At first glance, cooking traditional Japanese food may not strike the uninitiated as particularly complicated or even very time-consuming.
After all, how difficult can it be to slice raw fish or cook vegetables in broth?
Difficult indeed, I discovered one afternoon as I stood in the kitchen of Totoya Usohin (ととや魚新), a comfortable and welcoming Japanese restaurant conveniently located 3 minutes from Akasaka subway station in central Tokyo.
We had come to Totoya – nine women of various ages eager to learn the secrets of Japanese kaiseki cuisine – for a very special cooking lesson from Kikuo Muramatsu, the oyakata, or head chef, of the Michelin-starred Restaurant.
After chef Muramatsu showed us how to slice a block of raw fish with a sharp Japanese knife known as deba-bocho, he had invited us into the kitchen to try it ourselves.
Just minutes before, we had watched him gracefully wield the knife and expertly slide it through a block of soft, delicate tai (sea bream).
Now it was my turn to prepare my own sashimi dish.
I brought down the deba, trying to replicate his motions, and attempted to slide the blade through the gleaming chunk of fish in front of me.
But my body just couldn’t perform the task as smoothly and assuredly as chef Muramatsu had, and the tai wobbled under the blade.
When cutting raw fish, the knife should be drawn through the flesh from the wider edge to the sharper end in one smooth stroke, not pulled back and forth like a saw making its way through wood. But, as I quickly discovered, that is easier said than done.
And so it is with just about any part of the process of cooking a traditional Japanese meal.
Japanese cooking, which aims to bring out the freshness of the ingredients, is deceptively simple.
Whether it is raw fish delicately laid out on a plate or a bowl of boiled vegetables sitting in dashi broth, a great deal of work and finely honed skills are required to prepare seemingly straightforward dishes.
Take the bamboo shoots cooked in a broth of konbu (kelp) and katsuo-bushi (shaved dried bonito), which looks simple enough to prepare.
But by the time we arrived for our lesson, half an hour before noon, Muramatsu and his team had already completed a large part of the work that goes into preparing bamboo shoots for any meal.
They had cooked the shoots in water containing nuka (rice bran flour) and taka-no-tsume (small red peppers) and left it to sit in the pot overnight in order to remove the bitterness and toxicity natural to bamboo shoots.
Bamboo shoot that is freshly cooked this way is flavourful and pleasantly crunchy, unlike the already boiled variety commonly available at supermarkets, which tends to be mushy and bland-tasting.
But the nuka has to be carefully washed off the shoots, which is not a pleasant task, and the tough, outer layers of husk peeled off. So anyone cooking in their home kitchen would have to be pretty dedicated to want to cook bamboo shoot the proper way, given how time-consuming and messy it is.
Other tasks, such as cutting up the whole sea bream for use as sashimi and in a clear soup, required more strength than any of us had and skills in the use of a very heavy knife that would take some time to hone.
Although most of us are unlikely to try our hand at carving out sashimi from a whole fish or slicing the very thin, delicate layer of bamboo shoot just under the innermost husk (which nobody among us even knew existed) many of the tips Muramatsu gave us will certainly come in handy even in a simple kitchen.
For example, we all nodded deeply when told that the umami from konbu (kelp) is best extracted at 60 degrees C – an unfamiliar fact that explained why it is said that dashi should be made to simmer at low heat.
And I suspect at least some among us have since tried to copy Muramatsu’s way of sprinkling salt on the fish from a height of about 40 cm away rather than from directly above it.
We came away from Totoya Uoshin that afternoon, not only with the happy feeling that comes after a full and satisfying meal but with a deeper appreciation of the skills and hard work that go into preparing dishes we so easily take for granted.
Totoya Uoshin is a Japanese restaurant that specialises in seasonal fish and other dishes using fresh, seasonal ingredients.