In the renowned Bruges restaurant Tanuki, the most delicious Japanese dishes are served under the expert eye of chef Ivan Verhelle and his sous chef Akihisa Kawakami. Verhelle has recently opened up his kitchen to Flemish households with his book Basic Japans (‘Basic Japanese Cooking’), which teaches you how to whip up tempura, teppanyaki, sushi and sashimi dishes in no time at all.
“Until now there wasn’t a single Japanese cookbook written in Belgium,” Verhelle explains. “There were Japanese cookbooks translated from English to Dutch, but they were no good. Most of the ingredients are available in Australia, the UK and the US, but not in our part of the world. With Basic Japans, I aim to change that. You’ll learn, for example, how to easily prepare a tempura batter or teriyaki sauce and how to barbecue the Japanese way. Japan is a country with a centuries-old gastronomic tradition. Belgians recognise this straight away and tend to appreciate top-quality food. What’s holding us back from giving it a try ourselves?”
Were you able to include all the Japanese ingredients or did you have to make some compromises?
“Barring a few exceptions, I didn’t have to make many compromises. Fugu — pufferfish — was one such exception. Pufferfish can be poisonous when not correctly prepared. In Japan, it is highly sought after, but you won’t find it at your local fishmonger in Belgium. I don’t even serve fugu at my restaurant, so it goes without saying that it doesn’t feature in the book.
Other seafood products were a clear choice to include in the book. Take the UHP lobster from Pittman Seafoods, for example. I’ve been ordering it for the past four years from my local fish supplier. The way Pittman Seafoods processes the lobster is very Japanese — hygienic and practical. And the taste? Fantastic. Another plus: I don’t have to drop the lobster in boiling water. Which is why I was happy to mention it in my book, in addition to the fact that it’s on the menu at Tanuki.”
What do you like about lobster as an ingredient?
“It’s very versatile. You can basically serve it all year round. In the winter, or let’s just say from October to March, lobster is perfect in a stew. In the summer, we serve lobster with a sweet miso sauce like the one you can find in my book. Lobster is not really a seasonal product because the quality remains high throughout the year.”
The holidays will soon be upon us. Do you have a recommendation for the perfect Japanese dish to serve at this time of year?
“I go for dishes you can prepare in advance like sukiyai, a lobster stew. The lobster falls right out of the shell and imparts its beautiful flavour to the natural, healthy stock. With the right vegetables and sauce, you can’t go wrong. Bon appetit!”
Basic Japans was first published on 13 October 2015 by Lannoo.