Home cooking in Tokyo is a challenge for many expats. Faced with small kitchens, unfamiliar foodstuffs, indecipherable labels, inexplicably expensive groceries, alien ovens, a culture which prioritizes eating out over entertaining at home, and a bountiful array of excellent and inexpensive restaurants, most foreigners in Japan dine out far more often than they would elsewhere.
In my case, being an inexperienced and somewhat talentless cook adds to my reluctance to be adventurous in my pocket-sized Japanese kitchen. However, I also find Japanese cuisine delicious and its surrounding culture fascinating. So, with a strong desire to engage with Japan’s rich culinary environment, and a feeling that I owed it to myself to be able to walk around my local supermarket with some degree of cultural and gastronomic literacy, I followed a friend’s recommendation and signed up for some cooking classes run by Kamakura Atelier at a café in the town of Kamakura, famous for its “Big Buddha” statue and its scenic walks for day trippers from Tokyo.
Clutching an apron, pen and notepad and feeling a little like a kid on the first day of school, I boarded the train at Ebisu and within an hour found myself at Café Sugata, a five-minute walk from Kamakura station. On this occasion, the café’s small, well-lit kitchen and seating area was entirely taken over by about 15 “students” of at least six different nationalities, including native Japanese and Americans from the nearby naval base in Yokosuka. The international flavor of the classes was enhanced by Kamakura Atelier’s organizer Naoko-san, who is fluent in both French and English, and has organized cookery courses in Paris. On this occasion, the theme of the lesson was tofu, and we were being guided through no fewer than 10 tofu dishes by acclaimed cookery author and “shojin ryori” – or classic vegetarian cuisine – chef Mari Fujii.
The morning started with a brief introduction to tofu by Kumiko Hara from Otoufu Koubou Ishikawa, which sells tofu products from Aichi prefecture. Hara-san talked us through what tofu actually is, explained how it is made, and discussed some of the available varieties.
For the uninitiated, tofu is at best a mystery and at worst a bland, rubbery filler for people wishing to avoid meat. In Britain, where I’m from, tofu is yet to recover from the reputational damage wreaked by well-meaning but misguided cuisine and chefs who seem to think it is something to use to fool vegetarians into thinking they’re eating meat (on the assumption that their palates want to, if only their pesky morals would allow). In Japan, however, tofu in its myriad forms is often the star of its own show and the bewildering choices available reflect its versatility and the ingenuity with which it is used.
To start our lesson, we focused on some dishes that could be served as appetizers. Our opening gambit was shira-ae, a dish comprising white sesame and silken tofu ground together to form a paste, which was then seasoned with soy sauce, sugar and mirin (sweet rice wine used for cooking), before being mixed with green beans and carrots. From then on, in quick succession, Mari-sensei led us through a tofu and walnut salad dressing, and a dengaku miso sauce, a sweetened, miso-based paste which we seasoned with black sesame and spread over small slices of firm tofu.
Given the relatively small space and large number of participants, the dishes that required cooking were taught as a demonstration, to which students were able to contribute at various stages. Mari-sensei showed us how to make usuzumi tofu, which used tofu that had been frozen overnight and then partially thawed; koyadofu nishime, using dried koyadofu, freeze-dried tofu believed to have originated from a monastery on Mount Koya in Wakayama Prefecture; and a thick, savory ankake mushroom sauce, to be served over firm pieces of lightly-fried tofu.
Despite the number of dishes we produced, a major benefit of this class was the limited number of ingredients used, and the ease with which they can be sourced both in Japan and abroad. Relying heavily on the Japanese staples of sesame, soy sauce, beet sugar, miso, seaweed and, of course, tofu, little else was necessary.
As with many things in Japan, however, the unassuming contents were elevated to the state of an art form through beautiful and painstaking presentation.
Finally, with help from Naoko-san’s impeccably stylish mother, we made a dessert of tofu shiratama, which consisted of tofu mixed with glutinous rice flour.
By the end of the three-hour class, I felt I had gained an understanding of how tofu can be used throughout Japanese cuisine. Although an entirely tofu-based dinner might be too much for me to achieve (I’ll leave that to the experts behind the amazing Sora no Niwa restaurant in Ebisu), I will definitely feel more confident employing it when cooking at home. While the simplicity of the dishes would not be demanding for a competent home chef, given my lack of culinary experience and familiarity with the ingredients, having Mari-sensei’s expert guidance gave me confidence that I would be able to replicate these dishes myself. I also benefited greatly from being able to match up dishes I’ve enjoyed in restaurants and ryokans with ingredients I’ve puzzled over on supermarket shelves.
The Kamakura Atelier workshops held at Café Sugata are a great opportunity to be introduced to Japanese cooking in an extremely friendly and multilingual environment. Classes cost Y4,200 and are run irregularly about once a month, so it’s best to check their Facebook page for details： https://www.facebook.com/ateliercafekamakura/