Junk Food Japan: Addictive Food from Kurobuta by Scott Hallsworth

Junk food japan

Former Nobu head chef Scott Hallsworth drops more f-bombs than a Martin Scorsese movie character.  The four-page biographical introduction piles on the profanity with more than two dozen swear words; there’s a chapter entitled ‘Sushi’s F**ked-Up Friends’ and recipe introductions are littered with bad language.

Hallworth’s two Kurobuta restaurants in London are billed on their website as ‘Rock’n’Roll Izakaya’ (the Japanese version of a gastropub) and the Western Australia-born chef makes no secret of his unfulfilled musical ambitions. But his indie-rock swagger comes across on the page as more Kevin the Teenager than Nick Cave and falls short of the effortless cool of The Meatliquor Chronicles by Yianni Papoutsis and Scott Collins, a book (and restaurant) that Junk Food Japan owes a spiritual debt to.

But tune out the four-letter white noise and plenty of exciting, modern and iconoclastic east-meets-west ideas emerge. Hallsworth explains that the term Junk Food Japan began as a menu category that included tuna sashimi pizza (the recipe is included in the book) and then developed into the ‘no-nonsense, almost playful way of creating dishes’.

Although the book contains dishes that resemble fast food including fried chicken and hot wings, they’re refined versions that belie the ‘junk food’ tag, so the chicken is poached in master stock before being fried in a shichimi (Japanese seven spice power) coating and the hot wings are barbecued in a spicy  sauce made with gochujang, sake and white (the list of specialist suppliers at the back of the book is useful for tracking down the more obscure Japanese ingredients Hallsworth uses).

The traditions of Japanese cuisine that can appear daunting and limiting to neophytes are for the most part swept aside making Junk Food Japan an approachable introduction to a complex subject. Nigiri, the oval sushi rice pillows that are usually topped with raw fish are here finished with thin slices of dashi-poached veal and anchovy mayonnaise and pickled cucumber sushi rolls are topped with a Wagyu slider, chicken liver parfait and yuzu marmalade sauce to create a sort of Japanese version of Tournedos Rossini.

Dishes range from straightforward one pot wonders like marbou dofu (spicy minced pork and tofu) to the more technically challenging sushi creations, offering chefs of all levels something to get their teeth into. While I could have done without the potty mouthed posturing, Junk Food Japan is lively, informative and full of enticing recipes. It’s a great book, I swear.

(This review first appeared in The Caterer magazine)

Cuisine: Japanese
Suitable for: Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review rating: 3 stars

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Junk Food Japan: Addictive Food from Kurobuta
Scott Hallsworth
£26 Absolute Press

El Celler de Can Roca by Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca

El Celler de can Roca

Xanthan gum. Kuzu thickening agent. Calcium gluconolactate. Is your mouth watering yet? No, me neither. Reading the recipes in this hefty, lavishly produced volume about the world famous three Michelin starred restaurant in Girona, Spain, you can’t help but think of the ingredients on the back of a packet of Haribo.

This is the English translation of a book originally published in Spanish in 2013. In those four years, food trends have moved on from the gels, spheres, soils and foams beloved of molecular gastronomy that litter the pages of this book to a far more naturalistic approach. In their measured world of rotovals and sous vide cooking, the Roca brothers (head chef Joan, pastry chef Jordi and sommelier Josep) are so far removed from the wild heat of an open flame that they risk leaving themselves out in the cold.

Nevertheless, there is plenty here to amuse cooks of the progressive persuasion in search of inspiration. A ‘vienetta’ made from black truffle and white asparagus ice cream is a hoot, while Artichoke Flower, built from artichoke petal crisps and served with foie gras soup is a visually stunning creation. Convoluted dishes with grand titles like ‘The World’ (a selection of five snacks inspired by the brothers’ travels to Mexico, Peru, Morocco, Korea and the Lebanon) are broken down into bite-sized recipes for each element which are often quite straightforward and can be cherry picked by those not wanting to replicate Roca plates verbatim.

The 90 recipes included take up less than half the book’s generous 480 pages which leaves plenty of space for a detailed history of the thirty year-old restaurant, a report on a day in the life of El Cellar written by noted Catalan author Josep Maria Fonalleras, and articles on things like the restaurant’s interior design and its wine cellar. A chapter on sauces is particularly revealing – who knew that the ‘sexual tissues’ of sea urchins make good thickeners? But whether or not you find meditations on concepts like ‘techno-emotional cuisine’, ‘transversal creation’ and ‘chromatism’ edifying will depend on how much of a proponent of modernist, avant garde cuisine you are.

Beautifully designed and photographed, El Cellar de Can Roca is unquestionably a desirable object. Fans of books by Ferran Adria and Nathan Myhrvold will lap it up; those of a more classical bent may find the whole thing just too pretentious to swallow.

(This review first appeared in The Caterer magazine)

Cuisine: Spanish
Suitable for: Professional chefs
Cookbook Review rating: 3 stars

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El Celler de Can Roca
Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca
£30 Grub Street

On the Side: A Sourcebook of inspiring side dishes by Ed Smith

On the sideWhen blogger Ed Smith of Rocket and Squash says in the introduction to this, his first foray into print, that side dishes are ‘often the best bit’ of a meal, it’s difficult to disagree. After all, what’s a steak without chips?

For the most part, Smith looks beyond the obvious – he suggests scorched sweet potatoes with sobrasada butter to go with that steak – and gleefully raids the global larder to brighten up kale and edamame with miso and sweet chilli and add spicy depth to mushrooms with za’atar. Left field ideas like adding yeast to cauliflower puree to provide ‘an (enjoyably) cheesy mustiness’ or coating corn on the cob in gochujang mayo and coconut make for an enjoyable and stimulating read.

It’s a particularly well organised book, with recipes not only grouped into four chapters covering greens, leaves and herbs; vegetables, fruits, flowers and bulbs; roots, squash and potatoes and grains, pulses pasta and rice, but also listed in three directories headed ‘What’s your main dish?’, ‘Where is the side dish prepared?’ (i.e. on the counter, on a hob or in the oven) and ‘How long does it take to make’. That means it’s easy to identify the ideal recipes to suit what’s on your menu, your kitchen set up and time available.

‘Alongside’ suggestions at the end of every recipe make it simple to pick two or three sides that pair with each other to make a meal in themselves (‘I think as eaters we’re creeping away from the idea that there must always be a standout piece of meat or fish in a meal’, claims Smith) or to match with a main course.

There are a few missteps. Smith doesn’t bring anything new to over-familiar dishes like boulangere potatoes, colcannon and cauliflower cheese and some of the recipes including broccoli with tarragon and agretti with olive oil are so simplistic that they hardly warrant inclusion.  But overall, Smith has come up with more than enough inventive ideas to ensure that cooks won’t leave his debut effort on the side.

(This review first appeared in The Caterer magazine)

Cuisine: modern British
Suitable for: Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review rating: 3 stars

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On the Side: A sourcebook of inspiring side dishes
Ed Smith
£20 Bloomsbury