During my youth, at the age of 20, I embarked on a journey to Japan. Many of my fellow classmates have remained in Hong Kong or mainland China, perhaps even Taiwan, for their advanced studies, but I chose the land of the rising sun. Tensions had mellowed out between the Chinese and the Japanese after more than two decades of war, but it was still considered a new risky move for people of my generation. In truth, I did it because it was something exciting and rebellous. Moreso, I was fascinated with the concept of karate. I told my parents I was studying abroad...this was true...but, my primary goal was to become a black belt.
The moment I landed in Japan, my heart was in love. I had, for the first time, my experience with sushi and, admittedly, my experimentation with sake. Even though their people shared similar physical features to ours, Japan felt like a million miles away from Hong Kong. I had much to learn about customs such as bowing and the courteousy of table manners. Some were quite bizarre, such as slurping loudly on noodles as a sign of compliments to the chef. People bathe before dinner. Most shocking, they did not speak English. I had, at that point, believed English to be the universal language. It was why I thought we were taught it as a secondary language in our studies. This was not the case with Japan.
Unlike the Western World, taking karate in Japan is very difficult to get into and a very serious matter. It still is today. Dojos are not businesses, but an extension for the pride of Japanese culture. My first couple of weeks there, we were taught only the act of the shomen entrance. Not a punch or a kick was shown until much later. We were taught to appreciate karate and accept as it as a form of life, to carry it with us in whatever we do. Perhaps I had read too many books or watched too many movies, but I could not comprehend at the time how it affected my career as a chef.
Every morning, I went and trained with the dojo. The thrill of watching the ocean waves while the sun rose created fond visual memories. One day, I was ready for my first judged opponent. A kumite. His name was Fujitaka, a brute sort who thrived off being brash. It was not my place to question my sensei why he had chosen Fujitaka of all his students as my judged opponent. Scared, I did not know how to prepare for my battle with him. We were constantly encouraged to find answers within ourselves, within our journey. It was only then that I had realized the true lesson. In life, we need to accept challenges to improve. My sensei knew I was a very passive person who did not like confrontation. This was holding me back.
Today's tutorial is about a harder dish than the previous ones I have shown you. The eight cooking tutorials I have written before this were chosen out of their easy convenience. This time, I have chosen a harder one, the unagi don. The unagi don is famously Japanese, but in truth, most Asian cultures have a version of it almost identitcal to the unagi don. It is easy to make mediocre, but difficult to make correctly. Remember, in order to be a better chef, we must seek challenges. Do not be discouraged if the first couple of attempts meet in failure. You will succeed, if you try and try again to achieve perception and embrace the lessons of defeat.
Let us begin.
1. MAKING THE UNAGI FROM SCRATCH
- 1 1/2 lb. of Fresh Water Eel
- 2 tablespoons of oil
- 4 tablespoons of rice wine
- 4 tablespoons of soysauce
- 2 tablespoons of sake
Many people go to a store to order pre-cooked unagi. They simply skip this step and move on to step 2. You may also do that, but the packaged unagi is never of fresh quality. If you seek the challenge of cooking your own unagi from scratch, and succeed, the rewards of a much greater unagi don experience will be given to you. Once you grasped how to cook unagi from scratch, you will probably never go back to the pre-packed type again. You have attained a higher level.
First, take the eel and seperate the bones and the head from the body. Clean the body meat with water and remove the bones from the body. Cut each pieces into 2 1/2 inches. Once that has been taken care of, put the body of the eels into a small pan of oil and grill. Place the soy sauce, rice wine, sake and sugar into the pan. Grill until the ingredients have dissolved into the eel meat.
2. EGG STRIPS
Break open the egg into a small dish and mix it with salt. Use two chopsticks to beat the egg. This is how Chinese like to do so in their homes. You can, of course, beat the egg and salt however you like. Then, put the egg content into a pan (with some cooking oil) and cook at medium heat. Once done, take the flattened cooked egg out of the pan and cut them into thin strips.
3. GARNISHING THE RICE
- Unagi from Step 1 or pre-heated Unagi
- Egg strips from Step 2
- Cooked Rice
- Nori seaweed
- 2 teaspoons of sesame seeds
- Kabayaki sauce
Cook some rice. Then...find a bowl, but preferably a square shaped bowl. Unagi Don always looks better in a square-shaped bowl. Place the rice in the bowl and slowly layer the top of it with the egg strips from Step 2.
Then cut the cucumber and avocado into slices and garnish them on top of the egg. For the nori seaweed, sprinkle them on top. Next, put the unagi you made either from scratch or the store-bought pre-heat ones, on top.
Finally, put the Kabayaki sauce on top and place some sesame seeds at it.
There! You are done! If you took on the challenge of making the unagi from scratch and you did it right, I guarantee you, the unagi don will taste infinately better!
Our match was forbidden towards strong physical contact. We were graded on technique, effort and respect for the art as well as our dojo. As the confrontation begun, I felt a rush I had never felt before, the sea roaring behind us. Exchanges of punches, kicks and kiai were thrown in a hypotnizing rhythm. It was art, fighting and chess all at once. A combination of the physical as well as the cerebral. Earlier in the first rounds of the match, my nervousness aided Fujitaka. He put me down fairly quickly, but as my mind focused and my nerves came into control, it did not take me long to realize his noticable pattern. Time stood still with each opening as I met them with extreme and light-contact precision. "KAI!!!!!!", I shouted. I placed my fist squarely into his abdomen in perfect technique. "KUHHH!!!!!" I shouted, feet within perfect range, millimeters before his nose. "HEEE HOOOO HAAAA!!!!! AMMMAAAAHHHH!!!!" I was winning the match and swooning the judges.
Near the end, the hotheaded and brash Fujitaka threw his body at me and pinned me to the ground. He had lost control, showing an elementary understanding of the true purpose of karate. We walked off the mat without a bow, angry that he could lose. My reward for confronting the challenge was not winning it, but of passing through with it. I am, of course, glad that I had won the match, but there have been many challenges in my life where I have also lost. Both results have felt similar. When you try to confront your fear of losing, and go through that journey of courage, you will gain a new foothold into something new. This is how we learn. And that was the ultimate lesson during my youth in a Japanese dojo.