“Sea Bream Tea”
Chef Sasaki asserts, “I think that sea bream can be called the ‘King of Fish’ because is so symbolic of Japan.” Because the fish is red, which is a color associated with felicitous occasions, and the word play of ‘tai’, meaning sea bream, and ‘meditai’, meaning happy or auspicious, the sea bream has extremely profound yet familiar associations for Japanese people. It is truly the king of fish. Furthermore, because Ebisu, one of the Seven Lucky Gods, is always shown catching a sea bream on his fishing rod, it is a symbol of good luck and happiness. And sea bream is also used for important formal family celebrations.
“The sea bream known as ‘momijidai’, fished in autumn, has a stronger umami flavor that the ‘sakuratai’, which is fished in spring, and it has a deeper coloring as well,” says Chef Sasaki, whose thoughts seem as deep as the autumn fish he talks about.
Using this sea bream, a simple bowl of ochazuke is transformed into a luxurious menu item.
The sea bream is lightly salted and left to rest overnight, then cut into slices. These slices are gently packed into a thick sesame marinade made with ground sesame seeds, soy sauce, sake, mirin, egg whites, and sugar. The fish is then left to fully season in the marinade.
While the fish is marinating, the ochazuke is prepared; however, although ochazuke is usually made with green tea, on this occasion tea is not used. Instead, the fish head is used to make dashi.
The head is first well grilled, until it emits a fine savory aroma, which draws out the salty flavor. Then kombu, sake and water are added and heated with the fish bones, which creates the dashi. After twelve minutes the delicious flavor is fully developed and it is ready to drink.
On top of a bowl of glistening, cooked white rice, the marinated sea bream pieces are placed, then the fish dashi is poured over the top. The pieces of raw sea bream become partially cooked from the heat of the dashi being poured over them. Finely sliced chives and arare are sprinkled over the top and it is served immediately.
While initially tasting the sesame, the richness of the sea bream then follows. And so is created a rice dish with a unique affinity that is distinctive of Japanese people and culture.
The sea bream is eaten with sea bream dashi, and it is the richness of the flavors that gives the dish its depth.
As would be expected of a restaurant of this caliber, this one dish draws its inspiration from many directions. In just one dynamic mouthful, the true worth of Chef Sasaki’s cuisine is revealed: his ochazuke demonstrates the talent and ability of a master chef who is like a theater director staging a live performance of flavor.
Translated by Cate Pearce from Gion Sasaki