April 5, 2011
My wife and I are dressed to kill. The guards are looking us up and down. My hands are sweating.
I enter awkwardly remembering last minute to bow, even though I’m not sure who these people are greeting us at the door. We walk further in and meet Eriko, the multi-lingual and chic Italian counterpart of Q from the 007 films. We are at the right place. We sign “the book”–should I be signing the book in katakana or in English? Oh man, I can’t remember any Japanese words. I tick off the months. It has been nine months since I have spoken to anyone in Japanese face to face. How did I get here?
With a thousand questions, doubts, worries, I take a deep breath and enter the beautiful lounge of the Japanese general consul’s residence. When I meet the vice consul, I mistakenly call him only by his last name leaving off the requisite san (mister) after it. The sweat beads on my brow harmonize, “Shit, Bryan you are fucking blowing it!” Did I disgrace the man in his own home? He corrects me, laughs it off, and he moves on to the guests from the media and Japanese–Brazilian commercial enterprises. I am introduced to the writers of food blogs and newspapers, the representative for Kikkoman, a few hotel owners, tv personalities, and the head of the Japan Foundation. What am I doing here? It doesn’t matter, we are in good company.
The consul general’s wife floats in dressed in Kimono and makes a few thank yous. My memory is coming back to me, keigo pours into my brain. I am whisked away to Japan and I get my Japanese tongue back and I start talking up Mr. Kikkoman about how much I like his sauce in a mix of Portuguese, Japanese, and English.
I come to find out that we are about to eat food cooked by two well-regarded chefs from Japan: Takuji Takahashi and Yoshihiro Takahashi, who are known for their Kyoto cuisine. They had a support staff of the best Japanese chefs in São Paulo. In a city so far lacking in anything other than maguro and sake, I have been dying for good non-sushi Japanese food.
Yoshihiro is the 14th generation to run his family’s restaurant Hyotei which for the last 400 years has been one of the most traditional in Kyoto. Talk about a family business. Unrelated to Yoshihiro, Takuji Takahashi is a sake master, world-renowned chef and likes to mix contemporary and traditional cuisine.
Once at the table, we were served this incredible sake:
This was probably the best I have ever had aside from the visit to a sake factory in Saitama in Japan, a while back. My glass was never empty as there were five staff to wait on 12 guests. Our faces slowly turned that lovely shade of sunburn as everyone became more comfortable–some getting more hammered than others.
The chefs only brought a few ingredients with them from Japan, to prove that they could create dishes that have the same amazing power with products found in Brazil. Here’s a display of what they brought–yuzu, wasabi and salt:
The service was outstanding, with a short introduction of each dish in Japanese by the chef and quick translation in Portuguese for the Brazilians. I was thankfully placed between CH, the very cool vice consul, and the epitome of grace and elegance, Chieko Aoki of Blue Tree Hotels. Mrs. Aoki is all things charming and fun. The conversation carried us all from dish to dish as we all were spoiled plate after plate with the tastes of Japan.
Bamboo shoot with sansho leaves and palm heart:
Sesame tofu with uni sea urchin and wasabi:
Marinated tai sashimi (seabream) in kombu seasoned vinegar with daikon shoots:
Soup of grouper, kuzu, broccoli, ume pulp, and yuzu:
Shrimp, shiitake and okra tempura with salt, sansho, and mizore-su (daikon sauce) for dipping:
Boiled pumpkin, yam, eggplant, sweet pepper served cold:
Dark miso soup with shimeji mushrooms and mitsuba (Japanese parsley):
Rice with ginger and yuzu marinated wagyu beef:
Shaved ice with matcha (green tea) sauce azuki beans, and shiratama (mochi-like balls):
They brought out the fancy tableware:
Takuji Takahashi, CH, some guy, and Yoshihiro Takahashi:
These are the two chefs that São Paulo needed to set the bar for quality. About time!