What I believe was the first Japanese restaurant in London, indeed in Britain – Ajimura in Covent Garden’s Shelton Street – opened in 1972, the year I started reviewing for the Evening Standard.
In the first restaurant guide I wrote, I see that I summarised the upside and downside as:
- + a good place to learn about Japanese food
- – ski-lodge décor
Japanese food was a mystery then to most Westerners, including me, and Ajimura did a good job of solving it. Unlike, for example, Chinese and Indian food, the cuisine arrived on the scene appealing to what you could, if you had to, call an elite – travellers to L.A. and New York who had eaten in the sushi and sashimi bars already thriving in those cities. Had anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss thought about it he could have added a useful postscript to his book on structuralism, The Raw and The Cooked.
Cost of course was – and remains – a filter. Fish dignified enough to be consumed raw didn’t come cheap even nearly 50 years ago. Japanese businessmen, the enlightened explorers and the simply curious were the mainstay of the clientele at first but Ajimura’s owners were keen to initiate their clientele into the culinary traditions, word spread and gradually other places opened. It wasn’t until the early Nineties when Alan Yau’s Wagamama opened, followed five years later by Yo! Sushi that what you might call the fear factor was removed completely. Or, you might more correctly say, the authenticity…
It was at the diminutive Inaho in Notting Hill Gate (+ a welcoming Japanese ark, – too many arriving two by two), which opened about 25 years ago, where I first tried this happily vegan dish of aubergine with miso. Here, it has been deliberately simplified to involve only one cooking method – the oven – rather than frying then grilling.
Nasu Dengaku (aubergines with miso)
Time to prepare and cook: 45 - 50 minutes
You will need: aubergines (preferably long slender ones), white miso paste, mirin (or sweet sherry), white (untoasted) sesame seeds, oil, sugar, root ginger (if around).
- Turn the oven on to 200C/Gas Mark 6.
- Cut the aubergines in half lengthwise, slicing through the calyx and stalk. If you can only find fat, bulbous aubergines, slice them into thick rounds about 5cm deep.
- With the tip of a sharp knife, crosshatch the cut surfaces of the aubergine halves (or one side of the rounds), digging in a couple of millimetres. Pour some vegetable oil – sesame oil if you have it – into the palms of your hands and rub the aubergines pieces all over. Trickle mirin (sweet rice wine) over the crosshatched surfaces, gently twisting the halves or rounds so that it runs into the cuts.
- Spoon two tablespoons of white miso into a bowl. Add one level tablespoon of sugar and enough mirin to soften the miso and make it into a flexible paste. When I was making this recipe, there was root ginger in the fridge, as always, so I grated about a heaped teaspoon into the mixture. Stir thoroughly.
- With a knife, spread a thin layer of miso mixture over the cut surfaces of the aubergines and sprinkle with sesame seeds – prettily, not overwhelmingly.
- Place the aubergines in an ovenproof dish and bake for 35-40 minutes or until the aubergines are soft and the topping golden.
- A salad of cucumbers sliced vertically with a vegetable peeler and dressed with rice vinegar and ground black pepper is an ace accompaniment, or pair the deeply savoury aubergines with steamed fish or cold meat.