Monday, May 18, 2009

Sugoku O-ee-she (Very delicious)

(This article is second in a series that attempts to capture and share all we learned and saw during a recent trip to Nagano Prefecture. For more detail and access to even more photos visit Rich and Joan Around the World.)

I think, that quite possibly, my meals on this trip were some of the most beautiful I have ever eaten and will eat (at least until I visit again) in my lifetime. The inn where we stayed in the shuraku offered a dinner and breakfast the likes of which I have never before experienced. Kevin and Tomoe of One Life Japan offered a bevy of homemade treats made from local ingredients either in-season or preserved from the last year.

From the homemade black soy bean tofu topped with a mountain cherry blossom to the spicy miso Tomoe concocted, everything we ate (with rare exception) had been grown, harvested, processed, and cooked within easy range of the table where I sat. The fish devoured during breakfast and dinner at the inn came from the river tumbling by across the road. The sorghum that served as our grain one evening for dinner one evening was harvested from some grown for a windbreak in a neighbor's field. Our homemade noodles were topped with nanohanna gathered that morning. Granted, some things ventured in from the outside – the occasional spice and the coffee savored at each breakfast – but not much. And nothing went to waste. Kevin made a soft cheese spread for breakfast using milk from a local dairy, and the leftover whey went into the flat bread baked on top of the wood stove next to our table.

The meals were artful affairs where each place setting was as pleasing to the eye as it would prove to be to the tastebuds. A myriad of small dishes of varying size and color rotated around a centerpiece of fish with three boiled peanuts or a bit of salty soy paste. The food matched in some way the shape, texture, and color of the dish itself. As we sampled some from here and there, more dishes emerged from the kitchen and were set in orbit around us.

Tart, sweet, salty, spicy, and soothing flavors joined creamy, crunchy, smooth, and slimy textures as the meal progressed. Occasionally, a dish might even contain a handful of each of those all in one go. Spicy wasabi greens with a slimy yet somehow still tasty mushroom or cubed daikon in black sesame paste. Crunchy pickled vegetables or fiddlehead ferns with a soft touch of mayonnaise. Homemade black soy bean tofu with a mountain cherry blossom on top. Miso with delicate strands of shredded ginger, onion, and chicken. I often didn't know what to eat next, when to stop eating, or what might come out of the kitchen next. 

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