Home cooking from the heart
The authentic pleasure of learning from a local
TRADITIONS SURVIVE AND THRIVE
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