Home cooking from the heart

The au­then­tic plea­sure of learn­ing from a lo­cal

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Japan - ROB GRANT


IN De­cem­ber 2013, UNESCO in­scribed washoku, de­scribed as “tra­di­tional di­etary cul­tures of the Ja­panese, no­tably for the cel­e­bra­tion of New Year”, on its In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage List. It is the 22nd Ja­panese cul­tural as­set to make the list, along with noh theatre (pic­tured), which has been per­formed since the 14th cen­tury, the prac­tice of pa­per-mak­ing known as washi and the yuki tsumagi silk pro­duc­tion tech­nique. More: unesco.org. UM­BREL­LAS stand up­right in the hall­way. There are fam­ily pho­tos in plas­tic frames and kids’ shoes on the floor. It seems hardly the set­ting for a popular cooking class, but when oban­zai, or tra­di­tional home-style Ky­oto food, is on the menu it is en­tirely fit­ting.

Un­like classes held in fancy demon­stra­tion kitchens or up-mar­ket restau­rants, the venue for the Haru Cooking Class is the res­i­dence of Taro Saeki in the far north­ern sub­urbs of Ky­oto. Know­ing how Western­ers strug­gle with the Ja­panese house num­ber­ing sys­tem, the ge­nial Saeki meets stu­dents at a nearby bus stop and leads them to his tiny two-storey home. The en­tire ground floor could fit com­fort­ably in the bed­room of a mod­est Aus­tralian house. Yet even with a pair of tots on the loose, it is im­mac­u­late and a trib­ute to ef­fi­cient us­age of space. Classes are small, never more than six peo­ple, so it feels rather like be­ing a fam­ily friend in­vited to din­ner.

As my part­ner and I sit with a French cou­ple around the dining ta­ble, Saeki ex­plains how ev­ery­day Ja­panese cooking al­ways starts with mak­ing dashi stock, the cor­ner­stone of many dishes. Both the main in­gre­di­ents, dried seaweed and fish flakes, are a lit­tle alien to most Western­ers so Saeki pro­vides a be­gin­ner’s guide.

“For the Ja­panese, seaweed is like veg­eta­bles in West­ern food. Just like car­rot is dif­fer­ent from let­tuce, wakame is to­tally dif­fer­ent from kombu,” he ex­plains. Our teacher then pro­ceeds to de­scribe the multi-stage process of pre­par­ing dried fish, which can take up to six months. To­gether we make the stock and use it for sev­eral dishes.

Sour rice vine­gar, bit­ter lemon juice and sweet mirin are com­bined with dashi to cre­ate ponzu mi­zore, a tangy sauce for pan-fried veg­eta­bles. Miso paste, which we are told comes in hun­dreds of va­ri­eties, some aged for 30 years, is melted into hot dashi to cre­ate fresh-tast­ing miso soup. There are no packet mixes here.

A spoon­ful each of dashi and light soy sauce are whisked into beaten eggs for a dashimaki ta­m­ago, or Ja­panese-style omelet. Each of us takes a turn fry­ing, lift­ing and rolling egg mix in a cu­ri­ous rec­tan­gu­lar fry­ing pan to build the mul­ti­ple lay­ers the omelet re­quires. I’m not sure if it’s the dashi that makes it taste so good or the ex­tra glug of oil added with each layer cooked.

Although most Ja­panese fam­i­lies eat meat spar­ingly, we get the chance to learn about and taste the fa­mous kobe beef. Saeki is happy to ad­mit the dish fea­tures in his classes be­cause he is so pas­sion­ate about Ja­panese cat­tlerear­ing prac­tices and it helps to at­tract stu­dents. Our host makes it clear that Kobe beef is not the same as wagyu beef, which loosely means it is from Ja­pan. To earn the Kobe ti­tle, the cow must be at least third-gen­er­a­tion Ja­panese black hair breed, born within the des­ig­nated pre­fec­ture, raised in a low-stress en­vi­ron­ment by a mem­ber of the of­fi­cial Kobe beef so­ci­ety and slaugh­tered in a sanc­tioned fa­cil­ity. A web­site even ex­ists where you can en­ter a cow’s ID to see its fam­ily tree.

With rev­er­ence for this lo­cal leg­end es­tab­lished, Saeki cer­e­mo­ni­ously un­wraps an A5-grade steak, which he says is the best of the best, for fry­ing in noth­ing less than Kobe beef fat. Aus­tralian beef is most highly prized when it is lean but Kobe beef is more highly rated ac­cord­ing to the lev­els of vis­i­ble, mar­bled fat, which has a low melt­ing point, so it lit­er­ally melts in the mouth.

While the cooked, rare steak rests and more veg­eta­bles are sauteed in the juices, Saeki’s wife Yoshiko and four-year-old daugh­ter Haruko art­fully lay the ta­ble. The spread of more than one dozen metic­u­lously ar­ranged dishes, each with its own pre­sen­ta­tion pro­to­col, would be at home in a high-end restau­rant.

Though all dishes start from one or two ba­sic in­gre­di­ents, the taste sen­sa­tions are di­verse and con­trast­ing, yet they bal­ance and com­ple­ment each other per­fectly. Our teacher’s fi­nal mes­sage is clear — do try this at home.

Home chef Taro Saeki, above; warm wel­come at Chi­moto, be­low right

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