Talking to Masakatsu Hirokawa – head chef at Kifu no Sato Ryokan in Japan – for the first time, it comes as no surprise that the man is a master of Japanese cuisine, considering his lifetime of experience. Now 68, Masakatsu started working at Kifu no Sato Ryokan at the age of 27 where he has worked as head chef for the past 41 years, gaining the luxury Japanese Inn and restaurant a whole host of awards, including being named one of the best hotels in the Okayama Prefecture by the Japan Travel Bureau in 2012. The first thing Masakatsu tells FOUR when we caught up to quiz him on his culinary career and food philosophy is that the most important skill he has learned during the long course of his career is timing. “When the ingredients are as fresh as can be, especially seafood, the taste changes according to when it is cooked and served. For example, squid should be cooked alive and served immediately. On the other hand, red snapper and flounder should be killed and allowed to rest before being cooked.” To emphasise this point he adds: “knowing the timing of when to cook and serve according to each ingredient is the ultimate skill that I have acquired over the long course of my career.”
Alongside placing high importance on timing and the freshness of his ingredients, Masakatsu takes painstaking care not to destroy the aroma of each fresh ingredient in the process of cooking and serving. “The aroma and fragrance of the food is important, especially because we serve quite a few dishes raw at Kifu no Sato Ryokan. In what order should we serve the dishes? An important question we always keep in mind when deciding how the food is displayed on a plate, the order in which a guest will eat each component. Most people will start eating whatever is closest to them. At the same time, many people will eat what attracts their attention first.”
Perhaps perfectly described as a reluctant hero of Japanese cuisine, timing clearly isn’t the only skill that humble Masakatsu has acquired in his 41 long years as a chef. Considering the patterns of people’s behaviour, Masakatsu paints an image in his mind and intuitively knows how best to present the food on a dish. A man of few words, our conversation quickly segways into a presentation of his exquisite dishes (such as the steamed dumplings below) which are so distinct in style and the pairing of flavours, they portray Masakatsu’s philosophy without the need of words. His style, quite progressively, is to never become stuck on one style of cooking, while he endeavors to be flexible, try out new skills and experiment with new tastes to continue satisfying the taste buds of his guests who gravitate towards Kifu no Sato from all over world, having been told of its exquisite fare.
Aware of Masakatsu’s more ‘silent’ side, we decided to quiz the chef on just one topic, before asking him to part with three of his recipes, which are given – true to Masakatsu’s progressive style – in the form of an evocative description, rather than a conventional ‘ingredients and method’ format. Enjoy!
Over the 41 long years at Kifu no Sato, what is the most memorable time?
My most memorable time was during the economic boom, when the Yunogo onsen town was bustling and full of people. It was around the time when the bridges crossing the Inner Sea were just being constructed. You could hear people walking in wooden "geta" clogs throughout the night that prevented you from sleeping! It was an amazing time.”
Sakura (cherry blossom) leaves are slightly salted and remarkably soft and delectable when wrapped around dumplings and rice cakes. In this dish, the dumpling is made from a special rice flour called domyoji. Once a traveler’s staple for the ease by which it can be stored and prepared, domyoji is now most commonly used in traditional sweets. For this savory dish, domyoji is first soaked in water and then formed into a ball, steamed, and wrapped in a sakura leaf.
The key to making silver sauce is to use kudzu powder, the highest grade starch available in Japan. Not only is it greatly valued as a versatile ingredient in many dishes, but it is also recognized for its healing and medicinal properties. When kudzu powder is combined with water, soy sauce and salt, it creates a smooth and thick consistency with a subtle translucent glow, hence the name “silver sauce”.
Served together with prawn and long beans, this special sakura leaf wrapped creamy dumpling in silver sauce may just be the healing touch you were craving.
This is a dish served in spring. The advent of spring is celebrated by people enjoying the crisp air and countryside. At this time an abundance of fresh plants and vegetables appear in the mountains, which are considered delicacies due to the short period of time they are available. Moromi miso is a dip usually thickened with rice or barley, which gives it a chunky texture. When vegetables are dipped in moromi miso, their flavour is enhanced by its savoury piquancy.
Agu pork is a meat particular to Okinawa, the southernmost island of Japan. It is produced from the black pig of the same name which has been native to Okinawa since the 15th century. Agu pork is of very high quality because it contains higher levels of glutamic and amino acids, while at the same time being lower in cholesterol, making it a healthy alternative to other varieties of pork.
The Japanese “shabu-shabu” dish is served in the colder months. Utilising a boiling pot of broth in the center of the table, one briefly dips thin slices of meat into the soup, just enough to colour the meat while retaining its flavour. The name “shabu-shabu” is derived from the sound of the meat being dipped in the broth and the length of time it is submerged. This cooking method leaves the meat soft and tender, so it melts in the mouth.
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