The one thing you never quite get used to when cooking on the road is losing your home-ground advantage. A dish you’ve made a dozen times before might be easy with an oven you know, pans you’re familiar with, and in the loving embrace of your best tracksuit pants. But put yourself in three feet of snow, in fading light and with a blizzard coming in, and even boiling an egg can seem impossible.
Our first outdoor cooking day of the Destination Flavour Japan series was making wakasagi nanbanzuke on Lake Akan in central Hokkaido. We had a short window of daylight, I had to catch my own fish, and we were at the mercy of the unpredictable Hokkaido winter. If that wasn't enough, we also had to do it all while standing on a frozen lake. With the benefit of hindsight, we were probably being ambitious.
It all started well enough; arriving at the lake there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Even the fish were biting, and within minutes I had caught a bagful. It is a funny quirk of man to feel a complete dominance of nature when all I had done was catch a few fish, each no bigger than my finger. As it turns out, nature would have the last laugh, and those helpless little wakasagi would mock me from beyond the grave.
Cooking this recipe at home would take no longer than 20 minutes from start to finish. But with temperatures at around minus15°C and a stiff wind racing across the lake, we were fighting an uphill battle. Benches had to be dug out of the snow, ingredients froze, and bowls cracked. Even burning through three whole gas canisters, the frying oil couldn’t be coaxed above the temperature of a tepid bath.
After the first hour, my fingers turned blue. After the second, I lost feeling in my toes. The third hour saw the sun set, and as we pushed through the fourth in the dark, my power of speech was gone and I could only communicate by sobbing.
After four hours of cooking hell, we watched, shell-shocked, as Robin rolled the camera on a finished plate that had turned out surprisingly well, all things considered. Our director, Scott, had a taste and said, “That’s delicious, mate.”
My eyes were still glazed over and I couldn’t even turn my head as I replied.
“Next time, you make it.”