Cooking in Kyoto

Sunday, December 8, 2013

One of the reasons I love to travel is to have the opportunity to learn about what people around the world eat. Part of that is learning how people have adapted to the topography of their place, honored traditions not always born of favorable circumstance, and made the best out of what’s been naturally available and what’s been carried across borders. The act of building and sustaining customs through and around food is one of our strongest cross-cultural links. And when we have the fortune to connect to a certain corner of the globe, taste can be powerful kindling to bring us back from home, no matter the distance between.

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I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to backtrack a bit to tell you about one more morning in Kyoto. I didn’t plan on saving the best for last, but that’s how it happened. Actually, it was only supposed to be my last day–I’d planned on spending one night in Osaka before my flight back to Seoul. I liked Kyoto so much that I decided to stay one more night.

It was before noon, the day silver-skied, when Emi Hirayama met the three of us at a bus stop near her home. Philip and Martin had come together from Montreal, the other two guys in our class of three. We were about to become acquainted over a three-hour, multi-course meal that we’d all have a hand in preparing. Emi would teach us the basics of obanzai ryori, the name for home cooked Japanese food passed down within generations of Kyoto-bred families. I was charged.

We walked up a hill to Emi’s home, happy to tuck into the warmth of her kitchen. While we took seats around her table, Emi poured us tea. Her handwritten recipes no more than outlined what we would soon learn by doing, and what I would later realize were as simple as she interpreted the dishes to be.

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That morning, Emi shared tips for cooking smarter, like how to evenly blanch spinach by submerging the stems first in simmering water before letting the leaves go. We could see the tools that were essential to a Japanese kitchen, like a nutcracker for shelling ginkgo and a mesh box with a wooden handle for toasting nuts and seeds over an open flame. She told us that creativity is the key to lure flavors from the short, core list of ingredients in obanzai ryori. The food we cooked wasn’t overly decorated, but symphonic, nuanced, and subdued. The techniques were approachable, the plating wasn’t fussy, and the essence of the food was coaxed forth by an intuitive use of each ingredient: fish marinated in miso and mirin, blanched spinach with toasted sesame and grated yuzu, kabocha and lotus root simmered in dashi. Emi gave generously when we asked, and even when we didn’t. If we wondered why a certain cooking step was necessary, she’d tell us, and more often than not, the explanation would be the same: To make the flavor more beautiful, she’d say. If that’s not as luminous a reason as any, I don’t know what is. That’s what Emi was like.

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To expose us to the range of flavors in regional Japanese cuisine, Emi pulled out tubs of miso from her fridge. Aka miso from Nagoya was dark burgundy, rich and sour. Kyoto recipes call for shiro miso, a young and pale yellow paste made sweeter by double the amount of fermented rice. Miso between these two grades are various shades of brown and depth of flavor depending on fermentation time and whether the skins of the bean are left on or not during production.

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We learned how to make dashi, or stock flavored with kombu (dried strips of kelp) and katsuobushi (dried flakes of fermented bonito). Traditionally, dashi is made by soaking kombu and katsuobushi in water overnight. We cooked ours on the stove in minutes by steeping both ingredients in boiling water. Dashi is the base for miso soup and a core ingredient for salad dressings, noodle dishes, and boiled vegetables, like this dish of kabocha squash and sliced lotus root that we simmered in dashi and ate warm in bowls with rolls of tender yuba:

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We made horenso no goma-ae, the name for blanched spinach dressed in sesame, soy sauce, dashi, and sugar. I toasted our sesame seeds at the stove, worried I’d burn them and be sent packing. They came out fine, though, and when they did, Emi made me feel like a million dollars. Philip ground them to powder with a wooden pestle in a wide, ridged mortar called a suribachi. Martin made a teaspoon of fine zest from a yuzu that we sprinkled over the spinach so that each bite tasted of sesame, citrus, and salt.

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We made fish. The night before, Emi had begun marinating pieces of yellowtail in miso and mirin so that they’d be ready for us to cook during class. Japanese groceries sell ready-marinated fish for lack of time, but she showed us how to put together an easy overnight marinade by whipping shiro miso with mirin until, she told us, it looked like mayonnaise.

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We broiled the fish so that it darkened at the edges to the color of maple syrup. Just before the end, Emi covered the skin with torn bits of foil so that it would crisp but not burn. She overlapped two pieces of fish on each plate and topped them with a bud of rosy ginger called myoga. As I rediscovered throughout that week, miso is seductive in all forms: pungent and cloudy in soup, lush like cheesecake when marinated and served like dice on a plate, and straight up cosmic when lacquered to slabs of broiled fish. This fish was something to remember for life.

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There was more, and it was sautéed beef, shitake and leeks glazed with pan sauce. First Emi rolled thinly sliced sirloin like a cigar, then cut it match the leeks in length. After we’d pan-fried some ginkgo nuts, Martin rubbed off their skins with a towel. While we whisked together soy sauce, mirin, sake, and sugar, Emi encouraged us to taste the sansho berries from a bowl on the table. When you bite into a berry, it laces your mouth with a tingle that hints of citrus. Earlier in the week, I’d tasted ground sansho pepper sprinkled over grilled eel, and the same numbing sensation sent me on a hunt for a jar at the market the next morning.

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And there was still dessert! Oh yes, we had room. Had it been chocolate cake or blueberry pie or an ice cream sundae, maybe not. But like the rest of the meal, dessert was……well, perfect. (I sat on that last sentence for awhile, trying to come up with a better word to describe dessert, but it turns out there isn’t a better word. Perfect it was, perfect it is). We pressed sticky rice powder with a little water until it felt like play dough, and from that we rolled mochi balls. Half we mixed with mashed pumpkin, the other half with matcha. We dropped them in boiling water, and when they popped to the surface like gnocchi, they were ready for an ice bath. We ate them chilled with plump peeled grapes and chunky azuki paste.

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Before we knew it, three hours had passed. Besides that the food was inspiring and delicious, the experience of being inside of Emi’s home, in her company, and at her kitchen table made the trip to Kyoto so much more personal. If I didn’t watch how these dishes were made, I would have never guessed how approachable each of the recipes would be. She said I could share her way of making sesame dressed spinach–hop over to food52 to find it! (Actually she said I could share all of her recipes, isn’t she great?) When I made her spinach for lunch last week, I was right back in Kyoto. Right back in Emi’s kitchen, too.

Emi-san’s cooking class is called Kyoto Uzuki. Contact her through her website to find out about available classes, and see photos of her food here.