MANILA, March 7, 2006 (STAR) By Joy Angelica Subido - Leafing through the brittle and yellowing pages of circa 1960s magazines has helped me grasp the glaring contrasts of different generations. In the 60s, a steak-and-potatoes culture prevailed, where everything that deviated from the western norm was perceived as foreign, exotic or downright strange. Today, more than half a century later, the mood has changed. The inclination is to explore other ways of life, with more people discovering, understanding, and appreciating the diversity of other cultures. Accordingly, with so many choices available, we live more varied and interesting lives.

The Japanese regarded western man as a gaijin, or outsider for a long time, and it took a while for the latter to be able to understand the intricacies and richness of the culture. Perhaps the westerner’s attraction to everything Japanese stems from the fact that his assimilation into Japanese society has been a lengthy and tricky process. Once he was accepted, however, he was hooked. One consequence of this fascination is that Japanese cuisine has earned widespread appeal, and many popular restaurants serve Japanese food today.

Mention Japanese cuisine, and sushi readily comes to mind. Sushi is cooked, seasoned rice garnished with a variety of cooked or raw ingredients. Books on Japanese cuisine aver that sushi was originally a means of preserving fish, and the rice was simply thrown away. It was in Tokyo (ancient name: Edo) where the idea of adding vinegar to rice to give it a slightly sour or fermented flavor started in the 1640s. It was also there where sushi rice was first served in the early 1800s. A man named Yohei Hanaya was believed to have started serving sashimi on sushi rice in a street stall or yattai that had a simple counter and a curtain. At the time, a dirty curtain signaled good food, and the yattai with the dirtiest curtain served the most excellent sushi.

Sushi has come a long way from common street food that it once was. Today, it graces the menu of the best restaurants, and has universal appeal to diners of all nationalities. Hence, as more Filipinos acquire the taste for sushi, the search for new Japanese restaurants has become an interesting and delicious pastime.

At Red Kimono on the Fort Strip, Fort Bonifacio, Taguig City, the menu was short but ample. Maguro (tuna), sake (salmon), kani (crab), tai (lapu-lapu or grouper), ebi (prawn), and tamago (egg) were listed under the sushi and sashimi choices, while maki or wrapped sushi choices included tempura (prawn) maki, futo maki (prawn, egg, and vegetables). California maki using crab and mango was available, and so were futo maki (with prawn, egg, and vegetables) and tekka maki, a nori or seaweed-wrapped maki made with raw tuna. For those who would rather limit their rice intake, salmon roll tempura (P180,) a rice-less deep-fried maki with salmon and leeks is one alternative, while soba noodle sushi (P90) that uses cold soba maki noodles is another. Traditionalists would surely frown at the salmon and cream cheese maki, as the maki, rolled with fresh salmon and Philadelphia cream cheese, will be too new-fangled for them. However, those who care only for flavor will not object. For them, salmon and cream cheese maki is merely another tasty innovation.

We tried the crunchy tuna maki (P150) and California crunch (P160) on the day of our visit and enjoyed these immensely. The maki was coated with tempura batter, fried, and then drizzled with teriyaki sauce. Frying lent additional texture and flavor to the dish, and the maki was well drained so that there was no hint of oiliness. While waiting for the main course, crabstick rolls served with wasabi mayonnaise whetted our appetites.

The more substantial dishes that we tried on our visit were chicken teriyaki (P180,) vegetable tempura (deep fried vegetables coated with batter), and gindara with sweet miso (P550.) All were equally pleasing.

The chicken teriyaki was served with what they called a potato hay garnish – thinly grated potato slivers that were fried to a crisp. Delicious! Potato hay would surely beat shoestring potatoes on any given day. The chicken teriyaki, too, was tender and flavorful.

The black cod or gindara with its soft, white, savory flesh was excellent; and one could easily be tempted to have more than the usual portions of the fish. However, one should bear in mind that black cod or gindara, aside from being the most expensive item on the menu (at P550), is also known as the oil fish. It is prudent to remember that the recommended serving portion is only about 150 grams. Eating more than that may cause oily leakages from the nether regions. Thus, when one is tempted to gorge on gindara, bear in mind that there are drawbacks to greed. In more recent times, black cod has been called as the Xenical fish because of its disagreeable side effects.

The grilled black cod was served with a sweet, light colored miso sauce. Miso is a thick paste made by salting and fermenting soybeans and rice or barley and then inoculating the mixture with yeast. Commonly used in Japanese cuisine as a flavoring and thickener, one may be able to distinguish and predict the variety and flavor of miso by means of its color.

Shinshu-miso is a smooth, salty yellow miso usually made with a rice-based mold; inaka-miso or sendai-miso is the rich red miso made with barley mold; and hatcho-miso is a granular, strongly flavored dark miso made mainly from soybeans. Light colored miso is usually sweeter than the dark varieties, and shinshu-miso was most likely used for the sauce that was served with black cod.

By then, we were satiated and very pleased with the food that was served at Red Kimono. The dessert list was tempting. It featured banana katsu, or breaded and fried banana served with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce (P120,) green tea ice cream (P55) and tempura ice cream, two scoops of batter coated and fried ice cream drizzled with chocolate sauce (P150.) However, after the substantial meal, we felt we could no longer manage to eat more. Dessert and other items on the menu (such as sukiyaki, tonkatsu, tempura, etc.) would have to be tried another day.

I am not too sure that proponents of traditional Japanese cooking methods would be pleased at the innovations on Japanese cuisine made at Red Kimono. Personally, however, I feel that innovations on traditional cooking are not necessarily a bad thing, as they can both enhance and enrich the cuisine.

What I like best about the Red Kimono restaurant is that it is neither straitlaced nor stuffy. The service was quick and efficient and most importantly, the food was flavorful and unpretentious. The place is worth visiting again.

We had lunch at Red Kimono in the middle of the week, and the restaurant was fairly packed with diners who were obviously enjoying the food. Apparently, many of them were regulars at the place. For them and for Red Kimono, I silently offer the ancient Japanese blessing that goes: "The people assemble in joy/ Food and drink are abundant./ For all generations without end/ Day by day ever more flourishing/ Until myriads of years hence/ The pleasure will not cease." I will be back.

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Red Kimono is at Unit 1A, ground floor, Fort Strip, Fort Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City. Call 816-6642 for reservations and inquiries.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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