Akira Back has a deep respect for the ingredients given by Mother Nature, and he uses them not only to create innovative Japanese cuisine that tastes great, but to improve the way his diners feel.
The chef is a walking testimonial to the magic of this combination. One simple example: While waking up his palate and contemplating the day’s menu for Yellowtail, the acclaimed restaurant at Bellagio, he starts each morning with lukewarm green tea flavored with fresh lemon or lime. “The warm green tea serves to stimulate my gastrointestinal and digestive tracts,” he says. “Second, the lemons and limes are high in minerals and vitamins that help loosen any toxins in my digestive tract.
“I’ve been doing this routine for quite some time, but it wasn’t until I became an executive chef that I realized my role and involvement with food went beyond the kitchen.”
Back, who cooked under Japanese masters Masaharu Morimoto and Nobu Matsuhisa, draws much of his knowledge about tasty and healthful ingredients from his Korean upbringing. Evidence in the evenings at Yellowtail include the current special, jeju domi, a red snapper found in Korean waters. This dish incorporates several decidedly Korean ingredients, including perilla leaves, sesame oil and kochujang (red pepper paste), which are building blocks for the sauce. They take the snapper—which is cut like sashimi—from a more familiar Japanese preparation to reflective of Back’s heritage.
Although those Korean ingredients may be unfamiliar, “they are easy to find when shopping at any Asian store,” Back says. And he offers this advice once you’re there: “When I’m searching for fish, I look for clear bright eyes, clean red gills and a vibrant flesh. With produce, I like to pick items in season with a bright color and firm texture.”
The seven essential ingredients to Korean cooking
Next to kimchi, kochujang is the sweet and spicy Korean condiment that accents dishes such as bi bim bap. It contains protein, fats, vitamin B2, vitamin C and carotene. Made from fermented red chilies, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans and salt, this paste is funky, pungent, earthy and addictive.
You can’t have an Asian cuisine without soy sauce. Oft used as the main seasoning for many Asian dishes, this omnipresent brown liquid is sometimes used in place of salt as it adds a depth of flavor that salt doesn’t bring on its own. Chef Back uses Korean Sempio soy sauce for cooking, and Japanese Kikkoman soy sauce for raw preparations.
This ubiquitous rhizome has both medicinal and culinary purposes. Flavor wise, it can be hot and spicy if consumed raw, but ginger has been known to help with digestive problems, migraines and nausea. Some swear by it to treat arthritis, as it has anti-inflammatory properties, and ginger has also been studied for its possible protection from colorectal cancer and treatment against cervical cancer.
Black or Rice Wine Vinegar
Like any vinegar, these varieties will add an element of acidity or brightness to any dish. Korean cuisine favors vinegar for being full of antioxidants, as a detoxifying agent and a digestive aid.
Korean Perilla Leaves
The literal translation for this ingredient in Korean is “wild sesame” or “sesame leaf,” even though the plant itself is not directly related to sesame. Koreans eat this leaf pickled with ground red pepper, or use it as a lettuce wrap to be eaten with Korean barbecue.
Sesame Oil and Seeds
Sesame adds a distinctly nutty flavor to dishes. Sesame oil is also nutrient-rich, with high amounts of vitamin E, an antioxidant, and omega-6 fatty acids, which can help control blood pressure and hypertension.
When it comes to cooking Korean food properly, Back gives credit where credit is due. “My experience with these ingredients comes from my childhood. My mother is the best cook I know,” he acknowledges. “And she has always been my inspiration.”
Jeju Domi with Korean perilla and cho jang
- 1 whole Tai Snapper, cleaned, filleted, and sliced in a 1-ounce sushi cut
- 1¼ cup cho jang sauce (see below)
- ⅓ cup marinated masago (see below)
- 10 whole Korean perilla leaves, chiffonade
- Maldon sea salt to taste
- Freshly cracked black pepper to taste
Using a pastry brush, make one long swipe with the cho jang sauce from each end of the plate (just off the center on the left side). Lay out five slices of the snapper and spread the marinated masago over the top. Roll the slices up and position them on the sauce facing different directions. Drizzle a very little amount of the cho jang over the slices of fluke and garnish with the Korean perilla. Finish with the sea salt and black pepper. Serve immediately.
Cho Jang Sauce (makes about 2 cups)
- 1 ⅓ cups kochujang fermented red pepper paste
- ⅓ cup shiragiku rice wine vinegar
- ⅓ cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
- 1½ tablespoons Coca-Cola
- 1¼ tablespoons grated garlic
Combine everything except the sesame oil in a blender and puree until smooth. Slowly whisk in sesame oil to emulsify mixture. Allow to sit overnight in the fridge covered. Use as needed.
- 1 cup (½ pound) masago (Capelin/smelt roe)
- Zest of ½ navel orange (use a microplane)
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
Gently fold orange zest and sesame oil into masago. Allow to rest in the fridge for a few hours. Use as needed.