Gentle popping and sizzling sounds greet the ears in the 150-year-old traditional-style house, where visitors are enveloped by the warmth coming from a wood stove. The ceiling rises 10 meters high above the grand shiny-black pillars and beams.
Satoyama Jujo is a hot-spring hotel that opened in 2014 in Minami-Uonuma, Niigata Prefecture, a renowned production area of rice. The hotel, which also welcomes a constant stream of foreign guests, has a restaurant called Sanaburi, whose popular dishes feature vegetables and edible wild plants.
Keiko Kuwakino, a 38-year-old chef of the restaurant, hails from Saitama Prefecture and used to work at a vegan restaurant in Tokyo.
She says that when she arrived at Niigata, she was surprised by the wide variety of nature’s blessings. When she counted the wild plants she picked this spring, there were about 60 of them.
Before she starts cooking, she walks around the hotel in rubber boots, picking wild plants as well as herbs from her garden.
Most of the ingredients she uses are produced locally. But winter arrives in full force in the area when snow settles three times on Mount Makihatayama, which faces the hot-spring wing of the hotel.
Snowfall can reach 3 to 4 meters, and the mountain and fields become blanketed in snow.
"It was hard to come up with the menu the first winter since I hadn’t made that many pickles," says Kuwakino looking back.
The fact is, the local people make pickles and other preserved food in deep autumn to prepare for the winter. Today, Kuwakino has taken up the habit, and she is busy pickling ingredients in vinegar and miso.
She also makes apple chutney around this season. She adds dried fruits, sugar and vinegar in a pot and lets them simmer. When the content thickens, it is done.
Chutney is a seasoning often used in India, among other places, and looks like jam. At Satoyama Jujo, it is served with pork and duck or as an accompaniment to ice cream.
Kuwakino had lived overseas before becoming a cook. The dish takes her back to the days when she would buy fruits and vegetables of the season in bulk to make it.
The chutney may be enjoyed for quite a while in winter if it is preserved in glass bottles. By the time you reach the bottom of the bottle, spring is just around the corner.
Born in 1980 in Saitama Prefecture, Kuwakino began working at a beauty salon in Tokyo after graduating from college. She went on to study Ayurveda, the system of traditional medicine and philosophy of southern Asia, in Australia and India.
Sanaburi is open to people not staying at the hotel if a group of six or more makes a reservation three days ahead for lunch or a group of two or more calls a day ahead for dinner.
(Amount easy to make)
5 large apples
75 grams each of prunes and raisins
50 grams dried dates
Little more than 2 tsp mustard seed
3 cups apple vinegar (or grape vinegar)
300 grams sugar
35 grams ginger
Peel apples, cut into four to six equal-sized pieces depending on the size of the fruit and slice finely. If preferred, use a food processor. Finely slice onion.
If prunes and dates have seeds, remove them and chop fruit finely.
Put all ingredients in pot and place on medium heat.
Simmer for about two hours, mixing occasionally from bottom to keep content from burning. At the end, thicken over low heat.
If dates and prunes are unavailable, use raisins only. Bottles for preserving should be sterilized by boiling.
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From The Asahi Shimbun’s Watashi no Ryori column