There are a number of theories about the invention of soy sauce but at least one legend has it that tamari soy sauce was invented in Wakayama, the prefecture at the tip of the Kii peninsula, south of Kyoto.
Tamari, which is a specifically Japanese soy sauce, is made almost entirely from soy bean. The story goes that Kakushin, a Zen Buddhist priest who had traveled to the Kinzanji, or the Temple of the Golden Mountain, in China, returned not only with a deeper understanding of Zen Buddhism, but also with the recipe for a type of miso called Kinzanji miso.
Returning to Wakayama, Kakushin discovered, almost by accident, that the liquid, which formed at the bottom of the miso keg made an excellent seasoning. The name tamari is said to derive from the Japanese word tamaru, which means “to accumulate.”
Whatever the truth is, the use of tamari and other kinds of soy sauce has served Wakayama cuisine well, as attested by a recent visit to Kitera (きてら) in Azabu Juban.
This unassuming Wakayama restaurant is comfortably minimalist in the way that many places serving Japanese food can be, with their clean, light wood counters and tables, understated décor and earthy tableware.
There is nothing extraordinary about the food served at Kitera, which is fairly conventional Japanese kaiseki-style cuisine, but it is distinguished by a Wakayama touch and the occasional inventive twist.
On a recent visit, we ordered the lunch kaiseki, a six-course meal of seasonal ingredients that left us satiated but not stuffed.
The first course signaled the approach of spring with the appearance of hotaru ika (firefly squid), which are caught as they approach the surface of the ocean to mate in the spring.
The sashimi, which followed, was accompanied by Kinzanji miso from Wakayama, a soy sauce that had been matured for 3 years, as well as salt.
The most unusual dish was the tomato nabe (hot pot) of pork, lettuce, mizuna (Japanese mustard green) Kyoto leek and tofu.
The very thought of this nabe unsettled me somewhat.
For one thing, tomatoes are not normally associated with nabe, or even Japanese cuisine itself, and I had never had lettuce in a hot pot.
But when I tasted it, I had to remind myself that it is never a good idea to judge food before you have tried it. The tomato nabe turned out to be a very tasty combination of flavours and textures and much better than I had imagined.
The highlight was, however, the clam rice cooked in a heavy ceramic pot and sprinkled with mitsuba (Japanese honeywort), which was irresistibly fluffy and flavorful.
Since we couldn’t finish all the rice, what was left over was made into onigiri (rice balls) for us to take home, which tasted almost as good that evening as it had at lunch.
Dessert was a mango sorbet with another touch of Wakayama on the side – soy sauce jelly – which had just a hint of soy flavor to it and was much better than it sounds.
Kitera has a range of sakes on offer as well as wines, including prized bottles from the Kenzo Estate in Napa.