Innovating Chinese Cuisine with the Japanese Spirit

~Executive Chef of [Sazenka]―an Award-Winning Chinese Restaurant― Learning A Valuable Lesson from Japanese Cuisine~

Tomoya Kawada/Sazenka

Interviewed by Misa Yamaji
Interviewed on Apr-17-2017

Interview Points

・Pursuing Chinese cuisine since kindergarten

・Advancing Chinese cuisine with a motto, “Wakon Kansai* (和魂漢才)”

・The Inventive idea of tea-pairing
*Four-character idiom for “Japanese Spirit Imbued with Chinese Teachings”

Pursuing Japanese Cuisine for Chinese Cuisine

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––What motivated you to learn Japanese cuisine after Azabu Chouko (Chinese restaurant)?

My pursuit of Chinese cuisine began when I was in kindergarten. My parents once took me to a Chinese restaurant in my home-prefecture (Tochigi), and the mapo tofu and tan-tan men there fascinated me (chuckles). Falling in love with the cuisine, I even wrote “I will become a chef one day” on my yearbook. In my culinary school years, I brushed up my technique at a Chinese restaurant, Azabu Chouko. Moreover, I visited China various times to refine my palate with the authentic taste. I was enthused over Chinese cuisine.
  However, I was only able to duplicate the authentic Chinese dishes time to time in Japan. Though it seemed acceptable visually, something was missing. The answer was obvious: the taste of the ingredients was different. On top of that, Japanese ingredients are in too good a condition for Chinese cuisine. No matter how I used the Chinese method, I couldn’t convey the vividness of the ingredients like in Japanese cuisine.
  With this challenge ahead of me, I realized that I needed to learn more about Japanese cuisine, if I were to use domestic ingredients. To do that, learning from the professionals in the washoku field seemed the most logical.

––Of all the Japanese restaurants, why did you choose Ryugin?

Because I thought Seiji Yamamoto, the owner of Ryugin, is a Japanese chef who can express delicate and lively Japanese cuisine.
  My goal was to create a dish that have the following characteristics: 1. Simple but deep taste as a soup that brings out the full flavor of the ingredients; 2. A powerful taste characterized by spices and seasonings. The taste that sprang from Mr. Yamamoto’s dishes undoubtedly had these elements essential for my ideal dish.

Advancing Chinese Cuisine in Japan with a Motto, “Wakon Kansai”

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––What did you learn from Japanese cuisine?

Above all, the most valuable lesson was how to treat the ingredients. As cooking methods of Japanese cuisine tend to be simple, preserving the best-conditioned ingredients is the most important thing. Thus, learning precise preparation and knowing the right temperature for preserving ingredients helped me a lot.

––How did you utilize these knowledge in your dishes?

In China, to make the best fried rice is to enhance one's stir-frying technique. On the other hand, in Japan, the quality of the rice comes before frying skills. From production, water, washing method to frying―paying attention to every step is a unique characteristic of Japanese cuisine. Just being aware of this will greatly improve a dish.
  As for the cookeries, I learned char-grilling and straw fire light-roasting. The spécialité, “Young Pigeon Cooked Two Ways” is a good example. Furthermore, my stock-making technique―such as in the “Pheasant Soup”―became more delicate and sophisticated. Jinhua ham was used to extract its flavor, but instead of stewing it, I learned to leave only the scent. This is the same method used for kelp stock.
  These are the approaches I learned from Japanese cuisine.

––Having “Wakon Kansai” as your motto, how do you balance the Chinese teachings and Japanese spirit?

My goal in this motto lies not in a fusion of Japanese and Chinese cuisine, but in advancing Chinese cuisine with Japanese elements. Entering the world of Japanese cuisine, I reaffirmed the strong connection between Japan and China. What largely constitutes Japanese cuisine today―such as tofu, miso, and soy sauces―were introduced from China. After given the idea, Japanese cuisine developed due to its climate, and the unique sensibility and knowledge of its people. In my mind, the word “Japanese spirit” lies in the richness of Japanese ingredients and the passion of the producers. With a great amount of respect for Chinese cuisine that has made me what I am today, I would like to further advance it to the next level in Japan.

The Inventive “Tea Pairing” to Entertain the Guests

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––This tea pairing is magnificent. Was this your idea?

Since I cannot drink alcohol beverages much myself, I felt the need to make a pairing that can be enjoyed by people like me. The world of Chinese tea is truly intricate. The tastes and fragrances of Chinese tea are so vast that they are classified in six types―blue, white, yellow, green, red, and black.
  I imagine which tea goes with the dish as I cook, and it’s like a hobby of mine. There is also “Mix Pairing Course” where you can enjoy both tea and alcoholic beverage.

––When did you encounter Chinese tea? What attracted you?

I was first absorbed in Chinese tea when I was 18 years old. I was only a rookie, and I wasn’t much of a help for the chef. One day, the head chef told me, “At least prepare a good Chinese tea for the guests at the end of the meal.” Since then, I visited many Chinese tea stores such as YouCha at Omotesando, only to be fascinated by it more and more. My first Chinese tea was a Taiwanese blue tea. I totally fell in love with its spreading aroma. Being a young trainee, I thought tea was only for elderlies (chuckles). That bias was washed away, and it was groundbreaking.
  Thereafter, I went to Chinese tea stores whenever I had time. I had often visited locations where Chinese teas are produced. The more you know, the more intricate it gets; and that’s the fascination. Right now in the restaurant, we stock about thirty types of Chinese teas.

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