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In June, Thomas Frebel, a 10-year Noma veteran, opened INUA in Tokyo. Much to the delight of Noma fans, the restaurant in the residential enclave of lidabashi dishes up Nordic cuisine with Japanese sensibilities. In his opening tasting menu, which is completely devoid of meats, only three ingredients – caviar, winter truffle and king crab – are imported from overseas.
Frebel spent about six months exploring the country for Japanese local ingredients before he opened the 50-seat INUA and in this story, he shares five of his unique ingredient discoveries with us.
Served in a caramel of seaweed oil with seven spices including sansho, long pepper, juniper berries and bergamot, the snack pineapples are, according to Frebel, “unlike any pineapples in that you can rip them off easily like artichoke leaves”.
Available only in summer, these snack pineapples grow along middle to northern Okinawa, as well as on remote islands of Ishigaki Island and Iriomote Island. Frebel buys them from the community of Okinawa snack pineapples and serves five different types in the dish.
“We met an incredible supplier, Mr Arai, from Hokkaido who has been doing research on seaweed over the last 40 years,” says Frebel. “Thanks to him, we were able to discover and source many different types of seaweed – dry, gelatine-like, slimy, in various colours, etc.”
At INUA, Frebel serves eight to 10 different types of seaweed from Ishikawa and Kochi prefectures in a dish with bafun uni, dashi jelly, pickled blackcurrant leaves and pickled white asparagus in a wild sansho shoots broth finished with blackcurrant wood oil and rice oil. “Weather rather than seasonality affects the seaweed’s availability,” he adds, further saying that stormy weather affects drivers’ ability to access these seaweeds.
Unlike any Nordic cuisine you’ve had, INUA serves clay pot rice for mains and for this dish, Frebel naturally looks to Japan for inspiration. Having worked with bee larvae suppliers in Nagano and in Mexico, Frebel was inspired to serve Nagano’s bee larvae, in season from June to August, in a clay pot with yumepirika rice topped with summer flowers of acacia, marigold and Hamamatsu wild rose. “We may be able to offer bee larvae until end of September although July to August is the peak season,” says Frebel, “But bee larvae is 1.5 times more expensive than sea urchin!”
Alongside the bee larvae claypot rice dish, Frebel also serves pickled local vegetables and flowers, harvested when they were in season, as a complement. There are cherry blossoms from Kanagawa pickled in apple vinegar, acacia from Akita lacto fermented in koji, white asparagus lacto fermented in yuzu and ginger, lemon thyme from Hokkaido, plums from six different regions of Japan, unripe black currant from Aomori and Nagano and fennel flowers from Shizuoka and Fukuoka. If you think of it, Frebel is right when he says “bees and flowers are a perfect combination”.
Pine Needles and Pine Cones
For dessert, Frebel fields a Nordic-inspired plate of syruped Nagano and Hokkaido spruce (pine shoots), available mainly in June, sprinkled atop a wobbly block of sweetened soymilk parfait with sarunashi kiwi. “We tried many varieties of pine shoots from Japan and endured lots of failure,” says Frebel. “We found this variety during our foraging trip in the forest and our researcher spent hours researching and making phone calls.”