Entries Tagged as 'Japan'

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.

 

Kyoto

Sunday, October 27, 2013

I have this new(ish) file called “Writing Scraps,” or “DubScraps” for short. It’s an electronic home for the sentences and paragraphs that don’t fit anywhere else…yet. With the addition of much of this original post–an intro that was off topic, an unrelated story–the file’s word count has doubled. I keep these words for the same reason a person keeps a stash of ketchup packets. One day I might need them. This whole paragraph probably belongs to DubScrabs, too, or maybe in the electronic trash can, but I’ve given myself a deadline and I’m sticking to it. Shall we get on? Good.

What struck me the most about Kyoto was the serenity in everyday life, the meticulous and intentional presentation of everything from potted plants to espresso, and the mixture of hospitality and deeply honored privacy that is very much the Japanese way. I was lost a lot, but it was never a problem. I tried to capture what I saw, but the most unforgettable moments were too fleeting, and not meant for a camera anyway. I won’t forget the short exchanges with kids in uniform on their way home after school, the trio of businessmen I shared the counter with at a ramen spot, the irenic woman who sat diagonal from me during one lunch, quietly eating a nest of soba while reading the paper, or the seconds of eye contact with a geisha in the back of a taxi, her driver looking just as becoming in his white gloves and suit.

Yashi owns IchiEnSou, a great guesthouse in Gion, and Soba and Soon Young help him run it. Olga and I met in the guesthouse’s common area, the same room that houses the staircase to the attic, the kitchen, and a few clusters of wooden tables and chairs. During the day, we traveled separately to different corners of the city, and about the time it’d get dark, we’d find ourselves back in the common room where we’d swap stories about what we’d seen or eaten, both of us full and tired but hungry enough to go for dinner. We’d saunter down the block and get as far as the yakitori bar on the corner, and we’d order chicken livers or grilled eggplant skewers and beer, our warmup. One night Olga took me to her friend Yoshi’s restaurant, En Boca. They’d met in the Czech Republic years earlier when Yoshi was a guest at Olga’s hostel, and have stayed in touch since. Yoshi made us a drop-dead gorgeous salad of cucumber coins, oily shitake mushrooms, rosy-bellied radishes, yellow kiku petals, and smoked mackerel sashimi with silver skin and wispy veins that he filleted to look like butterflies. He swept the salad along the curve of the plate in a crescent and tucked in a fan of smoked leaves ripened with fall. We ate that while he topped a pizza in quarters with 1) basil pesto, lotus root, and pine nuts, 2) mozzarella and shitake, 3) mozzarella, crushed tomato, and basil, and 4) mozzarella and seaweed pesto. He floured a wooden paddle and sent the pizza to the brick oven. In less than two minutes it was cooked. Yoshi traveled to Naples to study pizza, and one bite of his crust is all it takes to feel the effects that trip had on him. He could have slathered his pie with soggy cereal, for all I cared. It may seem counterintuitive to eat pizza in Japan, but it’s the fusion of rustic Italian and intentional Japanese, of provisions and harmony, that make Yoshi’s food special. It is also his commitment to the connection with nature through food, which he views as one of our last.

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Chris and I met while we were both a little lost, but it turned out we were headed in the same direction. We made plans to have dinner at Kanesho, a covert spot at the end of an alley (by measurement, more of a hallway) behind a very small sliding door. You’d never find it on a whim, and we almost didn’t find it with a map. We slid the door aside to find a full house of heads all turned in our direction. A tall, silver-haired man was standing in the corner over a grill. He had one arm curved to his hip like the handle of a teacup and the other around a smoke-stained fan, flapping at the coals.

Reservation? He asked. We didn’t have one. But we could come back at 8:30, so we said we would. An hour and a tasting of sake later, we sidled up to two open seats at the counter. The young guy behind it helped us through the menu we couldn’t read, and we learned later that he was the older man’s son.

As Koske’s father hung out by the grill, Koske would glide through the rest of the tiny restaurant, washing a few glasses or refilling a beer mug gone dry. When an order of eel was ready, Koske would scoop rice into a bamboo steamer, then fold in a drizzle of tare (eel sauce) and sesame seeds before mounding it into each dish. His father would slide the eel off the skewer on top of the rice, and Koske would deliver the goods. These two did a dance back there, and it was addictive to watch. At Koske’s advice, we ordered unadon (grilled eel over seasoned rice in a bowl) and unaju (grilled eel over rice mixed with dried seaweed in a box). With the nudge of chopsticks, the crispy skin split apart, and the flesh collapsed into oily flakes with bones so inscrutable, you couldn’t feel them.

In Arashiyama, I rode a bicycle into the unknown without a map (and if you ever plan to visit Kyoto, I highly recommend you do the same) foremost because I needed both hands to steer, but also because I believe it is a virtue to be graciously lost, or rather, to admit to not knowing exactly where you are or where you’re going, but believing where you are is good enough for now. (A daily practice, that one, and a hell of a challenging one, too).

Every place has a formula for engaging the senses. Kyoto is cocoa, vermillion, and weeping willow green from the trees that flank the Takase Canal and the Kamogawa. I’d recognize it by the chime of electronic bells at crosswalks and the metro, the staccato delivery of yes and thank you, the click of bicycle wheels and the way the whole city is able to muffle regular urban clamor and turn it to music. Kyoto tastes like sweet, whipped miso and grated yuzu skin, and feels like the tingling of a single sansho berry the size of a peppercorn after it pops in your mouth.

Other highlights: pickle tasting at Nishiki Market, The Kyoto Museum of Modern Art, The Golden Pavilion, shopping for local ingredients at grocery stores, lunch at a diner in Nishijin, the women who drank pink champagne, Emi’s cooking class, a train ride to Kansai airport with Soon Young.

Recommended restaurants (many of these were also recommended by Yashi at IchiEnSou):
en boca (pizza) :: 075-253-0870 :: Ikesu-cho 406 Kyoto City :: lunch 11:30-2:00 dinner 5:00-10:00

Mimio (pork ramen) :: 075-525-3304 :: 354 Kiyomotocho Shijo Agaru Hanamikoji Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto City :: dinner M-Sat 7:00-2am
detailed walking map from Shijo Station here.

Kanesho (unagi) :: in a tiny alley off of Nawate-dori in Gion. Best to stop at the sake bar inside Jam Hostel (around the corner) first for a sake tasting and marinated miso and ask for directions to Kanesho. Jam’s address: 605-0079 Kyoto, Kyoto, Higashiyama-ku, Tokiwa-cho, 170

Grelot (French bistro) :: across from IchiEnSou

Yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) :: on the corner of Yamatooji-dori and the same alley as IchiEnSou