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kyoto's soul food

kyoto's soul food

Learn about Mrs. Sachiyo Imai's efforts to preserve Kyoto's obanzai cooking, which is a deeply-rooted part of the city's culinary heritage. Discover the significance of Kyo yasai and find out how to join Mrs. Imai's Japanese cooking classes at the NHK Cultural Center in Kyoto. Explore the history, characteristics, and cultural importance of obanzai, the everyday cuisine of Kyoto, and the unique Kyoto vegetables central to it.

I was thrilled that Saveur included my item about Mrs. Sachiyo Imai in their latest "Saveur 100" list. Scholar, educator, TV host, and most importantly, accomplished cook, Mrs. Imai has worked tirelessly for the past quarter century to preserve Kyoto's traditional food culture. She is amazing. I wanted to share this piece I wrote about her efforts to save Kyoto's obanzai cooking:

When first you meet Mrs. Sachiyo Imai, Miss Kyoto 1953, master of the Japanese high arts of flower arranging, tea ceremony and traditional music, you don't think "savior of obanzai," her city's little-known soul food.

Kyoto, the ancient capital and cultural heart of Japan, is a place known for its rarefied cooking: Emperor's cuisine, aristocrat's cuisine, Buddhist temple cuisine and the ethereal and elegant multi-course kaiseki.

Obanzai is what the other half ate.

"It was the everyday cooking of Kyoto," says Mrs. Imai. "But it's disappearing."

Dressed in an elegant cobalt-blue kimono accented with ruby-colored camellias, hair sprayed and set, face powdered, left pinkie nail painted red, she dispenses with a formal bow and greets me to her home with a firm handshake and a hard look in the eye.

Mrs. Imai has taught obanzai cooking classes for 25 years. She's the author of a 496-page history of the cuisine and goes on TV to help keep obanzai alive.

Credit this to her grandmother. As a girl, Mrs. Imai watched her obaasan cook these dishes for an extended family of fifteen living under one roof. Now 71-years old, she can still remember the tastes, smells and colors of those foods, and how the steam felt on her skin as it came off a boiling pot.

"I use these senses to recreate my grandmother's cooking," she says.

Obanzai, as you'd expect of everyday chow, is a simple cuisine. Most dishes are cooked in a homey style called nimono; that is, foods are simmered in a typical Japanese dried-bonito-and-kelp stock, the dashi. In Kyoto, this stock traditionally has a delicate and light taste. So the natural flavors of the ingredients -- say, the sweetness of vegetables -- come through.

This is practical cooking: Like a down-home pot of collard greens, you can whip up a big batch at once. And unlike an exquisite and fleeting finger of sushi, these dishes stay moist and flavorful and hold for a long time. A plus when you're dealing with fifteen hungry pairs of chopsticks. Obanzai is more than a set of humble recipes. This cuisine is about signature ingredients unique to Kyoto -- the product of the city's geography and royal pedigree.

Ringed by mountains and fertile valleys, in the old days inland Kyoto was a two day hike to the ocean and its fresh fish, Japan's main fare. So citizens here got creative. They came up with high-protein artisanal foods like yuba, soy milk skin like ribbons of pappardelle, and fu, wheat gluten pounded from flour. They hunted boar and deer. They foraged for wild mugwort, bamboo shoots and field horsetail. They dried and salted mackerel, herring, tiny anchovies and other fish. And they cultivated distinctive Kyoto heirloom vegetables grown only in this area, called Kyo yasai.

These singular vegetables fed the emperor and the Buddhist abbots. They were used to prepare refined kaiseki dishes. And they made up the bulk of the everyday diet.

"Kyo yasai is the heart of obanzai cooking," Mrs. Imai explains. To understand her soul food you have to understand her vegetables.

Mrs. Imai heads to a nearby farm, a drive that lasts all of five minutes.

She hikes up the bottom of her kimono with one hand, clutches her purse with the other, and makes her way in zori sandals along a rocky path that borders a field. Lines of onions sprout from the neatly plowed brown dirt, giving off a nose-puckering zing. Five rows of crescent-shaped hot houses nearby snake down the field like giant three-foot high caterpillars. Bright greens called mizuna and mibuna grow inside. A compact red Yanmar-brand tractor sits alongside under a tarp.

Gaze up from the field and you'll see houses, three-story apartment buildings, TV aerials, city streets, streetlights, electric poles and a golf driving range with a 100-foot high fence. At one time Kyoto vegetables, meant, literally, Kyoto vegetables. The city itself was an agricultural zone. Today a few farms still exist, wedged like pieces of a pastoral jigsaw puzzle into the urban neighborhoods.

Mrs. Imai finds the farmer, a cheerful 57-year old woman wearing a long white rubber apron and pink rubber boots. Her name is Yuriko Imai, a distant cousin. She and her husband grow vegetables on five acres spread over five urban plots.

Farmer Imai explains that heirloom Kyoto vegetables -- 41 official varieties in all -- are protected by law. Many come from seeds brought as gifts to the emperor and handed down through the generations. She grows eight kinds. Each is a lesson in Kyoto history. Her onions are three-foot long Kujyo leeks, first recorded in 711. The mizuna greens, a spicy leaf like rocket, date back to 1683. Shogoin daikon radish are named after an old Kyoto temple near where they first grew. Farmer Imai brings one over. It's round and fat like a white-colored bowling ball. A plume of green leaves sprout from the top. She sticks it on a scale: Nine pounds of radish.

Back in her house, Mrs. Imai heads to the kitchen and stands behind a twelve-foot long, L-shaped marble counter appointed with two sinks, a four-burner induction stove and Bosch dishwasher. The words "Original Sachiyo" are stenciled in big English letters along a cabinet. She slips over her kimono a custom-made chef's coat of fine, crimson-colored raw silk with elastic cuffs. "My design," she says proudly.

Mrs. Imai pushes up her elastic cuffs and places three obanzai dishes on the counter: salted herring simmered with dried kelp; julienned daikon radish and bright red heirloom carrots in rice vinegar; and slivers of leek and carrots cooked with okara, soy pulp the consistency of crumbly farmers cheese, the humble byproduct of tofu making.

Obanzai is versatile cooking, she explains. In the spring you simmer the salted herring with bamboo shoots; in the summer with eggplant. Vegetables are always cooked or pickled. Nothing is wasted. She pulls out a dish of pickled radish leaves as proof.

Mrs. Imai looks up and points above her head. Painted on her natural pine ceiling are still lifes of Kyoto vegetables, fish and other traditional ingredients. They're grouped together by the seasons. "The most important thing is the seasons."

There is yet another side to obanzai cooking, she says. "This food was folk medicine." Well-balanced combinations -- like dried sardines boiled with burdock root and sansho pepper -- had health benefits. People also ate certain foods on certain days. "It's pretty deep."

But these traditions are vanishing, says Mrs. Imai. Few people today live with an extended family like she once did. "This kind of cooking is almost gone."

Almost. Walk into a Kyoto restaurant called Menami and along the cypress-wood dining counter you'll see a line of family-sized serving bowls that would make Mrs. Imai proud.

Menami is one of a handful of places here that specialize in obanzai cooking. It's a quiet spot on a side street in the city's busy central district. Eight seats run along the dining counter. 32-year-old chef Ippei Yamamoto and his second, in white tunics, black pants and traditional wooden flip-flops with socks, prep in an open, three-foot wide space behind it. Four tables line the opposite side of the narrow room.

The ceramic and porcelain bowls, seventeen to be exact, might remind you of bygone dinners with your closest dozen relatives. They're filled with traditional Kyoto comfort food: Okara with carrots and shiitake mushrooms; vinegared sardines; boiled ebi imo, "shrimp potatoes," golf ball-sized taro that curves like the crustacean.

Customers linger over the bowls and call out what they like. Chef Yamamoto dishes up delicately sweet, translucent slices of Shogoin diakon, like the one on the farm, simmered with slivers of deep-fried tofu. He serves boiled heirloom burdock root; salted herring with heirloom leeks; heirloom turnips simmered with dried persimmons.

A different kind of crowd lingers around Mrs. Imai's kitchen counter the following day. Nine women in flower-patterned aprons are here for an obanzai cooking class, including a professional from Tokyo, 300 miles away, who "secretly" flies down twice a month -- and who asked for anonymity so her bosses wouldn't find out.

The women work quietly as they chop an heirloom mustard green called hatakena, mash tofu in a salad bowl-sized mortar and pestle and scribble down notes.

Mrs. Imai watches, corrects and instructs. She adds a little soy sauce to a bowl and explains why. She puts a big pot with the greens and dashi stock to boil on her modern stove. It gives off a homey, satisfying aroma.

The group prepares the mustard greens three ways. They pass around tastes on small plates. "These dishes were handed down from generation to generation," says the professional from Tokyo. "Not many people can cook this way anymore."

"All my dishes have meaning," explains Mrs. Imai. Teaching this class is her way of keeping her grandmother's traditions, and spirit, alive.

When the food is ready, the women sit at a long table and eat lunch with bamboo chopsticks. After they're done, Mrs. Imai hands out songbooks. The group gathers around a baby grand piano -- also in Mrs. Imai's repertoire. She sits down to play. They end the class with another sort of classic -- singing "Way Down Upon the Suwannee River," the English words written out in Japanese.