How Inua’s Radical Celebration Of Indigenous Delicacies Is Championing Japan’s Distinctive Gastronomic Culture
To say that the face of fine dining has changed over the last decade is to state the obvious, but to presume that it has merely shed its once-stuffy disposition for a more informal invitation to wine and dine would be a greater understatement. The concept of haute cuisine continues to evolve in embracing a wider, more progressive gamut of gourmet experiences, making room for a new generation of culinary renegades and providing a refreshing shift away from the mainstream.
This is especially evident in Asia’s culinary capitals, where a maturing breed of patrons is savouring the attention to detail on those oft-overlooked essentials that go into delivering a truly memorable meal. And don’t think these are merely revised invitations to lick your plate or listen to ocean sounds during your seafood course. If anything, it seems diners are shunning blatant gimmicks for more uniquely immersive encounters.
Famously associated with Noma, Inua is a first-time partnership with the feted Danish restaurant. It’s also headed by German-born chef Thomas Frebel, who formerly led research and development at Noma. More importantly, Inua’s cuisine delves deep into Japanese culture to express a fine balance of flavour with surprising ingredient combinations.
Much like how Noma’s “Ants on a Shrimp” shocked the world of fine dining by serving insects, one of Inua’s notable offerings is its bee larva claypot rice, which has been on the menu since its opening in June 2018. However, the dish wasn’t created as a novelty; in fact, eating bee larva is a long-held Japanese tradition, particularly in the mountainous regions. And while the restaurant’s name originates from Inuit culture to describe the “spirit that is inherent in every living being”, this mindset also represents a similar ancient Japanese belief.
Frebel is well aware that the thought of eating insects might scare some diners, but he remains adamant about only serving a degustation menu. “I would like to change people’s mindset,” he says, questioning people’s love for eating pigs to prove a point. “Pigs eat leftover food and roll in the mud, while bees on the other hand eat honey and pollen, and fly around flowers.”
He points out that diners today are more focused on how the animals they consume are raised and how their vegetables are grown. “From that point of view, bee larva is nicely raised and is part of the Japanese food culture,” he shares. “Above all, it’s tasty.” At Inua, Frebel prepares bee larva in two ways—deep-fried and crispy, almost like nuts, and steamed with dashi, served sweet and creamy. Both versions have the flavours of quality honey. Enjoy these with freshly cooked rice and a variety of edible flowers, and you might feel like you’re walking through a garden.
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Coincidently, Inua is also known for its plant-based dishes. Frebel himself only eats meat once a week. “I started on this plant-based dietary life five years ago,” he reveals. “At that time, I was still working for Noma and René [Redzepi, Noma’s co-owner] wanted to launch a vegetarian course. As the R&D chief, I changed my eating habits so I could understand people’s feelings better. After a while, I found out that I could concentrate on work better and felt very healthy.”
Frebel’s ultimate aim, though, is to serve tasty, healthy food, such as his dessert of mille-feuille that’s made with seaweed. Instead of puff pastry, he layers caramelised seaweed crisps and sweet Hokkaido cream, then finishes it with a sprinkling of pine needle salt.
“Of course, the time at Noma made me who I am, but I wouldn’t say this is a sister restaurant of Noma,” says Frebel. “We share the same level of respect for nature, but our location and climate are so different.” He points out how Japan is made up the islands that stretch 3,000km from north to south, where almost every type of climate can be found. “I would like to express the nature and seasonality of Japan, its generous land and sea—all the fish and meat we serve are wild-caught, from Mother Nature.” No surprise, then, that his ultimate goal is to give the ingredients the respect they deserve by letting them “shine” on the plate.
Inua has an amazing kitchen and if you’re interested in a tour, simply ask the staff to give you one. Most of the staff are fluent in English and are incredibly friendly so they would be happy to take you through the entire kitchen, including its ageing fridges, and can even show you how they smoke Inua’s signature aged wild maitake mushrooms.
2-13-12 Fujimi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 102-8552 Japan, inua.jp/en