[As with all of our posts, please click on any image for an enlarged view]
Returning to the tiny subfolder here that the Foodosopher has dubbed “X-talk”, for anything that is off the usual path of restaurant reviews, I thought I would touch on a topic that is known as “makanai ryori” (Japanese in origin).
Literally translating the characters for this word, it means “to make due”, “to cover off”. It also has a connotation of “providing” (as in a supplier) but in this case it refers more to the former definition. Simple stated, “makanai ryori (cuisine)” are dishes that are made by those working in the kitchen for their own consumption while on the job, using ingredients or materials that would be considered “waste”, not worthy of being used for preparations for actual paying customers, or whatever might be left over in the refrigerator (to clear it out). This could entail things like the hard core of a head of cabbage, the lower quality ends bits off the end of a rack of pork ribs, the remnants of a braising liquid, etc. It might not sound like much, but in essence, this is a little known training exercise for apprentice chefs looking to improve their culinary skills and/or impress their bosses in the kitchen to give them a bigger role during service.
Traditionally, it is the younger cooks who are tasked with making these meals for the rest of the kitchen crew. It’s their chance to show what they’ve learned, especially in those kitchen environments where nothing is formally taught, and any newbie must keep his eyes and ears open to take in any technique or bit of knowledge more senior members of the kitchen may be wielding. In Japanese, this is called “minarai“, literally “learn by watching”. So things are taken quite seriously when their turns comes up to prepare for the whole entourage of their peers in the kitchen.
Moving along, there is a great benefit or prize to be won aside from the simple pride factor that comes with winning over the head chef with a solid makanai dish. The “uramenu“, or “secret menu” does exist in many kitchens, whereby some dishes are made available to special customers who may ask to have something not published on the main menu board. Often, these dishes are of a quality that could easily pass for something that a restaurant could charge for, and charge well. Many are often the result of a discovery during the makanai process, where a lead chef might very well appoint a creation as worthy as getting a trial shot, and who better to judge than a regular, well informed customer of the establishment. And if all goes well, the dish could graduate to the full fledged menu and potentially end up as a popular item.
As a child, I had the pleasure of spending a lot of my free time in the back kitchen of a restaurant that easily sat over 100 people at once. As such, it was a massive enclave for a youngster like myself, and to be amid all the noise and chaos of the kitchen with its boiling pots of water, oil drenched pans and sharp knives flying this way and that, was just pure joy. I’d get my share of the makanai ryori whenever I wanted, and could be found huddled away in a corner enjoying my spoils given to me by any one of a number of young chefs, who knew that I would easily approve. Fast fowarding years into the future and having jobs in the food service industry learning roles such as food product procurement, menu development, restaurant openings, product development, and business trade in food products, I always appreciate those days in the kitchen as a kid where I got to indulge in innovative and delicious dishes, and which led me to my ongoing fascination with great food.
In closing here are two images of some uramenu dishes at a favorite Japanese restaurant of mine in Alberta.
One of which is a staple of the kitchen staff for their own meals, the other I think aesthetically could easily make its way to the summer menu for real customers.