The “diamonds” of the culinary world are not bright and shiny, but rough, knobbly and extremely pungent – in a good way. It is the musky scent of the fruiting body of the subterranean ascomycete fungus, or truffle, that has dogs and pigs sniffing them out in dank soil and gourmets rushing to the fine-dining table whenever they are in season.
With today’s top restaurants able to provide jet-fresh produce, it is rare when these extravagant black or white delicacies are not available somewhere in the world. Speed is of the essence, though; truffles lose a little aroma, flavour and weight every day after being plucked from the ground under oak or hazelnut trees.
Black and white magic
The most precious, the Alba white truffles of Piedmont, Italy (tuber magnatum pico), are harvested from October to December. Black truffles, however, can be savoured almost year-round. The softer aromas of Burgundian truffles are available in summer and early autumn, while the most valuable “black diamonds”, Périgord winter truffles (tuber melanosporum), are unearthed in western and southern France from November to March. A special mass is held for the truffle at Uzès cathedral in Languedoc every January.
Summer cravings for Périgord truffle shavings can be satisfied too. The variety first emerged from the fertile soil of northern Tasmania in 1999. Australia is now the fourth-largest supplier of quality French black truffles, and Manjimup in Western Australia the country’s tuber heartland.
The intoxicating bouquet and taste of truffle – earthy, nutty, mushroomy, garlicky, buttery – are most often enjoyed as a raw garnish for simple dishes like eggs and pasta. Restaurant Bruno in Lorgues, Provence, where gourmets helicopter in for lunch, devotes four tasting menus to truffles, and its signature is a not so humble potato baked in the oven with white truffle and served with shavings of black truffle.
Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles has offered white truffle at breakfast over eggs, bacon and pancakes; the 2018 white truffle menu at 45 Jermyn St in London concluded with truffle atop malt ice cream and drizzled honey. Edward Voon at LE PAN in Hong Kong prepares extra dishes that can be added to his tasting menus, such as scrambled eggs or risotto, morel and porcini cream, ready for the fresh truffle of the season to be shaved over them at the table.
Such gastronomic pleasures come at a price, particularly for those who demand the delicate Alba white truffle. Plentiful summer rain scored a rare bumper crop in the Piedmont woods in 2018, so prices of 250-350 euros per 100 grams charged by truffle brokers were half those of the previous year. Large nuggets of superior form (dense and firm with few holes) will be auctioned. In November 2018, a generous Hong Kong buyer (it was for charity) paid 85,000 euros (US$96,000) for an exceptional 850-gram white truffle.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran, is said to have served 150 kilograms of caviar to dignitaries over three days of extravagant banqueting in 1971. Given the depleted stocks of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea today, this leaves a bad taste in the mouth – though not literally, of course. The sublime, smooth, salty tang of caviar, and the rarity of its best examples, render it as a gastronomic delicacy of the highest order. As a status symbol of the fine-dining table, caviar will often feature on a dedicated menu; at the Petrossian restaurant in Paris, six types of raw roe are available, with a 30-gram serving of beluga costing 294 euros (US$323).
Since caviar is salt-cured sturgeon roe, it was the spawning female of the species that brought home the money to Iranian and Russian fishermen on the Caspian shores. Of the three prized breeds native to these clean, deep waters – Huso huso (beluga), Acipenser gueldenstaaedt (oscietra) and Acipenser stellatus (sevruga) – beluga tops the scales in terms of size and quality. With a life span of up to a century and reaching 30 feet in length, the fish yields the largest, creamiest eggs. They are graded for size, form (round or slightly elongated, firm, moist, easily separated) and colour (a light pearly grey, or 000, ranks highest). Species, source, country of origin and year of harvest are noted on caviar tin labels.
The rarest beluga, Almas, has a golden glow. Coming from albino fish, the roe is listed by Guinness World Records as the most expensive caviar, and the most expensive food. Second to beluga, oscietra (or Russian sturgeon) has a buttery, nutty appeal, while sevruga roe is stronger and saltier.
Salt and age give the initially rather insipid sturgeon roe its extraordinary presence. After harvesting and rinsing, eggs are salted and sealed in tins and, like wine, left to mature with occasional turning for a few months or a year or more. Caviar should be consumed chilled, presented in a bowl or the tin on a bed of ice. Insiders eat it off their naked back-of-hand, but using a mother-of-pearl spoon may be less startling in public. Slivers of plain toast, blini (buckwheat pancake), cooked potato or grains make good accompaniments, as well as vodka and dry Champagne.
Since overfishing has all but wiped out wild sturgeon, the fish are now raised in aquafarms from northern California to Italy, Israel, Japan and China. The latter proudly has the world’s largest caviar company, producing the quality Kaluga Queen brand from sturgeon in Qiandao Lake in Zhejiang province. This hybrid of the freshwater kaluga (Huso dauricus) and the Japanese amur (Acipenser schrenckii) is savoured at three-Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris.
At Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire in Shanghai, Kaluga’s product graces slow-poached egg and potato salad, while at LE PAN in Hong Kong, Kristal caviar by Parisian caviar house Kaviari provides a delicious salty top note to hamachi.
From its spiritual home of Shunde in the Pearl River Delta, the subtle tastes of Cantonese cuisine have journeyed to the West with greater prolificacy than the bolder flavours of other Chinese regions. Steamed fish and seafood, double-boiled soup, roasted and braised meat, and high-heat wok frying with a splash of oil mean lean, low-fat eating. Seasoning is minimal; the beauty is in the freshness of a diverse spectrum of ingredients shining within each dish across the shared table.
The likes of abalone, sea cucumber and bird’s nest, whose textures challenged the foreign palate, did not travel so well as the Cantonese people, but as fortunes flourished in Hong Kong in the 1970s and ‘80s these prized delicacies served to raise the local cuisine to fine-dining levels. Quality restaurants, where chefs had mastered the knife skills and painstaking cooking techniques required, added elegance to their décor.
Over the next two decades, innovation crept onto the menu. Chefs who had garnered experience in Chinese restaurants abroad returned with the confidence to spice up Cantonese standards with five-star Western luxuries, such as caviar, truffle and foie gras. Service followed suit: well-trained waiting staff presented dishes to the table, then portioned them out for individual dining.
In the modern era of nuclear families (and thus smaller shared dishes) and social media, Cantonese food plating is catching up with the artistic heights of Contemporary French and aesthetic grace of Japanese. At Dynasty Garden, at Goldin Financial Global Centre in Kowloon Bay, smoke swirls from crystalline ice plant served on a rectangular tray with char siu and cucumber, and wine-doused Peking duck flames at the table. Twists on tradition include the duck’s pineapple condiment, and abalone with black truffle. West comes to the East in beef ribs that are slow-cooked then presented on a bed of lo bak gou (turnip cake).
The Cantonese tradition of dim sum has been similarly updated by a new generation of chefs shaking up the strict formalities of the kitchen. Siu mai (shrimp dumplings) may now include quail’s egg with a caviar topping, and Ibérico pork may fill cheung fun (rice noodle rolls). While today’s top practitioners enjoy a new relationship with customers, who now seek chef-led, gourmet taste adventures as much as authenticity, the celebrity status of their Western counterparts still alludes them.
Last year, The Michelin Guide judged Fine Cantonese Food to be deserving of a separate book. Yet, of the 291 restaurants listed in Asia, Europe and USA, only four had three stars (plus 11 two stars and 63 one star). The elite quartet are Hong Kongers cooking in hotel restaurants: Chan Yan-tak and Wong Chi-fai of Lung King Heen and T’ang Court respectively; Joseph Tse of The 8 in Macau; and Ken Chan, head chef of Taipei’s Le Palais. Of the old school, Chan sees his job as bringing clarity to traditional dishes rather than pushing the boundaries of a beloved cuisine.
Herbs have been valued and cultivated since before written history, perhaps more for their curative powers than their culinary prowess – Hippocrates catalogued the healing properties of some 400 herbs in ancient Greece – yet it is hard to imagine food without the vital boost that these small, fragrant greens provide.
In the strict language of the kitchen, herbs are leaves and greenery, whereas spices originate from a plant’s roots, seeds or bark. They vary according to season and region, and whether used in cooking to perfume a dish, or raw as garnish, they shape the distinctive flavours of cuisines worldwide.
Seasoning the world
The four “fines herbes” of classic French cooking – finely chopped chervil, chives, parsley and tarragon – bring delicacy to traditional dishes and texture to salads. Herbs are pungent in Asia – think lemongrass, liquorice-like Thai basil and kaffir lime leaves in Thailand, and mint, coriander, fenugreek and curry leaves in India. Baskets of fresh herbs appear on dinner tables in Vietnam (mint and basil to add to phō or wrap spring rolls), parts of Eastern Europe (dipped in salt and consumed throughout the meal) and at Persian restaurants (sabzi).
The Japanese use shiso, mitsuba (a type of parsley) and negi (onion) to garnish the likes of sushi, miso soup, soba noodles and tofu. Purple shiso (or perilla) often pops up in contemporary Western fine dining now, flavouring lobster with heritage tomatoes at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, for example, and langoustine with masala, a signature of Edward Voon at LE PAN in Goldin Financial Global Centre in Kowloon Bay.
Growing their own
Diners’ demands for vegetarian menus and eye-catching plating over the past decade have seen chefs reaching further and more frequently for fresh herbs, and even seeding their own herb gardens. At country restaurants like The Star Inn in North Yorkshire and La Bastide de Moustiers in Provence – which both hold a Michelin star – chefs have the luxury of picking fresh herbs from their extensive gardens before service; at Pied à Terre in London limited space on the roof still yields 200 plants and a beehive. A herb trolley at the Dorchester’s three-Michelin-star restaurant enables aromatic leaf-snipping tableside.
Specialist suppliers offer lesser-known herbs such as English mace (combine with asparagus in soup), lovage (add to chicken stock) and hyssop (great with fatty meats). Lemon verbena’s benefits now go beyond herbal tea or a balm: its lemony lilt complements a variety of foods from poultry to puddings. And careful final placement of micro herbs, such as coriander and pea seedlings, and edible flowers, including begonia, viola, oxalis, borage and nasturtium, provides height, texture, colour and flavour, transforming dishes into veritable miniature forests or tropical isles.
Allowing fresh, natural flavours to shine on the plate is not new in fine dining – most top chefs in Europe have moved on from rich, cloying sauces and overly fussy preparations to a lighter, cleaner contemporary cuisine, buying at the market in the morning and flying in seasonal produce from trusted suppliers. Ethical eating (causing least harm) and locavore (supporting local farmers) movements provide further impetus nowadays, challenging chefs to be more creative and focused in what they serve each day.
Trust the chef
Japanese omakase is at the cutting edge of this dining luxury, placing the meal totally in the chef’s hands. An abbreviation of “I’ll leave it up to you”, omakase originated in tiny, traditional sushi restaurants without menus, where diners could get up close and personal with the artist across the counter. The feast was shaped by what was fresh that day and how diners reacted to their previous course. Its high cost, justified by the uniqueness of the experience, the market price of the seafood and the amount of premium sake consumed, would not be known until the end of dinner.
The concept has diluted a tad since moving out of the neighbourhood and the country. Temples of omakase such as Sushi Saito in Hong Kong (a branch of Takashi Saito’s famed three-Michelin-star restaurant in Tokyo), Sushi Tetsu in London, and Omakase Room by Tatsu in New York set a price per person in advance. Intimacy is vital: serving only six people per night with no menu, Chef Nobu Yamazaki at Sushi Taro in Washington DC is able to play it by ear.
A new generation of international chefs enjoy face time with their customers, too. At The DeBruce, a 28-seat restaurant in upstate New York, Aksel Theilkuhl makes a point of interacting with each diner. He is also a proponent of ‘field-to-table’ dining, foraging at dawn for wild produce to serve that evening; other restaurants, like Lazy Bear in San Francisco, employ professional foragers. Aided by its own farm, SingleThread in Sonoma, California is inspired by the Japanese concept of micro-seasons – 72 “ko” per year during which certain ingredients reach their peak.
Fresh asparagus (white and green) and truffles (white and black) have long been worshipped by quality chefs, appearing fleetingly on menus. Despite its London location, Lyle’s optimises the shooting season, with the likes of wild duck breast and pheasant on a tasting menu that changes daily. Diners are unaware in advance what is for lunch or dinner at Restaurant De Kas, situated in an Amsterdam greenhouse, although delicious organic greens grown under its roof are assured.
Chinese cuisine bows to seasonal rhythms, with warming or cooling foods regulating the body’s energy flow. The Cantonese, in particular, appreciate the natural flavours of fresh produce, using spices and herbs sparingly. Seasonal specials at Goldin Group’s Cantonese restaurant Dynasty Garden include a menu of braised dishes in winter as well as lamb stew, and hairy crabs in autumn.
As Japanese cuisine has spread West in recent decades - championed for its purity by acclaimed chefs and an increasingly health-conscious public - so has the concept of umami infiltrated the general consciousness, coating the tongue with an addictive deliciousness. The fifth basic taste (joining salty, sweet, sour and bitter), umami was identified more than 110 years by Tokyo chemist Kikunae Ikeda, and named for the Japanese word for savouriness. Yet it only entered the English language in 1979, and is still the subject of much mystique, if not the contentious debate it once stirred.
Since taste is subjective, umami is hard to define. In simple scientific terms, it is the amino acid glutamate, a protein, combined with nucleotides inosinate or guanylate, and minerals such as sodium and potassium. Sensually, that translates to a deep, meaty, moreish intensity which spreads pleasingly through the mouth and throat, and happily stimulates the brain. As a protein, umami triggers saliva and digestive juices; it also lingers longingly like no other aftertaste.
The umami taste explosion is best found in cooked, aged and fermented foods – think seaweed (Professor Ikeda was investigating kombu dashi, the kelp stock at the heart of numerous Japanese dishes), bonito flakes and shiitake in Japan; ginger, soy and fish sauces in Chinese cuisine; and the Western staples of cheese, particularly Parmesan, cured ham, tomatoes and Marmite. Breast milk is also rich in glutamate, which might explain the comforting cravings that umami inspires.
Natural flavour enhancement
Ikeda made a fortune with his discovery by packaging it as Ajinomoto, a.k.a. MSG (monosodium glutamate). While MSG sends alarm bells ringing in the West, the natural flavour-enhancers of umami-rich foods have won over the new generation of gourmets seeking fewer calories and animal fats. Japanese cuisine is a hot export; like many of its brethren, Matsunichi Japanese restaurant, located at Goldin Group’s headquarters in Hong Kong, offers an authentic, artisanal dining experience, each course infused with umami goodness.
East to West
Leading European chefs including Christian Bau and Sergio Herman, and in Hong Kong Edward Voon at LE PAN restaurant, have long blended flavoursome Japanese ingredients like uni, miso and katsuobushi with their prime produce and contemporary cooking techniques. Famed British chef Heston Blumenthal also sought to maximise the umami taste, serving a dashi-based dish at his award-winning The Fat Duck restaurant.
Umami is not only fine-dining mouthfeel, of course. Cheesy pizzas and spaghetti Bolognaise typically provoke such savoury taste pleasures. When the umami concept burst onto Western palates 10 years ago, New Yorker Adam Fleischman smartly founded the Umami Burger chain, serving beef patties infused with umami flavours to amplify the taste-buds. In a curious cross-cultural reversal, he has even brought the concept to Japan.