Kuruminoki, a cafe-cum-grocery store, can be found next to the Japan Railways track in a residential area of Nara dotted with little old temples. It is easy to spot, as people line up to secure one of the 80 lunch servings offered each day.
A native of Takamatsu, Yukiko Ishimura, who opened the store 33 years ago, was living at that time in Nara's suburbs after getting married.
One day, when she was driving through the city, a wooden one-story building caught her eye. It looked like one of those branch schools you see in rural areas. All of a sudden, a dream she had in elementary school came back to her.
Back then, her mother was busy working, and young Ishimura exchanged a diary with her mother. She had written, "I’d like to run a store where everyone, including grandfathers, grandmothers and children, will gather."
She was surprised that the building she came across looked so much like the one she had drawn in the diary. The building was used as an office of an electricity company, but after negotiating, she managed to rent it when they moved out and opened her place.
Although she made her dream come true, there were some gaps between her ideal and reality in the early days. When she placed flowers on the table, a guest said, "Take this dirty grass away," and male customers would ask for sports newspapers to read. But after a few years, her lunches and desserts incorporating vegetables and fruits of the season became popular, and people began visiting from all over Japan.
In 2004, she opened the Akishinonomori, also in Nara. On a 3,300-square meter premise of a former guest house, Ishimura opened a restaurant, gallery and a guest house with two rooms. (The guest house is currently not in business.) The restaurant requires reservations and offers monthly set menus. It has earned a coveted star in the Michelin Guide for six consecutive years.
Although Ishimura is busy giving lectures around Japan, she makes a point of dropping by her restaurants when she is in town to check on them before business hours and also to inspect the dishes.
A signature dish is an assortment of Yamato vegetables that have been produced in this region since old times steamed in "seiro," or steam baskets.
One of the ingredients, "Yamato mana," originates from a leafy vegetable intended for pickling that is mentioned in the Kojiki, the oldest existing chronicle of Japanese history. Although it looks similar to the "komatsuna," it lacks its bitterness.
"Udakin gobo" is a type of burdock that grows in soil containing mica. The vegetable looks sparkling and was given the name that contains the word "kin" (gold).
"Traditional vegetables have profound tastes," says Ishimura. The dish allows one to relish the vegetables’ simple flavors.
Born in Takamatsu, Yukiko Ishimura opened her cafe-shop Kuruminoki in Nara in 1984. She also produces Tokinomori, a store themed on food and crafts opened by Nara Prefecture in Tokyo’s Shirokanedai district. She has written many books on clothes, food and the home such as "Kurashi no kotsukotsu" published by Bungeishunju Ltd. She advises on community development and product planning around Japan.
Leafy part of four Chinese cabbage leaves
100 grams Tsutsui lotus root
12 cm Udakin burdock
1/2 bundle Yamato mana
4 each of shiitake mushroom and radish
60 grams pumpkin intended to be eaten raw
50 grams squid arms (geso)
1/2 Tbsp katakuriko starch
Cut Chinese cabbage and turnip into appropriate size; lotus root in 1-cm-thick rounds; Yamato mana into length of 4 cm and Udakin burdock into length of 3 cm. Scoop out seeds from pumpkin and cut into 1-cm slices. Cut off stalk from shiitake mushroom.
Boil Chinese cabbage, lotus root, Yamato mana and turnip. Steam burdock until soft.
Finely chop squid arm, drop in boiling water and cook. Pat dry thoroughly, dust with katakuriko starch and stuff into shiitake mushroom.
Lay Chinese cabbage in steam basket, arrange vegetables inside and steam for 7 to 8 minutes.
Mix 2 Tbsp each of vinegar and soy sauce with 1 Tbsp of grated sesame seed to make sauce.
(In home cooking, seasonal vegetables that are available may be used.)
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From The Asahi Shimbun's Watashi no Ryori column