as it intends, awe and intimidate such as the delicate unfolding of a sheet of palest daikon. However, even more impressive than his razor knife skills are the incredible displays of gleaming sashimi and sushi pieces which would whet the appetite of any proclaimed sushi lover.
Throughout the cookbook Mr. Morimoto lays out his take on Japanese fusion in a refreshing manner. In one recipe he suggests pouring out the stock onto soup ingredients through a teapot capitalizing on his gift for creative presentation. Some recipes, however, are beautifully presented yet skeptically received, like his suggestion to serve chocolate dipped asparagus (Asparagus Pocky) for dessert.
As Mr. Morimoto mentions in the introduction, people ask him why he doesn’t prepare Japanese food, and this book does little to challenge that. His wide and varied recipes focus around mostly Chinese inspired dishes with a Japanese accent and key Japanese ingredients. His self aggrandized label of “The New Art of Japanese Cooking,” is more a carte blanche to take his favorite dishes and work them with some staple Japanese items rather than creating cornerstones of a new cuisine.
In a surprising turn, despite the uneven handling of workable recipes with recipes one only views as remote and only pleasing to the eye, Mr. Morimoto rightly targets the heart of good cooking. The last part of the book reviews different sorts of broth, stock, sauces, and flavored oils which are the platform of his better recipes which produce such clean and amazing tastes. I would have never guessed that a book put out by an Iron Chef more known for his fancy crowd pleasing presentations than basic instructional teaching would so neatly point out how essential it is to start from carefully crafted basics – even apart from all the exotic, expensive, and often hard to obtain ingredients (blowfish, even).
Recipes in the cookbook are described either succinctly with ingredients which combine very distinct tastes together which play harmoniously, or are overly complicated recipes with ingredients and/or techniques which are difficult to obtain or to learn.
As a wildly creative chef, Mr. Morimoto achieves moments of brilliance bringing the succulent flavors of the East and West together successfully in a bowl or on a plate like his Teapot Soup with Matsuke Mushrooms or his unique take on Mabu Tofu which includes the element of red miso in it. However, like most flights of fancy, there is much which goes awry like the first recipe of a sweetened eggy cake with shrimp flavor. There are too many frightful desserts to mention which no one but, I think, the very palate challenged will try such as Frozen Squid-Strawberry Candy, and Vanilla Ice Cream with Lobster Sauce.
Fans of Mr. Morimoto will find “Morimoto: The New Art of Japanese Cooking,” an eye catching coffee table addition as well as an in depth glance at Mr. Morimoto’s personal opinions and personality. For fans of Asian fusion cooking, this book can provide a point of inspiration, though I would forewarn most than most of the book is aimed at restaurant style cooking instead of more subtle beauties which can be produced without too much difficulty in the home.