Urasawa - New Year's Eve
New Year’s Eve at Urasawa is a dream restaurant for us. There are no noise-makers, no two seatings; nothing except exceptional food and the ever gracious Hiro. There is definitely a similarity of ingredients between last year and this year. The reason is that Hiro prides himself on only using ingredients of the season so although the preparations might be similar, the focus is on the ingredient and the dedication to that ingredient’s finest quality.
Hairy Crab from Hokkaido, Mizuna, Chrysanthemum flower, yuzu zest, white soy and vinegar
Toro, monkfish liver. Shiso, mirugai, turnip from Kyoto, scallion, Japanese red leaf, shiso flower – the combination of the monkfish with the toro was brilliant – think unctuous
Salmon eggs from Hokkaido, small ebi (shrimp), shitake mushroom, mizuna, edame tofu, topped with gold leaf – salmon eggs are at the end of the season and these salmon eggs have no relationship to the salmon eggs in jars. The edame tofu was in a word wondrous.
Sashimi – red snapper from Southern Japan, Toro from Spain, Kanpachi from Koyama, shiso, carrot and pickle from Kyoto, Chrysanthemum flower, soy sauce, fresh wasabi served in a hand-carved ice bowl
Beef from southern Japan served as tartare topped with caviar and pickled radish – another brilliant combination.
Egg custard, shark fin from Japan, shitake, shrimp, uni, ginko nuts, bonito flavor, ginger – this gives new meaning to comfort food
Cod fish sperm sac from Hokkaido done as tempura – you mix in the radish to the sauce
The next dish was very intricate. The beef served as the outer wrapper and was “filled” with Santa Barbara uni, Shitake and lobster. It was then placed on hot stones and sake mushi was added. The steaming process cooks the dish evenly and produces an incredibly moist and succulent dish.
On a small brazier, hairy crab from Hokkaido sits in its shell. It is topped with shrimp, uni, mizuna, crab brain and “bread” sauce. I am hoping I got this last reference to the sauce correct, but it is somewhat difficult for me to be absolutely accurate given the wine and my lack of an extensive Japanese vocabulary.
Shabu Ingredients– foie gras, Matsuzaka A-5 Kobe, Scallop, Slippery Lobster
Shabu Shabu – thank goodness we didn’t have to cook it – we had help and the foie takes the longest to cook. After you have consumed each ingredient, you are given a soup spoon to enjoy the broth.
Now sushi – I know people think that Hiro is “putting me on”, but he learned this from Masa, his mentor. He absolutely wants 185 grains of rice per sushi portion.
Baby white shrimp
Toro with scallion roll
The obvious question is how does this declared perfectionist determine in real-time whether he's meeting his work-goal of exactly 185 rice grains per portion?
More interesting, however, is the question: Why should the desired number of rice grains be fixed when the taste, texture, caloric value, etc., of the sushi pieces vary? Wouldn't it sound strange if a person insisted on *exactly* one ounce of cream per mug of joe, regardless of the brewing method or strength and other taste properties of the coffee?
re: Harry Nile
You have to remember that Masa was Hiro's mentor. Although, Hiro has developed his own style over the years, there are some things that the pupil follows. The proportion of rice to fish is very important - you don't want the experience of eating rice with some fish.
Even the temperature of the rice is vitally important.
“Sushi is such a simple equation that every variable has to approach perfection. The rice itself is a careful exercise in balance. It should be short-grain, a little sweet from sugar, a little sour from rice vinegar, and with just a whisper of sea salt. By the time it gets to you, it should be close to 98.6 degrees, “So when you eat it, you don’t feel any cold or hot—just smooth,” Masa explains. “If something cold, tongue reject.” The grains should melt away even if you don’t chew. This is partly why sushi chefs can’t stand to see Americans dunking the rice side of their sushi in soy sauce. They’ve engineered it to come apart in your mouth, but the same thing will happen in the soy—and you just ruined that precarious balance of flavor. If you really want to get under their skin, use your chopsticks to pick up all those little rice grains that fell in there when you drenched it.”
lizziee, you emphasize balance, but my question _concerns_ balance: Why does Hiro's master require the same amount of rice on sushi pieces that vary in taste, texture, and other properties? Balance calls for a flexible approach -- e.g., 170 grains with one composition, 190 with another -- in the way that Urasawa diners balance food with different wines according to plate and palate. If you told me Masa requires 185 rice grains because that number is sacred in some culturally important religious or historical tradition, I'd accept it, despite the potential for imbalanced taste and texture. But your quote appeals to scientific and culinary logic, and I see none justifying a fixed number.
re: Harry Nile
My $0.02, having dined there 6 times...
The fact that Hiro-san says this alludes more to the fact that his motion is so precise and practiced when making sushi, that he "knows" that each handful of his will contain 185 grains of rice. Yes, with an error bar of about 1%-2%, give or take, but very, VERY consistent from piece to piece.
Whatever the statistical analysis may be... The "take-home messages" are that Hiso-san wants the same amount in each "bite" of sushi that he serves, and that he prides himself on consistency on his ritual.
re: Harry Nile
I'm sure there's no way he can be 100% precise unless he portions out the rice ahead of time. But as you say, the tane vary in taste, texture...and they can also vary in how they're cut. So perhaps the tane are cut in specific ways so that they all work with ~185 grains of rice.
Bingo! I don't know whether your answer is correct, but you're the only poster who addressed the question -- in effect, Why should anyone _want_ the same amount of rice in every biteful when the rest of the bite varies across different pieces in taste, density, texture, and other properties? Few people would order the same bread with every kind of sandwich at Bay Cities. Joël Robuchon doesn't present each plate at L'Atelier with the same quantity of side dishes.
I had already considered some-such answer as yours -- "perhaps the tane are cut in specific ways so that they all work with ~185 grains of rice" -- but the laboriously delicate approach didn't seem likely. The more I think about it, however, the more sublime the prospect becomes, and I hope you're right.
re: Harry Nile
The size of a piece of nigiri (rice and fish) is determined by the fact that it's supposed to be bite sized with emphasis on the fish being used. Meaning, each piece is made to be consumed in one bite and and should not be a "stuffed" mouthful. The amount of rice used is not determined by or based on the different flavors of the different fish being used.
I think we all know that already. We're just throwing out ideas that can reconcile Harry Nile's question with Hiro-san's belief that 185 grains is the perfect amount of rice. What you wrote amounts to, "it just has to be small," which is obvious, but does not reconcile anything. Not to mention that it denies any possible belief about the existence of (im)balance between the shari and the tane as long as both are sufficiently small (which may or may not be true - it may sound a little hokey to nit-pick it to such a degree, but if anyone can be fanatical enough to do it, it's the Japanese).
FWIW, I'm agnostic about the whole 185 grains of rice thing. As I said, just throwing out ideas. I've heard Hiro-san mention it before too, but AFAIK nobody has ever asked him to explain fully why that's the magic number, and/or why it works across the board. I don't know when I'll make it to Urasawa again, but I doubt I'll bother to ask. I'll be too busy enjoying the food.
For the record, I will repeat once more Masa was Hiro's teacher. He learned from Masa and for Masa more than 200 grains of rice was his norm. How do I know this? One day, at Ginza Susho-Ko, Masa showed me how he counted out each grain of rice - in rows of ten, spread out. Now I am not saying that Hiro counts out his rice every day - he doesn't. After all these years he can "feel" it. He does check periodically to know if he is the correct range of what he has decided is the best for his sushi - emphasis on HIS. I have sat at the sushi bar with Hiro for over 12 years- first with Masa and then as Urasawa. He is very serious, very accommodating, always smiling and one of the most generous and honest people I know. Also, 185 grains of rice was one line in a very long report. Everyone, it was a great dinner with great food, great service and perfect ambiance.
re: Harry Nile
As I see it, there's a "left-brain" and a "right-brain" approach to this issue...
Left-brain approach: Scientifically, if you use the amount of rice as control, it allows the taster to see just how each fish interacts with the rice, in terms of taste, texture, temperature, etc. In other words, the fish is the experimental variable, with the rice being the control. The advantage of this is that the taster may learn (with less ambiguity) about what he/she enjoys more as the meal progresses.
Right-brain approach (Harry Nile's viewpoint): Cooking demands flexibility with each ingredient. Some ingredients naturally taste better with certain accompaniments, under different conditions, in different amounts. In other words, one cannot use the same algorithm for each ingredient or when combining ingredients. This view espouses cooking (and gustatory enjoyment) as an art, rather than a science. The advantage is maximum enjoyment of the meal using known combinations and the possibility of a serendipitous match between ingredients and conditions (which, by the way, can sometimes be disastrously opposite in result).
There is no right or wrong between these approaches. The world needs great scientists just as much as it need great artists. Hiro-san may simply lean towards the "left-brain" a bit more on the "185 grains of rice" issue, that's all...