If, like me, you’re obsessed with markets, you quickly learn to size them up.
Not just the obvious stuff—you know, fish or vegetables, stone ground chocolate or red curry paste—but to zero in on what market tells you about the culinary heart and soul of a city. In Bangkok, for instance, boxes of fresh herbs, fiery chilies and exotic (to us) fruit and vegetables, along with tubs of live fish, pretty much tell you what titillates the local palate.
It’s the same all over, from Oaxaca to Marrakech, Palermo to Singapore. Spend time in the local markets and you will quickly discover what people really like to eat—and why.
In Kyoto, we had no sooner stepped off the Tokyo bullet train than we were on our way to Nishiki market. As Yuri Sakamoto, the author of the blog and book, Food Sake Tokyo, writes, the 400-year-old, six-block market is so central to the city’s eating habits that it is known as “Kyoto’s kitchen.”
Everyone shops there, from restaurant chefs buying heirloom veggies and creamy yuba or soy milk skin (a Kyoto specialty) to housewives picking up pre-cooked omelets for supper. Students drift down the market’s central aisle munching on rice crackers in soy sauce, while cooks from around the world pay a mandatory visit to one of the city’s most famous knife shops, seeking steel blades as sharp and finely tempered as samurai swords.
What I noticed was the market’s focus on seasonal delicacies and pickled vegetables. Both are integral to Kyoto cuisine, as conceptually important as they are delicious to eat.
In Japan, the first tastes of any season are eagerly anticipated. At one colorful stall, autumn kuri or chestnuts were temptingly displayed in woven baskets, placed right up front where they could lure shoppers into the store.(The staff obligingly posed for Instagram photos as well.)
At some shops, kuri are roasted on the spot, creating an aroma that is irresistible to passersby. To evoke a fall mood, cooks might use fresh chestnuts in simple dishes such as kurigohan or chestnut rice, or to make shibukawani, a sweetened delicacy similar to marrons glaces.
Do you think of Japanese food as spicy? I don’t, so it was surprising to see lavish fall bouquets of dried red chili peppers. These togarashi chilies, as they are known, closely resemble Mexican japones, slender, pointed, medium-hot peppers that rank 25,000 on the Scoville scale.
Ground to a powder, the peppers could be used on their own, or as in ingredient in shichimi, a fiery seven-spice blend, to jazz up bland-tasting noodles and rice, or to season soups, vegetables, fish and meat.
One of the more unusual condiments using whole dried peppers can be found in Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art. According to author Shizuo Tsuji it is called momiji-oroshi, or “red maple radish:” To make the dish, punch holes in a section of daikon using a chopstick and stuff with dried red peppers. Grate and serve with sushi.
Dried persimmons, or hoshigaki, are another fall treat. In a village outside Kyoto we saw Edo-era farmhouses at which strings of persimmons were hung from the eaves to dry in the sun. The texture of these persimmons is soft and chewy–almost like gummy bears, as Mr. Homegrown, the blogger at Root Simple, has noted–and they are pleasantly sweet to the taste. To make them yourself, start with astringent persimmons such as the Hachiya–but don’t dry them outside. A friend of Mr. Homegrown lost an entire batch to hungry squirrels.
The longer we stayed in Japan, the more “Japanese” we became, at least in our eating habits. With so many delicious snack foods available everywhere, we began to stock up for our journeys by train.
The fancy dried fruit displayed here was irresistible. Besides strips of dried melon and plump strawberries, we bought sweet and tender slices of dried pear, and two kinds of candied ginger—a pale selection dusted with white sugar and a darker one rolled in brown sugar.
Too bad there was nothing left by the time we boarded the train for Kanazawa…
B is crazy for pickles—and Kyoto is famous for its tsukemono. So when he briefly disappeared, I naturally found him chatting with an amiable vendor who was hawking all sorts of luridly colored pickled vegetables.
Actually tsukemono are a key element of Japanese cuisine. Not only do they add vibrant color to white or beige foods, but their taste—sweet or tangy, often rather musky—provides a counterpoint to blander (sometimes richer) flavors. As Miki Kawasaki at Serious Eats explains, piquant, palate-cleansing tsukemono are part of a harmonious eating experience “heavily influenced by principles of balance handed down from kaiseki (the national haute cuisine).”
The electric crimson pickles at the center of this display are called shibazuke. They are made from cucumber and eggplant that has been salted and brined with bright red shiso leaf for a month or more. To the left are enormous neon-orange-splotched daikon radishes. Although both pickles are crunchy, shibazuke is mouth-puckeringly sour, while the daikon pickle tends to be mildly sweet and a bit funky.
We could only guess at the flavor of the tsukemono sealed in plastic bags. These included bettarazuke, sliced daikon radish pickled with salt, sugar and sake, and narazuke, brown pickles originally from the Nara region of Japan, made from cucumber or daikon soaked in sake lees, sometimes for several years.
Of course there are other ways of pickling seasonal vegetables. At a minimalist space next door, we discovered barrels of nukazuke—vegetables fermented in rice bran, among them scallions and the ubiquitous daikon. In winter, it is said, nukazuke made from red turnip is a popular choice.
Kyoto Foodie explains that this method of fermenting vegetables arose in the Edo period when milled white rice became more fashionable than brown. “Beriberi was prevalent in Japan at the time and this illness is a result of vitamin B1 deficiency and nukazuke [fermented in the castoff bran] happens to contain a lot of vitamin B1.”
The writer adds that rice bran is so widely available at rice stores in Japan that it is often given away for free—a boon to DIYers.
By now it was late afternoon and, as darkness fell, we hurried into Aritsugu…
Founded by Fujiwara Aritsugu in 1560, the company originally made swords for the Imperial household. Over the centuries, as changes swept through Japan, its focus shifted, first to blades for carving Buddha statues and then, in the Meiji era, to highly specialized kitchen knives.
Aritsugu’s knives are legend, and their quality draws visitors from around the world. If you are in search of a Japanese-style knife, the possibilities are staggering. The many super-sharp carbon steel options include knives for highly specific tasks such as the long-bladed yanigaba for slicing sashimi, or the menkiri for cutting udon or soba noodles from sheets of dough.
B, however, our knife-buyer-in-chief, took the less esoteric road and opted for the wagokoro santoku, a handsome double-edged all purpose knife that combines a carbon steel edge with an easy care stainless finish. (I can attest that its wickedly sharp blade makes slicing and dicing almost effortless.)
After manager Noboru Takeda finished sharpening the blade on a whetstone, he asked B if he would like to have his nickname engraved on the flip side. He agreed enthusiastically, but whatever name he proffered has vanished into the mists of time.
Maybe you can read this for us?
Meanwhile I was looking at everything else in the shop. The hand-hammered cookware was stunning, especially the array of wooden-handled yukihira-nabe. This is one of the most commonly used pots in the Japanese kitchen, and here it comes in both aluminum and copper in a variety of sizes.
There were many other useful cooking tools that could easily go into a suitcase, such as the graters hanging nearby…
But in the end, I couldn’t resist this too-awkward-to-pack-so-we-had-to-ship-it copper tempura nabe. In Cool Tools, a gorgeously illustrated book about Japanese kitchenware, Kate Klippensteen notes that making tempura is so tricky that most Japanese leave it to the professionals. Still, she writes, “once in while, a cook will get the itch to make tempura at home—in spite of the mess involved—so many kitchens” have a tempura pot tucked away in the cupboard.
Well, I’m sure that one of these days I’ll get the itch. But as you can see, the tempura nabe looks great filled with the last clementines of the season.
Two other items I couldn’t resist: A copper sake warmer with a rattan-wrapped handle (just fill it with sake and heat it in a pot of hot water), and an exquisite pierced ladle for lifting tasty morsels of tofu or vegetables out of soups or stews.
Later on, when Brenda eyed the ladle, she murmured with admiration, “Just because…”
As in: Because sometimes you just have to have a little jewelry for the kitchen.
(Apologies to Heidi Swanson who, I believe, coined the phrase “jewelry for the kitchen” to describe the remarkable kitchen tools she sells at Quitokeeto.)
If you’d like to read more about Nishiki market and Aritsugu, please go to this engaging post at White on Rice Couple.