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Sunday, May 13, 2001

SPICE OF LIFE

From the farm to your table


Staff writer

Finding restaurants that serve food seasoned with herbs isn't that difficult in Japan. In fact, it would be more difficult to find a French or Italian restaurant that doesn't have herbs in its pantry.

Labyrinthe's grilled lamb with fresh chevril, tarragon and dill

"[In Western cuisine] herbs are indispensable for accenting flavors; similarly we can't imagine Japanese cuisine without seasonings such as myoga [ginger] and shiso [perilla leaf]," says Moriaki Sakamoto, the owner/chef of of Labyrinthe, a French restaurant in Shirokane, Tokyo. Sakamoto creates innovative dishes such as grilled lamb served with molokheiya sauce and topped with chervil, tarragon and dill.

About 20 years ago, however, parsley was the only Western herb widely known in Japan -- and even then, only as a garnish. Other herbs such as tarragon, chervil, marjoram, dill and sweet basil were in limited supply, sold only at a few department stores and supermarkets at high prices and not exactly "fresh" after long transportation.

It wasn't until the 1980s that interest began to grow in Western herbs. This was further stimulated by a surge in demand for gourmet foods later in the decade, when both professional chefs and ordinary housewives began to seek out more exotic tastes and flavors. Various herbs are now grown throughout the country, making them more available and affordable.

Daimaru Peacock, one of Japan's leading supermarket chains, introduced several kinds of fresh herbs about 10 years ago, and currently 14 kinds are sold at some of its stores. Total sales of fresh herbs are roughly 10 times more that what they were a decade ago, said a company spokesman.

Some restaurants have cut out the middle-man by going straight to the source. Masahiro Morishige, owner and chef of the French restaurant La Butte Boisee in Okusawa, Tokyo, receives daily deliveries from a herb farm in Mishima, Shizuoka Prefecture.

"They're much fresher than those sold in the market," he says. "They are totally different."

Morishige uses high-quality herbs in all of his dishes, including his desserts. His policy of using fresh ingredients stems from his 41/2 years of experience working under several internationally renowned chefs in France and Italy. One of his most influential mentors is Marc Veyrat, a chef who flavors his creations with wild plants from the French Alps.

Whenever he is off work, Morishige goes to the mountains of Tateshina, Nagano Prefecture, and Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, seeking edible wild plants, such as suiba (sorrel), yomogi (mugwort) and watercress.

Morishige says wild plants provide very interesting ingredients. "They have flavors and aromas stronger than the herbs grown at farms, and are very good when combined with meat and fish," he says.

Who knows? If you look in the right places, you might encounter an unforgettable herb dish somewhere in Tokyo.



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