From deep-fried fiddlehead ferns to sea bream ovaries, Japanese chefs create flavours that leave British food writer Nigel Slater awestruck.
Should I have eaten the steamed caterpillar? I really wasn't sure. So neatly was it presented alongside the wild mountain greens, the emerald grub may well have been part of the dish.
I couldn't cancel my trip to Japan so close to the earthquake and tsunami disaster that struck the region. To contemplate pulling out at such a tragic time felt wrong. So, just as many were wisely coming home to Britain, I boarded a half-empty plane.
This year's hanami, the springtime cherry-blossom celebration, was more reflective than usual. But there was still enough of a throng in the cities' parks and gardens to have me catching a train for the nearest hills.
High-end Japanese food is even more beautiful in a calm and isolated landscape. The slower pace - deer sauntered through the woods as I ate - encourages more thoughtful and observant eating, and though I am not a fan of the sort of cooking that evokes an awed hush at the table, it was impossible not to be mesmerised by what turned up on my plate.
I revelled in the fact that most of what I put in my mouth was a world away from anything I would cook at home. The firefly squid, smaller than my little finger with its pool of wasabi mayonnaise; the nameko mushrooms in jellied stock, and the black soy beans that shone like glass under a crust of pure gold leaf. I should mention the cherry blossom-scented glutinous rice served with its single pink flower and salted cherry leaf and the broad-bean jelly adorned with a leaf of peppery kinome and the basket of deep-fried fiddlehead ferns and wild asparagus that I could have eaten so, so much more of.
It would be just plain rude not to acknowledge the quivering tofu with its texture of strained yoghurt and the little ball of sea bream ovaries; the ice cream of red beans and the lilac shiso buds and arterial red radish sprouts that accompanied the small hand-painted dishes of sashimi. Then there was the huge orange picked from the tree in the garden, hollowed out and filled with a barely set jelly of its own juice. An orange to remind us of how exotic this fruit once was.
It is probably unwise of me to dwell too long on the source of the bowl of tiny ayu fish that were deep-fried alive in front of me and whose bitter innards were so tantalisingly moreish.
But it was the little package of young mountain shoots that wowed me most of all: an unfurling frond of warabi - the wild fiddle-shaped bracken - a shoot of hillside asparagus and another of tight fuki buds served with brilliant scarlet blossoms on a bare, grey twig that finally brought a hush to the table; probably the most hauntingly beautiful thing I have eaten for years, the very first of the season's sansai, the young, wild shoots just emerging into the chilly spring sun.
Which brings me to the caterpillar. Was it a treat from the chef? (It was my birthday, after all.) Or something whose home the kitchen had disturbed during its dawn foraging? Either way, I must tell you, it was delicious.
Asparagus and broad bean tempura
Broad beans made an appearance in a basket of asparagus tempura, a version of which I made almost as soon as I got home.
12 spears asparagus
A good handful of broad beans, shelled
For the batter:
90g plain flour, plus a little more
2 Tbs cornflour
1 egg yolk, beaten
200ml iced water
Deep oil for frying
For the dipping sauce:
30ml lime juice
30ml lemon juice
50ml orange juice
6 tsp dark soy sauce
1 tsp caster sugar, or to taste
1 To make the dressing put the juices in a bowl, stir in the soy sauce and sugar. Set aside.
2 Cut the asparagus into short lengths and steam for 6 to 8 minutes, until tender. Cool quickly under cold running water and set aside. Briefly boil the broad beans and chill under cold water.
3 Sift the flour and cornflour into a large bowl. (Sifting makes a lighter batter.) Pour in the beaten egg and iced water and mix, briefly, with a fork or chopsticks. Now mix in enough extra flour to take the mixture to the consistency of double cream. (Probably a further couple of tablespoons.) Test for consistency by dipping in a piece of asparagus: it should lightly coat the spear, but you should be able to see through it.
4 Don't worry about lumps, and try not to over-mix, which will result in a heavy crust.
5 Get the oil hot, ideally to 180C. Test by dropping in a dot of batter. If it rises to the surface immediately, it is hot enough.
6 Dip the asparagus and broad beans in the batter then straight into the oil. Fry until the batter is crisp - a matter of seconds - not allowing them to colour much past a pale ivory. Serve immediately with the sauce.
A sweet, citrus-scented rice
I ate more rice in two weeks in Japan than I do at home all year. This was delicious.
150g pudding rice
3 Tbs candied peel
1 lightly heaped Tbs orange zest
1 lightly heaped Tbs lemon zest
4 Tbs sugar
3 or 4 Tbs cream, to taste
Extra orange zest to serve
1 Put the rice in a heavy-based saucepan, pour in the water and milk and bring to the boil.
2 Turn the heat down so the rice simmers gently and leave for 15 minutes, with the occasional stir. Add the peel, the finely grated zests and the sugar.
3 Partially cover with a lid and cook over a low heat for 15 minutes, stirring until most of the liquid is absorbed. Keep a check on the liquid - it should be thick and creamy.
4 Pour into a dish and leave to cool, then chill thoroughly for a couple of hours.
5 Stir in enough cream to allow the rice to slide slowly from the spoon. Serve in small cups.