Smart things to say about Signature Dishes: Black Cod with Miso
The recipe wasn’t new and the ingredients weren’t rare, but its simplicity enabled its chef to build an empire
Our new book Signature Dishes That Matter is a global celebration of the iconic restaurant creations that defined the course of culinary history over the past 300 years. However, not every inclusion in the book is entirely new.
“Sometimes a confluence of cultural attention or a new context takes something out of the ordinary and puts it into the spotlight,” writes Mitchell Davis in the book’s introduction. For example, David Chang’s Pork Buns at Momofuku in New York are based on a traditional Taiwanese snack, but that doesn’t detract from their impact or importance. Similarly, one of the most famous seafood dishes to grace high-end dining tables in the past forty years contains more innovation than outright invention.
The Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa first served Black Cod with Miso at his Matsuhisa restaurant in Beverly Hills during the late 1980s. A hit with stars such as Robert De Niro, the dish helped the chef build his eponymous Nobu restaurant empire, while also introducing American diners to Japanese food, at a time when many weren’t yet accustomed to sushi.
“The sweet mirin and sugar glaze on the meaty, delicately flavored fish skewed an Asian recipe for Western palates,” explains our new book. Yet, despite the patron chef allure of the restaurants, this signature dish wasn’t a wildly new creation. “This recipe — a traditional method of preserving fish in sake lees and miso — has been served in Japan for centuries. Matsuhisa made it sweeter, adding sugar, mirin (sweet rice wine), and milder white miso to the three-day marinade.”
Matsuhisa’s ingredients, although new to US palettes, weren’t actually very expensive, either. “The introduction of miso as a starring ingredient was novel in America — until then, it was associated with macrobiotic restaurants and health food stores,” the text goes on to say. “And at the time, black cod was a cheap, widely available fish.”
Nor was the dish especially hard to make or serve. "Placed under the broiler (grill), the sugars caramelize into an amber shell while insulating the fish from overcooking,” the book explains. “The cod’s simplicity and spare presentation — placed simply on a banana leaf with miso dots and ginger — meant that as the restaurant spread across the world, a cook in Dubai could make it taste exactly as another in London or Kuala Lumpur.”
Indeed, perhaps the chef’s genius lay in this simplicity, and lack of intervention. “As New York magazine restaurant critic Adam Platt wrote of the dish, ‘Certain dishes are like that famous obelisk in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. When it lands in their midst, the apes have never seen anything like it, and they are changed forever. Miso cod was one of those dishes.’”
For more on the culinary creations that changed the world, order a copy of Signature Dishes That Matter. The book reveals the closely held secrets behind the world's most iconic recipes - dishes that put restaurants on the map, from 19th century fine dining and popular classics, to today's most innovative kitchens, both high-end and casual. Find out more here.