Thursday, March 16, 2017

Feb-ulous Kyoto: Cooking at Our Temporary Home

One of the main reasons of renting a house rather than staying in a hotel was to have the opportunity to spend more time eating in rather than dining out all the time during our quick weekend getaway in Kyoto. I am always fascinated at the variety and quality of food ingredients found in the area, so I thought it will be interesting to actually cook with whatever I came across in the market at the time of our visit.

Kyoyasai is the term used collectively for all heirloom vegetables found in the region. Kyoto being the capital of the country for more than 1000 years meant it’s long been the epicenter of culture and wealth, which cultivates elaborate palates and demands for fine cooking. That plus the ideal geographic location and good source of underground water made Kyoto region a prime site for farming.

Of course, there’s nowhere better for grocery shopping than the Nishiki Market right in the middle of Kyoto. A long but narrow street stretching a few blocks across the city center, Nishiki-dori (and the nearby streets) was lined in literally hundreds of food stalls, selling everything from vegetables, seafood, meat, cooked food, pickles, condiments, rice, wine and kitchen supplies (in addition to souvenir shops and cafes to cater to the troupes of tourists now flocking to the area) That’s where we went on the first day and where we got most of our grocery items for some cooking action for the next couple of days.

Then the next day we stumbled across the multi-level Yaoichi Honten in a building just a couple of blocks behind Nishiki Market. I only learned about the place whilst having lunch at D&Department Kyoto earlier when they mentioned in the menu that all their vegetables were sourced from this store. To my surprise, I actually found Yaoichi store an even more pleasant place to shop (than Nishiki Market) - half of the ground floor was dedicated to fresh produce, most of them coming from their own farm. There's also a decent meat section and a bakery. Then the upper floor there's a good collection of cookware and western ingredients, reminding me of the Dean & Deluca store in New York City. From there I was able to pick up even more ingredients for our dinner later on. (on upper level they even have an urban farm + restaurant which literally serves food farm-to-table - we will definitely come back to check it out some time in the future)

Winter time saw a great number of root vegetables right in season: Kintoki Ninjin (金時人参) looks just like a regular carrot except in deep violet-red color (from skin to core) with a slightly softer texture and much sweeter without the grassy flavor even when eaten raw. Shogoin-daikon (聖護院大根) has a round-shape rather than the usual long one and has a much softer texture when boiled yet retaining its shape, like a sponge taking in all the flavors from the boiling liquid. Kujo Negi (九条葱) was thick like leeks, with a much milder taste, softer and juicier. It's available all year long but at its prime in early spring. Manganji Togarashi (万願寺唐辛子) is the type of peppers having a long shape, with thick mild flesh and less seeds, suitable for grilling or stir-frying.

With so many choices and so little time, it’s a struggle deciding what to buy. And then there’s the challenge of trying to use up all the ingredients in different ways of cooking in different meals. I picked up a few vegetables from the shop, then along with other ingredients (rice, seafood, meat, pickles, etc), and figured out what to deal with them later.

Another challenge of cooking outside of home is dealing with an unfamiliar kitchen. Luckily the kitchen in our temporary house was surprisingly well-equipped. All the basic equipment was there and they were relatively well-maintained, and the kitchen even got whole set of crockery and tableware available. Of course I don’t expect to find the artisan soy sauce, Himalayan rock salt or anything like that, but the kitchen was well-stocked with all the necessities.

So with everything I got I made three meals. The first morning it’s more the traditional style Japanese breakfast with grilled fish, a quick stew of kintoki ninjin and shogoin-daikon, grilled manganji togarashi, along with pickled nanohana (rapeseed flowers - another seasonal item) from the famous Nishiri shop, and local rice.

In the evening, I turned a similar set of ingredients into something totally different – the carrot and daikon were turned into a salad along with blanched Kyo-shungiku (chrysanthemum leaves) and a soy-egg yolk dressing. Shungiku is the vegetables more commonly-used in shabu-shabu and I thought the slightly bitter taste combined well with the dressing and served as salad was quite interesting. Then the Manganji-togarashi peppers were stir-fried with chicken - just plain and simple. I also made a satoimo (taro root) stew with white miso sauce and yuzu zest, and a grilled sea bream fillet served with kujo-negi. We opened a bottle of sake that we bought from the nearby shop – a seasonal brew by one of my favorite breweries in Toyama Prefecture, then finished with a simple dessert of strawberries topped with panna cotta and yuzu zest.

For our last breakfast I basically used up all the remaining ingredients (scrambled eggs with kujo-negi, more pickled vegetables), bacon, toast, milk and hand-drip coffee, and more goodies bought from the Nishiki Market the previous day (plus some from the nearby Lawson convenience store)

I wouldn’t say those were the best meals of the trip, but this certainly is an unique experience which added to our many fond Kyoto memories and I have a new level of appreciation of all local food here in the region. We often hear about Kyo-yasai or even tasted quite a few before, but nothing beats a practical lesson of getting to know them better!

(Feb-ulous Kyoto Part 7 - check out the whole series here!)

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