Before cooking, the vegetables were cut and lined up nicely in a flat container.

“Why do you line them up when they will get mixed up when you cook them?”

When Yukiko Ishimura posed this simple question, her grandmother replied, “A feast for the eyes” and smiled.

Ishimura says this mind-set of trying to do things “carefully and beautifully” has influenced the way she now works.

As the owner of a cafe and restaurant in Nara, Ishimura entertains guests who come from all over Japan with dishes using local ingredients. Her current activities are rooted in her childhood spent in Takamatsu. And, since both her parents worked, young Ishimura grew up having her grandmother around.

Her grandmother was born in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) and gave cooking lessons of local dishes at home. She would teach Ishimura various tips while she worked away in the kitchen.

When she was cooking lotus roots, for instance, she would tell Ishimura, “If you immerse the cut lotus root in water with a bit of vinegar, it will turn out light colored.”

Her grandmother used to grow vegetables in a field. She also had fruit trees in the garden.

“Yamamomo” (red bayberry) and loquat were used to make fruit liquor, while strawberries and peaches were preserved as jam. On the windowsill, she would line up nuts such as acorns she gathered in the garden.

She cherished nature and drew out the flavors inherent in the ingredients to the fullest. She would change the way to enjoy the same ingredient depending on the seasons. Ishimura clearly remembers her grandmother’s ways, and it helps when she decides on the menu with her staff.

Pure “kudzu“ starch from Yoshino is a specialty of Nara. It is used in a signature dish served at the restaurant in Akishinonomori, a facility Ishimura runs.

Kudzu is an ancient plant that is even cited in “Manyoshu,” the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry. The starch contained in the roots is used as kudzu powder to make sweets and dishes. It is also used as natural medicine. At Ishimura’s restaurant, kudzu is served in ways that suit the seasons. In the heat of summer, it is used in cold soup or turned into sashimi.

Now that the days are getting colder, she recommends “kudzu starch cake covered with ginger-flavored sauce” that will warm your body and soul. The glutinous texture and "dashi"-flavored ginger sauce go along perfectly.

INGREDIENTS

(Serves four)

4 shrimps

8 ginkgo nuts (ginnan)

8 “mukago” (vegetative reproduction usually of “yamaimo” taro)

1/3 bunch Yamato “mana” leaves

50 grams lotus root

100 grams kudzu powder

2 cups water

Bit of salt

Ingredient A (360 cc dashi stock, 2 Tbsp each of soy sauce and sweet "mirin" sake, some grated ginger)

Some "katakuriko" starch, oil, white part of green onion, leaf of Yamato “toki” herb

METHOD

Deep fry ginkgo nuts and peeled shrimps. Steam mukago until tender. Cut Yamato mana into 1-cm squares and lotus root into 1-cm dices. Boil both.

Mix kudzu powder, water and salt in bowl, pour through tea strainer into pot. Place pot over medium heat, mix thoroughly. Once mixture turns transparent, mix for another 3 minutes over low heat. Add ginkgo nuts, shrimp, mukago, Yamato mana, lotus root and mix.

Pour mixture in container. Cool container in ice water. When mixture has set, cut into appropriate size.

Cut white part of green onion into fine strips. Deep fry the strips and Yamato toki leaves in oil heated to 160 degrees C.

Dust kudzu starch cake with katakuriko starch and deep fry in oil heated to 180 degrees C.

Bring Ingredient A to a boil in pot, add kudzu powder (not listed above) mixed with some water to thicken sauce, and mix. Pour sauce over kudzu starch cake served in bowl and top with fried white part of green onion and Yamato toki leaves.

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From The Asahi Shimbun's Watashi no Ryori column