Friday, 30 November 2012

Signatures: Black Cod with Miso (Nobu)

After a couple of weeks of book reviews, a return to my ongoing series on cheffy signature dishes, and  the cookbooks where you can find them...

The Dish

The problem with Nobu's Black Cod with Miso is that its too damn successful.

Black cod is actually a very interesting ingredient - probably the only seafood with less than eight legs which can't be overcooked. And its fatty and delicious to boot. But if you look up recipes for black cod you will find only one.

This one.

It's because it really is that good.

The dish looks very simple. A golden-grilled fillet of fish plain on a plate. If you get it in the restaurant there's a shard of pickled ginger on the side. But once you put your fork to it (look this is Nobu. Doubt you'll be using chopsticks here) oh-my-oh-my. It flakes away into scalloped flakes, not disintegrating like a normal cod. Taste it and each one is a beguiling mix of salt-sweet miso glaze and then the melting-fatty fish. Even if you're have it dozens of times, it still remains a wow dish.

There's a couple of things that make it so great.

The first is the miso glaze. Now contrary to popular belief Nobu didn't invent this. Marinating fish in a mixture of miso, alcohol and sugar is an age-old technique in Japan. It was originally used as a preservative - sea-fish would be pickled in miso or in the lees from sake-brewing to preserve them for the long journey to the capital. Nowadays of course the miso is there more for taste than preservation, but its definitely nothing new.

Nobu didn't invent the idea of grilling it either. Once the preserved fish had got to its destination, grilling  (Yakimono) was a quick and easy way of preparing it. After all Nasu Dengaku (miso-topped aubergine), an izakaya stand-by, is pretty much the same thing done to an eggplant.

Oi! Keep that pot of Miso away from me I tell you!!
What Nobu did do however is stumble on the idea of pairing this with Black Cod, an unusual fish he came across in Alaska. Black Cod - or sablefish - is a very unusual fish. Unlike most fish we eat, it lives in very deep water, between 1000 and 9000 feet down. This gives it a very special physiology - to adapt to the extreme pressures the flesh is saturated with a great deal of fat, which acts as a sort of natural antifreeze.

Why is this important? It's because it gives it particular lip-smacking texture which is the source of its other name - butterfish. Apart from the Chilean Seabass (which has a similar stygian habitat) this is almost unique amongst the fish we eat. Perhaps a nice piece of grilled salmon belly can match it, but that's much oilier. What so special about the Black Cod is that the fat does leach out, it just remains soaked into the beautiful, moist flesh.

It is the fattiness which makes Black Cod so well suited for this dish. Much as you pair savoury-fatty foie gras with a sweet fruit chutney, the savoury-sweet miso glaze is a perfect foil for the buttery Black Cod. It's one of the great food marriages. And Nobu was the bloke who discovered it.

Respect is due.

The Recipe

The only problem with this dish is it costs you a whacking great £42 a plate at Nobu's London outpost, only its only $32 in New York (hmmm, I wonder if its worth doing a Economist-style Big Mac Index to figure out currency overvaluations for the jet-set?). But the good news? Provided you can get your hands on the fish this one's a snip to do at home.

As far as I know the recipe features in two of Nobu's books, and an interminable number of random recipe sites (Google "black cod miso recipe" and you'll know what I mean). It was originally published on p124 the 2001 Nobu Cookbook  pioneer of the Haute Asian Fusion (HAF) genre (viz Tetsuya Wakuda, Susur Lee, Alan Wong and Momofuku). It's pretty much foolproof.

Hmmm. How much Sake again?
The first step is to make the Saikyo Miso marinade (recipe on p172). Basically boil together a tub of white miso, some sake, mirin, sugar and then let it cool. One warning - the recipe in the original book omits the quantity of sake; other sources say it should be the same quantity as the mirin (150ml), which is what I always use.

This gives you a great big pot of golden-yellow miso sauce. More than you need for the recipe. Stick it in a bottle and keep it in the fridge - given the amount of salt and sugar in it the stuff is pretty much indestructible. Whip it out whenever you have any grilled meat you want to gussy up (it's great on grilled lamb chops).

Then take a cup or so of the miso sauce and brush it onto the fish. At this point the book marinades the  fish for 2-3 days (perhaps a hat-tip to the old days of preserving the fish), but its just as good if you cook it immediately. Grill the fish skin-side up til its browned and then whack it into a 200c over for 10-15 minutes (alternately I grill the fish til browned on both sides and skip the oven bit).

Now normally when you grill fish it goes dry pretty damn quick. But the great thing about the black cod though, is that with its extreme fattiness it remains moist no matter how much damage you deal to it. This piece of protein is pretty much idiot proof, and will brown long before you can ever overcook it  (especially given the amount of sugar in the glaze).

After that you're done. Plop it on a bowl of nicely steamed short-grain rice and your in salty-sweety-buttery black cod heaven!

The Book

Book cover front and back: Note hilariously cheesy quotes from random 90's slebs (click on the pic to zoom in). My pick: Everything tastes so clean, PURE and unique. There is so much choice from marinated tofu to tangy mushroom salad, and of course the gold leaf sake is a must. --- Jude Law and Sadie Frost.

A few thoughts on the book itself (I'm focusing on the original Nobu Cookbook here; the recipe also features in 2004's Nobu Now, but I've always found that volume much less exciting).

Returning to it over a decade later this volume has aged very well. Okay Nobu's Persil-white Nike trainers and relentless name-dropping is a bit 1990's (Princess Di: I was struck by the firmness of her handshake when we first met, and her mentioning that she had read about me; Kenny G: I could tell form his performance, from the way he mingled with the audience, that he really loved his work and enjoyed entertaining fans).

However the tightly-packed text and stately layout are surprisingly fresh, even when books like Alinea and publishers like Phaidon (a curse on all their houses) have since raised the bar.

But the book works above all because its a moving and personal story. Today we're familiar with Nobu the culinary magnate, Nobu the HAF chain-restaurant operator (back in 2001 he only had the 13 restaurants...). But the opening pages of the book take us back to a different Nobu. Nobu the indebted young restaurant owner, standing in the snow one Anchorage night and watching his only restaurant burn down:
An unforgettable night
There is one night that for me is unforgettable, one scene that I can't get out of my mind. It is branded onto my eyes. To remember what happened that night is to remember despair. Even now, the memory is as vivid as the events of yesterday. It was the hardest night I ever lived through. But perhaps because of it, I learned to be thankful and to find the courage to take a sure step forward.
Anchorage, in a whirl of light snow. In that increasingly snowbound town, silver with the settling flakes, flames shot up in an orange blaze. I stood rooted under the falling snow, silently waching the building burn down. Having rushed to the scene from a party at a friend's house, I was only wearing a T-shirt, yet I didn't feel the cold, nor anything else. The cinders from the burning building flew up into the sky, and some landed on my cheeks. They must have been hot, but I wasn't conscious of it at the time.
It was my restaurant that was burning; it had only been fifty days since it opened.
In many ways this reminds me about about Thomas Keller's vignette on the importance of rabbits contained in the original French Laundry Cookbook. In brief: Keller wants to find out how to kill, skin a rabbit. Supplier turns up with twelve bunnies, does one and leaves the rest for chef to take care of. Having to kill eleven screaming rabbits in time for dinner service teaches Keller a deeply personal lesson about the cost of his ingredients:
... but that first screaming rabbit not only gave me a lesson in butchering, it also taught me about waste. Because killing those rabbits had been such an awful experience, I would not squander them. I would use all my powers as a chef to ensure that those rabbits were beautiful.
Nobu's Alaskan nightmare is that sort of story, which tells you more about the chef than eating his food ever will.

But back to the book. The other great thing about the book is that its packed with iconic recipes. A decade on we forget how revolutionary a lot of this stuff was. New-style sashimi (drizzled with smoking hot oil at service) and bracing seafood ceviches seem to passe now (in London we've now got a whole restaurant named after the damn stuff!). But in those days it could have been food from the moon.

This is fusion food done right - foreign influences are assimilated but always with Nobu's own zesty style.

Part of this is the words (or, alternately the dodgy translation - note this is an English version of a  volume originally published in Japanese in 1998). A mayo with a dash of chilli oil becomes "Creamy-Spicy Sauce" topping grilled scallops (p37). What looks like an uncooked soy hollandaise (no I don't know how that works either) is rebranded as Egg Sauce, and looks absolutely immaculate napping spinach-wrapped sea urchin (p42).

Part of this is also playfulness - trompe l'oeil dishes of abalone or squid cut to resemble soba (p24) and conchiglie pasta (p82). A slightly gothic deep-fried bone-ring garnishing a sole (p123). And a torchon, not of foie gras but of monkish liver (having once cooked through a kilo of the stuff I can say yes it does have the look and taste of foie gras, but a kind of weird fishiness).

This is a book with personality. And a book that's fun. Even so many years on I still rate it - along with David Chang's Momofuku book - as my pick of the HAF genre.

Enjoy the weekend.

Afterword - Getting hold of Black Cod: As I said the only problem with this recipe is getting hold of the Black Cod; most of the other ingredients you should be able to track down in any Asian grocery (although for Miso you might have to go to a specifically Japanese store). In London at least Selfridges and the Atariya empire sell Black Cod (Atariya even sell it ready-miso-marinated). It's not cheap but costs less than in a restaurant, and the richness of the meat means a little goes a long way. 

No idea about availability on the other side of the pond but I assume its easier to source in North America. It looks like those enterprising Canucks are moving into Black Cod aquaculture - hopefully that will bring prices down further.


  1. I love reading your signature series. Keep up the great work!

    A while ago I tried to find black cod in The Netherlands and unfortunately I was unable to find any. Once I do happen to find it though, preparing it with miso is the only choice for me (I heard/read so many good things about it).

    1. Hehe tx Hendrik glad you like the series. One good thing is that they give me an opportunity to write about books which are good, but which I might not want to review standalone as they're so overexposed (does the world need another review/blog/commentary about the French Laundry Cookbook I wonder?).

      Hmmm. I can imagine it would be difficult to obtain Black Cod where you are, although given most supplies in Europe come frozen I don't think there are any logistical difficulties - more a matter of demand. But if you're coming to London let me know and I can point you in the direction of reliable suppliers. As I said Selfridges Food Hall is a good bet, alternately the Atariya shop in Finchley (although that's more of a trek out).

      All the best


  2. Hi, found your blog by accident and spent a couple hours reading, I guess that means I liked it. Funny you mentioned the NOMA book since I have a copy that I have never really read and have only looked through a bit, but know that you mention how coveted the book is I will give it a chance and read it completely.
    I guess since its dedicate by Rene I should keep it in a safe now. Well thanks for the blog.

    1. Hey Alex

      Glad you liked it! :-p Lucky you to have the NOMA book - think we all have books like that we picked up at the time and never really sat down to go through. That would make a pleasant read (my advice - grab some jamon and a nice glace of sherry to make an afternoon of it). Would be interested in any thoughts on that one, and how it compares to the Phaidon version!

      All the best


  3. As you pointed out, this technique was already pretty common in Japanese cuisine. I think the key to its popularity was not only pairing it with black cod but also because Nobu increased the sweetness with all that sugar to appeal to the sweet tooth of Westerners. (When you look at Chinese food that's geared towards Westerners, its almost always sweeter than the original Chinese dish that inspired it). The first time I saw a recipe for Nobu's black cod, I thought there was a mistake with the amount of sugar used in the dish.

    I've also seen an interesting variation on this dish by Andrew Zimmerman, who starts by putting the fish in a salt-water brine for 45 minutes.

    Since Nobu has appeared several times on Andrew's show, I wonder if that initial salt-water brine step is something Nobu does in his restaurants but that step got left off because the recipe was dumbed down for home cooks.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! Interesting perspectives.

      Never thought about the sugar angle. True when I look up the miso dengaku topping in the Tsuji Japanese Cooking book it only has 2 tbsp of sugar for 3/4 cup white miso, so you may well have a point.

      Hadn't seen the Zimmerman recipe before either so first time I've seen the brining step also. Although I would say the brine looks relatively weak (looks like roughly a 3% brine and only 45 minutes, so I suspect it might not have much impact beyond washing out blood spots/imperfections.

      I also haven't seen the idea of using Kasu Aka in the miso marinade before - although it seems in the traditional version all sorts of weird stuff gets chucked in (the Tsuji version includes egg yolks).



  4. Also, the increased sugar I think made the dish more visually appealing. Without all that sugar and the carmelization of the sugars, you don't get the same golden color and charred black color on the fish.

    When I made this dish, I didn't want to open up a bottle of sake so I just used all mirin instead of half mirin and half sake. Since the mirin was already sweetened and I didn't want the dish too sweet, I used a minimal amount of sugar. But, while the dish tasted nice, it didn't look as nice as the pictures of this dish when people were using all that sugar.