FOR THE PAST six years, Kazutoshi Endo kneaded raw fish onto vinegared rice as head sushi chef for Zuma London. When Heston Blumenthal craved sushi, he called up Endo. After a stint as a punk rocker, the Yokohama native began his culinary career at age 22, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. Channelling creative energy from punk into the art of sushi, Endo soon moved from their family restaurant in Tokyo to an exclusive private dining room, where heads of state and industry entertain, personally served by the chef himself. There he was approached to work at the Japanese Embassy in Spain, from where he went on to London.
Sushi is, as Endo puts it, “a simple thing”. Its basic components are fish, rice, vinegar and soy sauce – with perhaps sake as an accompaniment. But you need the finest ingredients (as well as that Japanese level of dedicated seriousness to the art) for superb sushi, and to elevate a meal of uncooked fish on rice into a glorious gastronomic experience.
Now in Hong Kong, Endo is relatively closer to his homeland, the source of all the premium products needed for his craft. Last October, he decided to go on a food-sourcing trip to Japan, taking Sun Wing Tam, his sous chef in charge of hot dishes at Zuma, and one lucky food writer along for the ride.
First on the itinerary is the ultra-hightech factory of Yamasa soy sauce in Narita, built in 2011. While most housewives favour Kikkoman, Yamasa is the premium brand preferred by almost all professional Japanese chefs.
We go though an air shower and, purified, enter a cathedral-like space. We're covered head-to-toe like ninjas, but the acute aroma of soy permeates our facemasks. The regulated Zen of zigzagging conveyor belts with shoyu being bottled, capped and boxed is surprisingly calming.
The soy sauce isn't produced in the Narita factory, but at a brewery in Choshi Peninsula, Chiba, which we visit after lunch at a rustic seafood restaurant by the coast. Here, cold northern currents meet the warm Kuroshio from the south, creating the perfect environment for koji. The mould is Japan's “national fungus”, used to create all of its iconic food products – from fermenting soybeans for soy sauce and miso, to saccharifying grains for sake and rice vinegar.
Unlike Chinese soy sauce, Japanese shoyu contains wheat that imbues it with another layer of fragrance. It's evident when walking around the silos where the cereals are roasted – profoundly satisfying smells like freshly baked bread waft through the air. Wheat also gives Japanese soy sauce its reddish tint, and the deep aubergine hue bequeaths shoyu its poetic sushibar epithet “murasaki” (purple).
In the tasting room, we're given plate after plate of sashimi to see which soy sauce is sweeter, more delicate, full-bodied or with extra umami depth to go with the fish. And the shoyu ice cream really hits the spot, as I enjoy my savory with a sweet tinge and my desserts with a hint of salt.
We end the night dining with Yamasa's president, Mr Hamaguchi, at Ishii, a restaurant in posh Nishi-Azabu that specialises in soft-shell turtle. Hamaguchi is soft-spoken and cultured, but there are still endless pourings of beer and sake.
Early next morning, despite being hideously hungover, we're thrilled to go to a place we've never been before: Fukui Prefecture. It's a smooth Shinkansen ride with a delicious yakitori bento. I should sleep, but am swept up with giddy nostalgia as we pass through Nagoya, where I spent fun formative years at Nanzan University almost a decade ago.
At Sabae Station, Atsuhide Kato, CEO of Born sake, picks us up himself. A quirky giant with a relentless sense of humour, he continually makes ridiculous Japanese puns or self-deprecating jokes that compel us to laugh out loud. Belonging to the 11th generation of the local sake-brewing clan, Kato owns half the city, an unbelievably idyllic “traditional Japan” of charming wooden houses. Although this tangible slice of cultural heritage, complete with artfully arranged moss and rock garden, is home, he laments cheekily, “It's a pain in the ass. I can never renovate however I want to.”
Rather like the Bat Cave, his massive, old wooden kura warehouses hide supermodern interiors and pristine facilities. Sake bubbles in ceramic vats, including his smooth and strident award-winning “Dreams Come True”, fermented for five years in strictly controlled temperatures.
The unfailingly original Kato rebranded his family sake as Born (“Bon” in Japanese is a transliteration of “Brahman,” a Sanskrit word Kato elucidates as “the Truth”; in Vedic philosophy it represents “ultimate reality”, or God).
In the evening, Kato takes us to Kaikatei, bringing along 12 bottles for a sake-pairing dinner. It's a ryōtei, a traditional fine-dining establishment where politics or high-level business takes place discreetly. Kimono-clad hostesses kneel at the foyer, faces to the floor as we shed shoes. Plush Persian carpets give way to tatami, supple and springy as turf underfoot. We sit in a spacious room with paper walls imprinted with gold leaf.
“I've called some girls.” Kato announces mischievously. His wife frowns in jest. Two geisha appear. The conversation is initially rigid and desultory, but grows rambunctious with each pour of sake. It's one of the most magnificent kaiseki meals we've ever had as each successive course trumps the former in exquisiteness. I can firmly declare that I've never had such enjoyable grilled cod sperm, bursting with creamy umami. Inhibitions down, we gladly dance a traditional jig with the geisha while Kato shoots an incriminating video of us on his iPad.
We're not let go so easily and are led to a boutique bar Isaka, where beautiful bartender/owner Maki Isaka concocts potent cocktails from the freshest Japanese fruit. Then we're taken to a yakitori joint. Amid the boisterous post-clubbing clientele, equally raucous grillers shout out the orders. We all have tankards of cold beer and more than 10 skewers of charcoal-grilled goodness forced upon each of us. I'm astounded that I'm thoroughly enjoying sticks of chicken skin and gizzards after a full 12-course dinner. Fortunately, Kato's wife drags him home when he proposes ending the night at his favourite ramen joint.
Back in Tokyo the next day, we attempt to wake up at 4am for Tsukiji market, before the tourists get there. The world's largest and busiest wholesale seafood market has its own culture, impenetrable even for Japanese outsiders, but Endo's got contacts – experts at navigating and identifying the labyrinth of seafood stalls. Like Asai Hirofumi, a cheerful guy with the build of a rugby player, who tells me he's played at the Hong Kong Sevens.
Hirofumi's schedule is just as bizarre as (but way more disciplined than) my freelance lifestyle. He wakes up at 1.30am, checks his email for orders that come through at 2-ish, and gets to Tsukiji by 3am. Each stall in the bustling bazaar is a licensed wholesale dealer specialising in a product – tuna, mackerel, shrimp, scallop; the best seaweed, or fresh wasabi and vegetables. He scans the sprawling market and selects the best catch for his clients.
While most Hong Kong sashimi suppliers take Sundays off, Endo's contacts continue to send fresh fish to Zuma Hong Kong daily. Ordered in the morning during the auctions or discreetly with a dealer at his stall, seafood is meticulously packed and sealed by 5.30pm, loaded onto a truck by around 6 or 7, and arrives at The Landmark by 5pm on the same day via Haneda Airport and All Nippon Airways.
I marvel at the process, which shows that the quality of the raw seafood served during dinnertime at Zuma Hong Kong is better than some of the catch that makes its way to illustrious Ginza, perhaps selected less stringently later in the morning, and possibly just carried over in some plastic bag on a bicycle or by subway.
For breakfast at 8am – their lunchtime – we're taken to an ageing Yoshinoya, whose shabby-chic interior is preserved from the '70s, for beef bowl, since we're going for sushi in Ginza at midday. Most Tsukiji workers are done by 10am and noon is their happy hour. I clasp my hands in gratitude before I pop a pristine piece of scintillating mackerel into my mouth, thanking the gods for this eye-opening, palate enriching trip with Endo-san.