In Kyoto, as in the rest of Japan, seasonality is fundamental to cuisine. The year is traditionally divided not just into the familiar four seasons, but into 24 seasons, which is further broken down to 72 mini-seasons of about 5 days each. This is a translation from Chef Iida’s book about the 72 seasons of the year and the foods that he recommends to accompany those seasons.
Kiji-hajimete-naku occurs between January 15th and 19th and refers to the season when the call of the pheasant is first heard.
On January 18th, at Iwashimizu Hachimangu Shrine in the city of Yawata in Kyoto prefecture, they celebrate the festival Aoyamasai, and on January 19th, they celebrate Shōnōsai. Aoyamasai, in the Heian era, was an event to prevent the demon Ekijin from entering Kyoto. Prayers are chanted in front of the kami altar which is adorned with sakaki branches from Aoyama, in order to trap the demon. Because the ritual is held late at night, it is also known as Kurayamisai – Festival of Darkness. In the Shōnōsai ritual, the supplicants write their name and age onto a stick that is then burned in the sacred fire, in order to pray for protection from illness and maintain good health in the coming year as well as purification from all defilement.
My recommendation for this season is “steamed duck.” At first, the degree of steaming required is difficult to calculate, but don’t be afraid to try this at home.
Firstly, purchase fresh duck breast meat. Because wild mallard ducks have an unpleasant aroma, it is best to buy aigamo, which is a cross between a mallard and domestic duck. Trim the excess meat and fat from the breasts and remove the thin skin. Holding about 10 bamboo skewers in a bunch in your fist, prick the skin surface of the duck multiple times with the skewers. Next, place the duck, skin side down in a fry pan and fry just until the skin turns golden brown. Quickly rinse the duck with boiling water to remove the excess fat, then place the duck into a pot or baking dish.
Mix sake and mirin in a saucepan and boil to reduce, add shoyu to season. Pour this mixture over the duck, add chopped shinbu (davalia fern) and slices of ginger, seal with a lid, then place the dish in a steamer and steam for 15~18 minutes. Because the amount of steaming required depends on the thickness of the duck meat and the intensity of the steam, push the meat with your fingertip and if it still feels soft like raw meat in the middle, then steam it a little longer. But be careful not to cook it too long or else the meat will be too tough.
When you’ve steamed the duck, take it out of the broth and pierce the edge of the duck with a skewer and some blood should still come out. Return the duck to the broth and let it cool overnight in the refridgerator. The flavour of the meat will permeate the broth and a layer of fat will form on the surface. Carefully remove this layer of fat.
Duck that has been steamed exactly right will be deliciously tender with a beautiful rose pink colour. Some people prefer not to eat the skin of the duck; however, because duck fat actually lowers cholesterol, please don’t hesitate to eat the skin. Serve garnished with plain or seeded mustard.
Source: 『京都料理七十に候』 by 飯田 知史, page 14
Shōgoin daikon 聖護院大根 is one of the traditional vegetables of Kyoto and is sometimes referred to as Kyo-daikon. It is said that during the early 19th century, a farmer moved to Kyoto from Owari province (present-day Aichi-ken) and started cultivating ordinary long daikon radishes in the vicinity of the temple Shōgoin. It seems that some of the daikon seeds produced a mutant round daikon, but the farmer was so intrigued with this new vegetable that he continued to cultivate the variation instead of the regular-shaped daikon. Since then it has become one of Kyoto’s unique vegetables, valued for its shape and its very fine white flesh with a mild flavour, much suited to the delicacy of Kyoto cuisine. When boiled it keeps its firm texture and doesn’t break apart like regular daikon.
The shōgoin daikon is mostly now grown in the northern part of Kyoto prefecture in the Tango area, where the heavy snowfalls in winter produce the best flavour. It is also dried and shipped all over Japan. It is sometimes called vegetarian dried squid because of its resemblance to the squid which are cut and dried on racks in a similar way.
Shōgoin daikon can be prepared in much the same ways as standard daikon, but the flavour is milder and slightly sweeter, with a firmer texture; however, it is rarely used as “oroshi” (finely grated).
Kunio Tokuoka, owner-chef of the famous Kitcho restaurant, has this to say about daikon:
“Even though daikon is most well known as an accompaniment to other foods, such as finely grated and served with whitebait or grated with a dash of shoyu (soy sauce) served with mackerel and so on, at Kitcho we like to serve our customers something with a little element of surprise, so daikon is prepared in a more unpredictable way such as grilled or as tempura. Unlike turnips, in which all parts can be used, only the very middle part of the daikon is used, where the flavour is at its best.”
Here is Chef Tokuoka’s recipe for Furofuki Daikon – Simmered Daikon with Miso
First lot of rinse water that was used to clean the rice for dinner (this water contains rice starch that keeps the daikon from discolouring and maintains a bright whiteness)
Awase-miso (miso sauce):
100 gms hatcho-miso: the most highly regarded miso, a rich dark brown, made only from soybeans
135 mls sake
100 gms sugar
Yoke of one small egg
How to make the awase-miso:
Firstly, mix the egg yolk and sugar well, then blend in the sake. Warm the hatcho miso in bain marie. When it’s cooled, add it to the egg and sake. Keep aside.
1. Under the skin of the daikon is rather tough layer that should be removed. If you don’t peel it enough then the daikon won’t have soft texture and will be too hard. So peel the skin quite thickly – up to 2 cms deep (alternatively, cut the daikon into slices and then cut around each slice). Using the water that has been left after first rinsing the rice for dinner, parboil the daikon. Parboiling in this way takes away the bitterness of the daikon and helps bring out its sweetness.
2. Using a good amount of konbu dashi, lightly simmer the daikon until tender; in this way, the umami of the konbu gradually penetrates the daikon. The key point here is that in order for the heat to draw out the daikon’s natural sweetness, the deciding factor is the quality of the konbu dashi that you use. And in order to make the most effective dashi, please use the best quality konbu that is marketed for use in dashi.
3. Place the daikon in a bowl, spoon a little of the awase-miso over the daikon, and garnish with grated yuzu zest (or other citrus zest) and pinch of togarashi or shichimi (or similar types of chilli powder).
In this blog Matsunaga-sensei talks about the Kankakuni Ceremony and the art of decorative garnishing [mukimono] in Kyoto cuisine.
On November 8th, a ceremony is performed to honour the poet and playwright Isamu Yoshii (1886-1960), who was a much-loved patron of Gion. Just near to the Tatsumi Bridge that crosses the Shirokawa River in Gion, the maiko and geisha from this area offer white chrysanthemums at a stone monument that has a poem by Isamu engraved on it, and later there is a reception where matcha and soba are served. This natural stone monument was erected to celebrate Yoshii Isamu’s 70th birthday on the 8th of November, 1955. The name of the ceremony “Kanikakuni” translates as “no matter what happens” and comes from the first line of Isamu’s poem that is carved into the rock:
No matter what happens
I yearn for Gion
Even when I sleep
The sound of water
Flows beneath my pillow
Here is a video of the Kanikakuni Ceremony (note the cacophany of cameras!)
Chrysanthemums are in season now, and I am reminded of the way that we carve vegetables into decorative shapes that include the chrysanthemum. In Kyoto cuisine, we always carve the yam in a hexagonal shape and we always carve the lotus root in the shape of a stylised chrysanthemum, but an autumn favourite is to carve the large Kyoto variety of turnip – shogoin-kabu – into a chrysanthemum (see recipe and video in the following blog). If you say that you are able to carve these kinds of decorations, it’s another way of saying that you’ve attained proficiency in handling a knife. In this industry, mastering the knife is the absolute foundation of the art of cooking. My eldest daughter, Kanae Yamamoto, is the head teacher of the elementary class at our cooking school, and watching the way the light glints off the blade of the knife as she deftly and swiftly carves these vegetables, I call her the “Carving Maestro”!
Here is an interesting short video on another carving master, making a chrysanthemum from a daikon radish. What wonderful knife skills!
Chef Motokazu Nakamura is the 6th generation head chef and owner of the Michelin 2-star kaiseki restaurant Nakamura. This article, translated from a series about the top Kyoto chefs, discusses the importance of the concept of “isshisōden” – the Japanese custom of the preservation of a secret art by transmitting the oral tradition from parent to just one child. This word prefixes the full title of the restaurant: Isshisōden Kyōnoaji Nakamura
The method of transmission that characterises Nakamura is known as “isshisōden.” Passing down a tradition to just one child, who is your own flesh and blood, is like creating something so precious that it can never be taken away, which is quite different to the way that a master craftsman or scholar might just choose some disciple to carry on their lineage. In the “isshisōden” way, the parent can take pride in the reassurance that the tradition will be passed on into the future without the slightest change. It is this pride that is reflected in the name of the Kyoto cuisine restaurant “Isshisoden Nakamura.”
The history of restaurant itself starts in 1804, when the founding Nakamura set up a fish shop which supplied tilefish, mackeral, flounder, and so on, that had been brought directly from Wakasa Bay, on the Sea of Japan, to Kyoto, along the famous “Mackeral Highway.” From the time of second generation Nakamura, they honed their cooking skills by preparing meals that were particularly liked by the court nobility. Then the third generation Nakamura expanded the catering business and fourth generation Nakamura opened an inn for visiting important government officials, until finally, they opened up their own Kyoto cuisine restaurant. And so now the sixth generation inheritor of these Nakamura specialties is Motokazu Nakamura, who carries on the tradition with dishes such as shiromiso-ozoni and guji-no-sakeyaki [tilefish grilled with sake].
Let’s take for example the shiromiso-ozoni, which is one of Nakamura’s signature dishes. A round cake of mochi is baked on coals until it releases a pleasing char-grilled aroma; then the mochi is immersed into a glossy white miso soup and garnished with a thinned karashi mustard. This dish is closely associated with the cuisine of the Imperial Court from the era when the palace was located in Kyoto. The chef’s skill is in drawing out the flavours of these four simple ingredients – water, miso, karashi mustard, and mochi – without the use of dashi stock or added seasoning.
Motokazu Nakamura says, “As the only son inheriting the culinary tradition of Nakamura, what was transmitted to me was just simple cooking. For this reason, there’s just no need for fancy bells and whistles! For example, you have to be aware of the slight changes in the taste of the miso, such as the miso at the bottom of the barrel is more pungent than the sweeter tasting miso from the middle of the barrel. And the mochi has to be grilled to just the right degree in order to bring out the sweetness of the miso. It is this perfect and complete balance of those four ingredients that is the foundation of culinary success.”
The essential sense for a chef to develop is not so much in the craft of cooking, but rather to what extent he is able to “hear the voice of the ingredients.” Precisely because this is such an intuitive sense, handing down this knowledge is extremely difficult. Cultivating this intuitive sense of taste by educating the palate and developing an understanding through the body can only be learned by being fully immersed in the tradition from early childhood. It would seem then that this means of transmission is indeed a unique method.
Motokazu Nakamura continues, “In talking about isshisōden, I don’t mean that we learn secret arts of cooking that we cannot share with the outside. But rather, what is learned is a kind of spirituality through which we can transmit this knowledge about the ingredients to the guests we serve. When I was learning how to grill the mochi for the ozoni from my father, who was the fifth generation Nakamura, he would say ‘Grill this mochi as if your life depended on it!’ He really thought it wasn’t an exaggeration to say you have to risk your life for this mochi! [laugh] But now when I think about it, I realise that it was this attitude of complete devotion towards cooking that was passed on down to me.”
In cultivating this deep harmony between parent and child, it is the spirit of offering the guest a unique and precious experience that is the true culinary inheritance.
You can read an interview in English with Motokazu Nakamura at Phaidon, where he has been included in the book COCO
Kikunoi’s Chef Murata talks about the foodways of Otsukimi, the celebration of the Harvest Moon, followed by a typical kaiseki offering at Kikunoi for September.
September is the month of Otsukimi, celebrating the Harvest Moon. Personally, though, I love to watch not only the full moon, but all the phases of the moon as it waxes and wanes through the month. It’s typical to make offerings to the moon in the form of tsukimi-dango [mochi dumplings shaped like a full moon], as well as chestnuts and satoimo [small taro] and other autumn vegetables. However, since olden times, in Kyoto, the tsukimi-dango are made in the shape of the satoimo and then covered with koshian [adzuki bean paste]. Throughout September, we decorate the entry to Kikunoi with these seasonal offerings, but sadly we can’t actually see the rising full moon from here, so I put up a scroll that shows the full moon instead. For the principle dish [hassun] of the kaiseki meal this month I want to evoke the sense of watching the full moon from a little boat on the lake, with the moon reflected on the surface of the water and the autumn leaves floating by, and as you look towards the shoreline, you can see the pampas grass gently swaying. I want to give the feeling of an evening vista in autumn.
1) Sea bream chrysanthemum sushi (鯛菊花寿司 tai kikka sushi)
Sushi rice mixed with chrysanthemum petals and yuzu, wrapped with lightly vinegared sea bream to form the shape of a chrysanthemum flower
2) Hamo eel and burdock roll (鱧八幡巻き hamo yawata-maki)
Grilled hamo eel wrapped around simmered burdock [gobo]
3) Prawn matsukaze (海老松風 ebi matsukaze)
Minced kuruma prawns mixed with egg and seasonings and baked in the oven and then sprinkled with poppy seeds
4) Baked wrapped chestnuts (焼き目栗茶巾 yakime kuri chakin)
Chestnuts wrapped in a tea-towel and baked in the oven
5) Ginko sweet potato (いちょう芋 ginnan imo)
Sweet potato formed into the shape of a ginko leaf and deep fried
6) Glass shrimp in Shaoxing wine with trout roe (ガラサ海老老酒漬けのすだち釜・鱒の子 garasa ebi raochu-dzuke no sudachi kama, masu no ko)
Glass shrimp are small shrimp harvested in Akashi. The live shrimp are soaked in Shaoxing wine then placed in a sudachi cup and topped with trout roe
7) Salted ginkgo nuts (塩粉吹き銀杏 shio kofuki ginnan)
Ginkgo nuts dusted with fine salt and roasted
8) Somen pine needles (松葉素麺 matsuba somen)
Green tea fine noodles deep-fried to look like pine needles
This week I am introducing Master Haroji Ukai, seventh-generation head of the traditional kaiseki restaurant Kinmata, a cultural heritage listed building located very near to the Nishiki food market. In recognition of his commitment to styles of cuisine that feature locally grown produce, as well as his extensive knowledge, Master Ukai has been designated by the prefectural authorities as Master of Kyoyasai (traditional Kyoto vegetables). Here is Master Ukai’s introduction from Kinmata’s website:
From the outset, the staff in the kitchen at Kinmata are all very hard-working and committed. Even though this is a business, there is an awareness that it’s a family business, where everyone understands that each person’s individual contribution is what creates Kinmata. Among the employees there is a spirit of competition as well as cooperation, but in the end it’s offering the customer a satisfying experience that’s important and I think this awareness is what unites us.
My son, who will become the eighth-generation head of Kinmata, has just returned from an eight-year absence, having spent four years in New York and four years in Tokyo. Seeing Kyoto from the outside has given him a deeper sense of just how special Kyoto is and he is already working on how to provide even better service to our customers in overt as well as more subtle ways. So I’m not worried about the future of Kinmata, which looks set to continue to flourish.
About our cuisine:
We really are indebted to our customers, who say things like “Well, I really felt I could taste the season with this meal”, which is just what a chef wants to hear. We don’t just prepare the same menu day after day – we depend on the advice of the people in the grower’s market who tell us what ingredients are at their seasonal best on a particular day. Based on our past experiences and knowledge, we also consider the growing region and conditions. This is certainly the best way to prepare a meal.
But it’s not about the personal satisfaction of the chef, and anyway, you’re limited in just how much you can prepare on the day. It’s more than that. When I was young, I was taken out one cold winter’s night to a small kappo restaurant where we sat around the counter with the chef in front of us, and I was really moved by the experience, such that I’ve never forgotten it. The chef was in his 60s and, although he didn’t know me, he was really happy to chat with me and asked me what I’d like to eat. Straight away he went to the fridge and took out some beautiful pink tilefish, which he proceeded to steam and then grill. It was so good, and I wondered how come he had this kind of delicious food just on hand. Next, he brought out some fugu milt (fugu no shirako) and, without processing it in any way, he just slid it onto a skewer and charcoal grilled it to a lovely golden brown, then sliced off a bit and served it straight away. It was soo~ good!
To this day, I haven’t forgotten how good that tasted! Actually, it was fugu milt pickled in miso (fugu no shirako misozuke). I also had locally grown Kyoto turnips, known as shoinkabu, served with a miso sauce (dengaku) that had the faint fragrance of yuzu and was served piping hot. Then there was a simple red miso soup and white rice. I remember I felt so satisfied that desert wasn’t necessary. And that’s just the kind of cuisine I now offer here at Kinmata, so please come and try it for yourself.