Mari Vanna: The Russian "Yoshoku" - May 26, 2011
Yoshoku is a lesser known type of Japanese cooking, which literally means “Western food”: it is a “traditional” fusion cuisine that has endured two world wars and continues to endear many diners. Yoshoku was an attempt by the Japanese chefs in the Meiji to early Showa period (the beginning of the twentieth century) to cater to the growing public demand for Western style foods, fueled both by curiosity and necessity, by mimicking and replicating foreign recipes to the best of their limited knowledge and resources. In the process of learning by trying, several recipes went through dramatic mutation, which resulted in something extraordinary and delicious and, thoroughly and uniquely, Japanese. The word, “Western,” especially during the early half of this period,* was almost synonymous with the word, “European,” which mainly referred to the following: French – which resulted in the national obsession with mayonnaise and gratin; Russian – ro-ru kyabetsu (rolled or stuffed cabbage) and borushichi (borsht); German - ton-katsu (pork cutlet); and British - shokupan (English white bread) and kare-rice (curry rice), to name a few. While yoshoku encompasses a diverse set of flavors and cooking methods, the unifying flavor is the buttery and creamy decadence, which induces a nostalgic tenderness and brings tears to the most hardened criminals.**
* The earlier influences were from Portugal – which produced castella and tempura.
**In a stereotypical Japanese police drama, the cop would use one of the these two phrases to crack the suspects: “You mother is crying,” and “Do you want a katsu-don (pork cutlet over rice)?”
Given such historical context, should one be surprised by the similarity of flavors between the Japanese yoshoku and the traditional Russian cooking? After all, they are two branches of the same family; one of them has since been adopted in Japan and the other had eloped to the north.
In Japan, butchers often carry a small range of prepared dishes like in a delicatessen – usually involving meat, naturally – and they are also a major supplier of potato salad. The Olivier salad was a gentrified and more sophisticated version of the Japanese national favorite, "pote-sala" (potato salad). The smooth texture of the Russian kolbasa – similar to bologna – merged into the delicate vegetables – diced potatoes, carrots and peas - by way of the fresh, homemade mayonnaise (sage on the menu, but not in the salad). Amidst the silky mayonnaise and velvety potatoes, the few slivers of sweet pickles invigorated the starchy salad.
House cured herring with peanut potatoes and rye toast Mari Vanna’s herring was the silkiest and richest– almost like sable fish - I had ever partaken in my life; it transformed my perception of the simple herring. The fish dissolved in my mouth at an unprecedented speed, which left not a trace of fishiness, but a creamy and buttery sweetness of the purest fat. The miniature peanut potatoes, sautéed sweet and salty in butter, were also unquestionably delicious. The chef should have finished here and tossed the toast to the sidewalk pigeons because the freshness was as far gone as Siberia.
Blinis The un-yeasted version served at Mari Vanna was very much like a French crepe, although the blinis were thicker and denser and less elastic than the French cousin. The ground beef filling was basic and a little drab, which seemed to be missing something even with the help of sour cream. Pelmeni A blind tasting of the pelmeni would have had me fooled: the plump dumplings were very similar to the Chinese dumplings, both in texture and taste; in the north, the Chinese put dill into their dumplings as well – it must be the geographical proximity. The dill butter was blandly nice (or nicely bland – depending on the bite), but something a little stronger in the form of soy sauce, vinegar and some chili sauce would have been much nicer indeed. Just saying.
Julien mushroom gratin The sautéed mushrooms with dill were inconceivably heavy with grease. The show of serving it on cast-iron pan was rather unnecessary, as it seemed to have made absolutely no contribution to the dish. Beef Stroganoff with buckwheat kasha
Beef Stroganoff is so popular in Japan that it is even served as school lunches (in public elementary school, the children have mandatory lunches). Therefore, even the Japanese children would know when they saw a good stroganoff. Amidst much anticipation and admiration, the famed beef stroganoff arrived with a cute companion: a chubby doll koozie with such a disarming glance. Once the doll-shaped tea cozy was removed, an earthenware pot was revealed, which contained the steaming buckwheat kasha. The presentation was fun and cute, which drew various “wows” and “ahhhs” from the table; the same reaction, however, was not elicited upon the subsequent tasting. Mari Vanna’s beef stroganoff felt cumbersome as it was heavily creamed to the point where the taste of beef was almost lost in the flood of cream. So were the sweetness of the sautéed and caramelized onions. If served in Japanese elementary schools, the children might just organize a hunger strike.
Chicken Kotletki with mashed potatoes and pickles
The finely ground chicken was smooth and soft, with a good amount of diced onions mixed in for flavor and texture. The simple minced chicken had transformed itself into something approaching the state of grace: the delicate and crumbly texture of kotletki fall apart on the tongue despite a certain firmness of the crust, while the creamy sauce elevated the not-so-interesting avian meat to a whole new exquisiteness.
Onegin Onegin turned out to be a homespun variety of a rough layered cake with thick butter cream and dried fruits – apricots, prunes, raisins – and almonds. Despite the sugared layers and fruity stuffing, the cake was unexpectedly light and enjoyable even on a stomach going through another phase of expansion.
Mari Vanna’s Russian Napoleon had no relation to the French emperor or the Italian sibling of the French mille-feuille. The soggy layers of ex-puff pastry had already reached a saturation point; all it wanted to do now was to break apart, which it did under the fork. The cream was certainly not crème pâtissière, and not even whipped cream; instead, it was unnervingly milky and dense and starchy all at once. The result was strongly reminiscent of a half-eaten bowl of corn flakes, left in a hurry as you run out of the door in the morning, only to encounter again upon returning home ten hours later. Now that I come to think of it, the recipe for this Napoleon cannot be very different from that for a bowl of soggy cereal.
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