Chinese restaurant Kogetsu, run by Kazuo Yamanaka, stands quietly at Ikenohata near Ueno Park, its structure witness to the transformation of the capital from Edo to Tokyo.
The wooden building, dating to the early Showa Era (1926-1989), used to be an inn opened by Yamanaka's grandfather late in his life. The combination of a vintage building in the old district and authentic Chinese cuisine may give people pause for thought, but it was born out of the chef's strong wish to turn what he loved into a vocation.
The 59-year-old food aficionado took a budding interest in cooking while an elementary school student. At that time, the area around Ueno Station was full of inns. His parents were busy handling visiting merchants and students on school trips and had no time to prepare meals for the family.
"When I grew tired of tuna sashimi prepared for the guests, I would place it on rice and eat it as 'maguro chazuke’ (green tea poured on rice and tuna). Being an only child, I became inventive with what I felt like eating," Yamanaka said.
Probably owing to the inn’s vicinity to museums in the area, there was a workshop that made stuffed specimen nearby. The inn sometimes received rare meats from the workshop, and Yamanaka would summon his friends to boil or grill them.
One of his favorite books in junior high school was a series of large tomes on cooking around the world.
"I seemed to have developed a natural yearning for unknown lands and their local cuisines," recalled Yamanaka.
When Yamanaka was in college, the Silk Road boom swept across Japan. He studied Chinese history and encountered authentic Chinese cooking during an event he participated in promoting an exchange among young Japanese and Chinese people.
"I was astounded by a simmered dish comprising duck skin studded with "tochukaso" (caterpillar fungus), a mushroom used as a Chinese herbal remedy. There was a spicy dish of pork guts that was quite tasty as well."
Though he had plans to become a teacher, his career choice eventually turned to "Sichuan cuisine." He joined Shisen Hanten restaurant in Roppongi, where he had worked part time during the summer of his senior year.
"Boiled kidney flavored in Sichuan style" is Yamanaka’s starting point, and he still loves eating it. Fine incisions are made on the kidneys that are boiled briefly and covered with a thick spicy soup flavored with doubanjiang. The preconceived notion that guts are tough and have distinct flavors is dispelled by the pleasant texture and exquisite and deep flavor.
Born in 1958 in Tokyo, Kazuo Yamanaka trained for five years at the now-closed Roppongi Shisen Hanten after graduating from Aoyama Gakuin University. After training in Beijing and Guangdong in China, he opened Kogetsu in Ikenohata, Taito Ward, in 1990. The study of cooking procedures and ingredients found in places around China is his life's work, and Yamanaka shares his findings in books and workshops.
2 pork kidneys
2 stalks "wakegi" green onion
2 cloves garlic
1/2 head lettuce
2 Tbsp Sichuan doubanjiang
1.5 cups Chinese soup (chicken broth and other)
Some hot chili oil (rayu) and powdered Japanese pepper (sansho)
Cut kidney into half its thickness, slice off white fibers inside. Make horizontal and vertical incisions 3 mm apart on surface. Cut into bite-size pieces and immerse in water to remove the blood.
Cut lettuce into wedges with core. Chop wakegi green onion and finely chop garlic.
Heat 2 Tbsp oil in pot and stir-fry Sichuan doubanjiang. Add soup and season with some soy sauce and hot chili oil. Boil lettuce in the soup so it retains texture. Remove from soup and serve on plate.
Bring water to a boil in another pot and cook kidney. Once the surface changes color, serve on lettuce.
Bring the doubanjiang-flavored soup to a boil again, pour over lettuce and kidney. Top with wakegi, garlic and powdered Japanese pepper.
Heat 2 Tbsp oil, pour on wakegi and garlic so they sizzle.
Pork kidneys are available at business-use meat shops. Beef slices and beef omasum (third compartment of stomach, called "senmai" in Japan) may be used instead.
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From The Asahi Shimbun’s Watashi no Ryori column