Dishing the dirt
A muddy carrot led Tokyo chef Toshio Tanabe to experiment with soil as an ingredient. Julian Ryall samples his creations. Pictures by Alfie Goodrich
Among the containers of prepared salad leaves, pepper mills, a dish of large clams and myriad other ingredients found in kitchens the world over, a somewhat incongruous item sits atop the counter at Toshio Tanabe's Tokyo restaurant: a large bag of dark brown soil.
That it is in plain view is no oversight: while other chefs are wont to guard the secrets of their most dazzling recipes jealously, Tanabe makes no bones about the source of the unique taste and texture of many of the dishes at Ne Quittez Pas. The versatile ingredient he has incorporated into dressings and sauces, and drizzles over fish, meat and vegetables is plain mud.
And it is delicious.
"I came across mud as an ingredient in dishes by accident, I suppose," the 64-year-old tells Post Magazine. "It was about eight years ago and I was looking at vegetables to use in the kitchen, so I picked up a carrot that was still covered in mud. I brushed most of it off and took a bite - and realised that the mud was quite nice. It added something to the carrot.
"I knew I could not simply serve up soil on a plate to a customer, but I did want to work with it as an ingredient and so I started to try to cook with it," he says . "Little by little, I worked out how I could use it in dishes."
After tinkering with recipes in the kitchen of the European-inspired restaurant that he owns in the Gotanda district of west Tokyo - Tanabe spent three years honing his craft in France - he tried some dishes out on friends. From there he progressed to occasional mud-inspired additions to the menu. And then, in January, he introduced a full menu of dishes that make the most of the ingredient.
The response has been astonishing, he admits. Already he has appeared on CNN and Canadian television and a visit from a Brazilian TV crew has been inked into his diary. And the media circus is focused on watching him transform mud into meals.
"It has to be high-quality mud, not any old dirt, and it has to be clean, with no chemicals of fertilisers in it," says Tanabe, wagging a stern finger beneath his salt-and-pepper beard.
He procures his soil from a number of specialist gardening firms in the Tochigi, Saitama and Ibaraki prefectures, outside Tokyo, and claims the best type of mud comes from at least 10 metres beneath the surface.
Tanabe pours the contents of a five-litre bag from a company called Protoleaf into a blue plastic bucket and stirs it with his fingertips. The soil is dark and rich; its scent, unsurprisingly, earthy.
"It can't just be eaten like this and I have to make sure that any impurities have been taken out," Tanabe says, spreading a generous portion on a baking tray and placing it carefully into a large oven. The soil is baked at a temperature of 200 degrees Celsius for 15 minutes before being boiled in water and passed through three, successively finer, filters, to remove grit and other particles.
Once these steps have been completed, he is ready to get to work. By combining the mud with gelatin, he is able to create a pale grey, creamy mixture that serves as a base for many of his dishes, ranging from soups to desserts.
With deft twists of his wrist, Tanabe mashes a generous spoonful of the soil, mixed with liquidised potatoes and onions, through a fine strainer. He frosts the rim of a straight glass with salt extracted from seaweed and then carefully pours the mixture into the glass. The starter is topped with a thinly sliced black truffle.
"I don't want this soup to have a very strong taste of the other ingredients and I never use stock from meat because that would overpower the flavour of the mud," Tanabe says, already moving on to the next course.
After finely chopping and sautéing an onion in butter, he adds it to a powdered truffle and soil mixture. He peels a small boiled potato with the heel of a large knife and rolls it in the concoction until it is thoroughly covered. Served in a shallow bowl along with vegetables that still have their roots attached - a deliberate touch, Tanabe insists, with a playful smile - he calls the dish his "mud surprise salad."
On the tongue, the coating of the potato is tangy and grainy, like a good mustard. If the secret ingredient hadn't been revealed, you might never guess what it was, although one bite does seem a little earthier in flavour than others.
With no fewer than nine pots bubbling or steaming on Tanabe's stove, he fishes a cut of boiled hirame, or flounder, from one of them, adds a dash of pepper and leaves it to sizzle in a frying pan. Served with a thick, dark grey sauce, it has a stronger flavour: an amalgamation of saltiness and a clearer hint of the soil. The taste lingers more in the crispy skin of the fish.
Tanabe says he particularly likes to work with oysters but is waiting for his next delivery.
"Fresh oysters are by far the best," he says. "They include so many minerals from the sea and when you combine them with the minerals that we get in the soil from the land, it's like a fusion of the two."
Dessert is made from the same stock as the sauces, with sugar and cream added to the mud mixture to create a grainy ice cream with a hint of praline, topped with a slice of burdock root. The alternative is an individual pudding of caramelised egg, sugar and butter - akin to a crème brûlée, but with a large spoonful of sweetened mud in the centre.
As something of a picky eater, I am genuinely surprised by the flavours and textures that Tanabe has been able to coax out of what, to untutored eyes at least, is a pretty unappetising ingredient.
Just as unlikely, arguably, is the route the chef took from the provincial town of Mito, north of Tokyo, to creating a little bistro that is building a big reputation for itself.
Sitting with a cup of strongly scented soil and mint tea, Tanabe shows me a copy of a magazine that contains a full-page picture of him as a young man. Clad in the white uniform of a gymnast representing Japan, he is holding the perfect position, arms outstretched at 90 degrees to his body, on the rings.
"I was shortlisted for the national gymnastics team for both the Munich and Montreal Olympic games, but I never went to either because both times I picked up injuries," he says, with a dismissive wave of his hand. If he has regrets, he prefers not to linger on them.
After graduating from Nippon Sport Science University, Tanabe became a professional boxer, fighting at bantamweight, but after five years was told by a doctor that a minor heart complaint meant he had to stop.
"For the next two years, I didn't really do anything," he says. "At the time, I used to go to a restaurant that served oden and I got friendly with the master, who suggested that I start my own oden business."
Typically a winter dish, oden consists of vegetables, eggs and fishcakes stewed in a soy-flavoured broth. Short of funds, Tanabe set himself up with a yattai, a wooden cart with an oden pot in the middle and wooden benches for customers around the outside. In winter months, diners are protected from the elements by stretched tarpaulins.
"It was not so hard and I had a lot of fun doing that," Tanabe admits. His pitch was in Kabukicho, Tokyo's notorious red-light district, and he became friendly with a number of senior yakuza gangsters.
"I was still training and I was strong in those days, so one of the gang bosses invited me to join his organisation," he recalls. "I never did, but he still took care of me."
After six months, Tanabe realised that he was a pretty good cook, but also that he didn't want to spend the rest of his working life serving oden from a yattai. So, after a brief training stint at Bistro de la Cite, in the upmarket Tokyo district of Nishi-Azabu, he flew to Paris, walked into the kitchens of the La Marée, on rue Daru, and asked for a job.
Inexperienced and unable to speak French, he was told there were no vacancies. Undeterred, he spent the rest of his savings going back to the restaurant every day for the next month, taking careful notes on every dish on the menu.
On the day his funds ran out, the head chef emerged from the kitchen and gave him an oyster and champagne gratin. Next, he took Tanabe down to the basement and showed him a calendar. Misunderstanding, Tanabe thought he had landed a job and turned up the next morning with his knives, ready to work. The chef, however, had only said he could go into the kitchen to watch and learn, which he did for the next eight months.
Armed with a letter of recommendation, Tanabe then landed a position at L'Espérance, outside Paris, where he acquired more of the skills required to prepare everything from hors d'oeuvres to salads, meat dishes, fish and desserts.
Returning to Tokyo in 1984, he spent three years in a restaurant in Ginza before saving up enough to open a small bar-restaurant in the Ebisu district. Before long, he grew tired of serving the same old bar snacks and beers in a cramped establishment. The love of real cooking, however, remained.
Ne Quittez Pas was opened in 1994 and gave Tanabe elbow room to really push himself and experiment with tastes and ingredients.
Located on the ground floor of a former diplomat's residence, the restaurant has been extended out from the rear of the building, where it is covered by a glass atrium. The terrace beyond that is perfect for dining on a summer's evening.
The interior furniture is old-fashioned and European - another nod to Tanabe's culinary schooling - and among it is an upright piano. The stone wall above the fireplace is soot-blackened and split logs and pine cones are stacked alongside the chimney.
Occupying a tray beside a pewter ice bucket are an Haut Médoc de Pédesclaux from 2005, a 2009 Bourgogne Pinot Fin, a half-full bottle of 12-year-old Chivas Regal and a 1987 Michel Huard calvados.
A wooden case that used to hold bottles of 2002 Saint-Émilion has been pressed into use as storage for table linen. Each table has a large candle and - in case you needed reminding of the house speciality - a covered glass container of soil.
"I've cooked with French soil as well and it tastes the same, so I imagine any mud can work in a dish," Tanabe says. "The thing is that it needs to come from a long way down, from where there are no chemicals or fertilisers or emissions from car exhausts, that sort of thing.
"When you get down that deep, the soil can have been there for hundreds of thousands of years. When I first started thinking about doing this, I asked some university professors and doctors if it would be safe and they told me that it would be fine. They said mud is not dead or rotten, but full of life."
Despite his own growing fame, Tanabe has not heard of any other chefs creating dishes that incorporate mud, although he hopes that some day one or two of the young chefs training under him will take up the challenge. And he admits he finds it difficult to stop thinking about new dishes that might work with soil.
At the moment, he is pondering bringing together sea urchin carpaccio and soil, and a fish consommé involving soil. Tanabe's eyes crinkle mischievously at the edges as he turns over the possibilities in his mind.