The meal looked great, and probably tasted delicious, but that dessert—that sprig of mint—stuck out at me like a sore thumb. For so long in the restaurant world, every dish came with the ubiquitous parsley top, mint garnish, lemon wheel or dusting of chili powder. If you’ve ever made the mistake of eating one of these garnishes, you probably realized that they add nothing to the dish. In fact most of the time they are downright inedible. So why keep them?
In a sushi restaurant, sasa—bamboo leaf—is the equivalent of the mint top. Bamboo leafs, along with wasabi and pickled ginger, have some antiseptic properties, making them an antiquated way of fighting food-born illness. Of course, that was before refrigeration. So why do we sure them? Wasabi helps to cut the fattiness of certain fish, and pickled ginger is often used as a pallet cleanser. But sasa is completely inedible unless you’re a panda; its only purpose is to add a splash of green to the plate. Thus, I began my quest to find a better use for it.
The sushi chefs keep a container of sasa leaves submerged in water to keep the leaves from drying out and becoming brittle. I noticed one day while I was changing the water that the water had taken on a very sweet, almost vanilla smell to it. My first instinct was to treat it like tea, and steep it in cream to see if I could extract some flavor. I added 25g of leaves to 500g of cream and brought it to a simmer, and then hit it with an immersion blender. The cream tasted like something between a vanilla malt and green tea. It was delicious.
With my first attempt, I wanted to keep it simple, so I went with a panna cotta, which would highlight the flavor of the cream. I added a little sugar (about 50g) and just enough gelatin to barely set it. Paired with some fresh Colorado peaches and a little peach sake sorbet, it made for a killer special.
I will have to keep playing with this bamboo idea, but for now I can at least rest easily knowing that those pretty sasa leaves aren’t just for looks.