Obanzai: Sachiyo Imai
Kyoto-style Home Cooking
The first in this series on different types of cuisine is not about the rarified, refined, multicourse kaiseki cuisine that Japan is so famous for. Rather, we will start literally at home, with something more accessible: obanzai (Kyoto-style home cooking). The term obanzai might not be well known in the West, but in Kyoto, it represents a growing trend, or more precisely, a return to traditional roots. During every visit, I notice more and more restaurants, izakayas and even bars that specialize in this most humble of cuisines. What is old is new: seasonal kyo-yasai (Kyoto vegetables) are prepared simply, often simmered in dashi with traditional flavoring that is as delicious at room temperature as it is hot or chilled. Obanzai is down-to-earth, unpretentious and it seems now, totally hip as well. It is the original “eco” or “green” food: the kind of food your grandmother might have made, if you were Japanese and extremely lucky.
For my investigation, I met with Sachiyo Imai, widely regarded as the world’s expert on obanzai cooking. Mrs. Imai, now in her early 70s, has been a passionate advocate of obanzai cooking for much of her adult life. The 2008 “Saveur 100 “ list calls her “the guardian angel of obanzai” and the title is apt, as she is credited with almost single-handedly reviving popular interest in this most humble, yet profoundly deep, of traditions. On a warm spring afternoon in May, Mrs. Imai invited me to take part in one of her cooking classes, held a few times each month, in her spacious home in Saga, on the Northwest side of Kyoto. I was told that I would be joining the class midstream, as the course started earlier in the year. Regardless of this, Mrs. Imai graciously started the class with an introduction and history of obanzai, seemingly for my benefit. Even so, the other 14 students – all elegant young ladies in pristine aprons – seemed to be as spellbound as I was as we sat around a large table in her foyer.
Mrs. Imai has a fascinating past. Besides being a beauty queen (she was crowned Miss Kyoto in 1953) and a master of Japanese traditional arts such as flower arrangement and Noh theater, she is also a pillar of the community. Her family used to hold vast tracks of land in the Saga area, and as a child, she was able to walk to the train station without stepping one foot outside her family’s land. Not content to rest on her family’s laurels, she launched her own career, acting as an advisor for NHK (Japan’s public television station.)
But her first love was food. Unlike the other neighborhood children who played in the fields, her favorite moments were spent in her grandmother’s kitchen, soaking up the steam, aromas and wisdom of obanzai cooking. “Ban” means “everyday” or common, and obanzai made extensive use of seasonal kyo-yasai (which were plentiful in what was once the countryside), and tofu products (because soybeans grew so well in the hilly terrain, while rice did not). This combination of staples was not only healthy, but delicious, because these treasures of the season were allowed to show their best qualities due to subtle, restrained Kyoto-style flavoring. According to Mrs. Imai, this usukuchi (literally, thin mouth) style was favored because the artists and scholars of Kyoto needed more sugar for energy for their brains, rather than salt, favored by Kanto people, for their brawn. In another bit of home-town pride, she added “Tokyo people don’t understand the concept of umami”, referring to the “fifth taste” that is so important to Japanese cuisine.
Her grandmother, who was responsible for feeding her extended family of 15 (plus guests and workers on any given day), taught her that food is a form of communication, for what you prepare becomes part of the person who consumes it. In a bit of magical realism, she also believed feelings could be imparted this way as well, so it was important to cook with a kind heart and clear mind. Deai-mon, the ancient art of combining different foods for maximum health and flavor, was an early form of medicine, and important in an area where there were no doctors. Her ancestors knew, for instance, that fuki (butterbur) and renkon (lotus root) cleanses the blood, that azuki brings down fever, and of the antibacterial properties of shoga (ginger).
Even though she was armed with such profound and useful teachings, Mrs. Imai was not able to turn her hobby into her life’s work until mid-career. This happened when she was working as a consultant on an NHK period drama, and the producers wanted to know what type of food was served. Instead of merely approximating the meal on correct period tableware, she cooked entire meals in her belief that actors couldn’t merely pretend something was delicious. When they sampled a truly delicious dish, it brought a sparkle to the actors’ eyes that was unmistakable. Thus, her cooking career was born.
Meanwhile, she noticed that obanzai was disappearing with Japan’s modernization and westernization. It was no longer customary for an extended family to live together, and as a result, ancient wisdoms were in danger of being lost forever. This inspired her to teach others, and she has now taught classes like this for over 25 years. She is also the author of a book about the subject, and appears regularly on TV, where she is a tireless advocate for home cooking based on seasonal, local produce. She now travels the globe, lecturing about and demonstrating obanzai cooking. Just before our class, she was in Tokyo at a food expo; later that month, a group of French chefs was scheduled to visit, and in October, she will be in New York for a conference. It’s no surprise that her fame has grown at just this precise time, for her message couldn’t be more relevant and in sync with the healthy and sustainable eating trends around the world.
But back to our lesson: Mrs. Imai went on to explain how certain foods were served with the changing of the seasons; how whole menus were set by tradition according to the day of the month, and how this made it easier – not harder – for Kyoto’s housewives. For instance, nishin (herring), awase miso, kohaku no namasu (red and white salad) and azuki gohan (rice with azuki beans) was always served on the 1st day of the month. Since accounts were settled at month’s end, creating stress and fatigue, the 1st was set aside for rest and restoration. Foods the color of liver – such as nishin and azuki – provided the needed restorative nutrients. She also explained that in obanzai cooking, there are no recipes. Why? When two cooks choose two different saba (mackeral), for example, the fish will differ not only in size, but in texture as well. So one might need more seasoning and take longer to cook to the desired consistency than a recipe could stipulate. To be a good obanzai cook, you had to use all five senses: sight, for when beans are parboiled, they turn bright green; touch shows when daikon is meltingly soft; the rapid boiling poko poko sound announces when it’s time to turn down the heat on the rice, and the aroma of a simmering sauce tells as much about flavor as taste. No cookbook could teach all this.
We moved to her spacious kitchen to see this in action. This is not the TV kitchen with hand-painted vegetables on the ceiling, but her personal, very real and wonderfully used kitchen. Along the windowsills were jars of freshly made gari (pickled ginger). “Don’t eat gari from sushi shops,” she cautioned, “they’re stored in plastic jars!” A large L-shaped counter provided ample cooking and viewing space, and various pans and utensils hung above our heads. However, unlike other TV food personalities, Mrs. Imai is a cookware minimalist. In fact, for most lessons, she tries to keep the pots and pans to one. In keeping with its “eco” roots, pots are not washed between dishes, unless the flavors are different. To do so is a waste of resources, time and especially, flavor. In her effort to make things simple for the modern housewife, she has even taught classes where five dishes (including dessert) are made in one pan.
As the steam rose from one of these oversized pans, the group helped to chop, mix and plate, while taking copious notes. We had to scribble fast, as so much information was shared in such a short time, and the “non-recipes” were simple and rapidly prepared. We watched as Mrs. Imai stirred, adding more shoyu (straight from the container) here, more dashi there, until the taste and textures were just right. The warm aromas of home cooking enveloped us, reminding us, perhaps, of our own mothers and grandmothers. In a little more than an hour, we completed several healthy dishes, in quantities large enough for the group: two preparations of okara, (soybean lees) one traditional and one modern, flavored with butter and cheese; saba (mackerel) simmered with fuki (butterbur), stir-fried fuki leaves with jakko (small dried fish) and rice. We plated the food with a selection of lovely dishes from her vast cabinets, and sat down to a wonderful lunch.
But first, we took a sip of fresh green tea. As May heralded the first harvest, floating in each of our cups was a single perfect, tiny, bright green tea leaf. Mrs. Imai invited us to eat the leaf or take it home as a keepsake. I ate mine; its bright bitterness contrasted nicely with its surprisingly soft texture. For every season in Japan, there is something to be thankful for, and to root us to this moment. It’s so easy to forget such changes in our busy, modern lives, but there, at Sachiyo Imai’s table, we savored every second. And, in keeping with obanzai beliefs, I like to think that we inherited a little bit of her incredible strength and spirit through her food as well.