Tokyo native Junya Watanabe is a frequent visitor to Hawaii. After all, it's the natural stop between Japan and San Diego, where he owns the popular ramen restaurant Rakiraki Ramen &Tsukemen. Even with extensive studies in the culinary arts in Japan, Watanabe has his own way of doing things. His ramen, his shabu shabu, his tsukemon all fuse tradition with his distinctive flair. I love his crispy chicken karaange, a marinated deep-fried chicken; the rich oxtail in broth with ginger; and the tsukemen, or dipping noodles. And I love that Watanabe goes to the trouble to use locally sourced quality ingredients.
So, when it came to creating poke, his approach was no different. As popular as the dish has become in San Diego--hey, we even have a huge festival to celebrate it--Watanabe found it to be, in his words, "kind of boring." He was convinced something was lacking. He mulled it over and finally it came to him.
It needed his zuke.
Think of zuke as a secret sauce. It's something Watanabe learned from a three-star Michelin chef in Japan. The ingredients aren't a huge secret--soy sauce, mirin, and sake. It's the proportions that he says are proprietary. Reluctant to share, he finally just shrugged and said, "Okay, two to one to one." I'm not claiming this is exactly how he does it at Rakiraki, but I'm going with it because it's the best I could get.
Now it's not just a matter of mixing the ingredients together. Once you do that, you put it on the stove and bring the mixture to 180˚, then take it off the heat and let it rest at room temperature for a day. After that you can use it and refrigerate it.
What you have when it's ready is a sauce whose saltiness has mellowed, whose sweetness has softened, and which has lost most of the alcohol. It adds great flavor to the fish you marinate in it and, said Watanabe, it sanitizes the fish by killing the bacteria since some alcohol remains.
With that all explained, Watanabe prepared his Kale Salad with Poke. He placed large cubes of ahi in the zuke for about 30 seconds, moving them around to make sure they all were evenly sauced. Then he placed them in a bowl of sesame oil for about the same time. Finally, they were dipped in rayu, a red pepper oil.
The ahi pieces were placed on a bed of chopped kale--but you could use any greens you want.
To that he added pieces of avocado, tomato, and Japanese cucumber, and some cilantro leaves. He dressed the salad with a sesame dressing (no recipe offered here, but you can find recipes online pretty easily).
Once we were seated he poured out little dipping bowls of spicy Kewpie mayo and red spicy miso sauce. Both were delicious--hot, but more like a nice kick than tear producing. In fact, I hope he bottles that red spicy miso sauce; it's that good.
With that we dug in, dipping the marinated ahi into the sauces before each bite, even dipping the kale and other vegetables in the sauces as well.
This dish is on the menu at Rakiraki. And, stay tuned. Watanabe is nothing if not über entrepreneurial. Currently, he has Rakiraki and Angels & Hearts Creperie within Rakiraki and he's also a partner in a stand-up sushi restaurant in Tokyo. He's now building out Pokirrito, which is attached to Rakiraki on the Convoy St. side of the building. Yeah, you guessed it, he'll be making the now ubiquitous combo of sushi or poke and burrito, using nori as the wrapper, lined in a uniformly thin layer of with rice, thanks to this very cool machine he has in his kitchen that he also uses to make sushi rolls. Both restaurants will also be in Little Italy and he's planning a noodle and yakitori shop next door to Angels & Hearts, along with a remodel of the creperie.
Rakiraki Ramen & Tsukemen is located in the Convoy District at 4646 Convoy St.