Photo: Buri daikon.

As I have written before, Kyō no Ryōri (Today’s Cooking) is a TV cooking show celebrating its 50th anniversary on NHK. Kyō no Ryōri, the magazine, contains the recipes from the show.

This month’s issue entreats us to enjoy the seasonal flavors of buri (Japanese amberjack), tara (cod, but in Japan, probably Pacific cod), hotate (scallops), and shijimi (small freshwater clams).

Buri is Japanese amberjack, or yellowtail (Seriola quinque-radiata). I found this species name (and more) in Richard Hosking’s A Dictionary of Japanese Food. If you are learning about Japanese food, you should have this book. It’s a slim volume, but it’s packed with information about traditional Japanese ingredients and how they are used.

Kyō no Ryōri tells us that the kanji for buri comes from the old lunar calendar word for “December.” One old nickname was samui (cold) buri to represent the time when the fish returned to seas near Japan. The Japanese also used to call buri something like “morphing generation fish” to represent the huge difference between its adolescent and adult forms. Sushi hounds may already know that buri is the older, fattened up version of hamachi. According to the magazine, buri may be farmed or caught wild. As is true for other species (e.g., salmon), the relatively inert farmed fish are fattier than their wild brothers.

I made one of the recipes, buri daikon, for dinner one night this week. It’s a simple recipe; you braise buri and daikon in a mixture of water, soy sauce, mirin, and sugar. I cut way back on the sugar because I find that almost all Japanese recipes use too much sugar for my taste. Two other Japanese cookbooks on my shelves have slightly different versions of buri daikon. One instructs you to start the daikon first in a broth of water, kombu, and sake, then add the buri later with the soy sauce, mirin, and sugar. The second book, to my amusement, gives no measurements at all, but includes sake in the ingredient list.

Kyō no Ryōri recommends using collar meat (ara) and pieces with bone—rather than belly and back fillets, or the tail—for maximum flavor and texture. I used a big collar piece and a few fillets because I wanted to test the difference. The fillets were fine, but the collar piece was outstanding. The daikon turns a lovely translucent orange color. I served the dish garnished with fresh ginger (see crappy photo).

This month’s issue also has recipes for winter stews like oden, tori mizutake (chicken stew), nikudofu (beef and tofu braise), and a pork, soybean, and ginger braise. This month, Elizabeth Andoh’s A Taste of Culture seasonal newsletter features oden. The whole range of stews and nabes are features of Japanese cold weather cuisine, but many Westerners don’t know as much about them as, say, sushi and tempura, which are less representative of Japanese home cooking.

When Kyō no Ryōri does “foreign” food, they lose me. On Tuesday night they presented pot-au-feu, coq au vin, and a cauliflower cream soup. When they feature Japanese food, the presenters are sometimes restaurant chefs (usually men) and sometimes Japanese cooking teachers (mostly women). The ladies demonstrate homey Japanese food, beautifully presented, but not too fussy. When the show needs a foreign chef, however, they drag in a Japanese chef who studied overseas (or very rarely they find an actual foreigner who speaks Japanese). These guys are in full chef toque and have a tendency to give rarified versions of the dishes, making Western cooking seem difficult and time consuming.

When presenting pot-au-feu, that classic peasant dish, the chef had tied up the beef and slices of cabbage in elaborate knots of kitchen twine. The potatoes and carrots were perfectly turned ovals, which annoyed me because it isn’t something the home cook would need to waste time doing. [On the other hand, the Japanese recipe for buri daikon would have me turn the edges (mentori) of the daikon to prevent it from crumbling during long cooking.]

I immediately mined my cookbook collection for every recipe for pot-au-feu I could find. Only one called for this tying of the beef—and that was the Culinary Institute of America’s recipe, which showed me that it’s “chefy” technique. Most recipes call for large chunks of beef, a mix of fatty cuts, gelatinous bits, and tough brisket pieces. This is what was left out of the Kyō no Ryōri recipe. One overly lean, trussed up piece of beef does not make an exciting pot-au-feu. Of course, if they really they really wanted to reproduce the impoverished origin of the dish they could just throw in “plain boiled bones, with the few shards of meat attached going to the head of the household along with the marrow” [Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, The River Cottage Meat Book].

Later during the broadcast, I was forced to shout at the TV when the chef put broccoli in the pot with the carrots and cabbage. Broccoli does not belong in a long-cooking stewpot. Freak.

It can’t be helped, of course, the recipes must be adapted and simplified for TV and magazine recipes, and most importantly, for Japanese tastes. These deracinated recipes are how cuisine travels across cultures and becomes altered, assimilated. So, on one hand, I should just tune it out—laissez faire, baby—just like we Americans take Japanese sushi and make Frankenstein spicy tuna rolls.

Where’s the line between innovation and the reproduction of the authentic dish? Can a dish even be “authentic,” in that cooking is a matter of evolution and adaptation? Why do I object to a chef turning ovals of carrots for pot-au-feu, but I consider doing it for daikon? Maybe it has something to do with the visual appeal of Japanese food.

Jacques Pepin, in his A French Chef Cooks at Home, had this to say about slavish adherence to tradition:

As in any other discipline, cooking will be kept alive only if its practitioners move forward with their times. […] We should … try to comprehend the cuisine of our elders. They established rules for pragmatic reasons which may not be relevant today. One should not follow precepts simply because they happen to be old and respectable. There is nothing sacrosanct about French cooking, and it is an insult to the genius of the old masters as well as to the intelligence of modern chefs to cloister cooking in a stagnant torpidity.

I agree with this, and yet making Japanese style pot-au-feu is not for me. Each nation’s cuisine has tastes that evolved to make the best of what was local. The Japanese don’t have the same conception of the joys of beef, as illustrated by those tiny pats of massaged beef tallow called wagyu.

As I watched the show, I was reminded of a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly (Jan/Feb 208) about Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food. The article describes Petrini’s philosophy:

In his stump speech Petrini often derides “idiots with spoons” on television who offer an endless succession of “recipes, recipes, recipes.” Gastronomy is interdisciplinary, he insists, involving economics, environmental science, history, biology, and anthropology—and social justice, the idea that got him started in politics in the 1970s and that remains (along with pure pleasure in food and eating) the bedrock of the movement he founded in 1989.

How does this relate to my dish of buri daikon? For me, making the recipe is a dual exercise in teaching myself the Japanese language and Japanese cooking. Petrini would have me respect the cultural background of the dish, its seasonality, its social history (peasant or upper-class), and the environmental origin of the ingredients. It’s a tall order to bring this kind of preparation and thought to the dinner table, but I think understanding the food can also heighten one’s pleasure. Buri daikon is a creation of generations of Japanese home cooks to make use of a seasonal product on a winter’s night.

We ate it all up.