citrussy: Try ponzu sauce on braaied pork chops and a salad. Picture: tony jackman

Cape Town - Smudge on a plate. Who’s idea was that? And every chef in the world, with only four or five exceptions, sat up and took notice. And now you can hardly be presented with a fine plate of food anywhere without beholding a smudge that skids from one point of the plate to another, as if a miniature SUV had screeched to a halt after a muddy trek through the veld.

The smudge on the plate has to go. We must stamp it out. We need petitions, we need banners, we need placards, we need marches. And we need slogans. “Smudge as you like, but we won’t buy your food if you do”. “S’much is true: smudges must go!” And “S’much too much smudge! Stop the rot now!”

Chefs, hear us. Everyone laughs at your smudges. No one likes them. There may be those who are merely puzzled, others who are bewildered, and inevitably there will be a few who think they are the best thing since stacking, that method of styling a plate whereby one thing is piled upon the other at the centre so that when you try to slice into the thing at the top of the pile, it all collapses and you end up with a great indecipherable mush where your food should be.

Smudges and stacking are the things that a future generation will look back at laugh at, the way we now laugh at so many foodlike things from the 1970s. “Remember that?” we’ll say, while sharing images of smudges on Facebook. “Hahaha, yes, wasn’t that just so awful!” they’ll comment while hitting the “like” button.

These few smudge toadies who do approve of them are the same people who wear sandals with socks and who refuse to drink their wine out of anything but the “correct” glass, even if the characterful eatery in which they are sitting is Greek and serves its wine in chunky tumblers, just for fun. They are the trainspotters of food, the twitchers of presentation.

With everything there is the valid exception. If the smudge had been used with restraint to imbue it with some elan, we would hardly have noticed. It can be a part of making a plate of food look swish or even grand. But the technique has gone rogue. They will be doing it at the Wimpy next, with a bright red smudge of ketchup on which will nestle your double cheeseburger and chips before being draped with something and drizzled with something else.

If there had been more modest use of the smudge, it would have been more like the vogueish ingredient that intrigues you and makes you wonder what it is, where it comes from and what to do with it in the kitchen. That thing which the Frou Frou Frauleins of Posh Galore discover, get all hot under the Christian Dior collar about at their Monday meetings, and deign to bestow on us in their summer issue. The new thing, darlinks.

I love finding these new things and learning about them, and we’re talking ingredients here, not smudges. One of the ingredients that has been finding its way on to plates – sometimes even in those smudges – in recent years is ponzu, a Japanese dressing which is well worth having a bottle of in the cupboard. It’s versatile, has a lovely zing, and is probably quite economical to use.

Ponzu shoyu is a soy-based dressing that is sweet and has a citrussy tang. It can be used as just that – a dressing, drizzled on salads, or to marinate fish or meat with no dire need to add to it. But it can also be used as the base of a dressing or marinade of your own concoction, or as an ingredient in a sauce.

In Japanese, apparently, ponzu means “vinegar punch”, and its essential elements include mirin, katsuobushi flakes (from tuna, as described by Wikipedia), rice vinegar and seaweed, simmered. The version you’re more likely to find here (I found it at Pick n Pay) is the shoyu variety that is blended with soy sauce.

I used some this week as the basis for a sauce which doubled as a dressing for salad and for pork loin chops I had braaied. It was packed with spikes of flavour, yet no matter how many other ingredients I added, the ponzu remained the chief ingredient, and we loved it.

If you like your flavours to have a good punch, try this. I’d also suggest it for serving with seared tuna steaks, smeared on just before serving, and you could add a drizzle of fish sauce to the recipe if you like.


Ponzu dressing

2 tbs ponzu

1 fat clove garlic, finely chopped

1 tbs rind of preserved lemon, finely chopped

(or 1 tbs lemon juice and the grated rind of 1 lemon)

1 tbs olive oil

1 tbs fresh mint, finely chopped

1 tbs fresh coriander leaves, finely chopped

¼ tsp white pepper

Pinch of salt

Combine ingredients in a ramekin and stir. Season with a pinch of salt only once you’ve tasted – if the saltiness of the soy component is enough, do not salt it any further. Leave to stand for at least an hour before using, or make it ahead and store it, covered, in the fridge.

Do not smudge it on a plate. - Weekend Argus