Japan is all the rage in Paris at the moment: there is an extensive Hokusai exhibit at the Grand Palais, well worth visiting; a detailed look at the hand-drawn layouts for Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli films at the Musée d’Art Ludique; and Le Japon au fil des saisons at the Musée Cernuschi. The oldest department store in Paris, Le Bon Marché, is celebrating Japan too.
For our most recent Grape Leaf Club, we ate chirashi bowls with salmon, mackerel and octopus while watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I’d seen the film before but loved it again – 85 year old sushi chef Jiro and his sincere perfectionism, his hard-working sons and apprentices. The jolly restaurant critic who admits to being slightly intimidated to eat there. The apprentice that cries when he finally gets the omelette right.
One of the lines in the Hokusai show echoed Jiro’s determined philosophy – both wanted to keep practising their craft their whole life long, believing there is more to learn even in your eighties.
It all makes me nostalgic for working in the Japanese bakery. I loved the genmaicha tea in the morning, making yuzu Christmas logs, starting with ohayo gozaimasu and finishing with otsukaresama desu! as we left. (“You are honorably tired” is a very satisfying compliment after a long day’s work.)
And so more Japanese flavours have been creeping into my cooking. There is a jar of pickled ginger by the stove, Japanese rice in the cupboard. I have an elegant wooden box that measures exactly enough rice for two people.
I love anything with black sesame – kuro goma – the earthy, deep flavour a perfect contrast for something rich and creamy. I made the sesame shortbread with matcha-coconut pannacottafor our Jiro evening. It is buttery and crumbly with a slight edge from the bitter seeds.
The second time I made it for a quick dinner at home. It only needs a bowl and a spoon and a tin. We ate the shortbread with yoghurt and bitter caramel sauce. To turn natural yoghurt into something more worthy of a dessert, leave it to drain in a sieve lined with paper towels for half an hour. It becomes thicker, creamier and more tart. Like homemade Greek yoghurt. Drizzle with honey, maple syrup or caramel. Simple and delicious.
Black sesame paste and seeds can be found at Japanese or Asian supemarkets. In Paris, the rue St Anne, near metro Pyramides, has the highest concentration of Japanese shops, noodle bars and bakeries. Or try using tahini.
Black sesame shortbread
adapted from Seasonal Secrets
125g salted butter
50g caster sugar
2 tsp sesame paste
125g plain flour
50g rice flour
2 tsp black sesame seeds
Cream butter and sugar until soft. Add sesame paste and mix to combine well. Add flours and seeds. Keep mixing until the dough starts to form clumps. It can be a bit crumbly, but not powdery. If overworked, it will be too chewy rather than light.
Grease an 18cm round tin. Press the mixture firmly into it. Refrigerate shortbread while preheating oven to 175C. Bake for 15 minutes, until it comes away from the sides and is just golden around the edges.
Cool, slice into thin wedges.