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I love Japanese food. In fact, I pretty well love all things Japanese.
Partly, it’s because I lived there from the time I was three years old to eight years old, from 1960 to 1965 in the western enclave of Yamate Cho which was a pretty idyllic place, famous for the Yokohama Foreign General Cemetary and the Bluffs Clinic.
Dad was a engineer and was on assignment there. I went to school at a gaishin school, hung out at the gaishin Yokohama Country and Atheltic Club and roamed freely, such were the times no one really worried about what a kid and his friends got up to, as long as they were home for dinner.
We had an Obasan, a housekeeper, a gardener, a maid. We lived pretty well, mostly because Dad’s company gave him an allowance and because the British pound was very strong against the Yen on what was the tail end of reconstruction after the war.
Soon, the Mitsubishis, Hondas and Sonys would rise and Japan would become a global industrial force but then, they were still cleaning up after WW2 which had ended some 15 years before we arrived.
Anyway, my love affair with things Nippon is deep rooted and influences me today. I love the minimalist design, the culture, the social norms, the Samuari code – Bushido – and all that.
As a kid I grew up watching Japanese TV on a Black and White screen, learning the language. I was no cunning linguist but I did okay for a seven and eight year old, translating for my parents.
And so when I saw Washuko Matsuri – Japanese Food Festival – posted at the Japanese Cultural Centre here in Toronto, I knew I had to go. I’d actually seen it posted three years before, the last time they held it. I caught a video of the event on the web page of one of my favourite sushi restaurants in Toronto, Zen.
For 30 years or more they were in a ratty plaza but the food was out of this world. It’s where my kids fell in love with Japanese food as well.
But at $250 ticket it was steep. Bugger. I was all in though. Then Suzanne wanted to go and then Jon flew home from Edmonton because he wanted to go. Megs was going to come too but had to stay back in Alberta. So we treated Alex, Suzanne’s niece. Early Christmas presents all around.
Wow. It could have been a bit more organized and I’m not sure where all the money they raised went from the raffle but, hey. It was one hell of an experience.
Frankly, Washuko Matsuri 2018 was a night of legends.
It was a gathering of celebrity itamaes of the Greater Toronto Area, from the young and up and coming Chef Nobu from Nakamori (which took over the space from Zen when it moved north) to the industry veteran Mitsuhiro Kaji of Sushi Kaji and venerable statesmen such as Chef Seiichi Kashiwabara of Zen, along with a constellation of other stars who collaborated to craft a delicately detailed and exquisite feast for 250 hungry and eager guests at the Japanese Cultural Centre on Nov. 5.
Their ingredients were of the same stellar quality, sea-fresh fish and produce direct from Japan were on hand as the Japanese Restaurant Association of Canada (JRAC) hosted its long-awaited celebration of Japanese culture and cuisine.
At $250 a plate, the sold-out event set a high standard and attracted the most passionate fans of Japanese cuisine; they were not disappointed.
It kicked off with sake and beer as a tuna was expertly and surgically cut into portions with a sword-like knife. Then, as the sounds of wadaiko thundered around Kobayashi Hall, diners took their seats for a six-course extravaganza, starting with satenmori – wagyu roast beef, lobster-uni yaki and a kakikama shiroae of konnyaku potatoes, shemji mushroom and persimmon mixed with mashed tofu.
The focus of the evening was the Ehime prefecture’s bounty of fish, fruit and cuisine. Front and centre, of course, were the Ehime citrus offerings along with its aquaculture sector which produces the finest yellowtail, bluefin tuna, salmon, striped jackfish and seven band grouper along with 11 other species.
The sake, made from mountain streams, is also especially prized.
As Takako Ito, Consul-General of Japan in Toronto noted, this event was a showcase for Canadians to entice them to visit and enjoy the culture, cuisine and scenery first hand, especially in Ehime, part of western Japan.
While some 300,000 Canadians visit Japan every year, she said, the goal is to increase those numbers.
“And of Japan’s food exports,” she said. “Only one per cent comes to Canada. Ehime, for example, sends oranges to Canada but only to British Columbia.”
The hope is to export more citrus to all of Canada, she added, along with many more agricultural products.
Backstage, the celebrity chefs were busy, knocking out 250 first and second courses, the third and fourth courses and dessert. Then, as we enjoyed those dishes, they trooped into the hall to excited applause and were quickly surrounded by admiring photographers as they took their stations in a central island stage.
Cheers rang out as the chefs’ introduced by name. Soon, we were served the second course of ma-hata, matasuke osuimono, a delicate dish of Japanese grouper with pine mushroom and shrimp in a clear broth, as the chefs quickly got to work to make the fifth course of sushi.
While they worked, winning raffle ticket numbers for exotic prizes were called out and the third course arrived, a sashimi of 10 items, all fresh and meticulously plated and sourced from Canada, Portugal, Scotland, Morocco and, of course, Eihme.
The fourth was a palate refresher, buri saikyo yaki, grilled Japanese yellowtail from Ehime marinated in a miso saikyo (sauce.)
By then the celebrity chefs were plating the sushi which was a delight of seven items all from Ehime plus a fatty tuna and green onion hand-roll. Sake and and conversation flowed freely among diners as they were dazzled by the food and the collaborating chefs with their deft, precise and speedy hand-skills in assembling the next course. Dessert came all too quickly for some who seemed they could go on all night sampling the exotic dishes.
Alas, the Ehime Ponkan, wine jelly, matcha mousse and yamadaya manju would have to hold us until next year. Perhaps longer.
Washuko Matsuri was last held in 2015 and a JRAC organizer said a combination of the logistics required for the massive event and some lapses in organization forced a three year delay for the 11th event.
Here’s to next year: Kanpai!!