Japanese Frame of Mind: Miso Black Cod

This is me at a traditional Japanese inn, known as a ryokan, looking out at the garden, dressed in my vintage, authentic Japanese kimono. My friend Yasuko took this picture of me and it’s one of my favourite pictures ever.

I’m relying on memories and dreams these days. With a pandemic that isn’t disappearing with a magic wand, it’s those memories which keep reminding me of the lives we once lived, of a sense of freedom, joy and connection. Lately, I’ve been in a Japanese frame of mind. Maybe, it’s because I miss my friends there and the beautiful, peaceful culture. Maybe it’s because Japan was a place where I first saw people wearing masks. I donned one myself – just to fit in – only to discover that my mask kept me warm on those wintry nights. When I think about how I was able to travel the world once upon a time, I am filled with a feeling that every day counts.  Don’t wait!!!!  That phone call to that person you haven’t spoken to in ages? Make it! If you wish you had more time to go for walks with your loved ones, drop the ‘to do list’ and go walking. That absolutely delicious food which you used to eat at five star Michelin restaurants across the world? You might not be jumping on a plane any time soon, but acquire the skills and make that food at home. It is possible.

I was lucky enough to once be in Japan at cherry blossom season and I took this while walking with my friend Yasuko

As I write this, I am thinking of all the amazing restaurants and people in the hospitality industry who have suffered hugely in this pandemic. So many have been forced to close down. I can truly say that restaurants have been one of the greatest sources of my happiness and food inspiration in my life – and it is devastating to think of what they have gone through now. I hope that this blog reminds us all a little of the life that was and connects us to the memories of communal public drinking and eating at pubs, bistros, cafes and patisseries around the world.

During lockdown, some people baked banana bread, or got deep into a sour-dough yeast starter. In longing for my travel days and the restaurants I was lucky to frequent, I returned to cooking some of my most memorable dishes that have been inspired by my favourite all over the world, from borsht in Russia to ceviche in Peru to black cod in Japan. I suppose recreating them was my version of banana bread. But, what’s a girl to do! My miso black cod is a case in point. It’s so good that my friends have told me they might just love me for my cod, not my care. Miso black cod was created by a genius of Peruvian and Japanese influence, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa. I first encountered ‘the cod’ in New York, in the days when I was a junior Advocate traveling the world, circa 1995.

Some twenty years ago, Nobu restaurant had opened in New York. While visiting the city on a trip, I made it my mission to get there for dinner one night.  There is something lovely about the joie de vivre of going for dinner with friends- in New York it would often be with one of my besties, Sharon. Of course once I had children I  always took my children with me as well. And so it was us plus our push-chairs slowly winding our way  through the culinary corridors. But being a traveler and a serious foodie, I am also content, when traveling alone, to be a solo restauranteer. I like to take in the ambience, the décor and be really present to the food. Solo-restauranting is also the best strategy to quickly befriend the chefs and   gain insight into their stories  and lives. Sitting at the Nobu bar that night with full purview  of the open-plan kitchen, I was giddy with excitement when I spotted the man himself, chef Matsuhisa, among the culinary kitchen masters. I pulled my gaze away from his mesmerising manner to study the menu.  I had a hit-list of the foods I wanted to sample. And so I began, from his yellowtail sashimi to his squid ‘penne’, I was blown away. But then I  arrived  at his renowned black cod in miso.  Forget love, this was ‘obsession at first bite’,  and one portion was just not enough.

One of the numerous miso cods I have had in my life (this one in Japan)
This is another one of the numerous miso cods I have had in my life (this one also in Japan)!

 

A note to my fellow foodies:  Never think twice before ordering seconds of a really good dish.… you never know what might happen. That very night, Chef Matsuhisa himself  walked out to my table holding miso cod  number two.  We began to talk. Chefs are my type of celebrity so you might say I was starstruck. I revealed that I had been stalking his culinary career; that I knew about his following in L.A, that I had read about his restaurant in Peru and that I was in awe of how his food combined Peruvian and Japanese influences.  His miso cod was a case in point;  a  mixture of sensations, it was a full body sensory experience. The fish  has a unique texture, flaked layers with a deep, umami-esque flavour. It is marinated for up to five days! The cod melted in my mouth, was firm yet  delicate and buttery. Then suddenly, Chef Matsuhisa in a display of unexpected largesse, said that he would share the recipe with me (and this was long before his cookbook days). My eyes grew wide as he opened his mouth to speak. Yet, the great reveal possessed an unexpected irony. He spoke and I didn’t understand a word. It was English words, just at the time they were abstruse ingredients- I had never heard of them. I nodded, trying to retain the esoteric names in my head. It was as if an Egyptian sorcerer had come down and offered me the elixir for long life, only it was in hieroglyphs. Yet, I wrote it down and I kept that piece of paper, like a sacred parchment. There was no black cod in South Africa then, but when it comes to food, I play the long game.

Whenever we visited New York, I would make sure to get as many fills of my ‘drug’ as I could. Months would go by without my fix, during which I would dream miso cod. I watched Nobu opening around the world. On a legal advocacy training in London, I made sure to spend my pounds wisely with my advocate best-friends Sharise and Lauren, not on Dolce and Gabanna dresses or Louboutin shoes, but at Nobu – on the cod! From my first trips to Japan when I met my friend Yasuko, it was amazing to see that  Nobuyuki’s miso cod had got the nod in  his home country. It was everywhere, and Yasuko and I traveled   to different gourmet stores  as she taught me  about the hundreds of varieties of miso and sake and we tasted them all!

Fifty shades of miso

On one of my trips to Japan, in love with Japanese food and culture, I even rose one night  at three am, dragged my friend Mariko and trudged in the dark and the freezing cold to the  famous Tjujuki seafood market to watch  the famous  tuna auction.  Buying a tuna at this market is like purchasing a Matisse at an auction in Paris. Watching them fillet the tuna is like being a spectator at a Venetian opera. When a particularly auspicious tuna was auctioned off for close to 20 000 USD, I felt to myself, that were it able to comment, the tuna itself would have been satisfied!

The busy Tjujuki fish market, where business is business and visitors can get run over

This was the night where we went to a Michelin star restaurant where the philosophy of eating is not wasting one part of an animal, known colloquially as ‘head to tail’. It was a twelve course meal. I am an adventurous eater but I did have a little quake when I realised I was eating someone’s ovaries. It gave me some comfort to realise that it was a Michelin star ovary. But what really made the evening special was my wonderful friends.
Behold the tuna
The honourable work of preparing a tuna

Breakfast at the market….I know, right!

During this time, global markets started to open up and all kinds of exotic foods started to land on South African shores. Eating miso cod around the world  had become quite an expensive habit for me and I needed to try and make it at home.  I returned to my hieroglyphs sheet which I had managed to  commit to memory, and found I  could now procure the ingredients on Chef Matsuhisu’s list at my local grocery store, in particular a special white miso paste, called saikyo miso. Almost ready, there was just one thing missing, the black cod itself.

Then the fortuitous  happened. Nobu opened in Cape Town. Like a well-trained  sleuth of the sea, I inferred that where there was Nobu, there would have to be black cod.  Someone would be bringing it to South African shores. I had to get to the dealer.  I came so close. I tracked down the supplier who said  he would sell me a portion of his trawl. Then as the shipment was due to arrive he asked for my address: to where will I be sending your entire black cod fish….all 15 kilos of it?’  The penny dropped, actually it was more like  a Kruger Rand! This wasn’t like picking up ‘some’ kingklip from the fishmongers.  

Wanting some black cod, but being told I needed to buy  all fifteen kilos was akin to hearing that I needed to buy a bar of gold for a pair of earrings. I did the math. I evaluated my capacity for fridge storage. I would need to use my very best knives to fillet the fish into portions and then store the ‘corpse’ of this fifteen kilo wonder in various freezers around my home. I pictured Saffron and Scarlett opening the freezer for ice cream only to be confronted with kilos of black cod carcass. I felt as if I was creating space for a dead body. As passionate as I was about black cod, the thought of spending all that money and buying an extra freezer for a fish seemed a little extreme. Like a great anti-climax, I  had to break the news to my friend Dionne and her family (our Sunday night dinner crew), who were preparing to partake in my black cod spoils, that we would be having salmon for dinner instead.  I went back to dreaming.

A few years later, my life had changed somewhat. I was making confectionery and had many contacts in the food industry. I spoke with a local gourmet supplier and they said they had started to bring in black cod. I still would need to take the whole fish, but he assured me they could obtain a fish of a more reasonable girth!  When the fish came, I went to their factory in my gumboots and learned the process of filleting. Then I took my hard-won prize home and followed the sacred spell which I had carried from Nobu for almost ten years and long since committed to memory. I marinated it for many days. The waiting was almost pleasurable.

Learning to fillet black cod at my local ‘black cod dealer’
Proof that I do actually fillet the fish myself!

Smothering black cod in marinade….is not devoid of sensuality
Black cod luxuriating in the marinade, day 3

After the marinating, I assembled the ingredients that had seemed so foreign all those years ago. I followed the method. And finally, miso cod was served up, Nobu style, in our kitchen for family and friends. My friend quipped, ‘Ka…it’s better than Nobu’. And so it was that Nobu’s legendary fish became my go-to for really special occasions. Recently, in lockdown, I have come to realise  that you shouldn’t wait too long for a special occasion.  Maybe life itself is the special occasion.  And so every so often, I make a  miso cod lockdown dinner,   wrap up the portions and deliver to the  homes of my  family and close friends.

Plated black cod in the kitchen, Nobu style

I do this to remind my friends and me of the life we once had and the special restaurants we once frequented. And to remember that every day is worthy of being a miso-cod day.   In fact, the more I cook it even just for my family of five, I realise  that with enough imagination and  some saikyo miso, we really  can re-create the world wherever we are…

Here’s the recipe: Sharing with love from me and Chef Matsuhisa

Black cod with miso

Marinade Ingredients  and Method

300 ml of sake

300 ml mirin

900 grams white miso paste  (if unavailable, use  red miso paste or any variation)

450 grams granulated sugar

Bring the sake and the mirin to a boil in a medium sized saucepan over a high heat.

Boil for twenty seconds to evaporate the alcohol.

Turn the heat down to low and add the miso paste, stirring with a wooden spoon.

When the miso has dissolved completely, turn the heat up to high again and add the sugar, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to ensure that the bottom of the pan doesn’t burn.

Remove from the heat once the sugar is fully dissolved and cool to room temperature.

Method:

Place eight fillets of fish (my perfect size is 180 grams per portion) in a casserole dish and pour the already cooled marinade over the fish. 

Cover the casserole dish  and  marinate in the fridge for two to three days, turning the fish continuously.

(After two to three days)

Heat the oven to  200 degrees

Wipe off excess miso sauce  from each fillet (do not rinse).  

Brown each piece in a heavy cast iron pan  on high heat,  just to make it a little browned on either side.  Do not cook the fillets through.

Place the slightly   browned fillets in a roasting pan, pour a very little marinade on top and bake for 15 minutes.

Serving suggestion: Serve the fish with a  few dots of the excess sauce on the side and  with steamed  sushi rice rounded in a dariol mold or any circular metal ring. Sprinkle  the rice with toasted black sesame seeds.   Include stir-fried bok-choi on the side.

Note: This marinade  also works well with the freshest salmon. It’s not black cod, it’s not Nobu, but make it yours, and it will be good too.

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