In my last post I translated a piece by Keiko Matsunaga about Gion and Chrysanthemums. Here, Matsunaga-sensei gives her recipe and technique for making turnips look like chrysanthemums, which is not only a delicious seasonal recipe but also provides practice in perfecting the skills of knife-handling. Following the recipe I have added a video to demonstrate the technique. You can also read more about “chysanthemum turnip” pickles at Kyoto Foodie.
Matsunaga-sensei’s Kikka-kabura (Chrysanthemum Turnips)
1 large turnip
3 pieces of konbu, each about 3cms square
2-3 small dried chillies
Sweetened rice vinegar, made by adding 35gm of sugar per 100ml of rice vinegar
Preparing the turnip:
1. Cut the greens off the top of the turnip, and after washing the turnip thoroughly, peel it and then cut it in half lengthways.
2. Cut a slice about 2.5cm from the top end.
3. About 5mm inside the skin side, you’ll see a ring line. No matter how long you boil the turnip, this fibrous outer ring won’t soften, so cut back to that line (don’t discard this outer cutting though – you can use it in other recipes).
4. Place the turnip slice flat and make fine lengthways incisions close together all along the slice, cutting about 2/3 into the thickness, being careful not to cut all the way through.
5. Turn the turnip slice around 90° and do the same thing widthways.
6. Carefully turn the turnip up-side-down, with the cuts on the bottom, and then cut the turnip slice into 2cm wide squares
Directions for making Chrysanthemum Turnip pickles:
1. Take the turnip squares you’ve prepared as per above and weigh them. Calculate 2% of the weight and that is how much salt you are going to need to use. Cover the turnips with salt and put aside for 30 minutes to an hour, so that the turnips soften. Then drain off the excess moisture from the turnips.
2. Rinse thoroughly in running water, then gently squeeze out the water, being careful not to disturb the fine cuts.
3. Add the konbu and the dried chillies to the sweetened vinegar and then put the turnips in the vinegar and leave them in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days to pickle.
4. To serve, separate out the little ‘petals’ so that it looks like a chrysanthemum, and add a thin slice of chilli in the middle for garnish.
In this video, the cook shows us a nifty trick to prevent the knife from cutting all the way through the turnip by using chopsticks.
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
Kyoto is famous not only for its traditional Kyoryori gourmet cuisine, but also for its sweets (okashi). Being the cultural centre for the tea ceremony, it has also developed as a centre for traditional tea ceremony sweets. Konpeitō (derived from the Portuguese word “confeito”) is not exactly a special tea ceremony sweet, but Kyoto is famous for this simple sugar candy. Here is a video about how konpeitō has been made at the Ryokujuan Shimizu store since 1847. The translation follows underneath.
Narrator: Ryokujuan Shimizu is a Kyoto traditional shop that makes konpeitō.
Reporter: I’m being lured in by the sweet smell… Ah, here it is.
Ikuko Shimizu (managing director): Please come in.
Reporter: Thank you. Wow – as soon as you step into the room the sweet smell really hits you!
Ikuko Shimizu: That’s right! In summer it’s get to more than 50 degrees in here.
Reporter: 50 degrees!
Ikuko Shimizu: Yes, for the workers its a pretty tough job.
Reporter: What’s the flavour of this one?
Yasuhiro Shimizu (5th generation head of Ryokujuan Shimizu): This one’s ume-shu [plum wine]
Yasuhiro Shimizu: That’s right. Here, you keep adding sugar syrup and as the moisture evaporates, the sugar forms crystals which creates the candy. In the drum, the temperature is about what you’d need to cook a steak – about 200 degrees.
Reporter: About 200 degrees?
Yasuhiro Shimizu: And so as the moisture evaporates, only the sugar crystals remain, which is how the candy is produced.
Narrator: It takes considerable time and effort to make konpeitō. The process starts with crushed mochi rice granules, upon which sugar syrup is basted many times over and over again for about two weeks, gradually growing bigger until they reach the desired size. At Ryokujuan Shimizu, the finished product is so imbued with originality that they have created truly unique kinds of konpeitō. They have recently created a cider-flavoured konpeitō. In summer, there is mango and coconut, and in autumn there is roasted chestnut and black soybean flavoured konpeitō. Ryokujuan Shimizu is constantly creating all kinds of interesting flavours that complement the season.
Yasuhiro Shimizu: To produce the distinctive candy burrs of konpeitō, depends on four factors: the speed of the drum, the angle of drum, the density of the syrup, and the degree of heat. If these conditions are not met exactly, then the characteristic burr shape won’t occur. The sound of the falling konpeitō is like the sound of heavily falling rain. But you have to be able to hear the slightest change in that sound. It’s like when you’re raising a child, you know when your baby isn’t feeling well or is hungry or needs a nappy change, without having to say anything. And so it’s just the same with the slight changes in the sound of the falling konpeitō that shows you it wants the temperature increased a little or it wants the drum speed slowed, and so on.
Narrator: The makers of this candy certainly put in a great effort, one by one creating each konpeitō with care and attention.
Reporter: Keep it up! <laughter> Well, it’s so hot here! But it’s great – so delicious and such fun! Thank you!
Narrator: Even though it’s a traditional candy, it’s new. And that’s rather like the town of Kyoto itself.
Hiroshi Sasaki is the chef and owner of Gion Sasaki, an immensely popular Michelin 2-star kappō (counter style) restaurant down the slope from the Yasaka Pagoda, in the Higashiyama area of Kyoto. The restaurant is approached by a narrow laneway off the street, then up some stairs and around another bend to enter the restaurant itself. The decor is very minimalist and traditionally elegant, which makes the sight of a bricked pizza oven in the centre of the wall opposite the 16-seat mahogany counter seem to be jarringly incongruous at first sight. Sasaki-sensei says, “In 2006, this was the third time we’d moved, so I wanted the pizza oven to be something iconic in the new restaurant.” He wanted to create something unique that would stretch people’s perceptions about traditional Japanese cuisine in Kyoto and raise their expectations about the new restaurant. It is typical of Sasaki-sensei to keep pushing the boundaries.
But the chef’s main reason for installing the pizza oven was because of its heating potential. “The most I can get from a regular oven is about 300°, but with the pizza oven I can get close to 800°.” It seems that being able to utilise such extreme heat opens up new potential for creating innovative Japanese dishes. “I’ve tried cooking vegetables, meat, fish – all kinds of ingredients – to see what could be done with this oven,” he said. One advantage is that the heat comes from all sides and so there is no time wasted in turning things over like you would normally do with a grill. “The heat is applied very quickly so that the food stays fresher. For example, when I use the oven for cooking eel, the skin is really crispy and the flesh remains soft and moist. I even tried putting lettuce in there for 45 seconds and adding just a sprinkle of salt and olive oil and it was surprisingly delicious!”
“I generally keep the temperature at around 480°. It heats up to that temperature quickly and it’s easy to maintain that temperature, which is a characteristic of a gas oven, but I don’t think this would be possible with an electric pizza oven. And none of the heat is wasted: When I turn off the gas at the end of the day, and put in some potatoes, they are baked but still moist the next morning.” As we can see, mastering the pizza oven has created a great asset for Chef Sasaki!
Source: Interview with Chef Sasaki
Here is a humorous entry from a food forum about trying to get a reservation at Gion Sasaki:
It is unbelievably difficult to get a reservation at Gion Sasaki in Kyoto. This is the conversation when I called to make a reservation…
A: Hello. I’d like to make a reservation in July.
B: Of course. What day would you like to come in?
A: Do you have seating Thursday?
B: Sumimasen. No seats available that day.
A: How about Wednesday?
B: I’m sorry, all seats are taken that day as well.
A: Umm… when do you have seats that week?
B: There are no seats available the whole week.
A: So when is your next availability?
B: Next year.
A: … !!
Address: Yasaka-dori, Yamatooji Higashi iru, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Open: Lunch 12:00 – 14:00; Dinner 18:30 – 22:00
Closed: Sundays and every 2nd Monday
Prices: Lunch set ¥5,500; Dinner set ¥18,900 – 23,000 (Service charge 10%)
Here is a translation of this video, which is described here using hamachi (yellowtail/amberjack) but which can be applied to any kind of fish and in fact you could use it for root vegetables as well for a quick pickle.
Cut the fish into slices between 5 – 6 mm thick
Sprinkle with salt
Slice the daikon using the technique known as katsuramuki and then finely slice julienne
Place the sliced daikon in water to make it stay crisp. Drain.
Cut the wakame into bite-size pieces
Wipe the kombu with a damp cloth
Brush the kombu with sake
Place the fish one by one along the surface of the first piece of kombu
Place the second piece of kombu on top
To prevent exposure to the air, wrap the kombu sandwich tightly in plastic wrap
Place the wrapped kombu in the refrigerator for about an hour and a half
Mix a little shoyu with dashi
Arrange the sliced daikon, wakame, fish slices on a plate and add a little benitade (water pepper) and wasabi. Serve with the shoyu-dashi dip.
For an awesome video about slicing daikon watch this…
As I mentioned in my last entry, Isechō’s signature summer meal features hamo, conger pike eel, which is a Kyoto speciality associated with the Gion Matsuri parade held on July 17th, and since I posted that story I have been researching the difficult preparation of this eel. I have found the following videos from Chef Seiji Yamamoto of the Michelin three-star restaurant Ryugin in Tokyo, which really shows just how much effort is needed to prepare this delicacy, including the use of a specialised knife that is just for the task of cutting through the bones of the eel. According to Kyoto Foodie, the chef aims to cut 26 slices every 3 centimetres without cutting through the skin, which is about 1mm per slice, and given that the eel is about a meter long that is quite outstounding skill. These are beautiful videos, without dialogue, so you can enjoy them as is. However, Chef Yamamoto has added his comments to the videos, which I have translated below. [Cate]
Video 1/2: Preparing hamo
Notes from Chef Seiji Yamamoto:
At my restaurant, Ryugin, I have explored all angles and methods in perfecting his technique for cutting the bones of the hamo, including going to a medical laboratory to take CT scans in order to scientifically, medically and physically understand thoroughly the bone structure of the eel. It is the result of this scientific approach that I now share with you on this video.
If you lay the hamo onto a flat cutting board and then cut it at a 90-degree angle, the small bones remain tapered and sharp. However, if you raise the cutting board at an angle of 25 degrees and then cut the eel, the small bones are then cross-sectioned, making them blunt, which creates a better texture.
On the surface of the skin there are three layers: a slimy layer, a gelatinous layer and then a fibrous layer. When you put the eel into water that is heated to just 70 degrees, the heat barely penetrates through to the fibrous layer but causes the gelatinous layer to separate. The heated water causes the slimy and gelatinous layers to swell up so that they can be easily scraped off, leaving only the smooth fibrous layer of skin, without even a hint of that fishy smell. In subsequent preparation, when cooking this fibrous layer at a temperature of 58 degrees, it will gelatinise perfectly. Needless to say, during this first stage of cooking, the low heat does not affect the flesh of the eel…
Video 2/2: Preparing hamo with matsutake mushrooms (2011 summer menu)
Now you can appreciate why 3-star Michelin chefs earn those stars! So much work for such a delicate morsel!
Notes from Chef Seiji Yamamoto:
I experimented with a variety of different ways to prepare this “hamo yakishimo” [see Techniques]. At first I found a method for cooking the eel so that the flesh remains raw and just the skin is cooked, but then I realised that if the eel was immersed briefly in a konbu stock heated to exactly 58 degrees, then the flavour of the hamo was able to be more fully realised than if it remained just raw. For grilling the skin, at first I only had a gas flame, but then I wondered about grilling the hamo on a charcoal-heated grill or a charcoal flame grill. I had also tried using a heated stone. Then this year I suddenly thought, “What about placing the hamo directly onto the charcoal itself?” And this dish is the result of that idea, which I offered in this year’s summer menu. I have since tried this method with a number of other kinds of seafood. Also, the way that the flesh of the hamo naturally curls around the charcoal creates a very pleasing shape.
Before cooking, I briefly marinate just the skin of the hamo in a mixture of junmai sake [high grade sake without added alcohol or sugar], sudachi juice and yuzu juice. By doing so, the texture of the skin becomes softer and the slight sourness combined with the fragrance of the sudachi and yuzu goes perfectly with the matsutake mushrooms, which are grilled with a marinade of shoyu and the highly fragrant sudachi.
Usually with the yakishimo method, the hamo would be quickly cooled after grilling, but if the temperature of this cooling immersion is less than 20 degrees, this actually gives the skin of the hamo an unpleasant gummy texture that also does not bring out the full umami flavour when eaten…