Sunday, June 16, 2024

Add a Mexican flair to Japanese cuisine in your own kitchen!

One of Mexico City’s top-rated Japanese restaurants is Asai Kaiseki Cuisine, an intimate establishment tucked away from Polanco’s usual hustle and bustle. You might recognize Chef Yasuo Asai from TV — in 2022 he was invited to host an episode of MasterChef Mexico — but the truth is, you’ll usually find him behind the sushi bar, whipping up food that will transport you from Mexico to his native Japan, if only for a few hours. 

Chef Asai is known for running two very successful ventures: First, one of the most authentic Japanese kitchens in the capital, with an outpost in Mérida. Second, an engaging TikTok account where he experiments with new recipes, using fresh ingredients from the local tianguis and imports from Japan. His dishes are a fascinating fusion of beloved Mexican classics like blue corn, mole, nopales, and dried chiles, incorporated with Japanese wagyu, miso, and sushi. 

Chef Yasuo Asai, best known for his appearance on Mexican MasterChef, has spent his career combining the flavors of Mexico with those of his native Japan.  (Facebook)

A scroll through his social media accounts takes you down a mouthwatering rabbit hole of his personal kitchen “experiments,” filmed in quick succession, taste tested by the king himself, and then rated. Not normally one to keep entertained by reels or TikTok, I found myself glued to the screen. I spent far too long watching him effortlessly concoct colorful plates of blue corn shrimp tempura served with lime and salt (which he proceeded to rate a measly 3 out of 5, leaving me to feel relatively sure that we do not have similar palettes) and lime ramen with chicken whose decadent-looking broth sparkled with freshly squeezed lime and an anchovy base (which he rated 5 out of 5). Chef Asai also tested a spring roll stuffed with huitlacoche and topped with salsa verde (rated 3.5 out of 5), and his version of Mole Tokatsu, fried pork stuffed with nopales and Oaxacan cheese, smothered in a miso-mole sauce (which he rated a 6 out of 5 and described as “a toda madre”, aka freaking awesome).

Every once in a while, a recipe will be deemed good enough to carve a permanent spot on the restaurant’s menu, delighting repeat diners who swear by his culinary magic. But despite Asai Kaiseki Cuisine’s current popularity, it wasn’t always an easy ride. 

Bringing Japanese food to Mexico

“I started by offering just a tasting menu and the diners weren’t expecting that. They wanted California rolls.” Asai notes, adding that introducing Mexico to authentic Japanese food was (and still often is) a challenge. Consumers are looking for dragon rolls, salmon and avocado rolls, and all sorts of maki rolls with cream cheese — bites that really don’t exist in Japan.

To top it off, traditional Japanese ingredients are either difficult to find or incredibly expensive to import. This may have partly influenced Japanese cuisine chefs to incorporate Mexican flavors into their menus. Chef Asai commonly uses nopales, sal de chapulín, and sal de jamaica to spice things up. 

The Asai Kaiseki Cuisine at their Polanco restaurant. (Facebook)

The Japanese-Mexican fusion trend doesn’t cease to exist outside the walls of Chef Asai’s coveted culinary coves. Santo in Roma Norte includes seared hamachi & Oaxacan chocolate nigiri on the menu. Crudo in Oaxaca City serves nori-wrapped tacos. North of Los Cabos, visitors can chow down on a teriyaki chicken and pineapple roll wrapped in a Baja-sourced basil leaf at Noah. 

And you can do the same, right in your kitchen.

Using inspiration from various Japanese restaurants in Mexico City and food blogs, I’ve compiled a short list of easy-to-make gastronomic delights that will whisk you away to a vibrant izakaya in Osaka for a few blissful moments before zipping you back to a lively square in Guadalajara.

Nopal nigiri (inspired by Asai Kasai Cuisine)

Japan’s most iconic foodstuff meets Mexico’s staple ingredient in this simple (but delicious) recipe. (Facebook)

Ingredients:

2 cups sushi rice (bought or homemade with rice vinegar, sugar, and salt) cooled to room temperature

2 – 3 nopal cactus paddles 

Wasabi (paste or freshly grated)

Soy Sauce

Instructions:

Scrape nopales free of thorns and rinse. Boil until tender and the slimy texture has evaporated. Let cool and slice into strips about 2 inches long and 0.75 inches thick.

Shape sushi rice into 12 mounds about 1.5 inches long and 0.5 inches thick.

Put a dash of wasabi on top of each rice mound.

Wrap a strip of nopal over the rice mound.

Optional: If desired, add a slice of sushi-grade white fish or cooked shrimp rubbed with chili on top of the nopal.

Serve with soy sauce for dipping.

Miso and Chile Poblano Sauce 

Miso
It wouldn’t be “Mexican fusion” if it wasn’t a bit spicy, right? (Dan Dealmeida/Unsplash)

Ingredients:

2 poblano peppers

2 tablespoons white or yellow miso paste

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

1 tablespoon honey or agave nectar

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt to taste

Water (as needed)

Instructions:

Preheat the broiler in your oven. Place poblano peppers on a baking sheet and broil, turning occasionally, until skin is charred and blistered.

Transfer roasted peppers into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let steam for about 10 minutes. 

Peel off the charred skin, remove seeds, and chop flesh into tiny pieces.

In a blender or food processor, combine peppers, miso paste, rice vinegar, honey or agave nectar, minced garlic, and olive oil.

Blend until smooth, adding water if needed.

Serve over grilled meat or roasted vegetables.

Chicken Teriyaki (recipe by Chef Asai)

Chicken teriyaki
The oriental classic meets North American snacking in a match made in heaven. (Freepik)

Ingredients: 

1 chicken breast

Flour for dusting

1 tsp Oil

Salt and pepper

60ml sake

60ml soy sauce

40g sugar

Instructions:

Season the chicken breast with salt and pepper. Coat with flour and sauté in a little oil. When half cooked, add the sake, soy sauce, and sugar, and continue cooking until caramelized.

Japanese Tuna Tacos

Tuna taco
Tacos. Sushi. Heaven. (Freepik)

Ingredients:

1.5lb sushi-grade tuna

1/4 cup ponzu sauce

1 tbsp vegetable oil

Ponzu-wasabi mayo 

12 — 14 corn tortillas

Limes to taste

Optional: shredded cabbage, carrot, and lettuce slaw

Instructions:

In a plastic bag, marinate raw tuna in ponzu sauce and chill for 1 hour

Grill or sear fish for about 3 minutes or until cooked on the outside and rare on the inside. Turn once.

Make ponzu-wasabi mayo by mixing 1/2 cup mayo, 2 tbsp ponzu, and 1 tsp wasabi paste.

Serve on warm tortillas with a drizzle of ponzu wasabi mayo.

Squeeze lime and add slaw if desired. 

Have you thought of a way for Mexico to reinvent Japanese food? Let us know in the comments!

Bethany Platanella is a travel planner and lifestyle writer based in Mexico City. She lives for the dopamine hit that comes directly after booking a plane ticket, exploring local markets, practicing yoga and munching on fresh tortillas. Sign up to receive her Sunday Love Letters to your inbox, peruse her blog, or follow her on Instagram.

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