With an interest in herbs and aromatherapy, Keiko Kuwakino never thought her calling in life would be as a chef.
"I didn't have any inkling that I would become a cook," she said, wondering about the path she has taken.
The 38-year-old works as a chef at Sanaburi, a restaurant at Satoyama Jujo hot spring hotel in Minami-Uonuma, Niigata Prefecture.
After graduating from college, Kuwakino began working at a company offering beauty treatments. When she was around 25, she quit her job and flew to Australia "hoping to learn more about the inner workings of the body."
For three years she studied yoga and Ayurveda, a system of traditional medicine and philosophy of southern Asia.
After returning home, she taught yoga and worked as a temporary employee for a time, but then decided to fly to India, hoping to learn more. While studying the philosophy of yoga in a focused way, she would visit the homes of acquaintances and ask them to show her how they cooked certain dishes.
Kuwakino said the use of spices was an "eye-opening experience." They had taken for granted which spice to use depending on the vegetables in a dish or the health condition of family members. She says she awakened to the notion that "a balanced diet creates a healthy body."
After returning to Japan the second time, Kuwakino stepped into the world of cooking. She worked as a chef for a vegan restaurant in Tokyo while teaching yoga. Around the time the owner of the restaurant decided to move overseas, Kuwakino learned of Satoyama Jujo by chance when she opened a magazine she picked up in the library. She had traveled to Niigata before the place opened in 2014.
In Niigata, she learned about preservation methods and local dishes suitable for a region with heavy snowfall. There were so many things to learn there as well. She was especially surprised to learn that a wide range of edible wild plants, which are blessings of spring, are salt-preserved or turned into sweets to be enjoyed throughout the year. These days, she says she cannot wait for the snow to melt so she can head into the mountains with the locals.
Kuwakino also uses spices in dishes served at Satoyama Jujo, not to mention meals prepared for the staff. After the spices are dropped into the oil and allowed to sputter, edible wild plants in spring and this season's daikon radish and cauliflower go into the pot. She uses "kagura nanban," a locally produced red pepper, for spiciness.
The chef said curry is regarded more like a simmered dish in India and it does not matter if the onion burns a little.
The dish is done after being simmered for a while. You can make a generous amount and turn the leftovers into tasty "doria," a rice dish covered with white sauce and grilled in the oven.
(For 7 to 8 servings)
650 grams daikon radish
420 grams cauliflower
2 "kagura nanban" red pepper pods ("takanotsume" variety or "ichimi" powder may be used instead)
70 grams lentil
50 grams almond slices (run through blender with about cup water)
5 grams grated ginger
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp curry powder
tsp mustard seeds
Little less than tsp cumin
tsp turmeric (ukon)
A handful of dried bonito flakes
Cut daikon radish into rectangular pieces measuring 1 centimeter by 1 cm and 5 cm long and mix with a bit of salt. Remove the core from cauliflower, cut into appropriate size. Finely chop red pepper and onion.
Heat the pot and pour 2 Tbsp oil. Stir-fry mustard seeds and cumin over high heat.
Once an aroma rises, add onion and lower to medium heat. When the onion changes color, add daikon, rinsed lentil, grated garlic and cook.
Add cauliflower, dried bonito flakes, a little less than 1 Tbsp salt and remaining ingredients. Stir-fry well.
Pour in just enough water to cover ingredients and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer.
Check taste and add drops of soy sauce for hidden flavor.
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From The Asahi Shimbun’s Watashi no Ryori column