Kyoto Osaka Michelin Guide 2010

In May, I posted an blog entry on the Michelin Guide to Kyoto/Osaka. Well, I just got my hands on a copy, and nervously thumbed through it quickly to see if any of my favorites were listed. Only one made it on the list: Ajiro, a delightful shojin ryori (vegetarian temple cooking) restaurant near Myoshinji Temple. We visited Ajiro last May, upon the recommendation of Sachiyo Imai, as well as Reverend Daiko Matsuyama of Taizo-in Temple. I’ll post an article about the restaurant soon, as well as a slide show of our marvelous meal there.

But back to the guide: 150 restaurants are featured, with 85 restaurants in Kyoto earning 110 stars and 65 restaurants in Osaka earning 79 stars. What strikes me about the list, other than the fact that it includes many famous names, is their relative affordability when compared to Tokyo’s starred establishments. This puts the meals within reach of a wider audience of Japanese food enthusiasts, that is, alas, IF you can secure a reservation; Ah, the flip side of fame. This is why I was nervous when opening the guide. But selfishness aside, congratulations to all the chefs, restaurants and ryokans who’ve made it on the list.

On Oct. 14m=, New York Times In Transit blog focused on the fact that Kyoto earned 110 Michelin stars, more than the Big Apple itself. I’m sure this will lead to controversy over the coming months, as most of the restaurants serve strictly Japanese cuisine. There will also undoubtedly be controversy over the ones that didn’t make it, but should have, and the ones who didn’t want to be listed, but were. (I know of at least one, from a trusted source.)

Do you have a copy yet? Are your favorite establishments listed?

Cooking with Elizabeth Andoh

I’m working on the second entry in the series, Masters, which is about Washoku (Japanese home cooking). Who could be better to take us on this culinary investigation than the leading English language expert on this topic and author of a book on the same, Elizabeth Andoh?

During a trip to Kyoto in May, Elizabeth was scheduled to be in Osaka (**see notice below) and for once, our schedules matched. We had been in touch on several past occasions, but the timings of her classes in Tokyo were never convenient for my previous trips. I’m also a member of her advisory council for her upcoming book on vegetarian cuisine, Kansha, and we were eager to meet in person.

I asked Andoh to show me how to cook a typical washoku meal, something a regular Japanese household, say, would have for lunch, and challenged her to teach me how to make tamagoyaki. The lowly Japanese omelet seems deceptively simple, but it was never in my mother’s culinary repertoire, despite being one of my favorite dishes. People always say that tamago is the test of a great sushi chef. The balance of flavors, moist quality of the egg and delicate texture are among the hardest things to get right. Did I get it right?

Well yes, and no. Stay tuned for the article, which will be posted for October.

UPDATE**: The Taste of Culture cooking school in Osaka is now closed.

The woes of bent cucumbers and too much plastic

We at Savory Japan are sometimes accused of over-romanticizing Japanese culture and food, so I’d like to state right here and now that I have two main gripes about food in Japan:

Number one is the amount of packaging you get when you buy Japanese food at the market, whether in Japan or in Japanese markets the the States. While I understand that some delicate food items do need special protection, I feel terrible when my meal produces multiple styrofoam trays and plastic bags. Do we really need all this extra packaging? Does extra packaging really give us extra service (as some Japanese cultural experts have stated) or make for a better customer experience? I’ll write more about this subject at a later date after doing some research. If anyone is involved in this issue, please contact me.

We've come to expect straight Japanese cucumbers as the norm
We've come to expect straight Japanese cucumbers as the norm

My other complaint is that the food is too perfect, and we as consumers have gotten used to perfection. I wasn’t even aware of my ignorance until I noticed that irregularly shaped food is sold at a substantial discount in Japan (when you can find it at all). The lower price makes the vegetables seem inferior, when in fact they simply don’t conform to what is considered the standard shape and size, which in turn is often determined by packaging. While I’m fully aware that this is the norm in the global food market, I do beleive it’s worse in Japan. Take a look at this article from the Japan Times, “Why don’t we eat bent cucumbers?”


Nakagoshi claims that standards set by JA Zennoh, the organization responsible for the marketing and quality control of products from 1,173 agricultural cooperatives in Japan, are often based on the size of the box or plastic bags that they provide.

“Take cucumbers for example. They have a special box for them and if your cucumber is too big or too small, it is classified as irregular and priced low. Of course, if it isn’t straight enough, it’s considered irregular as well,” he says.

Some of these “irregular” vegetables are simply thrown away. It’s a serious problem, and Nakagoshi has recently teamed up with a new company named Vegetable Equality to spread awareness of agricultural waste.

Vegetable Equality’s CEO, Mitsuko Mori, stumbled on the issue in 2008 while visiting potential food suppliers. During a warehouse tour, Mori noticed boxes piled high with broccoli. When she asked the farmer about them, he replied that he’d have to throw them out because of their size: The diameter of each was five centimeters too wide.

“I visited numerous farmers and noticed all of them shared a similar problem,” she says. “My immediate goal is to bring irregular vegetables to the market and change industry and consumer habits.” ”

-End quote-

So it start with us. I’m just as guilty of vegetable prejudice as others. I’m always looking for beauty and proportion when choosing my ingredients. In fact, some might call me finicky. But I’m determined to change my ways, and hope you will too. After all, it isn’t the shape of the ingredient that matters most, but taste and health, and organics win on these fronts.

Now, I’ll go back to putting on my rose-colored glasses….

Sachiyo Imai, Obanzai Savior


After the lesson, we sat down to taste our creations.
Our obanzai lunch included simmered saba and fuki.

I’ve finished the story on Sachiyo Imai, and it’s now up on Savory Japan as one of the lead articles for September. It’s rather lengthy article, as there was so much to cover in describing my encounter with this amazing woman, and yet, it only gives a taste of the deep wellspring of knowledge that is obanzai. There’s also a link to a slide show, so you can see Mrs. Imai’s kitchen, as well as some of the delicious dishes we made that day. And, despite her insistence that obanzai has no recipes, I experimented with her okara recipe so that you can try it at home, keeping the measurements imprecise as a nod to her method.

I wish to thank Mrs. Imai and her students for letting me share this wonderful experience.

Obanzai Cooking Comes out of the Kitchen

Sachiyo Imai (left) works her magic in the kitchen while an assistant and I take note.
Sachiyo Imai (left) works her magic in the kitchen while an assistant and I take note.

Over the past few years, I noticed a growing trend among the restaurants, cafes and bars of Kyoto. The word “obanzai” kept popping up on the signs. This is not a term I grew up with, and at first, I barely gave it notice. I thought perhaps it was akin to tapas, since it seemed to describe simple dishes served in mostly small quantities, and the term was freely used on signs for izakayas and bars. Contrary to this first assumption, I soon discovered that, unlike otsumami (bar food) that is enjoyed while dining out, obanzai can best be described as Kyoto’s answer to “home cooking.” It is the food your grandmother might have made (if you were so lucky)daikon simmered in dashi, hijiki with age-dofu and carrots, sauteed okara (soy lees)all those long-simmered, savory and wholesome dishes that were so good for you, yet rarely seen outside the kitchen. So why were these hip and trendy bars proudly announcing Kyoto-style home cooking?

To further understand this trend, I did some research and came across one name repeatedly: Sachiyo Imai. So in preparation for a recent trip to Kyoto, I contacted her on behalf of Savory Japan and was graciously invited to join a cooking class. What I experienced was inspiring and profoundly moving. In a word, Mrs. Imai is just as Saveur Magazine described her in their 2008 Saveur 100 list: “the guardian angel” of obanzai cuisine.

The article will kick off a series on different aspects of Japanese cooking as shared by experts and masters. My plan is to start with Sachiyo Imai’s lesson on obanzai, followed by a class on washoku (Japanese home cooking) with Elizabeth Andoh. Future articles will feature kaiseki and shojin (vegetarian) cuisine.

One of the sources that led me to Mrs. Imai’s door was Harris Salat’s excellent article, Kyoto’s Soul Food. I contacted Harris to thank him, and he kindly led his readers to this site!

Do you have any information to share about obanzai cooking? If so, please post it here, or e-mail me. The article will be one of the features for September, and I’ll post an update here when it’s up.

The Role of Rice in the Family Meal

As I explain in the ingredient introduction  of Savory Japan, “Rice is so elemental to the soul of Japanese cooking that gohan, the word for rice, is synonymous with the word for meal”, and that “the most basic meal consists of plain rice and soup, and the rest of the meal, okazu (things to go with rice) are considered to be added elements”.

That’s why noodles aren’t really considered a meal, but a snack, for without rice, a typical Japanese native feels he or she hasn’t eaten. The very idea is odd to foreigners.

In our house, rice was served at the end of a meal, with tsukemono (pickles), soup and tea. My parents, who enjoyed their cocktails, never had rice during the meal, as it was the custom to not mix alcohol with rice. (And by the way, if you know the origin of this custom, please explain it here!) While we were young, we sometimes had rice during the meal, but it was up to us. Now that we are grown and have families of our own, my sisters and I follow the custom in varying degrees. After all, we now live in the US (though I should point out that my American husband has much more traditional tastes in Japanese food than me.)

Since my extended family followed this custom, and because virtually every traditional Japanese  multi-course meal also did so, I thought it was the norm.  However, after starting Savory Japan, I heard from some of my Japanese friends who had a different experience, with rice always served during the meal.

It was enough to cause me to qualify some of the articles on the site, and it raised an interesting point. What is traditional in some families is not in others. Different family circumstances and backgrounds, economic situations and regions, all bring different customs.

So I’m curious. What was the custom at your house?

Kyoto Izakaya says “No Thanks” to Publicity

Shime saba (vinegared mackerel)
Shime saba (vinegared mackerel)

We’re back from our Kyoto adventure, and I have to admit with some irony that the best food we had this time around was at a place I can’t divulge. Therefore, as much as I want to, I won’t be listing it on Savory Japan. But don’t despair, for if you go to Kyoto and befriend a local, they will probably tell you where to go or better yet, take you there, because you’ll need a translator.  Your destination would be a humble and utterly ordinary-looking izakaya (pub) that serves extraordinary food. Since it’s famous among residents and usually packed to capacity, the no-nonsense and down-to-earth staff and management decline all press coverage and general hoopla. It’s the sort of classic, old-fashioned place that is loved by its patrons and staff, who want to keep it just the way it is. They don’t take reservations or credit cards. There is no English menu. In fact, the menu is hand-written in Japanese (lots of hirgana for the kanji-challenged like me) and doesn’t include prices. If the place is full, you’ll be turned away, or perhaps allowed to wait on one small bench.

We counted our lucky stars when we were able to grab choice counter seating on two visits (we had to return to sample all the dishes we wanted to try.) From there, we watched the action in the long kitchen, where three expert itamae (chefs) grilled yakitori and Kyoto vegetables, sliced excellent quality sashimi and poured copious drinks with wide and genuine smiles, especially on the second evening when the general mood and vibe was great. One female server covered the remaining zashiki (tatami-matted floor seating) tables, efficiently moving to and fro without fuss.

On our first visit, we came prepared with a list of recommended items for which the izakaya is well known: shime saba (vinegar-ed mackerel) soaked in layers of kombu; crispy chicken skin yakitori, suitably salty and full of flavor; grilled herring which was air-dried overnight, intensifying its flavor; grilled manganji peppers with katsuobushi and shoyu; kamo nasu (Kyoto eggplant) dengaku, roasted and slathered with sweet miso. We ended with a big plate of hearty and piping-hot oden. As the custom is in true izakaya, no rice is served, but that hardly mattered, for we drank (way too much) beer and shochu throughout the meal.

Kamo rosu (chilled grilled duck breast)
Kamo rosu (chilled grilled duck breast)

On our second visit, we had the best katsuo no tataki (bonito cooked just on the outside, with scallions, ginger, ponzu and a few slices of garlic) we’ve ever had; saba (mackeral) simmered in sweet ginger sauce; maguro no yamakake (diced tuna covered with grated mountain potato); roast and chilled kamo (duck) breast with a lip-smacking light but savory sauce and a generous dollop of hot mustard. We ended with our favorite: agedashi-dofu. This humble dish is somewhat of a miracle, and widely available but hard to get right. Two pristine blocks of fresh, silky-smooth tofu were coated in starch, deep-fried, then placed in a savory bowl of flavored dashi, topped with a mound of grated daikon and ginger. The resulting combination of textures and flavors was perfect and utterly delicious. Again, we drank (and ate) way too much, but the bill on both evenings seemed awfully low for ordering with such abandon.

Along one wall there is the customary shelf with bottles of sake and shochu, scrawled with the names of regulars. On our next trip, we plan to buy a bottle to keep there to claim, in a small way, some prime Kyoto real estate.

Aoi Masturi at Kichisen on Kyoto Foodie

Kyoto Foodie is a wonderful blog about the multi-layered culinary culture of Kyoto. The current post is about the Kyoto Kaiseki meal served in honor of the Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival) at Kichisen, one of Kyoto’s finest ryo-tei. The article showcases stunning photographs that really show the level of art kyo-kaiseki can attain.

We’re going to Kyoto in a few weeks and will have to see if a meal here would break the budget or not….

Luckily, a visit to this site is like a visit to Kyoto, and you can enjoy the meal with your eyes. Hope you enjoy it!

Sake Gains Respect Abroad

The sake primer on Savory Japan briefly mentions the decline in the number of regional sake breweries. This is due to the unfortunate fact that domestically, consumption of Japanese food – along with its natural pairing, sake –  is on the decline, as Western food gains in popularity.

This April 24 article from the Japan Times covers this trend, and goes on to describe that in the future, there may also be a shortage of the type of rice needed to make sake, as rice production is also on the decline due to the lack of young blood in the farming sector. This, along with the changing diet of modern Japan described above, are two major issues  that are close to my heart. I’ll be covering these issues in future postings and articles.

However, the article claims that there is hope, because as sake loses popularity at home, it’s gaining popularity around the world. The article describes this phenomenom, and wonders if foreign interest will spark national pride among the Japanese.

Will outside interest cause the Japanese to value what they already have? Only time will tell, but there is reason to be hopeful, as it has happened before.