On this particular day, the dish consisted of a pile of nine kinds of vegetables and beans with soup made from raw ham at Koji Fukaya’s Spanish-cuisine restaurant.

Fukaya, the 71-year-old chef, has been serving the popular local dish as part of a course menu at Restaurante Vascu in Hakodate, Hokkaido.

In Spanish, it is called “menestra de verduras del tiempo,” which means “simmered dish of vegetables of the season.”

Even after opening the restaurant in his 30s, he traveled to Spain every two years to visit fellow trainees of old and to polish his cooking skills. Once there, Fukaya would be inspired by the latest cooking techniques and visit the local producers of ingredients.

Back in the 1990s, gastronomy, or “gurume,” was all the rage in Japan as well.

“There was a period when I served complex dishes such as homegrown zucchini flower stuffed with fish presented in a sophisticated fashion,” admits Fukaya.

Menestra is a staple found on the dinner table in any Spanish town. But the dish was too familiar, and he did not think of serving it as part of his cooking.

But during one of his study trips, Fukaya became ill from the summer heat and overeating and realized that menestra was the only thing that his exhausted stomach could accept.

“The flavor may not ‘wow’ you, but it tasted good in a gentle, soothing way,” he says.

In Spain, all vegetables are cooked thoroughly, and the dish is a hotchpotch with no attention paid to its appearance.

“As a cook, I wanted to prepare it carefully in my own way,” says Fukaya.

He cuts each vegetable in the same shape and parboils them before simmering carefully in broth made of meat and raw ham.

In the spring, he adds asparagus, which is replaced by salt-preserved “warabi” (bracken sprouts) in the winter.

Although there is no rule as to the choice of vegetables, Fukaya invariably adds carrots and potatoes, but no bell peppers or eggplant, which are strong in flavor.

Fukaya’s gentle menestra offers a blend of the vegetables’ flavors plus a whiff of butter.

“I am told that it brings a sense of relief,” he says.

It is a dish to “restore,” which is said to be the origin of the word for restaurant.

INGREDIENTS

(Serves two)

300 grams vegetables of the season (broccoli, common bean [ingen], green peas, cabbage, spinach and others)

2 lettuce leaves

Some boiled soy beans, carrot, potato

20 grams raw ham

1.5 cups meat broth

2 Tbsp flour

Bit of olive oil

15 grams butter

METHOD

Cut vegetables except for lettuce into appropriate sizes and boil in salt water. Cook carrot and potato thoroughly but boil others lightly to retain texture.

Finely slice lettuce. Cut raw ham into fine strips. Place pot on heat, stir-fry ham in olive oil. Add lettuce and cook until tender. Add flour, mix, add broth and mix.

Add soy beans and boiled vegetables except for potato. Cover with drop lid and simmer for 7 to 8 minutes. Add potato. Season with salt and pepper. Add butter at end.

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From The Asahi Shimbun’s Watashi no Ryori column