KYOTO, Sept 4 — Japanese cuisine is beloved the world over, if the abundance of Japanese restaurants, sushi bars and, more recently, ramen shops is anything to go by. I am certainly smitten by Japanese food, from takeaway onigiri (rice balls) from a neighbourhood konbini (convenience store) to feather-light, barely-fried vegetable fritters courtesy of a master tempura chef.
Yes, I sure love Japanese food but I never thought I could cook it myself. The solution: why not attend a real cooking class in Japan? The Japanese cooking school I selected is called Cooking Sun and is located in the city centre of Kyoto, a 10-minute walk from the Shijo-Karasuma Station where rows of machiya — traditional wooden townhouses, historical remnants of the Edo and Meiji periods — abound.
There is something special walking into a machiya that, in the past, probably housed local Kyoto merchants or artisans. Inside, the interior is kept largely unchanged: sliding doors with screens made from rice paper, tatami mats, hardwood flooring and old wooden beams from yesteryear. As we enter, we remove our shoes as per Japanese etiquette and put on uwabaki (indoor slippers).
Cooking Sun specialises in traditional Japanese cooking; its classes range from teaching students how to create their own bento (lunch box) set to making dishes from the local izakaya (small food bars). The promise here is to go beyond the sushi and sashimi most of us associate with Japanese cuisine and to delve into the heart of Japanese home cooking.
After being greeted in the waiting room with some hot sencha (green tea), we are invited to enter the cooking area. The cooking class kitchen, despite the old-school décor, is complete with all the modern utensils we would need, most which can be found in any home kitchen. There are no sous vide equipment here; home cooking isn’t about precise temperatures. We are here to learn how to cook with our intuition (albeit with a few helpful recipes as guides).
There are about eight of us students, hailing variously from New York City, Manila and the two of us from Kuala Lumpur. We are given noragi, traditional kimono jackets worn by working class folks such as farmers. I guess we are here to work, or at least to learn a craft, that of cooking.
Before the class starts, we are given a briefing by our teacher and her two assistants. At Cooking Sun, the teachers are local Japanese ladies who are knowledgeable about Japanese home cooking, particularly the Kyoto variety, which is lighter in flavour than elsewhere in the country. All teachers are fluent in English too, making understanding instructions a breeze for those of us who can only manage enough Japanese to ask for directions politely.
The amusing thing (for my classmates, at least) is that I end up chatting with our teacher in German! She had lived in Germany, where her husband was stationed for work, for 20 years before returning to Japan. I had studied in Munich around the same time she was staying in a small town outside of Hamburg. We exchange pleasantries auf Deutsch, unusual given that this is a Japanese cooking class but also fitting given the multinational nature of our little group.
Our sensei (Japanese for “teacher”) shows us the ingredients required to make dashi stock, the foundation of all Japanese cooking. We’ve certainly tasted dashi before but never actually seen the ingredients used to make it first-hand. In a bamboo basket, she let us feel the textures of kombu (dried edible kelp) and dried bonito fish, that is later shaved into fine flakes called katsuobushi.
Today we are to learn how to cook kappo-style cuisine, where the chef cooks in the kitchen and serves customers over the counter. This enables interaction: the customer observes the chef’s every practised motion from prep work to actual cooking; the chef gets to see the customers appreciate his or her handiwork immediately, instead of waiting for a server’s feedback.
Extrapolate this to a home kitchen, and it’s sort of like a family gathering around Grandma as she ladles steaming soup into bowls and watches famished bellies being satisfied with her cooking. This reminds me of dinner at my Italian friend’s home in Trento many years ago: waiting for each course to arrive and his mamma explaining how each dish is cooked while we tucked in hungrily.
It’s a reminder that food should never be enjoyed alone, especially food cooked with love.
My classmates and I begin by making dashi stock. We combine water and kombu in a pot, bringing it to a simmer over medium heat. Removing the pot from the heat, we add the flakes of katsuobushi and allow it to steep for a few minutes. After straining to remove the kombu and katsuobushi, we have the dashi stock that we can use for several of the dishes.
The first of this is the osuimono, a very light, dashi-based soup seasoned with shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce) and saké (Japanese rice wine), and topped with some seasonal greens. Some grated yuzu can be added to lend a refreshing and zesty note.
Dashi is also used to make agedashidofu (“lightly deep-fried tofu”). We soak koya tofu in hot water to soften it, then squeeze the excess water out by hand and powder it with potato starch. The starch creates a crispy golden skin when we fry the tofu. The last step is to simmer the tofu in some dashi mixed with sugar, shoyu and mirin (a sweet rice wine).
Our sensei tells us not to be afraid to give the tofu a really good squeeze to rid it of water. We are all relaxed as the atmosphere is a jovial one; we share jokes while cooking. We know our instructors are watching closely to ensure we don’t scald or cut ourselves; we prove to be quite decent students and no one even gets a little nick.
The time rolls by quickly. In short order, we prepare yasaiitame (sautéed burdock and carrot), yasai no gyuniku-maki (beef rolls with asparagus) and takikomi gohan (dashi-steamed rice with vegetables and mushrooms). Our instructors gently correct our technique, whether it’s rolling the paper-thin beef into tighter cylinders or julienning the burdock into finer strips.
For dessert, we make mizu yokan, a chilled jellied dessert made from adzuki bean paste, agar and sugar. A special type of adzuki bean paste called koshian is used as the beans have been passed through a sieve to remove the rough skins, creating a smoother texture. Instead of adding the customary chopped chestnuts or persimmons, we add some coffee for some kick. The end result is drizzled with fresh cream for a richer finish.
At the end of all our sweet labours, we sit down together to a delicious meal prepared by our very own hands, and dare I say, it tastes wonderful! We share our handiwork with our instructors, our sensei, and are delighted by their looks of approval. Perhaps that is the best part of a home-cooked meal: the appreciation of those enjoy it.
Funaya-cho 679, Higashinakasuji Matsubara-agaru, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan
Open daily with a morning class (9:30am-1pm) and an afternoon class (2pm-5:30pm)