What’s Cooking?

What’s Cooking?

Ahead of the fall semester of the Women’s Group’s enrichment programs, iNTOUCH steps into the kitchen of one Japanese cooking instructor.

The immaculate kitchen of Kumi Kui offers an insight into the intricacies and attention to detail that are part and parcel of Japanese cooking. Alongside all manner of beautifully handcrafted knives, there’s a tool for almost every culinary task imaginable.

“This one is for cracking open gingko nuts,” says Kui, brandishing a small iron device that wouldn’t look out of place in a medieval torture chamber.
“And can you guess what this is for?” she asks, holding aloft what at first resembles the lid of an old-fashioned dumpling steamer. “It’s for straining tofu. The actual straining part is made of horse hair.”

A native of the ancient city of Nara, Kui, 50, spent many years abroad, including more than 10 years in London, as well as spells in New York City and Jakarta. While the simple, seasonally focused style of Nara cuisine has influenced her cooking, so, too, has her time overseas.

“Nara is a lovely, peaceful old town with sophisticated cuisine. We don’t use much seasoning and the presentation is elegant but simple,” she says. “On top of that, I have picked up international experience. At home, I like to make things like a tuna carpaccio, which is similar to sashimi, but with some fresh lime, Maldon sea salt and red peppercorns added. It’s a lovely fusion.”

Next month, Kui kicks off another semester of Women’s Group cooking classes through her K2 culinary school. Held once a month at her home in Hiroo for a small number of students, her five classes focus on traditional, home-style Japanese dishes, including rolled sushi, miso-marinated beef and tsukune chicken meatballs with chestnut rice.

The recipes reflect an approach to cooking that, like the best of Japanese cuisine, is rooted in the use of seasonal produce.

“We have four beautiful seasons in Japan and we should appreciate them. I want to express both myself and the seasons through food, so in November, for example, the recipe for the Club’s class incorporates chestnuts,” Kui explains. “Also crucial for me is presentation. The bowls and plates we use for serving are very important, but so, too, is decoration. In autumn, I like the effect of decorating with something like momiji [maple leaves] or chrysanthemum.”

In the workshop-style classes that Kui has been teaching since 2012, four or five students cook under Kui’s guidance and then eat their dishes together for a far cozier experience than at a typical culinary school, not least because Kui teaches in her own kitchen, with its views over Hiroo.

“I love cooking, but more than anything I love sharing the recipes with other ladies. It brings good people together,” she says. “People come to my classes by word of mouth and then I open my home to them. I can be natural and comfortable teaching at home, and it makes the experience more personal for everyone. For non-Japanese people, I think it must also be quite interesting to visit a Japanese home. I used to love going to local homes when I lived abroad.”

During her time in Britain, where she started her culinary school, Kui says she watched the rise in popularity of Japanese food, as it became more readily available in both restaurants and supermarkets. Despite the stories of how young Japanese are falling out of love with their own national cuisine—or just have no idea how to make it—Kui says she thinks Japanese food is thriving at home.

Washoku [Japanese cuisine] is now designated as an intangible heritage [by UNESCO], and it is getting more popular. You could even say it is booming. The women I teach tend to be my age or a little older, but there are lots of younger women taking Japanese cooking classes and reading cooking magazines and blogs,” Kui says.
She does acknowledge, though, that the subtle flavors of many Japanese dishes aren’t to everyone’s taste.

“One of the ladies I taught in Tokyo once brought her mother to class. While we were cooking, she kept saying, ‘Kumi-san, this has no taste. I need more salt,’” Kui says with a smile. “That’s OK. I know that not everyone will like my style of cooking, but it’s what I enjoy—simple, seasonal and nutritious. I know that lots of the ladies I teach enjoy it, too. And nothing makes me happier than when they send me photos of one of my recipes they’ve made at home.”

Words: Rob Goss
Image: Kayo Yamawaki