This Season's Fad Food Ingredient: DIRT
By Jessica Ocheltree
There is a chic French restaurant in Tokyo’s Gotanda district known to those in-the-know. It’s called Ne Quittez Pas, and it is famous for using high-quality seafood and produce from Kanagawa’s Misaki region. However, they’ve just unveiled a new full-course menu created around a rather peculiar ingredient: actual dirt. Of course, we had to check it out.
Perhaps having dirt still clinging to a vegetable is a sign of its freshness, but actually eating that dirt isn’t exactly appealing. But the chef at this restaurant once won a TV cooking show battle with a sauce made with dirt, so surely there must be something to this cuisine, common sense aside. But what exactly could we expect? Sipping a lovely glass of pink watermelon champagne, we waited with anticipation.
The first course: a potato starch and dirt soup. It arrived in a shot glass looking so dark brown, it was almost black. It definitely looked like it had dirt in it. A slice of black truffle was balanced on top, and the staff instructed us to take a bite of it and then try the soup. So we did… and it was divine! There wasn’t a dirty flavor at all. Instead, this simple soup went down smoothly with just a hint of potato flavor.
The rim of the shot glass was dusted with salt like a margarita, so after the initial saltiness, your mouth filled with the mild flavor of the soup. The dish impressed us more with the chef’s skill than with the potential of the unusual ingredient, though.
Next up: salad with dirt dressing. As simply as I can describe it, this dish featured fresh vegetables like eggplant, tomato and turnips grilled and served with a dressing made from dirt and a fine powder made from ground popcorn. Here too the surprise wasn’t the dirt, but the deliciousness of the vegetables. The tomatoes had the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity, and the eggplant hadn’t taken on any bitterness from the grilling.
I’d come here to try a dirt course, but the food tasted so little of the earthiness I was expecting that I’d kind of forgotten about that ingredient. According to the staff, the dirt used is a special black soil from Kanuma, Tochigi Prefecture. It’s strictly tested for safety and purity to be used in food, but so far I thought I hadn’t been able to notice a “dirt” flavor in the meal.
Next up: “minerals of the sea and minerals of the land,” an aspic made with oriental clams and the top layer of sediment, and a dirt risotto with sauteed sea bass and burdock root. With these dishes too, there wasn’t a dirt flavor. I had to wonder what had happened to the characteristic yeasty smell of soil.
For dessert, there was dirt ice cream and a dirt gratin. Perhaps because of the mildness of the food, the complex sweetness of these items was all the richer. And finally, there was a refreshing dirt mint tea to cleanse the palate, though it does seem strange to describe something made with dirt as cleansing or refreshing. It looked like muddy water (sorry, but it’s true), but the minty taste was bracing.
With its mild cuisine, sweet desserts and refreshing tea, the course had the flavor and modulation you would expect from Ne Quittez Pas’s talented chef. As to why the meal didn’t taste at all of dirt, that is likely due to the dirt itself, which is supplied by a company called Protoleaf. Using coffee grinds and palm fiber, which were previously just thrown away, the company has created a novel and eco-friendly compost.
The chef also credits Protoleaf’s compost for making his dirt course possible, so it seems that not all dirt is created equal.
By the way, if you would like to try Ne Quittez Pas’s dirt course for yourself, reservations must be made at least one week in advance and the cost is about 10,000 yen per person (about US$110).