Set in the heart of old Tokyo, and steps away from Senso-ji, the city’s oldest temple, Yoshimi Daido’s Tokyo Kitchen is the perfect place to meet Japanese cuisine: a bright sunny space with windows on three sides, offering glorious views over the Sumida River and the Tokyo Skytree.
Cool glasses of green tea in hand Yoshimi and I sat down for an overview of Japanese food culture - the standard ingredients, how they are made, the elements (texture, color, diversity, and nutrition), the importance of seasonality, good manners; the meaning of Iitadakimasu! (thanks for every single thing and person that brought this food to the table) and gochisosamadeshita (thanks for the feast).
Our menu for the day was a reasonably simple one, she assured me. Tempura, a spinach sesame side dish, chilled tofu with a seasonal topping of her design, miso soup, and rice.
"I've always liked cooking," Yoshimi said as we donned aprons. "From chopping to the cooking itself to cleaning up and doing the dishes - it's so satisfying. That's why I love tempura. You make this big mess and then get to clean it up," she said with a laugh.
We began by washing and cutting the spinach into 4cm long pieces. We popped it into a pan of already boiling water, waiting only 10 seconds before taking it out and plunging it in cold water to stop the cooking. "For things that grow above ground, we boil the water first. For things that grow below ground, we boil it with the water," said Yoshimi, the first of many useful pieces of information I received that morning.
Yoshimi began cooking when she was about ten. "My parents were so busy with their bakery, so I just helped out. I read books, watched TV programs, and the internet, of course," she said as we worked. Her years of experience make her quick and efficient, while her enthusiasm makes her an engaging and patient guide.
While the rice soaked we prepared the tomatoes and myoga (Japanese ginger) with sesame oil to top the chilled tofu. "We're aiming for a stronger flavor here to match the tofu," explained Yoshimi as she drizzled the oil info the bowl.
We mixed the tempura batter and prepared the vegetables - eggplant, carrot, sweet potato, and green peppers all reflecting the transition from summer to autumn - and shrimp.
“The batter should be very cold for a quick reaction with the oil to achieve that shaki-shaki (crispy outside, steamy inside) that is tempura,” she said as she popped an ice cube into the bowl.
"You know the oil is hot enough when you drop in a bit of batter and it sinks and rises again as it cooks," she said just before asking me to pop the vegetables in to start. As I managed the tempura, she filled a series of beautiful ceramic and laquer bowls and plates with our creations, all the while answering questions about ingredients and techniques.
“Tempura is always unique,” she said as we sat down to steaming bowls of miso, rice, chilled tofu and sesame spinach orbiting around a plate of perfectly crunchy tempura. “it always turns out a bit different so I find it interesting to see what will happen.”
Sorry to see our morning end, I tucked the recipe cards in my bag before heading out the door to visit nearby Senso-ji. A lovely way to start the day in Tokyo, indeed.