If not for a busted shoulder, Japanese food in America might be far less compelling today. Chef Masaharu Morimoto yearned to be a professional baseball player, and a scout expressed interest in drafting him. But after succumbing to injury, the Hiroshima native stepped off the field and into the kitchen. “I had two dreams,” says Morimoto. “The other was to become a professional sushi chef, and here I am.”
As anyone who grew up with Food Network knows, the Iron Chef’s post-baseball accomplishments are prolific. His theatrical Morimoto restaurants—including the original in Philadelphia—span the globe, from Honolulu to Mumbai. Later this summer, his newest outpost, at the Shelborne Wyndham Grand South Beach, will open in Miami.
I had two dreams. The other was to become a professional sushi chef, and here I am.
Growing up on the Seto Inland Sea, Morimoto was surrounded by fresh seafood. His mother wasn’t a very good cook, and aside from once-a-month excursions when his father came home with a paycheck, the family was too poor to eat out. Those monthly sushi dinners were a highly anticipated dining ritual for Morimoto—not just for the escapism they provided from the everyday kitchen table, but also for glimpses of the highly skilled chefs at work.
With the same discipline and focus he applied to sports, Morimoto learned the crafts of sushi and kaiseki cuisine before opening his own restaurant at the age of 24. The Sony Club came calling in 1993, and Morimoto headed to New York, where he later caught an impressive break as Nobu Matsuhisa’s protégé. When he decided to build his own empire of high-energy restaurants serving glamorously presented dishes, Morimoto brought star power to Japanese food. Throughout his career, he has constantly remixed Nippon standards with French techniques and playful creative twists, creating memorable mashups like jalapeño-laden tuna pizza.
It is amazing to think about how Americans used to eat sushi and how they do now. They used as much soy sauce as if they were drinking it.
While Japanese food was popular when Morimoto first arrived in the U.S., he thinks diners now look at it with a more refined eye. “Just like my cooking, Japanese cuisine throughout the country has always incorporated Western ingredients—partly out of necessity because chefs were using what was available to them here. Now it seems to be less Americanized and closer to Japan,” he explains. “It is amazing to think about how Americans used to eat sushi and how they do now. They used as much soy sauce as if they were drinking it.”
From his work on television to his high-profile restaurant empire, Morimoto has played a significant role in shifting the American palate. His humble upbringing, however, is never out of sight. From special-occasion sushi to his mother’s less-than-perfect chawanmushi, here are 10 of the dishes Morimoto remembers—and reinvents—fondly.
Although I call it “street food,” there are many restaurants that specialize in this dish in Japan. Other regions have different styles of this savory, flour-based pancake, but I believe Hiroshima’s is the best. It comes with lots of shredded cabbage, thinly sliced pork, and noodles. At my restaurants I serve takoyaki, a ball-shaped version of okonomiyaki. (Photo: Urban Spoon)
We got a lot of small fish from the Seto Inland Sea, and my mother would simmer them lightly with sweet soy and serve them as a main course for dinner; they go very well with white rice. One of my signature dishes is now a black cod braised in thick ginger-soy. (Photo courtesy Masaharu Morimoto)
This savory steamed egg custard is one of the most traditional Japanese foods, and my mother almost always screwed up making it. It has to be silky and smooth in texture, but she didn’t know how to adjust the heat, so her chawanmushi would bubble up, creating a dense texture. I serve this dish with foie gras and oysters for extra richness at my restaurants. (Photo: chriskohatsu.wordpress.com)
The production of nori is famous in Hiroshima. Nori tsukudani is basically a puree of dried seaweed sheets, cooked in sweet soy, usually served as a condiment. I played sports, particularly baseball, so I would come home hungry all the time. A single portion of a protein dish was never enough, so I would eat an extra couple of bowls of white rice with nori tsukudani just to fill my stomach. I serve this as one of the condiments for my toro tartare. (Photo courtesy Masaharu Morimoto)
The Japanese like importing ideas from other countries, and so we imported curry from India and changed it into our curry rice. We love anything that goes with white rice, and curry is perfect. Some Japanese spice-makers created an instant curry roux and ever since, like any other families in Japan, mine would eat curry rice every other week. When I opened Morimoto Waikiki at the Modern Honolulu, I combined the local Hawaiian dish loco loco with curry rice and called it ‘Loco Moto.’ It’s one of the most popular dishes there. (Photo courtesy Masaharu Morimoto)
Although ramen was an everyday food throughout Japan when I still lived there—just like a slice of pizza is in the U.S.—I never thought the dish would become popular in this country. So when I put ramen on my menu several years ago, I modified it to make it familiar to American tastes by using chicken stock, plus udon noodles for a smoother texture. I still serve this version of ramen at every Morimoto restaurant. (Photo courtesy Masaharu Morimoto)
In Japan, Hiroshima is most famous for oysters. Growing up there, I was able to eat the freshest ones, simply as they are or with a bit of ponzu sauce. Even though fresh oysters were abundant, they were still very expensive for ordinary people because they were usually sold to high-end restaurants in Tokyo. I only got the chance to eat them a few times a year. (Photo courtesy Masaharu Morimoto)
Hot Panko-crusted oysters that melt in your mouth are one of my favorite dishes. Many restaurants in Japan serve fried oysters with either tartar or tonkatsu sauces, but our family would eat them with soy sauce. (Photo: NY Daily News)
Sake-steamed Asari clams
Asari clams—Japanese littlenecks—are harvested along the Seto Inland Sea. My mother would steam them with sake, and now when I cook them on my own I add chopped garlic, a bit of butter, and soy sauce for extra flavor. It’s the key. (Photo: No Recipes)
On my father’s monthly payday, our family would always go to a sushi restaurant. Sushi was expensive, so it was a once-a-month treat for our family. We would sit at the sushi counter where I would always be fascinated by the chef’s magical hands. (Photo courtesy Masaharu Morimoto)