Archive for the ‘ Japan ’ Category


Miso is one of those foods that take one right at the heart of the whole thing, meaning right at the heart of Japanese cuisine. It is a simple and straight road, so simple that one wonders.

Miso is a fermented food. It consists of beans, rice and salt. Nothing more. Most of the time the beans in question are soya beans but you can make miso with lentils, barley, chickpeaks, aduki beans and so on. The rice is not ordinary rice but it is “inoculated” with a fungus called KOJI (Aspergillus oryzae). Basically the cooked rice is left in a warm environment where the mold or fungus would naturally grow on its surface. The the rice is dried and broken into chunks that will be added to the salt and cooked beans. The paste takes months or years to ferment, depending on the salt content (more salt = slower fermentation).

I go into these details because MISO is really the result of a tranformation operated by a mold, reacting with the surrounding environment. In a traditional miso workshop, the containers for miso were made of wood. Wood is the king material of natural conservation and diplomat of bacteria and molds. Just think of the fact that cheese, wine and other products of fermentation are kept in wood. Back to miso, the wooden vats contributed to give it a more complex flavor. On the top of these vats, liquid would rise and drip from the cracks and this liquid is TAMARI a dark, salty sauce that is at the ancestor of soy sauce. The mold or KOJI is also used to ferment rice for making SAKE and soy beans to make NATTO. It is a mold that is naturally found in rice straw and this is why in farmhoused miso was made by wrapping balls of cooked beans and salt in straw and hanging them outside in the cold air.

The most informative book, full of beautiful drawing of how a miso workshop was organised and run is THE BOOK OF MISO by William Shurtless and Akiko Aoyagi. A rare book that would be difficult to imagine when one looks at foodbooks that are written today, it is the result of serious research and travelling and it provides a cultural translation of a tradition that reaches back to China in the 3rd Century B.C.

In Japan MISO is first and foremost a homemade food. It is made once a year, stored and used to make soups, sauces and other condiments. The idea is that every household has its own miso and its own specific soup flavor. The same goes for nukazuke, small pickles made by hand daily using a base that keeps for years and can be passed on from generation to generation.

MISO is not difficult to make and then all one has to do is let it ferment in peace. The resulting flavor depends very much on the beans used, the freshness of the ferment and surrounding environment but it is definitely more complex and subtle than industrial miso or instant miso powder. It is a food that puts flavor in a direct connection with the individual maker, a sort of “foodprint” that is unique.

It is a concentrate that goes into dozens preparations, it is a base. A good miso can be the secret behind the enticing flavor of a salad or a dip. I made the experiment by grating carrots and other vegetables and by mixing with a dollop of different misos and the different quality of the UMAMI food (umami is the “feel good” taste linked to meat, mushrooms, parmesan, it points to a food which is full of natural glutamatic acid which triggers the production of neurotransmitters including serotonin).

I have been making miso at home for the last two years, three batches so far, all very different and also getting better as I try to procure fresh koji, transported by plane from Japanese supermarkets in New York, and taking inspiration from Sandor Ellix Katz’s book “Wild Fermentation” and South River’s “Three year barley miso, traditionally food fired” into use of different grains. It makes a hell of a difference. I even harvested a small cup of tamari in the first stages, when the beans were still wet. And it tasted delicious!


I love miso. And respect it deeply. It is a food that matures at home, over a period of at least six months (and more often more than a year) and which reacts to the surrounding the environment and develops a uniquely characteristic “home flavor”.

The industrial version of miso is available at every Japanese restaurant or take away, it is the clear soup you get at the beginning of the meal, but this is not the stuff I want to talk about.

The first time I saw people making miso was at Tako Furuno’s farm on the island of Kyushu. Furuno is a remarkable man, a genius-producer of rice following the aigamo method. His wife runs miso workshops, during which large quantities of cooked soy beans are mashed and mixed with koji-inoculated rice and pressed into large ceramic jars. My visit was too short and rice-focused and miso sadly kind of dropped out of the picture. However, anything interesting that enters my visual field will be picked up, sooner or later, and the same happened to miso.

Once back in Europe I did some reading, wrote to Furuno, search the internet and obtained: a) detailed instructions from the miso-master and b) a bag of the necessary ferment from a shop in Hamburg. My first miso was ready in the winter of 2008. But my second batch was already under way in October of the same year. A Japanese acquaintance had brought me a bag of fresh ferment and the result was much better. Both experiences were quite limited because I did not really know the details of the whole thing. For example I was fixed on the idea that miso was about fermenting soy beans and soy beans only. Now, any beans can serve for miso, in fact they may even taste better that soy beans, be faster to cook and more readily available.

The Copernical revolution, miso-wise, came about when I visited Destin at her home in Brooklyn. Destin’s cuisine is a celebration of fresh vegetables in ways that I find really inspiring, like wrapping up fresh kale, avocado, powder miso and sprouts in nori sheets. Destin gets many of her goodies from a local Co-op, where prices are really affordable and quality very high. And she had a small selection of miso that was going to blow my mind. A three year wood fired barley miso, or a chickpea miso or a millet miso. I don’t like to mention company names but as far as I can tell South River is doing a wonderful job. You can taste that the beans have been wood fired in the same way as meat cooked in a wood over will be ten times more delicious than meat cooked on a gas stove. And there are many variations due to the kind of beans used.



Ok, it’s official: the European (read Belgian) version of Japanese nuka works. The mix of beer (wild fermentation of course) and wheat bran and the micro-climate of my kitchen produce wonders. From time to time, I add more slices of ginger and rub in some miso paste, the nuka mix gives vegetables a pleasant and unsuspectingly complex flavor. I tried some unusual things, like almonds (pickled almonds – can you imagine that?), and classics like garlic, slices of cucumber and radishes. Persil root is already too aromatic to really benefit from my super nuka mix.
I get some moldy scum on top which I eliminate by soaking it up with some kitchen paper. This is a young experiment, over a month only. The real test will be to keep it going for a few months or even years.
One thing is certain: compared with the batch made by a Japanese friend (using rice bran and sake) and kept in the fridge, mine is a lot more wild and kicking!
Personally, I like to eat some of the bran too, especially when the veggies have been in only one or two days.
In general, I find it amazing to have this natural process going on in my kitchen, which can transform the flavor of vegetables in such amazing ways, without any need of chemicals or preserving agents.



Nuka is a way of fermenting vegetables by burying them in a mixture of rice bran, miso, salt and water. You could suspect it could come from Egypt but no, it’s something Japanese. It takes a few days to get going, usually. I am only on day 3 so I do not even know if it is going to work out at all. If it does, then I should be able to bury chunks of veggies (including radishes, cloves of garlic and like) for days, weeks, months. During this time the veggies will be absorbing the flavors slowly released by the chunks of seaweed and ginger scattered across the bran. Isn’t that clever? A natural flavoring machine that needs no electricity, just time!

Now anyone Japanese will tell you that nuka is prepared in bran from rice which is very hard to find in Europe. Actually bran is bran, and rice is a grain, just like wheat or rye. So you can make nuka with regular wheat bran. And I even substituted sake with some artisanal stout from Italy…

DSC_2646Needless to say, all this inspiration is coming from Sandor Katz’s “Wild Fermentation”, a book that seems to be behind some of my weirdest experiments. Next on the agenda is Lebanese fermented grain cheese. T.B.C.


First of all some troubleshooting about Phase 2: it emrged from my correspondence with Mr. Tanaka that he uses thin salt instead of coarse salt and that I should have not dried my fish so thoroughly before salting them. Salt crystals make the fish more dry (especially if I dried it out already after washing it) and I probably used too much salt anyway.

So I took the first batch of tenches out of the ceramic crock, washed them, pinned them to a line for 24h (probably a little to long) and then proceed to stuff them with boiled rice, dip their heads in vinegar (or sake) and pressed them together in a pot, with layers of boiled rice and salt. On top of it all, a ring of rice straw will hopefully release millions of beneficial fermenting agents.

The second batch included bigger specimens. Surprisingly these were a little more difficult to gut and I ended up perforating their throat slightly to be able to take everything out while retaining the eggs. This second batch is already more wet than the first ever was, simply because I did dry the fish and used thin salt.


I have been waiting since 2007 to make this: the first European version of the Japanese grandfather of sushi.

Nowadays people know sushi as boiled rice slighty flavored with vinegar, pressed into a small mound and topped with raw fish. In fact, it is the fish – from sea bass to sea urchin – that matters the most. The very first sushi of history, made almost a thousand years ago, was all about rice. Fish serves as a fermenting trigger, turning rice into an acidic, cheese like matter.

The original archeo-sushi is still prepared in the countryside north of Kyoto, in the area around lake Biwa. I came across it in a shop in Kyoto in 2003 and took it with me to Europe. Nobody could tell me exactly what the stuff was. In 2007 I went back to Japan and visited Hiroshi Tanaka, one of the few artisanal funazushi makers left in the area. We became friends and since then, he taught me to make miso at home and I sent him samples of my fermented vegetables. Funazushi remains the ultimate challenge, though. It is not just a matter of reproducing an elaborate technique. It is also a question of exploring cultural bridges between Italy, where fish is lactofermented in the form of sardines, and Japan where fermentation is that of a grain. More important still, funazushi is made with local fish from a lake. It is an activity which relies on a specific ecological framework: a limit of water pollution and a wise management of water resources. This is why a support this kind of food. Because it is a indirect way of saying that our rivers and lakes should be fit for healthy fish to swim in them and that fish comsumption ought to be managed with local resources.

Back to the tenches, they have been cleaned and places under a weight in a crock full of salt for 40 days. Soon I will have to wash them and dry them in the air for one night, before placing them in layers with boiled rice back inside the crock. Hiroshi Tanaka is following the whole process by mail, adivising me on what to do.

In a month, I will start a new batch, using bigger tenches.

I think I am getting close to phase 2 of the funazushi procedure. The 20 small tenches I got from the pond of Giacomo Musso near Carmagnola


Two years a go I spent a month traveling in Japan and tracking down several foods I found particularly interesting. One of the highlights of my trip was the work I did around funazushi, which has been documented in an article I wrote for “Slowfood”.

Funazushi is the ancestor of today’s sushi. In a bizarre reversal of roles, the grandfather of sushi was all about the rice rather than the fish. The rice had a peculiar acidulated taste, which came about thanks to a month-long fermentation together with fish.

Funazushi is a preparation which relies on the availability of fresh fish from lakes, which is another way of saying that lakes should be clean in order for fish to be able to live in them. As obvious as this may sound, the truth of the matter is that our lakes and rivers tend to be rather unfit for any form of animal life. And it is sad and shocking to realize the degree with which this fact is either ignored or taken for granted.

The conditions, that is, the ecological “weltanschaung” of any given food, is absolutely crucial to it and should receive a lot of attention. When I visited lake Biwa, Mr. Hiroshi Tanaka showed me the vats and tools he used to make fermented fish, including a long tress of dry rice grass which contains the natural starter for the fermentation and which is placed on top of the rice and fish as a natural “lid”.

I have been wanting to make funazushi ever since. Tanaka sent me detailed instructions. One day, I even got two fermented fish in the post. He had sent them over together with a note for the custom officers, kindly asking them to let the package through. The two specimen of funazushi from lake Biwa have been hibernating in my fridge, waiting for the right season to start up the new process. In the autumn, at the end of the rice harvest, I asked an organic rice farm if I could collect some of their rice hay. I tressed it myself and stored it in the cellar, The fish was the most difficult thing to find. Funa is a small Japanese fish belonging to the family of carps. In Europe, carp farms refuse to sell small specimens and the condition of farming are never ideal. In the end, I found an Italian producer of tench, a small and soft-flavored fish living in ponds and reaching a maximum weight of 700g.

Spring is the right time to start. I drove to Cascina Italian in Carmagnola (Piemonte) and came back with a bag full of thirty or so small tench fish swimming peacefully as I whizzed along the motorway. Gutting was very hard. One should not cut the belly of the fish but extract all entrails from the neck. With specimens measuring only 10cm in length, this is a pretty damn tricky operation. Anyway, they are going to stay under salt and weights for about two months now. The next step consists in washing and drying them for a day, before placing them in a wooden vat with boiled rice.

In two months time, I will repeat the same operation with some larger fish, also from Giacomo Mosso’s farm. Mosso normally sells his tench “in carpione”, cooked and preserved in vinegar. The idea is to see whether the combination of two local products, fish and rice, fermented together, can be appreciated by an Italian public. Or to see if a bridge can be built with the few Japanese families that still make funazushi at home.



Meeting the “other”, the “exotic” and then return to oneself to establish one’s own identity as a diversity.

This is the the central thesis of Nicolas Bourriaud’s (Palais De Tokyo, now Tate Britain) latest book, The Radicant. The Radicant is not a cool urban condition but a family of plants that develop their roots as they go, like ivy, adapting themselves to the soil and surfaces they can hang onto. Roots that actively shape themselves according to specific conditions. Out of the metaphor, he is talking of an identity that results from a constant re-elaboration of oneself and one’s past. Another way of saying that identity is not a definitive “given”, immutable and stable, but that it is something alive, something that needs to be re-cognized because it is like a gap (a loop of desire?) that opens within oneself and which one needs to bridge, temporarily, by saying “this is me”.

An old friend recently reminded of something that deeply shocked her, namely the day when I told her on the phone the pleasure with which I had devoured a rabbit after 5 years of radical veganism. She was shocked because she interpreted my decision as a definitive one and she believed that change would be a threat to the “identity” I had so forcefully embraced. She expected some kind of embarrassment on my part. Instead, I was adamant in saying that “in life, one changes” and stressing that change (including the weft of “coherence” that each weaves according to one’s personal narrative) is more important than an identity which remains forever identical with oneself. Cynics will cite Tomasi di Lampedusa saying “that everything must change in order for everything to remain the same”. By the same token and without the negative political connotations, identity can be seen as the result of constant change, like the trajectory of a surfer on the brim of waves.

Back to our radicant plants, it is springtime in Milan, the sky is blue and in the periphery where I live, the very few patches of free, empty land that are left on the side of roads or in between building sites, are blessed by a whole host of newly born vegetable creatures. Or should I say weed? The varieties are the result of traffic (human and automobile), nearby gardening efforts, etc. etc. The phenomenon of weeds growing goes on un-noticed, except for those very few old people who still venture out to the “fields” in search for the leaves of dandelions and other delights unknown to digital men. It is unfortunate to have to venture out on the side of speeding lorries. One feels like a reject of society or a specimen from a decimated tribe. People still pick wild herbs in more rural areas, in the mountains or at the seaside. Only a few farmers, hunters and grandmothers know how to recognize them. But looking for wild edible plants in the outskirts of Milan is a whole other business. These secondary roads traversing the few fields still left are the main arteries of illegal prostitution, with young women dotting them like living signposts. Alternatively, they turn into improvised skips, full of every kind of trash, from plastic bottles to empty cans of paint. This is brutal evidence of what “free land” has come to signify, namely a passive receptacle for abuse. In such a situation, the bucolic act of looking for edible weeds becomes a precious act of resistance, against the insensitivity to seasons and vegetable species and as the political affirmation of one of the most ancient ways in which men survived on the planet: by picking what was spontaneously growing around them.

I began picking wild plants only a couple of years ago. As the result of a trip to Japan and more specifically to a famous shinto shrine. There, the priests have a long tradition of plant picking. They search the local woods in search of a variety of tasty buds. It’s there that I learnt how delicious the burgeons of royal ferns can be (zenmai). So, once back in Italy and Belgium, I began opening my eyes. Was all this great stuff growing only in Japanese forests or could I find some along the canals and in my own local fields? I found out that I could. 


Nicolas Leveaux is a chef who uses wild plants in his own cuisine. Simon Beugnies is a wild plant expert collecting around up to 60 varieties of weeds that can be used for cooking. We have been picking together, using wild pepper leaves, wild watercress, borrage, burdock roots, young plants of poppy, plantain leaves to be used in many culinary preparations. 

Last week I went looking for hop sprouts in my local Italian town. The bushes along the canal had been cleared and it was hard to find any at all. In the end, I stopped on a piece of no man’s land and, with my boots deep into an unspecified mound of plastic material that had been dumped on the ground and covered by vegetation, I moved about and grabbed a pretty quantity of hop (duvertim). As my bunch grew thicker and my feet made another plastic bottle crack, I really asked myself what we have come to, letting this vegetable heritage fall into oblivion and, literally, under our trash. These are edible plants that nobody uses. Furthermore, the fact that they are wild, means that they are richer in nutrients than cultivated varieties. Picking wild plants creates a bond with one’s surroundings. One also realizes the importance of picking what one needs and in preparing it on the same day. One cannot keep wild plants for a long time in the fridge. They wilt. And this points to another silly automatism of our feeding practices, that of procuring more than we need and storing it in a sort of morgue of forgotten cadavers…
link to Japanese wild plants

Tot mijn laatste adem…


…so ran the title of Louis Bunuel’s biography and also the title of Gerrit Messiaen’s film on Frans Bouyens. I never managed to finish off Bunuel’s book but certainly marveled at the detailed description he gave of his favorite cocktail – Martini Dry – and the crucial role a couple of drops of Noilly Prat or angostura could play.

It was thanks to Bunuel that I discovered the medicinal bark that tastes like “cola”, thanks to him if I went on to search for the bitter flavor of the Italian version of Coca Cola (Chinotto, from the bitter citrus under the same name) and of the liqueur China Martini (from the bark of the China Calissaia, a tree growing in South America). Angostura is a secret blend of aromatic plants but I would not be surprised if it included the bark used by China Martini…

Back to people’s favorite drinks and especially to drinks that have an epiphanic flavor, mine is certainly cloudy unpasteurized sake, blessed by a gentle fizz, with a roasted fin of fugu swimming in it. It’s a combination of sweet and smoky and the eye can find endless inspiration in the liquid ability to rest in two separate layers: one transparent and the other milky. You could mistake it for the potion of some mythological Northern queen. But that is probably what it is.


nombeI learnt the meaning of the word “nombe” in the shinto temple on mount Haguro, in Northern Japan. I had the bright idea of getting there at the end of March, thinking that my guidebook was just displaying the usual Japanese hyper-prudence when it stated that the mountains “were closed off to the public until the summer”. I could not imagine how one could possibly “close” a mountain and I anticipated having to climb over a wall or something. 

As soon as I stepped out the bus, two meters of snow made it clear what the major impediment was going to be about. The temple was only a few steps away and I was the only visitor who had ventured out there in the middle of winter in what is probably the lowest of all seasons.

I was rewarded with the best room, a 15th century loge with annexed tea-room. The chef was cooking exclusively for me and on the first night he presented me with a magnum-size bottle of sake in which there floated thin particles of gold leaf.

One of the chief monks joked about him calling him “nombe” and that is how I caught the meaning of the word. Drunken with sake, that was happened on long wintry nights. 

A few days later, in the midst of a busy Tokyo neighborhood, I visited a restaurant specialized in loaches, the tiny fish that live in the water of rice fields. Small eel like creatures, they have all almost disappeared from menus, since the weed killers used in agriculture kill them off. One the favorite ways of preparing them consists in soaking them in sake until properly “drunk” and then in steaming them with beaten eggs and seasoning.

I tried an imitation of the Japanese dish using tiny anchovies I found at the local fishmonger. With a small addition of sake and tamari, fried in a typical rectangular pan, it was a delicious contamination of the original Japanese classic.