Monday, November 24, 2008

Washoku

Our first day in Tokyo and we were up before the sun. Trying to sleep when your body says its time to get up is a strange feeling. So, we decided to take advantage of our mind and body still on US time and head out for the day. We had made arrangements for a cooking class at 10:30am and we wanted to make sure we got to Sata-ku area on time.

The express train whipped us to Sata-ku with plenty of time before the class so we found a small empty restaurant and decided to have a little breakfast. After quickly flipping through the menu (thank goodness for pictures), we ordered a BLT (because it was the only picture we thought looked appetizing and it was the only thing listed on the menu in English. It was surprisingly really good. Not any BLT we’ve ever eaten, but really good and oh so Japanese. The BLT consisted of thick white bread with the crust cut off, egg salad, thinly sliced ham, cucumbers and tomato. Refreshing, light and who can resist thick white bread with the crust cut off?

Mike is a lot more knowledgeable about Japanese cuisine, so I had borrowed a copy of Lonely Planet’s Japan Food Guide from the library and read it cover to cover before the trip. My lack of knowledge was quickly confirmed as I read through the guidebook. Japanese cuisine culture, technique, concepts and dishes are very different from the Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai foods I had grown up with. One of the interesting facts I read was because of the lack of space in Japan, kitchens tend to be small and consist of minimal cooking space. This explained why there are so many restaurants in Tokyo, even more so, in our humble opinion, than San Francisco and New York City. Due to this lack of space Lonely Planet stated that it is rare to be invited into someone’s home for a traditional Japanese dinner and if given the opportunity one should feel very privileged and accept any offer to eat a home-cooked Japanese meal.

A few weeks before our trip Mike was searching online for a Japanese cooking class that was taught in English. He stumbled across “A Taste of Culture”, a private cooking course taught by a woman who wrote this fantastic cookbook, “Washoku – Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen” a book we had fortuitously found on the shelf at our local library.

There were 2 cancellations for the only class that fit our itinerary, so we were extremely lucky to join the class. A side note: after knowing we were going to take a class by Elizabeth Andoh we decided to make one recipe out of her cookbook, to give us a sense of her methods and type of food she writes about and teaches. We chose a bamboo leaf wrapped steamed fish dish, instead we used banana leaves because it was what we had and sole fish, mainly because we wanted to clean out all the food in our kitchen before we left and because it was simple and we had everything. The fish was rubbed with Japanese plum paste or Umeboshi (which we use to make sushi) and laid atop of kombu. Kombu is a dried kelp or to some of those in the Pacific NW a super-food, one of the world’s healthiest and bests foods for you. It is a natural glutamate (think MSG). And we are being honest here, it was delicious, wonderfully delicious, it took us less than 10 minutes and we were impressed by the simplicity and the wonderful flavors the steam, banana leaves, plum paste, kombu and fish created.

We were given specific directions to the location of the class and when we arrived at the building it looked like from the outside, any other a glass tower office building. We were greeted by a joyful and very welcoming Elizabeth Andoh. As we were welcomed in we were asked to remove our shoes and put on a pair of slippers.Then we were invited into the long narrow hallway and into an open L-shaped area with a kitchen along one wall, sliding glass doors all along the back wall and a traditional tatami room off to the side. Instantly we thought, “wow, now this was an apartment I could definitely live in.” The sliding glass doors and light wood heated floors opened up the room into a bright, airy open space with stunning view of Mt. Fuji that contrasted to the dark narrow hallway. The third wall where the tatami rooms was had another set of sliding glass doors covered by traditional japanese shoji screens, which we couldn't tell if there were other rooms or classrooms, but the white rice paper shoji screens also filtered in light adding more airiness to the room. In other words, you wouldn't have imagined from the hall the main living area was going to be so inviting and we had no idea if this was a cooking classroom or her home because it was minimally decorated with no personal items, but so comfortable that we couldn't imagine this was just a cooking classroom.

We were instantly fascinated by the kitchen it was along only one wall and you could see immediately the Japanese efficiency and ingenuity at its best. For example, the sink was fairly large, but had a food catch in the corner and another one under a metal lip that covered the drainage hole. The cabinet under the sink slid out like a book revealing where knives were neatly lined against the inside and when you closed the book the whole drawer could be pulled out where a drying rack was for the large dishes to dry – amazing! The rubber baseboards under the drawers slide out with the bottom drawers so all food crumbs, dust were swept out so no food or dust could collect underneath the drawers – again, amazingly smart. The refrigerator had multiple small short drawers for various needs, such as a shallow meat drawer and even an ice cube drawer with a small scoop with it’s own cubby – again, amazing, no food items could get lost in this efficient use of space. The stove was touch screen and we’ll get to the grilling unit in a bit. Even more impressive was she had a mini version of our electric hotwater dispenser!

We were the first to arrive and was offered the snacks already set on the dining table.
Soon another couple arrived and then two more women and there was only one other person left. Normally the class is only offered to six people, but today was considered by the Japanese as Good Couples Day indicated by November 22 or 11/22 or 1-1-2-2, Elizabeth allowed another couple to join, but they were late so we started without them.

We signed up for her “Cooking Fish Workshop” a cooking course to learn to cook fish three traditional ways – Blanched or frosted (traditionally titled frosted because you blanch the fish quickly so the fish becomes white on the outside, but remains the original color on the inside), steamed and grilled or broiled.

We sat around the dining table as Elizabeth began to explain the course and quickly we realized this woman is brilliant. Informative, insightful and interesting come short of explaining her ideology, immense knowledge and incredible sensibility when it comes to Japanese food. She has been living in Japan since JFK was shot and was now a native, which made the course a billion – scratch that - a trillion times more interesting that could have ever hoped for.
Our first course was title “Autumnal Rain” – Ginger-infused Soy Stewed Fish and Burdock Root (Gobo). The ideology around Japanese cooking is that nothing goes to waste in the Japanese kitchen so for this dish we used what some would consider fish scraps (Ara). Again her knowledge of why certain fish are gutted and fillet and laid out the way they are was fascinating.

While the Autumnal Rain was put aside we moved onto our next course – Silver Boats, Fish Steamed with Mushrooms in Foil Packets. So simple, but again the interesting and informative knowledge we were given made it so special. The fish was salmon with three kinds of Japanese mushrooms and Kombu. We quickly assembled our foil boats and then were given a thorough lesson the technique of steaming. Why certain steamers work better than others, how steaming works if you use a glass lid vs a metal lid vs a traditional wooden Japanese lid.

The last fish course was Air-Dried Fish with Sudashi (Japanese lime). She quickly explained why certain fished were cut and gutted from the front vs the back and why some fish are split in half from head to fin, while other fish heads were left whole with their heads to the side.

Once air-dried "mystery" fish was cut into portions it was simply grilled in her gas grill.

Elizabeth's kitchen did not have an oven, but she had this amazing gas grill that had fish settings to grill from above or below, both and each can be set to separate temperatures. The control panel popped out and closed to keep the kitchen looking minimal and neat - fantastic! We think these are typical in Japanese kitchens; not sure if you can "bake" also like in a toaster oven, which she also had.

And as a special treat we made Shijimi Clams in Miso Soup. Again another informative lesson on freshwater vs. saltwater clams, how to handle them and trick them into thinking they are still in the ocean in order to extract the delicate and delicious nature simply through manipulating their environment and transforming them through cooking technique. We did mention this woman is brilliant haven’t we?

Soon all three fish courses were complete and we were ready to eat our delicious meal. But that would be way to unjust to the food we spent so much time preparing to simply just start eating. So of course presenting the meal in the manner in which it deserves was part of the concept of Washoku (Harmony in the foods we eat), because the foods we eat give us life basically and they deserve to be presented in honor of that. We were really excited to see her beautiful collection Japanese bowls, plates and chopsticks.

Each of us was given a lacquer tray and shown how to assemble a properly presented Japanese meal.

Mike's Tray

Anne's Tray
Each item was given its own special ceramic bowl or plate and placed on the tray according to difficulty in eating. For example the grilled fish may need to be cut with a knife so it sat at the front of the tray. Every meal has rice and the rice bowl is turned upside down until it is time to eat. But did you know that Japanese rice bowls are decorated on the outside so when they are turned upside down you can see the decorative part, so when it is turned right side up the decorative part is actually upside down? We are big believers in this, if the foods you eat are provided in a beautiful setting it only adds to the meal (think a beautifully set thanksgiving table compared to eating out of a paper bag with food wrapped in paper). The philosophy behind the size and shape is too much to get into here, but we were more than happy to be able to raid her china cabinet (the Japanese have the most beautiful ceramic and EVERY restaurant we have been to so far has always been presented in a ceramic bowl from the ticket machine ramen shops to the local coffee shops). Again think about having a nice cup of tea in a nice hand thrown piece of pottery vs. a paper cup.

The course was completed with Chrysanthemum Greens tossed in Creamy Tofu Sauce.Chrysanthemum greens are common in Vietnamese cuisine, but here Elizabeth’s presentation and examples of other ways to present them were truly inspiring.

The final item to round out our meal was pickles from her pickle pot. A pickle pot made from a hundred year old starter. Unlike any pickling technique we’ve ever seen - in nuka (google it).

And here is the final assembled meal – gorgeous and delicious.

We both agreed the Autumnal Rain was our favorite. The Kombu kelp at the bottom had multiple purposes – it added natural flavored enhanced by the natural nature of fish and sea kelp, it kept the fish from sticking to the bottom and afterwards a delicious addition to the meal. As we ate Elizabeth explained the concept of Washoku – harmony in the foods you eat and that the Japanese try to achieve 15 concepts in their meals. Color (red, yellow, green, black and white); flavor (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, spicy) and transformation (simmered, grilled, seared, steamed and raw: think sushi).

This explains why the Japanese diet is so well rounded and why the population of Japan is so healthy. The Japanese have one of the longest livelihoods in the world. The Zen and balance of the food they eat satiate the appetite, warding off over-eating and unhealthy eating habits. The understanding is if you eat just one item of food in a meal, you will not feel satisfied and your palate will need to be satisfied so you are more than likely overeat. This is currently being studied in America to help explain and find alternatives to our obese society.

After eating our wonderful meal and learning more about food, cooking and the concept of cuisine, we were given a tour of the apartment. Yes! This was Elizabeth’s home and we were now going to given a tour of a traditional Tokyoites’ apartment, we were jumping for joy on the inside. This rare look into a Tokyo apartment was worth the price of the class alone!

The room directly behind the open kitchen and dining area was a tatami room.Elizabeth explained what the tatami was for, the floor mats, the table and how the area was used.

For a little perspective: Tokyo is the most expensive real estate in the world. Space is a premium and to have multiple rooms is rare, so rooms have dual purposes and over thousands of years of close living quarters Tokyoites have become the premier in efficiency when it comes to utilization of space and energy. So the tatami room (which you would never walk in with shoes or slippers) was also her bedroom.

A simple unassuming sliding door revealed another small room (her dojo) on the other side, which was bare and where a family scroll would be placed.

Here is where the clever part comes - the sliding doors were easily removable and could be placed in a narrow closet (behind the lady on the right side of the picture above) opening up the tatami room to expand the room in order to fit a large group of people and the doors could be returned and the small dojo could then become a guest bedroom. We went through a hidden door in the dojo room which led us back to the hallway where we came in, so basically the apartment was a large circular space with the closets and utilitarian space in the middle, allowing light to come in from around the spaces from large sliding glass doors that led out to a small balcony that circled the two sides of the apartment. No need for curtains or unnecessary drapes, the sliding glass doors were covered with traditional shoji screens that help insulated and filter the light to a beautiful natural bright white light, therefor there was very little need for lighting or lamps (in fact she had no decorative pictures or lamps or nick-nacks. The walls and means of closing up and off the apartment were simple and worked as decorative elements themselves – beautiful.

The only decorative elements were wood carved planks saved from their old home in Osaka. These hung over the doorways and were beautiful and bold in their simple statements. She then led us through the hallway where behind unassuming door was a full walk in closet, but that wasn’t all, close the door and there is a mirror you never noticed and the closet became a dressing room – amazing. One last thing, we’ll share, being a modern, yet traditional Japanese house her bathroom had one of those fancy Japanese toilets, you know the ones with heated seats and a control panel on the wall that “cleaned” you with warm water and even gently blew dry your bum. We had seen one of these in a Japanese pub (Izakaya) in New York City and heard from one of the plumbing engineers we know that these toilets will change your world (especially if you are a man, with all the hair down there and all). He says he hates using the toilets at work and will walk all the way to the end of his house to use the toilet on the other side of his house. I guess these toilets are thousands of dollars and worth every last penny!

Needless to say, this cooking course was an incredible experience and on our first day in Tokyo! Everyone should make an effort to take a class by Elizabeth Andoh, your concept of cooking will be forever changed and in many ways your life. Also it’s a wonderful excuse to come to Tokyo (in our opinion, one of the greatest cities in the world). She also teaches a tofu class, a market tour and is currently writing a Vegan Japanese cookbook, which she had pulled in testers from around the world. We don’t own her book, but knew we were going to run out and buy it when we get back to the states and she was brilliant (yes, again brilliant) enough to get sticky papers made in the same color and paper as the inside cover of her book, so she signed the stickers so we could slap in on the inside cover when we got home.

To conclude, as we rode the subway home – the class was suppose to only be 3 hours but we were there for 5 &1/2 hours, because good food and company can never be rushed; we talked about how fortunate we all are that there is an Elizabeth Andoh out there, she is a true steward for elevating the harmony you bring to your life through the foods you eat. Because you are what you eat.

2 comments:

Tuan said...

Course you know, when you get back EVERYONE is expecting a sampling of goodies of what you learned on your trip.

christineburgess said...

I don't know tuan but he or she sounds very kind.