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Bite sized steak
Close-up view of Machiko Chiba's bite-sized pepper steaks, plated as advised in her new Japanese Dishes For Wine Lovers.
Bite-sized pepper steaks

"Less is more," the 20th century architect Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe famously said, a bit of wisdom that the old Shakers might have restated as "It's a gift to be simple."

This is generally good advice - in architecture as in the kitchen - and it's well illustrated by the subtle simplicity of Japanese cookery, in which minimalism often yields dishes of startling contrast and beauty to the eye and the palate.

But less is not necessarily more when it comes to cookbooks, and that's the dilemma I face in pondering how strongly to recommend Machiko Chiba's new Japanese Dishes For Wine Lovers (with wine pairing advice by John K. Whelehan), a brand-new book that boasts an appealing concept and some intriguing dishes, but that's appallingly lightweight at just 119 thick, glossy pages, much of that space bulked out by Tamae Hamamura's stylish "food porn" photography.

This is a rap that's all too common among latter-day cookbooks; you'll recall that I expressed similar mixed feelings about Chef Paul Gayler's The Gourmet Burger in the April 21, 2005, FoodLetter. Yes, excellent photos of artfully plated dishes can make me drool, too; and they're helpful to home cooks who gain confidence from having a photo to guide them. But I want content ... real content ... and I'd gladly trade most of the photos for more recipes, description and discussion. This slender hardcover from Kodansha International (Tokyo, New York and London) gives us barely 60 recipes, most of them stylishly laid out, with photos, one to a shiny page.

Add points for Tokyo-based wine marketer John K. Whelehan's brief but thoughtful introduction on wine-matching, plus the suggestions included with each recipe, in which he plows rarely-turned ground with cogent thoughts on the non-traditional topic of pairing Japanese dishes with Western-style table wines. To his credit, Whelehan avoids wine-geekspeak and recommends wines by broad category ("Chardonnay" or "Beaujolais") in preference to the common but less useful practice of recommending specific, often hard-to-find wines. (See "MATCHING WINE" in the recipe below for an excerpt.)

The recipes are well organized and clearly explained. Most use common ingredients, but the Japan-based authors will occasionally throw in an ingredient that might not be in the typical Westerner's larder. As an extreme example, one colorful and appetizing dish, Japanese-style namul marinated veggies, requires kochijan spicy miso and, um, kogomi ostrich ferns.

By and large, though, the recipes are good, more modern than classically traditional, offering a fairly easy introduction to the 21st century Japanese kitchen; and Whelehan's wine advice adds value. I only wish there was more.

Here's a dish that offers eye and palate appeal, with the added benefit of being dead easy to put together ... with steamed rice and a salad on the side, I was able to get dinner on the table, start to finish, in about 20 minutes. It's fairly true to Chiba's original, but I did modify it a bit, adding a dash of red-pepper flakes to provide contrast with the heavy dose of black pepper; substituting peanut oil for olive oil and a quality vermouth (the excellent Vya brand from California's Andrew Quady) for Japanese mirin rice wine; and garnishing the plates with a fresh sprig of Italian parsley from the garden in place of the recipe's unattainable buckwheat leaves.

This recipe is typical of the book, by the way, in that it suggests surprisingly small portions. It advised using 1 pound of steak to serve six, a healthful portion perhaps but on the puny side. These modified proportions suggest 12 ounces to serve two.

INGREDIENTS: (serves 2)

Black pepper
12 ounces (350g) boneless beefsteak
1 tablespoon (15ml) peanut oil
1 large clove garlic
Dried red-pepper flakes
2 tablespoons vermouth
1 tablespoon Japanese soy sauce
2 teaspoons (10g) sugar
2 large sprigs fresh Italian flatleaf parsley


1. Coarsely grind an ample amount of black pepper onto a large plate or flat work surface. Press the steak into the pepper until it is well and evenly coated with pepper on both sides. Set aside. (It's best to select a fairly thin, even slice of beef so it can easily be cut into bite-size squares for plating as in the photo above.)

2. Mince the garlic, measure out all the ingredients, and blend the vermouth, soy sauce and sugar in a small bowl.

3. Heat the peanut oil in a skillet or saute pan and add the minced garlic and a discreet shake of red-pepper flakes, cooking over medium-high heat until the garlic turns translucent and aromatic. Put in the steak and sear briefly on both sides, no more than a minute or two - the thin steaks will overcook quickly. Put in the vermouth-soy-sugar mixture and cook, turning the meat once or twice, until the liquid reduces to a thick sauce that coats the meat.

4. Remove the steak to a cutting board and slice it into one-inch squares, arranging them neatly on plates garnished with the parsley. Chef gets to eat the scrappy edges!

Whelehan suggested Australian Shiraz or a Cabernet Sauvignon, advising, "Shiraz, from a hot climate, is typically full-bodied, powerful and alcoholic, with aromas and flavors frequently of pepper, mixed spice, game and leather, accompanied by a solid core of berry fruit. These inherent qualities both cope with and complement the strong flavors of this dish. The key ingredient in this case is the pepper. In addition, the fattier the beef, the heavier the wine should be. Also keep in mind Syrah-based wines from the Rhone Valley, categorized by appellation as opposed to variety, namely Cote-Rotie or Hermitage. Heavy full-bodied reds like Cabernet Sauvignon or Californian Zinfandel, should also marry well."

This made sense to me, so I went with a modest California Syrah that I correctly anticipated would be made in a fairly "Australian" style, the Cline 2002 California Syrah left over from the March edition of our Wine Tasting 101. It was an accessible but not particularly exciting wine, on the fat'n'flabby side, but worked pretty much as Whelehan suggested it would with the bold flavors of the beef, and the dish actually improved the wine. Good call!

Japanese Dishes for Wine Lovers BUY THE BOOK ONLINE:
With the caveats noted, that this book is high on concept but short on content, I recommend it with reservations, although I would muster more enthusiasm if you're particularly interested in either modern Japanese cookery or the art of matching European-style table wines with non-traditional cuisines. Its $16.50 sale price at, a 34 percent saving, also makes it a bit easier to recommend than it would be at the full $25 retail.

Japanese Dishes For Wine Lovers, by Machiko Chiba with wine pairing advice by John K. Whelehan, is 119 pages in hardcover. Its publication date in the U.S. by Kodansha America was May 1, 2005.

As usual, purchases made using this exact link help support by returning us a small commission:

Want a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of this recipe, suitable for printing, online at

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this recipe or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: Bite-sized pepper steaks,"

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Thursday, May 12, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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