April: Hanami Bento and Kinmata’s Tableware

The April features for Savory Japan are now online. In honor of Cherry Blossom season, we show you how to create your own hanami (flower viewing) bento so you can celebrate spring under any flowering tree in your country. Some new recipes are included.

And, we profile Kinmata Ryokan’s fine tableware collection, once again illustrating the important relationship between food and tableware. This traditional Japanese inn in Kyoto has a long history and an excellent collection of ceramic and lacquer ware which is used to great effect.

There’s also a link to an article written during a prevuous stay, along with a slide show that shows Kinmata’s spring dishes and the marvelous table settings, complete with sakura blossoms, from that memorable dinner.

A selection of Kinmata Ryokan's fine tableware
A selection of Kinmata Ryokan's fine tableware

It’s Cherry Blossom Season in Japan

I’m sad. I usually try to make it to Japan during sakura (cherry blossom season), but this year, I’m stuck here in Chicago. Last year I wrote this article about the Cherry Blossom Festival, so in case you missed it, take a look. There’s also a slide show.

At the height of sakura season in Kyoto's Gion neighborhood
At the height of sakura season in Kyoto's Gion neighborhood

The article delves into the history of this — one of Japan’s most important festivals — and how this fragile blossom became an iconic symbol of Japanese beauty that influenced the art, food and philosophy of Japan.

The arrival of the blossoms also heralds the end of winter and the awakening of spring. It’s no accident that Savory Japan was launched at this time last year, as we are influenced by the seasonal calendar and regard it as a time for new beginnings, as do schoolchildren who embark on a new school year, businesses that begin another fiscal year and of course, farmers who are already busy with their seedlings.

Have you ever experienced the miracle of Japan’s Cherry Blossoms? Is it one of your favorite times to visit (or be in) Japan, or do you avoid the crowds at all costs? Does the sight of the falling petals bring a tear of joy to your eye, or do you dread the attendant multiple invitations and social engagements?

Inspired Shojin Ryori at Ajiro

Savory Japan is updated for November, and in honor of the upcoming holiday celebrations, includes a short article on Japanese drinking etiquette. You may find it useful for dining at Japanese restaurants abroad, and some of the hints are essential when drinking in Japan.

The other feature is about Ajiro, a stellar shojin ryori (vegetarian temple cooking) restaurant that earned one star in the 2010 Kyoto/Osaka Michelin guide. Since I haven’t yet had the good fortune to dine at any others listed and can’t compare, I’m probably not a good judge in terms of the star rating, but I beg to differ with the description, which says it is a ‘casual place’. My experience in May was far from casual. I enjoyed an excellent eight-course lunch, served in formal, old-fashioned Japanese style by an elegant kimono-clad woman, on fine red lacquer while seated in a private room lined with Zen paintings. The only thing casual (as well as surprising) was the price, which was just over ¥3,000.

There’s a detailed description of the entire meal, as well as a slide show, so you can see what I mean. It really does make one take notice when local food expert Sachiyo Imai calls it one of the best restaurants in Kyoto, a place that ‘personifies the flavor of Kyoto’.

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.

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.

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.

Kyoto Update

I`m sorry for my long absence, but getting connected (as well as making time for it) in Kyoto is harder than I anticipated. This, plus the fact that my dear husband K is on his second cup of coffee as I write this, will make it brief.

This marks the midway point of our trip, and it has been amazing. We`ve taken a cooking class with washoku (Japanese cuisine) guru Elizabeth Andoh, filmed the knife skills of Kinmata owner and head chef Haruji Ukai, and enjoyed a lecture and cooking class from Kyoto`s first lady of obanzai (home cooking,) Sachiyo Imai.

This, plus visits to new restaurants and shops, tons of new photos and footage, will give me lots of content to cover in the months ahead.

I`ll try bringing my laptop to this cafe next time. This old imac (Japanese version) is driving me crazy!

The Pleasures of Kyoto

I work for one of the country’s leading luxury travel companies. I manage all of their wonderful programs to Asia, and as a result,  have contacts at Asia’s finest resorts and hotels: from the Four Seasons to Banyan Tree to Peninsula. The hotel managers and sales directors are always trying to get me to stay at their hotels, and if needed, I know I can take a luxurious trip to practically any idyll in Asia for a vastly reduced rate.  But before you get too jealous, I’ll reveal to you that I’ve never taken advantage of this great perk because I have a problem. The problem is my husband K.

K loves Kyoto. He can think of nowhere else he would rather be. When we were planning our upcoming trip I presented many tasty alternatives: How about sampling savory street food in the markets of Luang Prabang? Hiking in flower-strewn valleys alongside yaks  in the shadows of the Himalayas in Yunnan, followed by butter tea and Tibetan-style momos? A yoga session at a palace hotel in Jaipur, followed by a multi-course Rajasthani feast of subtly spiced dishes never found in the US?

Nope. It has to be Kyoto. 

And who can blame him? Kyoto has it all: it’s skyline dotted with temple roofs and pagodas; winding streets lined with lattice-front machiyas that have been converted into restaurants, galleries and boutiques;  contemplative gardens that get better with each visit and hidden shrines tucked into alcoves among busy shopping streets. 

And then there’s the food! We can’t understand why people say the food in Kyoto is hit-or-miss. We have yet to have a bad meal there. After all, some of the best ingredients are produced within the city: from silky artisan tofu that hardly needs soy sauce, to yuba that melts in your mouth with such decadent richness it’s hard to beleive its healthy, to seasonal locally grown kyo-yasai (Kyoto vegetables) picked fresh that day, the talented chefs have a multitude of material with which to work their magic.

And magic is what they create, from a long culinary history unique to Kyoto. I could go on and on, but that would take a book and a lifetime.

As if we need more reasons, there are the people. Elegant and proud, the people of Kyoto have exqusite taste and refinement that is steeped in history, yet embrace the new and trendy with gusto. It is such a fascinating mix we are never bored – not even for a second. And if you as a visitor are earnest and truly interested in their culture, the locals are more than willing to share its secrets with you.

This is why we return again and again. We leave in less than 10 days, and can hardly wait. Perhaps K will broaden his horizons in the future, but for now I’m more than content to continue our love affair with Kyoto.

How about you? Have you been lucky enough to experience a stay in Kyoto? What do you think of the city?