I know, this blog has been so neglected it is collecting virtual cobwebs. However, we have not been idle, just that life has been a bit hectic and it is also more instantly gratifying to use other platforms like twitter, instagrams and even Facebook.
Donc. there have also been some lovely travels too, to Taipei, London and most recently Kyoto via Osaka. The Kyoto trip was brief but full of discovery and memorable experiences. Husband had researched for about a year, starting from the time we returned from our last trip. He is quite obsessed with this ancient city which can be quite inscrutable given that most interesting stuff happens quietly in small, cloistered, traditional wooden buildings away from the main thoroughfares. We spent a night at an inn, let ourselves get lost in theNisshiki central market, journey the zen paths of temple grounds and shopped for local goods which are still only made and sold in Japan. Just like any good traveller would do. Yet, this time, our souvenir includes something intangible and quite long-lasting. Let me explain.
It started with a dinner at this tiny restaurant that seats only 12. It is about a 25 minutes taxi-ride from the city centre.
We sat at a counter overlooking the open kitchen. Omakase style, so we ate whatever the chef decided, with the budget agreed upon during reservation. Beautifully presented food, everything seasonal and local. Since it was early autumn, there were chestnuts, the prized matsutake mushroom, persimmons, figs, the local river fish hamo, sanma fish, snapping turtles, and sea eel. Also mountain yams, adzuki beans, sweet potatoes. No superfluous garnishes, most of what were plated were meant to be eaten.
The brown foam is soya sauce emulsion, the jelly was made from fish and even the scales were edible. Nasturtium leaves, sansho peppers, torch ginger and mikan oranges. A plate to engage all the senses, in harmony, a civilised and refined way to eat.
However, all that extravaganza was not even the main point. The pride of place in the kitchen was occupied by these two pots, used to cook rice.
This was the highlight of the meal. Plain cooked rice, with some matsutake mushrooms and a small yet powerful chunk of dried roe. To better appreciate the sweet complexity and textures of the pearly rice. So translucent, so intact, so precious. And basic. No foie gras, caviar or truffle. Anti-pretension.
Chef checked at least twice with me, that I wanted the crust. He must have been hoping I would decline. Ha! Every diner got just a small piece. To be dipped into Maldon salt.. or "salt from England, Maldon" as he put it in his style of English. My friend Annette Abstoss who distributes this salt was pleased to hear his endorsement.
That dinner checked many boxes. Chef-owner. Seasonal. Local. Ingredient-driven. Even molecular cuisine. Yet, and this is a big Yet, something was not quite right. Something happened somewhere between the pretty fish plate course and the stunning rice finale.
That something was this little dish of "vegetables". Freshly torn greens looking like it was just plucked, with fresh grated radish in a miso dressing. It was an ordeal to finish. The rawness of the components. The slimey texture. The unrelenting abrasiveness of the radish. Cleansing would be a kind term, I thought it was more of an exfoliating scrub. Did not enjoy it. Which bothered me. I wanted to buy into this, but honestly it was beyond me. I was a little upset because I liked the idea of it, and wanted to like it, different from when I was at El Bulli and didn't like that yet didn't lose any sleep in spite of the experience.
According to the guide-book that husband referred to, this is not a new phenomenon. Apparently palates too used to deep fried foods, heavy seasonings and generally rich and over-processed stuff will not be able to appreciate this subtle and pure cuisine. Back home, I checked with my friend who managed to get a reservation for the temple cuisine restaurant in Tenryu-ji Temple in the Arashiyama area in Kyoto. She too, did not like the style, too bland, too monastic. Somehow, without us realizing, our lifestyle had caused our palates to be de-sensitized. Tragic, no? I thought so too.
Back home, I reflected on the difference between what we ate for a week in Japan to what we usually eat, or get to eat, in Singapore. In Japan, it was generally less sauce, less heavy seasonings, less deep-frying. There are exceptions of course. We enjoyed a tempura dinner at a 12-person counter-only restaurant where each item was fried in front of us, the chef changed the oil midway, he used a beautiful copper pan, and each piece was served at optimum condition. There are no lack of ramen and okonomiyaki-style dishes which rely on umami-bombs in their sauces and soups. Overall, there is more emphasis on natural tastes and lighter styles of cooking.Beyond that, as we can see, there is no limit to the creativity or rigor that can be achieved.
The good effect lasted well into weeks. There's a saying, it takes 21 days to form a habit, and 7 days to break it. It's been more than 21 days, and I haven't craved for a fix of fried chicken wings (my go-to is usually Old Chang Kee, since it is so ubiquitous) or fast-food, and at cze char dinners, I am dismayed to find that so many dishes rely on deep frying and then covering with a heavy gloopy sauce. I still eat stuff like this, but I don't go out of my way for them. The same applies to home cooking, some days I even manage to rustle up with the minimum of oil and unnecessary condiments. Like diet food, but not, because I want to eat well, not deprive myself.
So there we are, our lovely souvenir from Japan. A re-set button for our palates. Unexpected but well appreciated. Thank you.