Story of a Plate: Tempura Linefish at Tokara

On the menu: Tempura linefish with sushi rice, avocado, sesame, wasabi mayonnaise & spiced lemon dressing

On a recent visit, we found this dish to be a real standout, both on the plate and in its precision of flavour. What was the inspiration behind it?

Chef Richard Carstens: In 1993 I was working for my mentor, Ralph van Pletzen, at a restaurant called Ralph’s in Stellenbosch, and he was the one who introduced me to a lot of aspects of Asian cuisine, like Indonesian, Chinese and Thai.

In those days not everything was readily available on the Internet, but there were these amazing magazines like Vogue Entertaining, and I was always drawn to Japanese cuisine, which was really coming to the fore in Australia. So I went to Australia around ’97-’98, and lived in Melbourne for that period, working for a chef who was into French-Japanese fusion, or Franco-Japanese cuisine. When I came back in ’98 I was working at Le Provençal restaurant in Franschhoek (now Grande Provence), and that’s where I started Franco-Japanese cuisine. There’s one dish from that era, the “Franco-Japanese interpretation” of oyster, prawn, calamari, and linefish, which I still do an evolution of every year (sometimes with up to three different versions, like when I was working in at Lynton Hall,* where we changed our degustation menu every night).

Sounds like hard work! So tell us a little more about this dish?

Richard: For me the dish includes all the aspects of Japanese cuisine, and also what I look for in a plate of food: texture, sweetness, acidity and bitterness. For this one, the most important thing is the cooking and the seasoning of the rice. If you speak to any sushi chef, they’ll tell you that the cooking of the rice is the most important thing…The recipe we use at Tokara comes from my wife, who loves cooking – especially Japanese cuisine – so I’ve learned from watching her cook rice, and timing the whole process to cook it perfectly. The seasoning has be perfectly balanced, so it’s not too sweet, and not too acidic either, with not too much of a vinegary bite. It’s also important to rinse the rice properly beforehand, and then it dry for about an hour before you actually cook it.

The tempura batter is also very important – you have to use ice-cold sparkling water, and make sure it’s not too lumpy (because that can become too floury), but not over-mixed either.  Obviously the fish we use is SASSI green-listed. The texture of the fish we use is also key: you can’t use a gamey fish like yellowtail or barracuda. We like to use hake, which is nice and flaky, and which makes it perfect for deep-frying. Then avocado adds creaminess, and there’s also a slight bit of nuttiness in there from the toasted sesame seeds.

Then the spiced lemon dressing – the first time I conceived of that recipe was at Lynton Hall actually, in 2003, and it’s one of my favourite go-to dressings – it’s got a bit of soya, chilli (which gives it that crimson colour), garlic, rice wine vinegar, sugar, and mirin. That dressing gives the dish a bit of acidity, heat, and also quite a bit of umami. We also emulsify the dressing with oil; a touch of olive oil and a bit of sunflower seed oil, which thickens it slightly so it’s not too runny. We’ve also got some ulva (sea lettuce) powder on there, which is a seaweed. Basically we dry it, and grind it to a powder, so you get a very nice subtle aromatic bitterness, and that oceanic umami. Inside, we’ve got a bit of radish, lightly dressed with some wasabi and lemon – very sparingly on the wasabi! – and finally we sprinkle some togarashi (Japanese 7-spice) on top.

Such a lovely synthesis of textures, and flavours, with elements of saltiness, umami, and a slight sweetness. Finally, you were known as a pioneer of “molecular gastronomy” here in South Africa (even though many chefs rightly hate the term). Would you rather call your food Franco-Japanese, or what would you call it if you had to give it a name?

Richard: If I had to label my cuisine? Richard Carstens.

Excellent answer! How long can diners still expect to find this dish on the menu?

Richard: At the moment, for September and October… Sometimes I do a dish for one season, and then I pack it away for years (the one dish that always stays on as an addition on my menu is the Baked Alaska of Rainbow Trout with Smoked Salmon ice cream), but based on feedback from guests, I think this might be a very popular dish for the season as well!

Where to get it (or something equally delicious): Tokara, Helshoogte Rd., Stellenbosch. 021 885 2550.

*Lynton Hall is a sister property to Hartford House, which we featured for our last Story of a Plate.