In 1991, I learnt my first Japanese phrase: Itadakimasu (let's eat). I had not tried a morsel of Japanese food then, but I was quick to learn the useful phrases. My friends didn't understand why I would wish Itadakimasu upon eating my roti canai at the mamak stall. But somehow, that phrase stayed with me and I felt that it was a good start to a meal, somewhat like saying a prayer.
I learnt a few more Japanese phrases since then, at least enough to get by when the Bald Eagle and I went to Japan in 2005 to watch Liverpool play in the FIFA Club World Championship where, being the groupies that we were, we stalked the Liverpool FC players at their hotel, with SLR cameras in tow like paparazzi. Sao Paulo won that year, and instead of sulking like little children who were deprived of their favourite candy, we gyrated to the samba beat with the Brazilian supporters on the streets of Tokyo.
I soon became obsessed with all things Japanese, from cutesy objects to delectable Japanese cuisine. Unfortunately, as much as I enjoy Japanese food, I was never inquisitive enough about delving deeper into what I was eating and why I was eating it. So my visits to Japanese restaurants were usually about the same predictable food that I had always been eating for so many years. Not that it's a bad thing. After all, why get scientific? If I like tuna belly sashimi, why should I try anything else? Again, I was demonstrating my same predictable boring nature of not having a curiosity for something new.
My interest was piqued when I hooked up with another blogger and we agreed to dine at Iketeru. Iketeru has a special Omakase menu that changes every month. Omakase literally means "entrusting". At some restaurants, when one orders an Omakase, one basically leaves it to the chef to determine the entire menu. In Iketeru, however, a couple of sets are predetermined by the chef, but what one is assured of is the use of the freshest seasonal ingredients available.
Spring in Japan is associated with the prolific blooming of cherry blossoms (sakura). And so, with the advent of Spring, our menu was tailored towards the sakura and other seasonal produce available in Spring. My Suzu order, at RM290++, was a 9-course meal.
My appetiser consisted of 3 items. The boiled rape blossom (a popular springtime ingredient) with mustard sauce did not have the sharp flavour that I expected to taste but it was a good start to the meal as it was fresh and crunchy. I liked the chilled egg custard which looked very much like tofu, but had a slight taste of sesame in it. The smoothness was very much like tofu although it wasn't as light in texture. What was undoubtedly my favourite for the night was the marinated firefly squid. The firefly squid is the smallest of all squids and has thousands of light-producing organs. The light emitted from the squid is said to either protect itself from predators or attract its prey. These seasonal creatures, when captured by fishermen, are immediately thrown into a concoction of sake, mirin and soy sauce and pickled. I think it's the ultimate way to go - dying from being drunk in a pool of alcohol! The squid had a nice bite to it and upon puncturing it with my molars, I felt a squirt of salty juices fill my mouth. It was absolutely lovely.
A clear soup of bamboo shoots and seaweed was served next. It tasted delicious in its simplicity.
I had barely started on my soup when my next course arrived. The sashimi platter prettily displayed four types of sashimi: tuna belly, king clam, firefly squid and raw sea bream wrapped with sea urchin. The tuna belly was firm enough in texture and sufficiently fatty.
The firefly squid in this instance was not the marinated kind as described earlier, hence the freshness of its flavour was accentuated by the aftertaste of the sea rather than the sake/mirin/soy sauce combo. The raw sea bream wrapped with sea urchin was interesting; the filling was creamy and mushy while the "wrapping" had a nice bite to it. The filling literally oozed out into my mouth as I bit into this unusual sashimi.
Next up was the simmered dish of bamboo shoot, sea bream roe and japanese yam in bonito sauce. The seasonal vegetables were a little too soft for my liking. I certainly didn't expect the sea bream roe to look like a hard piece of sponge, and unfortunately, the taste was forgettable too.
The grilled dish was more exciting. Beautifully presented on a long plate, the baby octopus was nice and chewy while the grilled trout with teriyaki sauce was firm to the touch and tasted wonderful in its sweet marinade. There were a couple of skewered balls, one fish and the other, crabmeat that were quite unlike the fishball which we are all familiar with. Instead, the texture of these balls were less springy while the ingredients seemed to indicate that more fish/crabmeat was used as compared to the conventional chinese fishball. I enjoyed the diced mixed vegetables with what tasted like cubed squid in a creamy green sauce that was both sweet and refreshing.
By this time, I was already feeling rather full and welcomed the distraction provided by a kindly Australian gentleman next to our table who thought Henry and I were both food writers (we immediately corrected him, of course, by letting him know that we were bloggers). I suppose the cameras and the boisterous food talk gave us away!
I am not a big fan of tempura, but I ate it anyway because mum always said vegetables were good for me. The next dishes of claypot rice cooked with bamboo shoot and miso soup were downed without much thought as I was already feeling my food coming up my throat and out of my nostrils at that point. Thankfully, Henry was kind enough to help me out.
I regained my appetite when dessert was served. Sliced fresh fruit accompanied a single piece of pastry filled with red bean paste. A sakura leaf, soaked and dried, wrapped the confection. The taste was exquisite as I bit into the soft pastry.
Towards the later part of the night, as the crowd thinned, Chef Ricky was able to pry himself away from the kitchen to share some of his knowledge with us. I left that evening with a sprig of sakura from Chef Ricky, my head crammed with information, and my belly filled with the best japanese meal I had ever tasted. Will I go back to old favourites again? Possibly. But I shall open up my mind to the unknown as I dream of firefly squids, lit up in all their glory and dancing in the darkness of the night to the sounds of Brahm and Vivaldi.
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