My Favourite Dish: Nina Matsunaga
Nina Matsunaga speaks to Tony Naylor about a much-loved Japanese dish, oyakodon
We celebrate the world’s best comfort food by asking chefs and food writers from diverse backgrounds to talk about the dishes they love.
Born in Germany and now co-owner of The Black Bull in Cumbria, Nina shares a recipe inspired by her Japanese family.
Nina Matsunaga's Favourite Dish
Nina Matsunaga laughs as she recalls, "I told my parents I wanted to become a zookeeper or a chef. They weren’t happy about either – about the prospect of me not having a degree, or shovelling poop all day."
A culinary arts management degree placated mum and dad, and, since then, 33-year-old Nina has emerged as one of Britain’s most exciting chefs. Co-owner of Cumbria’s Black Bull hotel and restaurant, Nina grew up in Düsseldorf in a Japanese family, but cut her teeth in Manchester’s street-food scene. Her cooking reflects that unique set of influences. At the Bull, Nina uses local rare-breed meats and seasonal, foraged produce. Alongside rural northern staples, such as her beef and ale pie, the menus might include a crispy short rib in barbecue sauce, or pork belly served with potatoes, yuzu and kimchi.
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"I put a lot of soy and homemade miso in things; adding umami is natural," says Nina. "There needs to be that combination of sweet, salty and sour for me, too. And, our preserving has a Japanese ring.
"Dad worked at a Japanese electronics company in Düsseldorf. There was a Japanese district where you could shop and socialise without ever speaking German, but mum – a florist who taught and published books about Japanese flower arranging – learned German and tried to fit in. She shopped at markets on our doorstep and, occasionally, made sausage and potato casserole.
"My dad would sometimes pick up bao buns or chicken feet as late-night snacks for us – I’m still partial to a chicken foot – but we rarely ate out. Instead, at home, we had proper Japanese meals, with a big variety of dishes. Mum was a solid cook, and dad would obsessively make pickles and kimchi – we even had to buy him a separate fridge.
"Eating was quite traditional. We ate at a tatami mat floor table for the first 10 years, and our parents had larger bowls, dad’s being the biggest. But, there wasn’t really an eating hierarchy. It was a fight for food because otherwise dad would eat everything! We’d have miso soup, pickled cucumber, daikon, turnip tops or umeboshi plums, and side dishes like cabbage salad, steamed spinach or stir-fried vegetables, with a bit of fish or meat. And rice, of course.
"We always had a good rice cooker. In Japan, there’s a saying that you can’t be a housewife until you know how to cook rice in a pan, but nobody does. A rice cooker cooks it evenly, keeps it warm, and the quality is completely different. You’d have this big, clunky cooker by the table, and help yourself to two or three bowls. Japanese people are never stingy with rice.
"It’s quite a thing in Japan to have a tempura fryer or teppanyaki grill on the table to cook your food. My parents also had a massive 30kg steak-maker, like a panini grill. Making okonomiyaki or tempura as a family was entertainment that brought us together. I was always food-obsessed. In summer, cold, cooked sōmen noodles – kept in iced water and dipped in dashi and soy sauce with cucumber, lettuce and tomato – was a refreshing highlight, with cold, fried karaage chicken on the side. Tempura or katsu and other breaded things are often cooked ahead in Japan. It’s a Western thing that fried food has to be hot.
"I also loved the Japanese version of mapo tofu, which uses more tofu than pork in a less-spicy sauce, and curry night, when we’d make up big bowls of curry from packets of S&B sauces – ready-made roux blocks with meat, potatoes and vegetables. Oyakodon literally means ‘family donburi [rice bowl]’ or ‘adult-and-kids donburi’, because both chicken and egg are used in the dish. It’s a quick and hearty meal that we’d have together at home on bad weather days. For me, it always felt like a special occasion."