January 7, 2019
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Foil Yaki Is the Best
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With this Japanese technique for cooking vegetables and seafood, aluminum foil acts as both the cookware and the dishware.

The roll of Reynolds Wrap at my house measures 200 feet, or 66 2/3 yards, and with it I do little more than line a baking tray when cooking or wrap up leftover pizza. In Japanese pantries, though, foil is nearly as noble a treasure as what’s nestled within, a malleable metal pocket long respected by the home cook for all things foil yaki.

Foil yaki, also known as hoiru or hoil yaki, is a comfort dish and cooking method wrapped into one—commonly consisting of mushrooms, vegetables, and fish daubed with umami-rich seasonings like butter, soy sauce, miso, and sake and baked together in a foil envelope until soft and sapid.

The French have their own version of this, called en papillote, where fish and vegetables are cooked and served in a kidney-shaped paper wrapper, its edges crimped, like you’d see on a braided pie crust, to create a seal. I’ve seen the term used on menus, but most often the contents are removed and plated, as if serving “salmon in a bag” were too unappetizing a way to show off this technique.

Foil yaki is a method I adopted many years ago (my wife and I eat a lot of fish). I’ve learned the hard way—just ask my wife about my attempts at fish fumet—that it’s the best way to prepare a fillet without filling the house with a piscine scent. The packet acts both as cookware and dishware for easy cooking and cleanup; the climate-controlled pouch protects food from overcooking, and if you don’t finish your dish, simply wrap it up as leftovers.

Maiko Kyogoku in her home kitchen in New York City

This half-moon cocoon seems befitting a description of Bessou, a cozy Japanese-American restaurant that made its home on a quiet block of Bleecker Street in New York City’s East Village in the summer of 2016. Owner Maiko Kyogoku’s version of this dish, a whole deboned dorade stuffed with soy-sauce-braised enoki mushrooms, alongside kabocha squash in a soy koji butter sauce, is cooked in aluminum foil and presented tableside. The fish is rendered silken and succulent, the mushrooms and squash a wintry blend of sweet starch and earth, awash in an aromatic umami pool. The modesty of such simple flavors allows a moment of escape so rarely seen in the big city. A couple weeks after the first time I had this eye-opening dish, I was standing in the kitchen at Kyogoku’s apartment in Alphabet City, hoping to learn how to achieve in my own kitchen the warmth of foil yaki.

Kyogoku’s apartment was bathed in soft sunlight and wafting incense. She tied on an apron that belonged to her obachan (grandmother) as I slipped into a set of house slippers meant for guests and almost walked past her tiny oven, too small for full sheet trays. Across the kitchen, a compact counter was filled with an assemblage of small bowls of prepped ingredients. On a table by the window sat a pile of Dayglo satsumas and spiced gingerbread men.

We talked over tea before cooking, with Kyogoku spinning entertaining stories of her past as a project manager for Takashi Murakami, Japan’s Pop Art answer to Andy Warhol. She was raised on New York’s Upper West Side in a Japanese family, which meant that she was always straddling the line between Japanese and American, taking Japanese language class on the weekends and attending the occasional bar mitzvah. Kyogoku’s father owned Rikyu, one of the first sushi restaurants uptown, which opened in 1979. He retired in 2004. At Rikyu, there always was a flounder yaki on menu, studded with Japanese stuffing (panko, mushroom, celery).

But it was Kyogoku’s mother who instilled the importance of being Japanese, reinforcing her roots through food, while experiencing every other part of life as American. She passed away when Kyogoku was 18 years old, prompting her to instill her own traditions taught through the lens of the Japanese cooking show Kyou No Ryouri, while also picking up contemporary American recipes from Food Network episodes of Good Eats and Live With Sara Moulton.

Her mother liked to make spaghetti gamberoni, a staple in Kyogoku’s youth, and a re-creation of a local Italian restaurant’s recipe that was spaghetti with tomato paste, large Jersey tomatoes, chunky pieces of garlic, fresh prawns, and lots and lots of olive oil. Kyokogu’s mother would often eat out with the family and come home saying she could make those dishes at home. When Kyogoku’s mother died, she too attempted to re-create, or rearrange, something that felt “like home.” Now Kyogoku is doing the reverse, by bringing her home to her restaurant, the allusion aided by the fact that Bessou means “vacation” or “second home.”

At her apartment, Kyogoku has all blue plates, because her mother always said blue makes food look great. There’s even a blue indigo print on the wall from Buaisou, an indigo dyeing company from Japan. Kyogoku told me that an awareness of palette is consistent with irodori, a way of using color schemes in a dish, because “half of eating is with your eyes,” she said. I quip that you can’t see anything that fully wrapped in foil. She replied, “Until it’s done, then you gotta peek!”

We filled a few foil packets, one vegetarian with a blend of mushrooms: enoki, maitake, shiitake, topped with bite-sized chunks of kabocha that’s been simmered in dashi, a handful of spinach and about half a dozen polychromatic cherry tomatoes for a tsukudani-style sweet soy sauce braise. A second pouch was filled with large head-on shrimp that were smeared with sake kasu, the leftover lees from the sake-making process, and finished with scallions and fiery red rayu (chile oil). And lastly, a double-folded foil packet, for which Kyogoku tore off two arm’s-length sheets to wrap a whole red snapper coated in miso kasu, miso mixed with sake kasu, which she nestled in torn leaves of Napa cabbage and adorned with slices of purple potato and lime. She topped the whole thing with a good glug of sake.

Kyogoku folded the foil lengthwise before smoothing out the sides, securing the ends by folding them back toward the middle, a style of folding perfected at gift shops in Japan and prevalent during the holidays by seasoned wrappers who care about creaseless edges.

When the fish was fully cooked, Kyogoku and I cautiously unwrapped the package, not wanting to burn ourselves with the steam, but also giving ourselves time to enjoy the slow reveal of deliciousness. After it slightly cooled, we dressed in a slightly spicy and addictively tart “shiso verde,” a riff on salsa verde, a traditional green sauce found in many European cultures, as well as Mexican cuisine, that used the fragrant shiso leaf. The red snapper was cooked so tenderheartedly that it felt like a dish reserved for her close friends and family. I fretted to her that I wouldn’t be able to reproduce this at home. With sympathy, Kyogoku said, “Foil is forgiving.”

Ingredients

  • 1 whole red snapper, deboned, scaled, butterflied (about 1 pound)
  • 1 purple potato, about 5 ounces, cut into bite-size pieces
  • ¼ head of Napa cabbage, about 1/4-1/2 pound, cut into bite-size squares
  • 1 lime, half cut into ½-inch slices, half to squeeze on the fish after
  • 1-2 tablespoon olive oil
  • salt, to season
  • soy sauce, for garnish
  • Miso Kasu
  • ⅔ cups sake kasu
  • 3 ½ tablespoons sake
  • 3 ½ tablespoons mirin
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons shiro (white) miso, or aka (red) miso for a stronger taste
  • Shiso Verde
  • 16 shiso leaves
  • 2 stalks of scallions with greens
  • 1 ¾ cup lime juice
  • 2 cloves peeled garlic
  • 3 jalapeños, stems off, deseeded
  • a healthy pinch of salt
  • 1 ½ tablespoon honey
  • 5 tablespoons vegetable oil

A whole fish, tenderly cooked in a coating of miso kasu (miso mixed with sake kasu), serves as a quick entrée, with easy cleanup, that you can have ready to go:wrapped in foil and waiting in the fridge for you to turn your oven on. It’s simple to change the vegetables, too, to satisfy whatever season you’re foil yaki-ing.

  1. Preheat oven to 425°F.
  2. Combine all of the ingredients of the miso kasu, and rub all over the fish to coat inside and out.
  3. Let it sit with marinade for 20 minutes, up to an hour.
  4. Put the fish in the center of a large square piece of tinfoil. You may need to take 2 sheets and overlap them to create a large sheet to fit the fish and vegetables.
  5. Put the vegetable ingredients around the fish. Place lime slices on top of the fish.
  6. Drizzle fish and veggies with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.
  7. Wrap the fish like a little present, folding the top and bottom over first, and then folding the sides towards the center so there's a neatly and tightly closed package.
  8. After 25 minutes, take a peek inside the foil wrapping (without letting too much of the steam escape) and check on the flesh of the snapper. If it's opaque and springy to touch, it is done.
  9. Finish with a small drizzle of soy sauce over fish and vegetables. Blend together all of the ingredients of the shiso verde, and serve with the fish.

Ingredients

  • ½ kabocha squash, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 4 cups bonito dashi, or stock of your choice
  • 2 tablespoons soy koji (or soy sauce)
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 6-8 ounces maitake mushrooms
  • 6-8 ounces shiitake mushrooms
  • 6-8 ounces beech mushrooms
  • 6-8 ounces enoki mushrooms
  • 6 cherry tomatoes of assorted colors

This recipe is sourced from chef Maiko Kyogoku of Bessou in New York City. Simmering in soy koji, the flavorful fungus that is a staple in many Japanese kitchens, and straight-up butter makes for a sweet, salty sauce that the mushrooms and vegetables delightfully bathe in. This can be served as a side dish or in combination with a main. Regardless, this dish has a way of finding its way into a regular rotation and is a great way to remember to eat your vegetables!

  1. Preheat oven to 425°F.
  2. Fill saucepot halfway with stock of choice. Start stock from a cold water state.
  3. Place kabocha in saucepot with stock, and turn on heat to high until liquid comes to rolling boil.
  4. Once the kabocha is almost fork tender, turn off heat and remove squash from liquid and let cool.
  5. Place mushrooms and vegetables in the center of a long piece of aluminum foil.
  6. Dab vegetables with small chunks of butter and soy koji (or soy sauce). For a more buttery flavor, add more soy koji (or soy sauce) and butter in equal parts.
  7. Wrap like a little present, folding the top and bottom over first and then folding the sides toward the center so there's a neatly and tightly closed package.
  8. After 12 minutes, take a peek inside the foil wrapping (without letting too much of the steam escape) and check on the vegetables. If the mushrooms look sufficiently deflated (half of their bulk gone), they're done.
  9. Finish with a little salt to taste. Serve right away.

Michael Harlan Turkell

Michael Harlan Turkell is an award-winning pho­tographer and cookbook author of the recently published, ACID TRIP: Travels in the World of Vinegar. He has photographed many prominent chefs’ cookbooks and hosts The Food Seen podcast on Heritage Radio Network.

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